Story Primer: Blizzard is Toying with its Audience in World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth – and it’s Excellent

The lead up to Battle for Azeroth has been an interesting one for World of Warcraft. The next expansion has been in testing for a while now, and as the content for the game rolls out and pre-patch events take place, things have been a little shakey. From servers being unreliable to Blizzard admitting that some specs. aren’t where they need to be (hello, fellow Shadow Priests), the lead up to WoW’s seventh expansion has been a little rocky. The mechanical and technical are not what we are here to talk about today though. None of the aforementioned problems had been enough to sour everyone and there is still a general sense of excitement surrounding the 14-year-old game right now.

That was until Tuesday when the World of Warcraft community imploded on itself. The reason? Story. That is what we want to talk about today.

Before we get there, it’s probably smart to give some context as to what’s happening for those of you who are lapsed players or have never played. The world of Azeroth, for the most part, is safe right now. With the Legion expansion coming to an end, long-standing Warcraft bad guy Sargaras has been vanquished (he stabbed the entire earth with a sword, it was a whole thing) and the Burning Legion (essentially a near unstoppable army of demons) has been quelled. In terms of big, world-ending baddies, there isn’t anything immediately on the horizon. Left to their own devices, the Horde and Alliance have started to turn to each other with both having many, storied grievances. For example, The Alliance is pretty peeved with the Horde as they left the battlefield when they were supposed to be united against the Burning Legion’s during their first assault (although for decent reasons), which saw the Alliance king, Varian, lose his life. On the Horde side, that fight also saw their leadership change hands when Vol’jin passed due to injury. The Alliance is now under the command of the young Anduin, Varian’s son naturally, and everyone pretty much agrees that that’s okay.

The Horde is another story. When Vol’jin died, he said he communed with the Loa (the Gods of the Trolls) and they told him the name of the next Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner. This lead the whole faction to essentially tilt their head like Michael Bluth talking to George Micheal about Anne, saying “…her?” The caution is for good reason too. She is the leader of the Forsaken, the undead faction of the Horde. While the rest of the Horde is all about honour and glory, the Undead have always been a bit of an odd one out. They are unnatural, scheming and have a tendency to be a bit ruthless especially when it comes to self-preservation. Also, there was a whole thing called the Wrathgate which I won’t go into otherwise I will be here until the next WoW expansion, but essentially, while still part of the Horde, everyone is uneasy, if not suspicious of them. Sylvanas, who many think more loyal to her own kind than the Horde, certainly made for a weird choice, but Vol’jin and the Loa named her, so who was going to argue that?

We are nearly at Tuesday, I promise.

While it is easy to see The Alliance as the good guys and the Horde as the bad guys on the surface, Blizzard has always prided itself on making both sides justifiable. In a now famous quote from the games’ director Ion Hazzikostas, the story is meant to be ‘morally grey’. That’s why many started to raise questions when Sylvanas started to take extremely aggressive action against the Alliance, trying to start a war for… well, no discernable reason other then she wanted to. Anduin seems a bit reluctant to get into a war without good cause, so Sylvanas being the aggressor here was worrying for fans of the Horde. This comes in the wake of another recent Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream losing it a bit and sending the Horde down an evil path before being overthrown by the Alliance and Horde rebels. Things were kicked into overdrive as Sylvanas entered Night Elf territory last week as part of a pre-expansion storyline, killing many and taking over one of a key village. Due to Blizzard confirming that a World Tree (essentially a big powerful tree where the Night Elf capital was) would burn down during this campaign last year at BlizzCon, we knew how this siege would end. Many theorised that Sylvanas burning it down would make her far too cartoonishly evil, so it couldn’t be her. Maybe the Night Elves would burn it so she couldn’t take it. Maybe Anduin did it in some strategic move. Maybe some big, otherworldly bad guy would do it. Well, we are now at Tuesday and… well, this happened:

Yeah, there was no twist like many in the community imagined. Sylvanas just burned it down out of malice. Even worse, seemingly on an emotional whim.

The community broke. “Sylvanas has always been harsh, but never evil!? This betrays her character! How could Blizzard do this?! How can the Horde, which has those who love nature and are obsessed with honour just standby? What happened to morally grey?! Garrosh 2.0!”

The Warcraft community has coded its identity on two factions for 14 years. People do care about it, and when one half of the community feels like they are being forced to play the bad guys, especially with a substantial role-playing community, how could these players’ characters justify these actions? Blizzard kicked the hornets’ nest, with many claiming it was bad writing and that they were done with the game. No matter the writers saying there was more to come, the community was convinced Blizzard had lost the plot over an identity they held dear. Personally, I relished the challenge of thinking in-character, being on the Horde and justifying my reasons to fight. We as people in the real world have massive misgivings with our governments all the time. The action of a President or Prime Minister doesn’t define who you are as an individual, why would that be different in Warcraft. Still, especially with Garrosh only a few years ago, I at least understood the outcry.

