Monday, September 1, 2014

Blizzard Got It Wrong: It's not a "Timeline"

What kind of portal is it?
Well. It's been two years since I posted. What can I say? It's been a rough two years, personally. Too much Real World business to do, diminishing returns on fun in game. I took a break from Azeroth and buckled down to mastering my universe.

But all things come in some variety of cycles and time has opened up somewhat and I'm back, at least for now.

It is the eve of the Warlords of Draenor. It's about three months out. The beta is allegedly going swimmingly. Garrisons are being considered, half my favorite abilities are being culled in The Great Ability Culling of 2014, and those are topics for another time.

Even when I wasn't playing, I was reading the blogs and caught all the Warlords reveal at the last Blizzcon and I've experienced the befuddlement of the greater WoW community in trying to figure out exactly what is going on with the premise of this expansion. At best, it seems very timey-wimey (if I may borrow an expression from The Doctor). At other points, it makes no sense whatsoever.

The big problem here is that this time travel business is the farthest edge of science fiction fantasy. There are some who have invested some serious thought into the business of this thing, but the facts are that we really don't even have a real-world working hypothesis for how time travel should play itself out, much less a theory or ... god help us... some laws of nature on the issue.  The point is that each universe pretty well makes things up as they go along. But, I'd argue, that some sort of crowdsourced understanding of temporal mechanics has risen to the top of the public conscious and should be observed.

The point is: Azeroth is not dealing with an alternate timeline in Warlords of Draenor. Azeroth is being invaded by a parallel universe.

What's the Difference?

Really, the difference is mostly about how we use the terms because an alternate timeline or a parallel universe are 99% the same thing.  What it really comes down to is do we know what choice created a new set of historical proceedings and can we do anything about it.

To illustrate this, allow me to present Marty McFly and The Justice Lords:

Marty McFly, Time Lord
 Marty McFly is the protagonist in a case of an Alternate Timeline. In Back to the Future, he goes back in time to 1955 and at a very key moment, prevents his father from being hit by a car and nursed back to health by his mother, thus preventing their falling in love. The alternate timeline branches at that exact moment and the rest of the movie is about trying to fix that problem. They never really say it, but the alternate timeline will never rejoin the "main" timeline, just that it will run parallel enough to Marty's original timeline that it doesn't negate his existence. From that point on, Marty and friends live in a parallel universe. But the moment of that parallel universe's creation had an impact on the old timeline, and was a clear moment in time.

For the record, this is also what happened to us 90% of the time that we went for a trip in the Caverns of Time. The running theme of the Caverns of Time was that the Infinite Dragonflight was routinely seeking to disrupt our real, historic timeline for nefarious purposes and we were there to prevent those changes from really taking hold. This is probably the mechanic of time travel that WoW players are most inherently familiar with since we've seen it several times, over several different expansions.

Justice Lords, not Time Lords.
The Justice Lords, on the other hand, live in a parallel universe. In "our" timeline, there is the Justice League-- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and some others-- who fight crime, for freedom and the American way. In some parallel universe, there's the Justice Lords who fight crime by taking away freedom and have no particular use for the American Way.  For the most part, this alternate universe just exists. This alternate set of heroes was always going to exist, whether they made the same choices as our heroes or not. In fact, we know the exact choice that defines this parallel universe (Superman got so fed up with Lex Luthor that he melted the dude's brain!) but is there any point to changing that decision? No. Is there any way to change that decision? No. It is different from the choices that occur in our universe, and that is what makes the place interesting. But it cannot be changed back into anything because it was always the way it was.

So, this is the difference between an alternate timeline and a parallel universe. In a timeline story, we are focused on the choice that caused divergence and probably trying to correct it. In a universe story, there's this other place just like ours but different and it exists no matter what we do. Most of the time, these two universes have no contact with each other, but when they do, interesting story ensues.

Why is Warlords of Draenor not really about timelines?

Blizzard has screwed the pooch by combining elements from the two archetypes I've described above. But I still think their intent falls more towards the parallel universe.

Azeroth's traditional means of time travel has recently become broken when Nozdormu squandered all his power to help destroy Deathwing-- something that was completely unnecessary since my raid team totally had that black dragon bitch under control.  Another bronze dragon named Kairoz seeks to restart the time travel business with a thing called a Time Turner. And I don't know why (I haven't read the novel yet) but he decided to give it to Garrosh Hellscream.

During all this lead-up to the new expansion, the WoW community has looked at the proposed changes being wrought by Gary H.'s time adventure and felt like things didn't quite add up. Then they popped this cinematic on us:

"Wait, why aren't the orcs green here?" we ask. "In fact, they look more like those little piggy guards from Jabba the Hutt's palace in Return of the Jedi."

