WoW Factor: The problem with World of Warcraft’s storytelling

All payoff, no setup

I circle the waterfront, I'm watching the sea.

Back a long while ago, when I reviewed the prequel novel for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, I noted that my general policy has been to ignore the novels and supplementary storytelling around WoW’s expansions. The policy I outlined in the introduction there was fairly simple and straightforward: If it didn’t happen within the game, something had gone wrong with the storytelling. But it occurred to me that I should probably say a little bit more about that after all.

We’re on the tail end of Blizzard’s set of pre-expansion animated shorts, and it has been noted by beta testers just how badly those shorts serve to set up the actual plot of the zones they are supposedly highlighting. But really, this is doubling down on a longstanding issue that the game has had with treating every form of storytelling as if it were all one continual chain for everyone. So let’s talk about why this is bad and highlight an obvious counterexample to the way Blizzard seems to view storytelling as a whole.

And I do mean Blizzard as a whole. For example, we still don’t know when Overwatch 2 is actually launching, but that number is in and of itself kind of ridiculous when you consider that the original Overwatch contains no story at all. Yes, there have been a lot of supplementary media adding story around the fringes, but the preview movie for the sequel makes it clear that there hasn’t actually been much forward motion at all. Calling it an experiment in decentralized storytelling is insulting to experiments.

This is not new, however. Blizzard has been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Back in Cataclysm, for example, the prequel novel established a lot of important plot points that would go on to inform major chunks of the storyline. If you wanted to know why Cairne was no longer around in Thunder Bluff, for example, you had to go out and do your homework. Otherwise, it was just a change no one discussed.

Why is this bad? Oh… so many reasons. But not some of the ones more commonly cited, ironically.


One of the reasons I’ve seen brought up, for example, is the idea that if something important and lore-worthy is happening in the game, players should be present for it. But that isn’t entirely true. It’s all right, for example, that players don’t get to interfere with Cairne dying by accident at the hands of Garrosh Hellscream. What’s not all right is that there’s no way to know this without external reading, and a lot of the stories make no sense without that information.

Supplementary material always has to walk a fine line, of course. If it’s seen as superfluous, you’re basically telling your audience that nothing important is going to happen in the novel (or comic book or video or whatever). But making it vital is similarly problematic because you are then assuming that everyone knows something, and that’s never the case. No matter how pervasive the material, you cannot assume players will have done the reading.

The usual solution has been to make this stuff, well… supplemental. It offers additional information, but it’s not vital to your understanding. And to demonstrate this, I want to look at another MMO with an abundance of lore and published books, one that gives plenty of extra material to go through if you want to. It’s also a game that will be very familiar to anyone who reads my writing, as I’ve mentioned it for years now with an admiring tone.

I am talking, of course, about The Elder Scrolls Online.

The overall volume of lore surrounding ESO is pretty gigantic. There are novels set in the larger universe, some of which post-date the game. And yet none of this stuff is required reading or playing. In spite of my not having played any of the other games in the series, the MMO itself did a perfectly fine job introducing me to the Dark Brotherhood without expecting me to fall back on any existing knowledge about the Dark Brotherhood.

It’s not alone in that regard. Final Fantasy XIV and Guild Wars 2 both have supplementary books published (lorebooks and novels, respectively) that go into more detail than the games themselves can. In all of the above cases, it’s clear that the writers building these games are working on the assumption that what is stated in these books is true. But the relevant stuff inside is telegraphed in-game as well.

So why is Blizzard so bad at this? For that matter, why has Blizzard been bad at this for so long? After all, the original WoW comics were meant to be just as canon and were where we first met Varian Wrynn, and that even predated Cataclysm. Why does Blizzard continually make the mistake of putting vital content outside of the game?

Cargo cult.

Obviously, these are not decisions I can give an absolute reason for, so anything I have to say is by necessity speculation. But I think the answer lies in what originally made the Warcraft games so popular… and some of that comes from rulebooks for the games that were clearly love letters to dense fantasy novels, complete with hand-drawn maps, elaborate backstory and lore, and a whole lot of work beyond just the basic lore of “orc fight human.”

Consider this: The first game’s backstory is narrated by Garona with colorful verve all the way through and plenty of breakdowns and descriptions of each unit in the game. These instruction manuals cover controls fairly quickly before moving on to being a whole lot of setting information, and this continued on through Warcraft 2 and StarCraft. It was obvious that Blizzard was a team of talented, creative people who could put together a heck of a package when they wanted to.

But I get the sense that this was also, in some ways, a step toward overreaching. Blizzard wasn’t using its knowledge of comic books and fantasy novels and the like simply to write the backstory of video games; Blizzard had the idea that the team was entirely capable of producing a fantasy novel just fine, when what made all of this backstory notable wasn’t that it was heartbreaking in its brilliance but that this was an extra level of polish and care put into what could have otherwise been a bare-bones exercise.

There’s also the now-ongoing desire from Blizzard to make its games into a self-sustaining ecosystem. Every game has collector’s editions, and every collector’s edition gives bonuses in other games, encouraging you to try those other titles just to get everything. The goal seems to have long been some sort of media bubble where you spend most of your mental bandwidth to staying up to date with these stories, with so much to track in various forms that it fuels its own conversation in a sort of hype ouroboros.

The problem, of course, is that the net result if you stop doing the reading is that the plot no longer makes any sense. Blizzard has, effectively, created a storytelling problem through which its games are full of moments of payoff for plot points that are never actually set up in the game itself. Enemies, rivalries, and storylines are based around plot points that have never been established within the game itself. You either did all of the supplementary reading… or you get the climactic showdown with none of the setup or denouement to create emotional resonance.

And that’s the major problem here. It’s a storytelling formula meant to give players all the cacophony of big conclusions without having to do the slower work of setting everything up. It’s a story where you either never get a reason to care… or you never get the wrap-up you wanted.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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