The thing was… Blizzard did too. They understood exactly how this was going to go down. They played everyone like a fiddle. This was always the plan.

Late last night, Blizzard put out this animated short, which differed from the Warbringers series by being one of the large scale, fully digital 3D shorts, which generally only come at the beginning of an expansion’s announcement. They are famous, but also years apart. To get one like this was unusual. In fact, everything about this was unusual. What it ended up being was… kinda, perfect. (A tiny, tiny bit of context: this short is about Varok Saurfang. He has a long history, but to condense it down to just a few words, he’s an old Orc soldier who embodies the noble and honourable spirits of the Horde.)

Take a look:

In the short, we see Saurfang ready to give up. The burning of Teldrassil was too much for him. This wasn’t his Horde. This wasn’t honourable. He couldn’t stand behind this Warchief. He wanted to die his death on the battlefield and be done with it. He was everyone kicking and screaming on the forums just a few days ago. He held the exact same grievances the community did, and even though Blizzard would have had to have been working on this short for a considerable time, it guessed how the community would react to Sylvanas near perfectly. More than that though, it gave us as players, a reason to want to fight for the Horde.

The Troll in the short, currently lovingly named ‘Zappyboi’ by the community, says because his father died, he had nothing but the Horde. The Horde is a faction for the lost and broken to exist, support and be strong together. Saurfang realises this, having also lost his son earlier on in WoW’s story. The Horde needs to exist and stand together, not for conquest or its Warchief, but for every person the faction protects. This spoke to me as a player who almost exclusively plays the Horde. The Alliance, to me, feels like a political organisation. They are the United Nations with swords and magic. They all more or less get on, all have similar righteous goals and operate with a (kind of smug) aura of civility. The Horde, on the other hand, is a mess. The Orcs are too obsessed with battle for their own good, the Tauren care more for nature, Trolls for their gods, Blood Elves almost always feel one step away from joining the Alliance, the Goblins ready to sell anyone out for gold piece and as previously stated, The Forsaken are the dingy, rebellious sibling threatening to embarrass their parents in front of everyone. However, the Horde as a whole still works. It is a ragtag group of races that can only exist because they stand together, despite their difference. It’s a dysfunctional family, but there is still a common identity because of that.

Blizzard knows this. It knew how its community would react, and thus gave us the Old Soldier short, the quietest and most personal of all the CG trailers in all of its 14 years. Within three days, half of WoW’s audience went from screaming “how can we possibly play as the Horde?” to “For the Horde”. Why? Because like Saurfang, the Horde realise that the faction isn’t about the Warchief and her whims. We needed this quiet human (not the Alliance kind) moment to remind us of the faction’s spirit. It is that dysfunctional family. To simply give up would be for the Horde to twist into something it isn’t. It’s worth fighting for what the Horde is, and importantly, for the individuals it protects. It’s about standing as one. That is something the community can get behind, even if it isn’t Sylvanas.

There are still questions about if she will turn into Garrosh 2.0 and where the story of Battle for Azeroth is going, but with this short, it shows Blizzard does indeed have a finger on the pulse, and I for one, think it does enough to give the team the benefit of the doubt. They will have thought about the Garrosh comparison months, even years before we did. The community are asking about it, and as already shown, Blizzard has a decent idea of how they are going to react to events in the world.

Now, of course, I’m being grandiose. These are factions in a video game. A video game where most players have characters on both sides, but the reaction to Warbringers: Sylvanas was telling. People do care about this world and what happens to it. Blizzard knows that and left it’s audience high and dry for two days to sit around questioning their place. It played a trick on them. It trolled the audience because it knew exactly how it would react. However, what made it so good was that it wasn’t just a joke on us. It manufactured outrage and weaved it to make both sides invested in the central conflict of the next expansion: The Horde vs. The Alliance. The Alliance has to go to war for the atrocities that Sylvanas has perpetrated on the Night Elves. The Horde has to fight for its identity, values and the people that make up the faction. While, if you care to spoil it, you can find out where we go next, there are still lots of questions about the future of this expansion. Whichever way it is though, I will say this…

I genuinely care.

Side note: While not linked to this main conflict (yet), you should also check out the Warbringers: Jaina short. It would take another 2000 words to explain what is happening here, so I’ll leave you to find breakdowns of why all this matters. Regardless though, it is another excellent Blizzard short, coming in a very close space of time.