"Because Garrosh Hellscream traveled through time and stopped them from drinking the blood of Mannoroth!" says some Wag at Blizzard.

"But they turned green before they drank the blood in Rise of the Horde," says us. "They should be green by the incident shown in the cinematic."

"Um... well, we get to see the height of the Draenei race!" says Wag.

"But again, the orcs had already slaughtered about 85% of the Draenei before encountering Mannoroth.  And um... by the way, if Mannoroth was killed by an uppity Grom, sorry "Grommash" Hellscream before the orcs drank the blood, does this mean Mannoroth didn't die on Azeroth itself in the presence of Thrall?"

"No, whatever happens in Alternate Timeline stays in Alternate Timeline," says Wag. "It's a bit like Vegas that way. Mannoroth died in Ashenvale.

"But--" we try to ask.

"Gosh! Look at the time. Gotta go!" and with a "Yoink!" Wag is off, leaving us a bit more confused than before.

Well, here's the problem:  Kairoz's device doesn't enable time travel, it's a universe portal.  Gary doesn't go to any version of our world's past, he skips off to another universe where that "what happens in X, stays in X" rule is more well-established.

If Garrosh had just stayed there, then we probably wouldn't know a damn thing about it. And we might not care. The REAL problem is that once he gets to the alternate universe, he convinces somebody to start building another device (that happens to be in the shape of a Dark Portal) so that he can invade our world and get revenge for his busted-up Pandaren campaign.

Thus, our dark portal changes from green to red and instead of being a portal to another planet in our universe or galaxy or whatever (Blizzard has always been a bit nebulous about that too), it reconnects to the parallel universe and belches forth yellowy-looking orcs, rather than traditional green.  Clearly, this is a problem we have to deal with now. So, in we go.

But we go to the alternate universe instead of our past. In this alternate universe, Grommash or whoever Hellscream isn't just some chump nobody really likes-- like he was in ours. The Draenei haven't been slaughtered (is that because the orcs didn't try yet or because these Drae are more hardcore? I don't know. But the timeline is too far off for it to reflect our Draenor's history). Nobody seems to listen to Gul'Dan. And orcs are all yellow because presumably they haven't given up their shamanic heritage in favor of fel arts like our orcs did.

Whatever we do in this place has no effect on our history because it has no connection to our history. Cenarius doesn't come back to life because he wasn't killed by a raging orc posse in Ashenvale. (Besides, he came back to life already for much less comprehensible reasons).  Thrall's parents are not still alive with the Frostwolf Clan because Gul'dan lacked the influence to have them killed. We don't have to even think about people like Warchief Blackhand or Ner'zhul who should be a part of this "timeline" we're going to but haven't been mentioned at all. They just don't seem to exist in this universe. Merinna doesn't worry about accidentally sleeping with her father because she's not going to meet her father. She might meet a parallel father and Ew! Gross. But still, it's a parallel universe. What happens in a parallel universe stays in a parallel universe.

Because it's a parallel universe, writers can make up any story they want to. Maybe Ner'zhul isn't present in this story line because he was dropped on his head as a baby Maybe he isn't present because he liked to wear pink dresses and pick flowers and none of the other orcs would play with him. Maybe Ner'zhul's parents fell in love with the wrong people and never made a Ner'zhul. It could be any of these things. The "wrongest" answer might be to assume that it happened just like it did in our world.

I'd have to imagine that everybody in that universe looks at how badly ours has gotten messed up and would like us to go away before we start to break things. Some orc should be saying, "Wait a second, you guys blew up your version of Draenor? What's the matter with you?"

Theoretically, the story at the end of this expansion will have the portals between that Draenor and our Azeroth closed. Maybe one or two of us will get caught on the wrong side of those doors when they close-- that's another fun trope of the "multiverse" storyline. There will be a history written into each world where we collided and Azeroth kicked Draenor's ass but that story is the only "change" that will matter.

Of course, any and all discussion of this could be simply written off as a retcon. But everybody hates retcons. The closest I ever saw Chris Metzen upset about some crap he pulled on the alliance was the backtracking that was necessary at the beginning of the Burning Crusade around the history of the Draenei. So I know he'll take any measure to avoid rewriting his beloved orcs' history.

Finally,  I think the problem with continuity confusion, and misunderstandings of these mechanics is just that Blizzard threw a few principles of unreality together without really committing to a structured theory of what they wanted to present. But this underestimates the players who are all quite familiar with multiple scenarios of time travel since I think the crossover audience between WoW and Doctor Who, comic books, Back to the Future and plenty of other time travel scenarios should be undisputed. We are not unfamiliar with these concepts and Blizzard should remember that when they piece their situations together in the first place.

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