Why the Alliance needs to do something wrong
I have a lot of opinions about the limitations of the current view of the Alliance, and a lot of them are drawn from Star Trek.
Now, it’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry had a specific vision for what the Federation should be. A utopia, where they were past scarcity or even economy, an enlightened society that had done away with prisons in favor of rehabilitation and adopted an inclusive social model free of prejudice. Starfleet was an exploration service, and while they certainly armed their ships, they were committed to using their weapons only in self defense when faced with aggressors like the Klingons and Romulans. By the time his Next Generation series came out, he even postulated that a Klingon could join Starfleet and that Klingons and the Federation could inch closer to an alliance. And he was utterly opposed to any storyline that even might hint at the Federation being the aggressors or using deceptive means to win, even when he had episodes of the original series where Kirk would flat out lie in an opponent’s face to achieve a victory.
And as a result, the Federation always had to be the ones being attacked. Whether it was the Borg, the Crystalline Entity, whoever the threat at hand was, the Federation never initiated hostilities. They always fought ‘fair’ so to speak, to the point where they signed a treaty giving up cloaking devices even though that same treaty allowed their enemies to use cloaking technology. Cloaking wasn’t Federation, it wasn’t in fitting with the ethos Roddenberry imagined for the Federation. Starfleet was a scientific, exploration driven cadre and they didn’t sneak around.
Nothing easy is ever simple
Now, Gene Roddenberry flew 89 combat missions in the Army Air Force during World War II. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t naive. His decision was a deliberate choice to try and tell a story where utopian ideals of universal brotherhood, a society free of prejudice or the social ills that he saw in his lifetime were abolished. In other words, he didn’t make the Federation the way it was because he was unaware that human beings often simply don’t and have never worked that way — he made it that way entirely because he was fully aware of that fact. His intention was that Star Trek, and especially the Federation, should serve as an example.
However, when Deep Space Nine came around, Ira Steven Behr realized that as well-intentioned and idealistic as this idea was, it had a significant problem. It hampered storytelling. If you know what the Federation is all about, if you can never tell a story where the characters might do something you don’t expect, you flatten out the narrative. Behr wore many hats during his tenure on DS9, going from Supervising Producer to Co-Executive Producer to the sole Exec Producer and the Showrunner. He wrote 57 episodes of the show. It’s fair to say that he had a significant impact on the direction the show took, and one thing the show did was accept that the Federation could be well meaning, could have advanced social progress, could be a post economic society and still be populated by people, whether they were Humans, Vulcans or what have you. And people sometimes do the wrong thing, whether or not they think it was right.
I bring this up because I sincerely believe that Battle for Azeroth proves that the Alliance needs a Deep Space Nine moment.
If neither side are the good guys, let them show it
From the beginning of this expansion I’ve felt that the Alliance have been forced into the role of always responding to whatever Sylvanas does, and thus whatever the Horde does, and the Horde are forced into the role of complicit with her actions at best. The Horde always attacks first, usually attacks people who are not posing a direct threat to it and never acts in response to an injury. Even Battle for Dazar’alor isn’t an out of the blue Alliance attack — it’s in response to literal months of Horde attacks in Stormsong Valley that started well before Kul Tiras had joined the Alliance. Attacking Zandalar and killing Rastakhan is perhaps unwise, certainly, but it’s not a new strategy, it’s simply the exact same strategy the Horde has been employing with more successful results. The Horde not only attacked Stormsong, they even directly attacked Boralus and Tiragarde Sound well before the Battle of Dazar’alor.
And frankly, I think that’s a shame. I like a lot of the narrative touches of this expansion. I like that players can decide to side with Sylvanas or against her, Horde side. Meanwhile, Alliance… get to choose the name of a boat. That’s underwhelming, and I really feel that instead, we should actually see some conflict. Something as simple as having the Alliance attack Undercity before the burning of Teldrassil would have made a huge difference in terms of the narrative of this expansion. And it would have made sense. The Horde destroyed Gilneas unprovoked and drove the Gilneans out of their home — a military offensive to retake Gilneas could well have revealed weaknesses in the Horde’s defenses in Lordaeron and ended up with an Alliance army occupying the city, leading Sylvanas to blight bomb the whole place… and then to lead her enraged Forsaken and their Horde allies to storm up into the Alliance territories on Kalimdor.
The Night Elves would still have been enraged, there would still be a warfront there, but the Horde would have had a lot more justification for their attack than there are magic rocks and if we don’t attack the Night Elves they might get some magic rocks before we get all the magic rocks, and it would have been a lot easier to set up why both sides cared about this. When I played through the Teldrassil portion of the pre-expansion event on my Tauren, I simply couldn’t come up with any reason why he was there. Why would Baine support this? And we even see Baine say later in the expansion that the two factions are fighting while the Earthmother dies, so clearly he wouldn’t support destroying an entire forest on the way to burn down a World Tree. The inability to let the Alliance strike first, to ever let them do anything that even might be considered underhanded and deceitful is hampering the excellent storytelling in this expansion.
Not an excuse for forgetting who is who
It should be noted that I don’t want the Alliance to suddenly become baby murderers or the kind of people who slaughter civilians. Even when Camp Taurajo went down, the Alliance commander deliberately left a hole in his lines for the Tauren civilians to escape, because he knew that slaughtering or imprisoning civilians would just keep the war going and he wanted it to end someday. It’s fine for the Alliance to take actions that look questionable from the Horde side, and World of Warcraft has done fine with each side seeing the other through a skewed perspective in the past. What they need is to stop saying The Alliance wouldn’t do that so much that the perception becomes that the Alliance never does anything until after the Horde does something.
One of my favorite episodes of Deep Space Nine is In the Pale Moonlight. In this episode, a desperate Captain Sisko realizes that the Federation is going to lose the war against the Dominion without allies, and turns to Elim Garak, a former Cardassian intelligence agent living in exile on the station, for help. Garak and Sisko attempt to trick the Romulan Senator Vreenak but the Romulan discovers their deception and leaves the station. However, Garak had allowed for that contingency — the same data rod that had failed to convince Vreenak that the Dominion were plotting against his people would be much more convincing if it were found damaged within the wreckage of Vreenak’s ship, and so, Garak manages to arrange for Vreenak’s death. At the end of the episode, Sisko is aware of what Garak has done, but when he sees that it has worked — that the Romulans are in fact going to join the war against the Dominion on the side of the Federation — he decides he can live with the deception and even Vreenak’s death.
A stiletto is still deadly
This is the kind of moment we need. We don’t need the Alliance to drop a mana bomb on Orgrimmar. We don’t need them to slaughter a whole town. We need them to countenance an act of dishonesty or take some sort of decisive action that isn’t admirable, something that we the players would know is wrong, but which we could choose to live with if it ultimately brings victory. We’ve come close. Anduin allowing Saurfang to escape prison is almost this, but no one really feels bad about that. Imagine if instead Anduin had actually countenanced the assassination of Rastakhan for some reason? Imagine if he’d had the King killed to put Talanji on the throne, knowing that she’d hate the Alliance for it, but also that she’d prove as big a thorn in Sylvanas’ side as she did her own father when he was alive?
The Alliance needs shades of grey without changing its basic character. It needs to be what it has always been — a group of allied nations with the best of intentions, but not always the best track record on how to apply those intentions. It needs to do things we wouldn’t expect it to do, and take actions we might not easily accept. Otherwise, there will always be a feeling that one side is getting more interesting narrative moments than the other.
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