Know Your Lore: Character death in World of Warcraft
It’s not like the Warcraft setting is a stranger to death. I mean, it’s about war, and wars generally have death as a part and parcel of the experience. It’s one of the reasons that inveterate cowards like myself want to avoid them.
Warcraft as a setting is both a narrative device, and a means to allow players to experience said narrative as well as play a series of games. Because of this, there will always be decisions made in the unfolding of that narrative that are made not for strictly story reasons. For instance, in the general Warcraft setting, the Orcs won the First War and sacked Stormwind. It happened that way even though it was possible to win while playing the Humans. Your Human victory ended up being non-canonical, much as an Orc victory in Warcraft II ended up being.
But we’re not really talking about that this week. Instead, we’re talking about how WoW has treated the characters as they’ve been presented in the game. Some characters have died, for a variety of reasons. To advance the story, to change the balance of power between the factions, or because we needed someone to drop some new loot. What character deaths have worked best as story elements? Which ones have felt the most satisfying or complete? Which ones seemed rushed, forced or simply a waste of a character?
Losses in Legion
We can start this conversation by talking about the newest expansion, Legion. This expansion opened up with the Broken Shore scenario, during which three major characters died. Tirion Fordring, Varian Wrynn and Vol’jin. I’ve written about these before, so I won’t belabor the point. But when I look at these three deaths, they encapsulate the three kinds of character deaths I see as primary to WoW. There’s the death that is both narratively satisfying and seems justified by the story. There’s the death that serves a purpose but which feels somewhat wasteful. And then there’s the death that feels utterly unsatisfying and a complete waste of a character with potential.
Tirion Fordring’s death seems to me both narratively satisfying and completely justified. Not because I particularly dislike Tirion, or think he deserved what he got. As a citizen of Azeroth I would have found his death tragic and sad. But as a player, Tirion seemed to have fulfilled his function and purpose atop Icecrown Citadel. His invocation of the Light beseeching ‘one final blessing’ was granted. He called out to the Light, and the Light answered. With its aid, he shattered Frostmourne and stopped the Lich King. Tirion’s death almost seems like a reward for years of faithful service. It was a last glorious stand against evil, and the passing of the torch to a new generation.
Two leaders fall
Varian’s death isn’t as clear cut in my mind. Narratively, it works. It’s a shocking and sad moment, but he dies as he lived, fighting for his people against the forces of evil. He changed throughout his life, but the core of him, the boy who witnessed his father’s assassination and vowed never to die like that, to instead go down fighting did just that. You may have wanted more of Varian’s story and life. I did, absolutely. It certainly feels that Varian’s death was a tragedy and he had so much more he could have done. But in terms of the story being told, it does work in terms of what we’re about to face. Varian’s death isn’t justified, but it does work in the narrative.
Vol’jin’s death in my opinion isn’t either one. His death is a waste of a character who hasn’t really gotten to do much of anything since he became Warchief. Vol’jin got a lot of character development before Warlords, only to see himself barely even on stage for the whole of that expansion. Now he and the Darkspear have been shoved to the side so Sylvanas can step forth as Warchief and the Forsaken can take center stage in the expansion. While Sylvanas is an excellently divisive character who will provide a lot of tension in the role, it still feels like there’s so much more Vol’jin could have done for the story. His death leaves the Horde’s Trolls without anyone to really look up to, which also feels wrong. This one neither felt justified, nor really did much to satisfy anyone interested in Vol’jin’s story.
What is past or passing
This isn’t anything new to Legion. And those three aren’t even the only deaths I’d say felt a bit like a waste in this expansion. The death of Ysera hit me hard, and was a very powerful moment in the story. But it also felt like it was at the expense of the character’s potential.
Warlords saw the death of Garrosh Hellscream. I feel a bit like Garrosh falls in between Varian and Vol’jin. His death didn’t really satisfy me as a story beat. First off I didn’t think Thrall should get to swoop in and kill the guy after I did all that work to fight him. Secondly, I felt like his death robs us of the character and future potential stories that could have made use of him. Garrosh was a character who debuted in Burning Crusade and changed and grew and regressed and frankly did a lot to drive WoW forward over the course of three expansions, from Wrath to Cataclysm and finally Mists. He even kicked off the events of Warlords, and bears some responsibility for the Legion invasion we’re experiencing now. It was Garrosh who upset the alternate Gul’dan’s whole plan and led the Legion to return.
Garrosh’s death is justified — if anyone deserves to die, the Warchief who repeatedly tried to weaponize Old God essences probably does. But it doesn’t really make me feel like it moves the story along. It feels like a waste. There was more we could have seen from Garrosh. A further descent into villainy or a strange, skewed version of heroism. His attempt to create the Iron Horde was an attempt to avoid the fel taint that cursed his people, a noble if futile aim. The fact that he was an Orc chauvinist only made him a more interesting villain.
The trail of dead
There have been a lot of characters along the way from original WoW to now, months into Legion. From Marshall Windsor to Kael’thas and Lady Vashj, from Kel’thuzad and Arthas to Malygos. Deathwing, Rhonin, Krasus/Korialstrasz, the people of Theramore, Fandral, Cairne… some of these deaths felt like the natural culmination of their stories. Others, like Kael’thas and Vashj, leave a bit of a hole that never quite seems filled. I personally miss Cairne a great deal, but his death (although utterly unjustified) was so powerful and moving that I feel it did its job in terms of the game’s story. Fandral, I deeply miss. I feel he served a role that we need in the game, and we need someone else to come along and pick up where he left off.
One thing seems sure. World of Warcraft being what it is, more characters will die. And we won’t agree on which ones were both satisfying and justified vs. which ones lacked on one or both fronts. Sometimes that might even be the point. If there’s a character death that affected you in any of these ways, or in a way I’m not thinking of, please let me know in the comments.
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