A well-told story I do not like: My feelings about Battle for Azeroth and the War Campaign
Warning: This post contains spoilers involving patch 8.2.5 and the War Campaign
In the creation of narrative art, there is always the difficulty that not all stories will be to the taste of all who might come across them. And in narrative told via gameplay, there is always an added complication — while we might identify strongly with a protagonist, we do not embody that protagonist as strongly as we do in a game like World of Warcraft, where we’re literally going step by step through the world viewing everything from that character’s perspective. This colors and changes how we interact with that story, and as a result, two different players can view that narrative through entirely different lenses — the lenses of the characters they experience that story with.
Your Forsaken Rogue is going to feel very differently about the events of the game than, say, my Tauren Paladin or someone else’s Human Warlock. Faction-conflict stories are always rife with this difficulty, to the point where I made sure to try and play through the events of Battle for Azeroth as both Horde and Alliance because I felt that my perspective had to be as informed as possible. But in the end, I failed — I gave up on my Tauren at about level 116 and I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever play him again.
The Loss of identification
Meanwhile, the characters I did get to 120 on — my Death Knight (a Night Elf), my Warriors (Night Elf, Human, and Draenei), and my Hunter (also a Night Elf) are having a great deal of difficulty with the story of Battle for Azeroth, and I recognize that part of this is my own fault. Legion got me so excited for Night Elf lore, I leaned heavily into Night Elves — I not only identified with them closely, I made up backstories for them, little RP elements that explored what their lives would have been like. My Nelf Warrior, for example, was young for her people, she had living family in Dolanaar that she went back to visit often. Her grandmother was there, and she would often visit with her and tell her stories about what she was going through.
And then Teldrassil burned, and Dolanaar with it.
Taken entirely on the pure merits of storytelling craft and narrative logic, Battle for Azeroth is an achievement. It is an extremely well-told story, it uses all the techniques at Blizzard’s disposal — from quests and quest text to actual gameplay, from Alliance and Horde War Campaigns, from raids and in-game rendered cinematics to long, lavishly crafted CGI that would have worked as an honest-to-Elune World of Warcraft Netflix series. It is masterfully done. The entire team behind it can be justifiably proud of the amazing work they have done.
Quality, craftsmanship, and the vagaries of taste
They have killed my main in the process. I can’t enjoy playing her anymore. I stopped raiding. I log on for World Quests, I try to recapture the feeling I had back in Legion, but… I can’t do it. I can’t play her, remembering that happy, optimistic young character, now that her home is destroyed. Now that her whole family, who only moved to Dolanaar recently, has burned to death. Now that the people who did it — the people who marched through Astranaar and Ashenvale, burning everything and poisoning and assassinating my people as they came — have decided that they’ll trade the deaths of thousands of my people for one Orc.
As a player, I wept watching Saurfang’s death. I legitimately was moved by that cinematic. It’s powerful and haunting.
As my character? My grandmother burned to death, and every single member of the Horde who marched those catapults up through Ashenvale and into Darkshore, who put them in range of Teldrassil, is responsible. Sylvanas still exists, and worse, the people who made what she did possible? The Human King has decided to work with them. He’s decided our deaths aren’t important enough.
How do I play a character who stays loyal to that? How do I log on and act like everything is the same when it can’t ever be the same again? How do I do a bunch of daily quests in Kul Tiras?
How identifying with a character can help — or hinder
I know this is not a concern for everyone, and that’s kind of my point — this perspective is unique to the character I’d constructed. If I’d played as a Forsaken, loyal to Sylvanas above all else, I have no idea what I’d be feeling right now. She didn’t just abandon the Horde — she abandoned me, and that’s even included in the cinematic when that Forsaken standard bearer hears their Banshee Queen scream “You are all nothing!” and realizes she’d already abandoned them. That look sticks with me. It was an amazing moment. But how would I play my “The Banshee Queen Forever” Forsaken Rogue past it?
This is a problem unique to MMORPG storytelling, and it relates directly to why, despite the above, I can believe that Battle for Azeroth is one of the best told, most fluid and proficient expansions World of Warcraft has ever seen. Quite simply, this is storytelling done at near the peak of its powers, and it might well be the best expansion the game has ever seen. That’s right — Battle for Azeroth rivals pretty much any expansion the game has ever had in terms of quality. It is a magnificent accomplishment.
That fact does not change my feelings about the story it’s telling. There are several reasons why something that I think I would have loved in the form of a novel is jarring me so hard when it unfolds over the course of an expansion — the length of time between story beats, the sheer volume of characters that end up not being focused on, the way the narrative directly impacts on the characters I play. In the past, my close identification with my Tauren enhanced the game when I played him. But now? Now it makes me wonder how he could possibly go on. I don’t want to play a character who feels that way. I get enough of that in my life.
Eventually we need the dawn to break
I was discussing it today and I was told something pretty compelling — the point was made to me that if the destruction of Teldrassil had been at the hands of Deathwing, then at least I could feel like we were going to come together and defeat Deathwing. There would be a victory. There would be a feeling of rising from the ashes, of overcoming this traumatic incident. But with Battle for Azeroth, I have known all expansion that there would be no victory. The Horde burned down Teldrassil, and the Horde is a faction in a video game, filled with other players — there is no narrative end to this that is recompense or requital for the act.
And without it, there is no feeling of victory, no up beat. There is only exhaustion, a sad end, and the escape of the primary architect to bedevil us again later. The War Campaign ended without a victor. Worse, it ended without the people who suffered the most at Sylvanas’ hands not even consulted — there were no massive Night Elf armies, no Tyrande and Malfurion in full rage and wrath, no sense that Sylvanas was beaten. She left because she was done with the Horde. She wasn’t driven out, she didn’t flee, she walked away.
Saurfang’s death doesn’t address any of that. And that’s only a problem because this is an MMO and, as such, we know it’s not designed to have clean endpoints. Therefore, if there is no up beat, no moment of triumph, then there is no sensation of closure — instead, we merely have this feeling of endlessly moving towards the next grinding horror. And it is that sense of numbness that is the most destructive to the immersion for players who, like me, identify strongly with the characters they play.
These are my complicated feelings about Battle for Azeroth. It’s perhaps the best expansion WoW has ever had, but I’m not having fun. I feel like I’m playing in a Dostoevsky plot, and up front, those novels may be some of the best works of literature ever composed — but they’re not fun. I play games to have fun. I miss my silly young Night Elf who would banter with her older cousin while out doing adventures, who was always bubbly and positive, who believed even the Legion could be stopped and the world saved. She’s gone now, and I don’t know who I’m playing anymore.
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