I got into fantasy because my reality growing up was no good. The first videogame I played and really enjoyed, almost to the point of obsessing over it every available second, was Command & Conquer’s Red Alert 2. I believe many players of the game will agree it was one of the best games of its genre – 2.5D military strategy – ever made, even to this day, over 20 years after it was first released. In fact, _Red Alert_ 3, which features better graphics and more detailed gameplay, is widely considered to have missed the allure of its king-sized predecessor.
However, RA2 is not the game I continue to obsess about in 2018, over a decade after having first played it. That (dubious) distinction belongs to Warcraft, especially World of Warcraft (the MMORPG). I’ve played a good bit of WoW (but not so much of Defence of the Ancients, the multiplayer arena), and what keeps drawing me to it is the expansive lore underlying the game’s structure, gameplay and expansion since it was first released in 2004. I wouldn’t be so foolish to claim I’m the greatest fan of the world of Azeroth, where the game’s story is set, if only because this world has so many fans.
To the uninitiated: There are three main factions at play through the entire series – the Horde, the Alliance and the Burning Legion. The Horde and the Alliance are two factions that are native to Azeroth and are frequently fighting with each other. The Burning Legion is an army of demons led by Sargeras, a fallen titan, and a mantle of dreadlords; it wants to extinguish all life in the universe. When the Legion comes to Azeroth, the Horde and the Alliance must put aside their conflicts and protect their world from the demonic forces.
This very simple and emimently trope-filled story has been shaped quite smartly in the last two and half decades, although Blizzard, the game’s maker, has occasionally taken its audience for granted. For those who want to know more about the lore, the WoW Wiki is a fantastic resource. There’s no one way to enter its network of stories and motivations because it has become so labyrinthine over the years. Even the chronological order won’t do because there is a lot of back and forth between multiple plotlines. On the plus side, you can start anywhere and just keep jumping from page to page.
Fortunately for newcomers, the cinematic trailers Blizzard has produced to introduce each expansion of the game to players can serve like a table of contents. After WoW was first released, there have been seven expansions for a total of eight trailers. The production quality on each of these trailers is very high. The animation is slick, the storytelling is tight but, most of all, each trailer does a stellar job of setting the mood for what’s to come. (Gamers may or may not internalise this mood but as an aspiring lore-master, I certainly do.)
The trailers are:
1. World of Warcraft Introduces the basic races and the world of Azeroth
2. Burning Crusade Introduction to Illidan Stormrage, one of the more interesting actors in the lore, fitting the “misunderstood pseudo-bad guy willing to do anything to protect the good guys” trope. This is also the first time WoW fans hear his famous line, “You are not prepared!”
3. Wrath of the Lich King [My favourite trailer] Shows Arthas Menethil merging with the Lich King as the former awakens from the Frozen Throne, the power of his sword Frostmourne, and suggests his soon-to-begin quest to be king of Lordaeron (where Arthas was earlier a lawful-good prince).
Aside: Illidan and Arthas have similar stories: both of them loved their homes dearly and went to great lengths to protect it, ultimately sacrificing themselves. However, this expansion depicted Arthas as being more powerful than Illidan, an idea I could never get behind because Illidan had a more mature vision of the future and his role in it, always seemed to be more aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and was always fighting for a greater goal.
4. Cataclysm This is when Blizzard was going nowhere with the plot and fans were growing frustrated. So the makers drastically reshaped Azeroth by having an ancient and powerful dragon break free from its prison deep in the world, flying to the world on the surface and setting the skies on fire.
5. Mists of Pandaria [My least favourite trailer] An orc and a human warrior are shipwrecked on a seemingly unexplored island. As they begin to fight each other, they are interrupted by a mysterious, quick-footed, mist-cloaked fighter wielding a long bamboo stick. As he bests them both and pushes them back every time they engage, the human and the orc team up against what is soon revealed to be… a panda. All this time, the panda – rather, pandaren – has been talking in the voiceover in a Chinese accent about how their goal is to “preserve balance and bring harmony”. *retch*
6. Warlords of Draenor Jumps back 35 years to reveal how the dreadlords’ scheme to enslave the orcs came undone. This section was not very well-received because it was an alternative timeline that changed the story of Gul’dan, one of the primary orcish antagonists of the series, in ways that made him seem less complicated as a villain than he was in the Warcraft (the video game, not the MMORPG) timeline. His arc also continued into the next expansion, Legion.
7. Legion Varian Wrynn and Sylvanas Windrunner fight together against the Burning Legion, which is now trying to open the Tomb of Sargeras and bring its supreme leader into the world. The trailer has some funny scenes (such as Varian striking a heroic pose as he jumps out of the water and takes on fel-beasts while the viewer realises the water had to have been only about two feet deep there). It also doesn’t spell out the expansion’s full story, which has many twists.
8. Battle for Azeroth Like Star Wars, WoW comes a full circle with this expansion, taking a break from the inventive turns of its predecessors and reintroducing an old conflict in an attempt to put the franchise on familiar, stable ground: the Alliance and the Horde are at each other’s throats again. Sylvanas and Varian’s son Anduin are seen fighting on opposite sides.
I’m not fond of the trailers apart from the one for the ‘Wrath of the Lich King’ because they seem to display many of the stereotypes of our reality, and which fantasy is usually expected to defy. For example, though Azeroth’s technology may indicate its society is similar to that in medieval England, there’s no reason the humans – rather the Alliance – should eventually be led by a white man (Anduin Wrynn) carrying a sword that draws its authority from the heavens. In fact, a significant portion of the non-white races in WoW are cast as evil or misguided.
For another example, almost all the violence in the game – and the consequent disruption of natural order, whether of history or of place – is led by male fighters. The sole major exception to this was Queen Azshara’s betrayal that first invited the Burning Legion to Azeroth. On the flip-side, the restoration of order meant the restoration of a monarchy, typically led by a king (not queen). Again, the sole major exception was Sylvanas’s anointment as warchief of the Horde by Vol’jin, that too only because the spirits had asked him to. Azeroth may be an imperfect world but it didn’t have to be so in ways so closely mirroring reality.
I never got into playing WoW as much as I did reading about it. My two roommates in senior year of college would play it almost 24/7, getting up only to go to the bathroom. I played a little bit after college but couldn’t take to it. The gameplay is rich, complex, offering each player multiple ways to accrue resources, assimilate them and develop their characters. Although teamwork is mandatory to complete WoW’s bigger in-game tasks, players have been able to find a formulaic way of doing things after running through each task repeatedly, perfecting their sequence of actions until they’ve found perfection.
I miss those days from time to time, when Warcraft lore was all that passed as conversation between friends.
Featured image: The Lich King from World of Warcraft. Source: YouTube.