Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Cataclysm Couldn't Top the Lich King

Nice try, DW, but no cigar.
I think Blizzard made a mistake trying to "top" The Wrath of the Lich King.

One of the problems that I have sensed in the past several months is that many players aren't as invested in the story Cataclysm has brought us. In one regard, we could probably look and say that players may be getting jaded, and there is probably some truth in that. But on the other hand, there are some principles of story-telling that didn't line up well in this tale of the Black Dragon that destroys the world.

The company line is that "This Cataclysm is like... the most dangerous thing that has ever happened in the world! Everything's all broken! Fire! Fire!" But, the structure of the video game doesn't support such histrionics. The day that Patch 4.0 hit, we all logged on and all the worst destruction had already occurred and the world was still there. Our immediate reactions were not "Oh noes! Must... fix... world...!" For most of us, it was just curious amusement and the knowledge that the world was going to persist, because if it didn't... what were we going to play in?

And, for the lore student, it's easy to see the Cataclysm isn't the most horrible thing that ever happened to the world. The Sundering, 10,000 years before, that split the Pangea-like super-continent into the major landmasses we have now (as well as the full-fledged demon invasion immediately preceding it) clearly altered the face of the world more than Deathwing did.

Another of the key storytelling problems this expansion is just simply that The Lich King was a tough act to follow.

"You know you love me."
The Baddest Villain in All WoW
I mean... it was Arthas, the Lich King. THE LICH KING. In the Warcraft Universe, nobody could be badder-ass than that.

The entire saga of Warcraft III was about how this agent of malevolent evil cut a horrid path of destruction across the free lands of Azeroth. And, he utterly succeeded. The end of the Warcraft III storyline was dark and stormy, with Arthas poised on the Frozen Throne, contemplating what horrors he would unleash during his second act.

We the players had several years to think about that, knowing He was out there waiting for us.

Ultimately, Blizzard's finest stroke of villainy was drawn by The Lich King. They will never get a villain as awesome as LK again. Deathwing, for all his 900-ton lava-breathing hugeness, never stood a chance.

On the other hand, Deathwing has been a relatively powerful, but ultimately supporting character who pops up from time to time and... fails in his endeavors.
  • He crafts the Demon Soul to rule over the other dragons, and loses it. 
  • He zooms off to Outland to hide some eggs and Khadgar plucks some of his armor off using telekinesis, forcing DW to retreat while his intestines basically bleed out.
  • He manipulates the orcs to imprison Alexstraza, and all that is undone by your average PuG group in Grim Batol. (I don't think those guys even technically had a tank).
  • Deathwing spends years disguised as a noble of the Lordaeron court, trying to bring it down and ultimately fails. By contrast, The Lich King lobbed in a few grenades called "plague" and "madness" and had the same job done in a few months.
Deathwing basically has a losing record. He pops up and goes "BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!" and promptly gets smacked down again. No, he was not the villain to "top" The Lich King.

More Story Problems
The ancillary characters surrounding the Cataclysm lack substance. Most of DW's key lieutenants (like Ragnaros, Undead Nefarion, Undead Onyxia) had been vanquished in Warcraft history, usually by us, the player characters.

Deathwing's henchmen, the Twilight Hammer, are a fairly uninspired bunch of end-of-the-world cultists. It's hard to separate their story from most of the real-world loony-toon cults we see in the news in the past few decades.

And finally, The sudden, yet inevitable death of Deathwing doesn't feel very momentous as we look to it on the horizon.  DW is a Dragon Aspect, and we've already killed one of those. Yah yah, he is physically "stronger" than Malygos, but still... been there, done that.

And, Deathwing isn't even his own boss. We know perfectly well that DW has been manipulated like a puppet on strings by Old Gods.  Killing DW in Patch 4.3 will not have the finality that standing over the broken shards of Frostmourne gave us in Lich King. Yeah, sure, the Black Dragon is dead, but the real master is still out there.

