Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Something is Heroic in the State of Northrend

I don't think I'm exactly breaking new ground when I say that Wrath of the Lich King marked a turning point in World of Warcraft. After all, everybody knows that WoW was at its height of both popularity and pop cultural influence during the Wrath era, and that the modern game began when WoW broke with its past in Cataclysm. But one of the more striking things I've discovered about Wrath during my play through in Wrath Classic has been how much the game's focus has changed since even TBC Classic. 

Okay, let me back up a moment.

Several years ago when I was mainly playing Elder Scrolls Online, I made a post about how it felt to suddenly find myself ingratiated with the faction leaders of ESO and how it just seemed so... unlikely to say the least. Shintar was skeptical about my opinions concerning ESO until she discovered that almost immediate acceptance and camraderie by the faction leaders when she tried out ESO as well. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed ESO, because the setting was all new to me (I never got more than a couple of hours into Skyrim), and I did like the worldbuilding that went on in Tamriel. The characters were memorable --the stories as well-- and the graphics and setting were gorgeous. Still, it felt like I shouldn't have been able to even get within 10 miles of the powerful of Tamriel, much less become practically instant friends with them.

Besides, just how many Dunmer end
up being good friends with the Queen
of the Altmer? (I'm the one on the end,
with the decidedly NOT heroic looking armor.)

By comparison, returning to WoW Classic was a breath of fresh air, where you hardly ever interact with faction leaders and the most powerful people of Azeroth. The assaults on Ahn'Qiraq and Naxxramas, let alone Molten Core and Blackwing Lair, did not have Thrall or Rexxar leading the charge. You didn't see Bolvar leading the attack against Onyxia. We were not trusted advisors and friends. There were no cutscenes or role playing among the leadership. We were just a raid, representing an army, no more and no less. 

Look at it this way: the entirety of the Ahn'Qiraq lead in questline for both the Horde and Alliance have nothing to do with any of the faction leaders. Instead, you're sent repeatedly to a Kaldorei Priest and a Troll Shaman, who are frustrated at their constant dismissal by their own factions as to the danger the Silithids represent. Fast forward to TBC Classic, where you're constantly checking back in with either A'dal the Na'aru, the High Priest of the Aldor, or the Scryer Seer. All three of these people are the "Big Guns" of Outland.

Even raids are switched up from Vanilla Classic to TBC Classic, where Black Temple and Sunwell Plateau have NPC Roleplaying sequences at the end*, with sections of the questline that lead to those raids having extended RP sequences of their own. They aren't true cutscenes, but they remain pivotal points in game.**

Then came Wrath of the Lich King.

The pre-patch events, especially the Scourge Invasion event, had a few changes than the Vanilla Classic version. Sure, it had the standard Scourge assault areas, the same tabards and gear (well, adjusted for heading into Wrath), and other, similar Argent Dawn driven stuff, but it also had TBC-esque feel to it with the Scourge assault on the transportation areas of the factions. Those locales were led in defense by faction leaders, which had RP elements of their own. 

Of course, there's the entire Death Knight intro experience, which has extended TBC-esque RP areas of their own. 


But then we head to Northrend.

Helloooo, Wrathgate.

I think that's the first full cutscene experience in WoW, and it's a doozy. The subsequent Battle for the Undercity is both fascinating, exhilarating, and awkward. The first two are self explanatory, but the third... Well...

You report to and then escort faction leaders. You are a major part in the assault on the Undercity, fighting with the faction leaders. 

Oh, and there's that whole Dragon Queen thing.***

I think Deathwing would beg to differ,
but I digress.

It was in Borean Tundra and in Dragonblight when I realized that Blizzard decided to abandon their design in Vanilla (and to a lesser extent TBC) an expac earlier than I thought they did and instead pump you up as a fantastic superhero-esque Champion, something they've never really let go of ever since. 

"Oh crap...."

If you've never played Horde, this is one
of the reasons why Horde players
really liked Saurfang.

After all, why should Alexstrasza be greeting you as a friend like this when you'd never met her before?

Yes, this was literally Cardwyn's first
encounter with The Lifebinder.
Obviously questing had brought Card
to "Friendly" Status with the
Wyrmrest Accord, but... come on.

"Uh.... thanks?"

Your first encounters with the Red Flight in Borean Tundra were a lot more pitch perfect (an "I could eat you if you so much as get out of line" sort of thing) but that rapidly changed once Keristrasza enters the scene. Although to be fair, her words to you at the end of the quest line sound more like someone talking to a pet or a nick-knack you put up on a shelf for display.

"Does that make me your Precious?"
"Well, you are kind of wrapped around my finger..."

Then there's Wintergarde Keep, where after one or two quests you're suddenly everybody's best friend.

This sort of cadence continues everywhere I've gone in Northrend so far, which to my mind actually cheapens the moniker of "hero". If everything a player does is "heroic", then the word "hero" loses its luster. 


When I worked as a materials engineering lab tech back in my early 20s, we began the day by ranking the priority of our work on a 3 point scale: 1 - High Priority, 2 - Normal Priority, 3 - Low Priority.

