Battle for Azeroth has a ludonarrative dissonance problem
Every game has to think about its ludonarrative options — the way its gameplay is used to tell a story vs. how the story is told through more traditional means. A big MMORPG like World of Warcraft is going to have ludic moments harnessed to tell story, with non-gameplay narrative tools like cinematics and quest text. The way I see it, Battle for Azeroth has two issues here.
The first is that the means used to tell pure narrative have gotten stronger and stronger, more well executed, more effective and sharper. The voice acting improves from expansion to expansion, and as of Battle for Azeroth it’s some of the best it’s ever been. The recent Jaina and Baine cinematic is shockingly good, especially when compared to similar in game moments from years before. While it’s fair to say that WoW started strong in terms of in-game rendered cinematics with the Wrathgate, the acting has gotten so much better, and the musical choices more haunting. It’s almost terrifying how improved it is over already good cinematics like the ones we had in Mists of Pandaria, or Warlords of Draenor (and I legit cried at some of those) or Legion.
The storytelling in narrative mode is amazing in Battle for Azeroth. So why is that a problem?
Playing the game is less fun than watching the cutscenes
Because the gameplay hasn’t kept up. The ludic elements of Battle for Azeroth aren’t even as good as they were in Legion. Azerite armor and the Heart of Azeroth have not been a superior gameplay experience to Artifacts and Legendaries — both of those systems had their flaws, but what’s replaced them is worse both as pure gameplay experiences and as means to deliver any form of storytelling. The mission table has a good deal of storytelling it attempts to do, but those missions feel so disconnected that it’s very difficult to wrench the narrative loose from the uninspiring gameplay. World quests have potential and sometimes managed to deliver a satisfying ludonarrative experience, but they feel stretched to the breaking point in their attempt to give us story by their repetitive nature. And while the War Campaigns have done a solid amount of work in delivering us story, they feel much less expansive than the widely disparate class order hall campaigns of Legion — a great deal of the narrative diversity of the previous expansion simply isn’t present in Battle for Azeroth.
So we have an expansion that delivers some of the best, most epic, most emotionally powerful moments of any World of Warcraft expansion ever — I mean, just Old Soldiers or the moment during the Battle for Undercity where Jaina showed up on her father’s ship by themselves pack more heart and anguish and wonder and excitement than the entirety of Cataclysm managed, and the performances by some of WoW’s long time standouts like Laura Bailey and Patti Mattson are jaw-dropping. I haven’t even listed new characters — like Flynn Fairwind, Princess Talanji, or Bwonsamdi — who are all incredibly well-written and acted. There’s so much to like in this expansion, so much amazing storytelling, so much that has managed to surprise me that when the gameplay feels unworthy of it I am extremely jarred.
When the story itself could be so good that playing the game is what drags me out of it is, I think, the definition of ludonarrative dissonance.
Leaps vs. bounds in storytelling
I personally believe part of the problem is that WoW has evolved much faster and further in its narrative delivery than it has in its gameplay. But part of the problem there is that gameplay choices were made in the run up to BfA that feel retrograde, that deliberately stepped backwards or otherwise failed to find a way to deliver exciting gameplay to help sell that story to us. Is it fair to say that all of the ludic elements of Battle for Azeroth are bad? No, not at all. They’re just not nearly as good as the narrative elements are — the excellent Warbringers shorts, the fully rendered cinematics like Old Soldiers, the various in-game and in-character scenes, the acting, the music, all of it seems to have leapt so far and so fast that playing the game simply hasn’t kept up.
The closest I came to feeling like the gameplay was working hand in glove with the storytelling was in the 110 to 120 leveling experience, and then the questlines after we hit 120, revealing Rastakhan’s deal with Bwonsamdi and Jaina’s ascension to the Lord Admiral’s seat. Despite being such a long term mainstay of MMO storytelling, it was in questing that I felt the happiest. Why hasn’t Battle for Azeroth, an expansion where Anduin Wrynn is the High King of the Alliance, provided him with a single in-game moment as excellent as the quest in Legion where we escorted him to the place where his father died? That was a moment of pure ludonarrative harmony, where the gameplay and the cinematic came together to do something amazing.
Why doesn’t BfA have more moments like that?
Gameplay shouldn’t be the distraction
The Warfronts are a fun game experience, as are Island Expeditions, but neither really managed to actually tell a story due to their nature — the Expeditions are self-contained raids on various fantastic locations that deliberately only rarely award a cool quest item with a bit more lore for us, and the Warfronts are too cyclical. They can’t really give us a story because by necessity nobody wins. There’s no end state. The game’s need for constantly playable and replayable content divests it of the power of a conclusion.
Raids have gotten better — I think Uldir felt very disconnected if you were Alliance, while it was far more well integrated for Horde players. Battle for Dazar’alor feels like it’s taken steps to bring more of the narrative front and center for both factions, and so, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Crucible of Storms will do likewise. With patch 8.2 coming, we have a chance for the game to really polish how it uses gameplay elements to deliver that story.
Of course, with patch 8.1.5 having just dropped, and new questlines coming in with more story, we may catch up in terms of gameplay delivering as much cool narrative as we get from other means. The expansion is in a weird place, where it feels so far from finished that it’s hard to tell what the end story will actually be, and that needs to be kept in mind. But it’s still true that early missteps like Azerite armor missed their chance to keep pace with non-gameplay narrative devices and the expansion we got is definitely suffering from a lack in terms of its gameplay.
MMO’s are interactive storytelling, and the interaction hasn’t been as strong as it should be, to be worthy of the true excellence on display in the rest of the game narrative.
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