What about Those Other Stories?
Cataclysm launched with a ripe set of circumstances throughout both factions: Vol'jin on the verge of leaving the Horde; civil war in Ironforge; Cairne Bloodhoof murdered by Garrosh and the Grimtotem, Thrall out in search of a vision quest, Sylvanas going bat$%#t crazy in Lordaeron...

With the exception of the The Epic of The Great and Mighty Thrall, not really much has happened... at all... with any of this since launch.

This is particularly disappointing since Lich King so neatly progressed additional story elements. Do you remember the trailer released for the Ulduar patch? Garrosh and Varian Wrynn ready to tear each other limb from limb while Jaina and Thrall tried to separate them?  The Battle of the Undercity? Saurfang collecting the body of his son in Icecrown Citadel? That was good stuff! And there hasn't been a whiff of it during The Cataclysm.

It's OK for the World to not be at the Brink of Destruction
What is Blizzard to do? Do they have to up the ante again?

Blizzard has been entrapped by the Superman conundrum: How many times has Superman saved the world from the brink of disaster? And how is he supposed to feel about the fact that it's only going to get messed up and need saving again? I think it would be surprisingly tedious, actually. Wouldn't it be nice to just... go beat up some bank robbers for a change? Every challenge doesn't have to be a dire threat to the entire world, does it?

Wouldn't it be great if there were no
cutesy-wootsy pandas in Pandaria?
No, it really doesn't.

Going with the Mists of Pandaria possibility for a moment: What if somebody sails west from Kalimdor and finds another continent over there full of intrigues and challenges-- some new and some familiar.

What if the biggest feat we accomplish in the next patch is just to lift a massive curse oppressing that place or to bring freedom to some people (maybe Pandarens, but I hope not)? Meanwhile, the deep divisions of the Horde, and other plots rolling and unanswered now get to play out on an epic scale, without being overshadowed by Black Dragons.

That would be pretty refreshing really, and it would be a significant shift in attitude. We can have challenge without the dire stakes that we are presented with each expansion.  Right now, we fight because we have to. The world is going to crumble otherwise. Going to Pandarea could be a lighter, more "voluntary" adventure in which we fight because we can.

As a contrast, The Master Chief of Halo or any Doom Space Marine carry on their fight pretty much just for the sheer awesomeness of it and because they can. I mean, earth could get totally blown up, but you know the Master Chief will come through and just go find somebody else to tangle with. Since this whole thing is a game anyway, wouldn't that be a fun way to play even WoW?

There'll be another day that the world is in peril and we'll be ready, but like Superman, we really could use a break to go beat up those bank robbers for a change, just because we can.


  1. Very good article, and I agree. Deathwing is cool and all, and he may have cracked the world, but he didn't invade our cities with zombies, or kill our heroes just to raise them as undead scourge to use against us. Nope, he doesn't live up to his predecessor very well. Maybe it has to do with his cronies. To quote a warlock friend of mine "A water elemental doesn't make a very menacing foe."

    I hate to nitpick such a great article, but you misspelled Pandaria. Don't hurt me!

  2. Aaargh! i'm going to have to fix that! let it be known that I have no shame in going back to hide my mistakes! Thank you for your comments!

  3. Booga Booga Booga??? Very good article, well thought out. The argument is well constructed and Blizzard should really take note of this.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Daniel, I don't mean to be rude, but the direction of comments here has gone off-track from the topic of this blog post, and therefore I have removed them. I'm not happy to have done so, but I have a fairly tight vision of what I want discussions to be like on this venue and will take steps to keep it that way.

    Please do not regard this as a dismissal of you or your point of view. I don't inherently disagree with what you've said, I just don't feel it really contributes to this topic.

  7. My apology the comments I made was deemed to be off-topic. It wasn't meant to be. I've gotten over my head on a topic which I don't feel strongly about.

    You're entitled to your views and I am entitled to mine. I should've expressed my views on my own blog then. :)

  8. Thanks for being understanding, Daniel. Use that e-mail link to me sometime. I really value your comments and wouldn't mind considering a guest post sometime if you were into such a thing. I've done it before and think it can be pretty fun.