Sounds like a common sense approach, right?

Well, this entire system would get blown up on a regular basis because every couple of hours one of the bosses would come in and make something on marked 2 or 3 on the list a 1, saying that "This is high priority now, it needs to get worked on right away!" After a few days of this, the listing on the board went from:

1 2 2 2 2 3


1 1 1 1 1 1

Which would make me and the rest of the techs throw up our hands in frustration. Was it a failure of leadership? Oh yes. Was this an isolated incident from this company only? Oh HELL no. This behavior is pretty much everywhere.

Syndrome captured this sentiment
perfectly a decade later.

Now, transfer this to "heroism" in MMOs or other video games, and you get the idea.


While I do enjoy the stories in Northrend, this overenthusiasm for patting your toon on the back by --and chumming around with-- the powerful of Azeroth is tempering my enjoyment a lot. I can now see how Blizzard changed their focus so completely away from the players and onto the faction leaders and the powerful of Azeroth, having them drive the stories of later expacs instead of the focus being on the player.****

And as I indicated above, World of Warcraft is --by far-- not the only video game that falls into this trap. Any narrative video game that goes on for long enough has this sort of problem, but I guess that I'd hoped that this issue wasn't so entrenched in Wrath as it turned out to be. My memory failed me on that point.

One thing that my memory didn't fail me on was the pervasiveness of phasing, but that's a story for another time...

*Or so I'm told. Haven't seen them myself.

**The assault on the Black Temple I do know of, because I could hear it anytime I got close to the Black Temple given the constant stream of people performing that part of the questline. It was a constant reminder that I never finished Tempest Keep, so I made a point of avoiding Shadowmoon Valley. Or Shattrath, once the RP involving Lady Liadrin began taking place.

***I'm not going to go into any more detail because Spoilers. Sure, it's been around since 2008, but there will be people who never have seen it before. I can think of two people who currently Raid Lead off the top of my head who never saw anything in Retail Wrath, much less The Wrathgate and The Battle for The Undercity.

****And even when the focus is on the player, the player is merely a Superhero archetype, not something a real person can relate to. This lack of relatability is another common problem with MMOs. Outside of the powerful of Azeroth, everybody else becomes a Red Shirt. Even Old Blanchy, who makes an appearance in Northrend in Wrath, only to be slaughtered in Westfall in Cataclysm for the initial quest. Ouch.


  1. Arguably it began at the end of TBC. The Isle and Sunwell pushed us deep into "hero" territory, what with us taking on what is maybe THE big bad that isn't Sargeras. Not even approaching it from the rush of "finishing" content, it's gotta be way above our character's abilities if we are just part of an army, and a major reinforcement was the way SSO npc's react to your character when you hit exalted. To use an analogy, it's like being a high level D&D character; people know you because of your exploits and successes (or infamy) and maybe you've gotten powerful enough to be recognized by them. Then they just pushed it to the extremes of Wrath and pretty much had nowhere to go.

    I always saw Sunwell as overkill. Maybe if there had been something else at the end, something less "epic", I wouldn't have felt like there was so much overreach. It's certainly much more extreme than Naxx40 in terms of what we should be able to deal with. It's always made me feel like Cata's reshaping of the world was inevtiable (in the pipeline) by the time Sunwell came out.

    1. That's an interesting point about Cataclysm that I hadn't considered, that the uber-hero nature of your toon necessitated major changes to the world. I always considered it an issue with quest design of 2004 vs 2010, and that plus the emptiness of the Old World both pushed Blizz into a whole revamp to make the zones fresh again. But if the nature of you as a PC is so powerful that there's no grounding of you in the game world, changing the paradigm by blowing up Azeroth is definitely an option.

      I didn't see Sunwell at level; I got in as part of a 10 person raid back in Cataclysm, so I have no idea how much of the original role playing remained. After all, Blizz has shown a tendency to remove things from expac to expac (see: Battle for Undercity). I think it was the nature of the story as opposed to the raid itself that really put the focus on us and the NPCs and made us the hero in a way that Naxx 40 didn't. Naxx 40 was also a reminder that there was a far more powerful Lich King out there, something that I don't recall ever was the case in Sunwell Plateau.

      But yeah, that makes sense that they may have already been thinking revamp by the time late TBC hit. Of course, even after Cataclysm they kept going on that hype train about how powerful and epic you are for pretty much every expac since then --with the exception of Nathanos, who pretty much thinks you're crap-- which makes your average D&D high level (L15+) look like a bunch of lowbies running around.

    2. It's more that I think the excuse of the impending Cata rework allowed them to burn through content and do things like bring in a (half finished?) Kil'jaden raid right after ending Illidan's story. (insert half-baked music company metaphor involving bootlegs). The idea that the world could progress and change gave them permission to blow through the lore that existed maybe? It's likely a confluence of factors pushing us to the end result, but I think they make the same mistake with lore in Shadowlands, trying to tie up loose ends, but not really providing enough content to do it. Dunno, starting to just work things out on the page again.

      Side note, Battle for Undercity had to get pulled because it was screwing things up for players who started the chains and then never finished them. Proof that phasing had issues back then.