Friday, December 19, 2014

Is Technology Getting Out of Hand?

Giant Metal Scorpion: steampunky. Tail Mounted Laser: not so much.
This goes back a while:

I was in the Mists of Pandaria beta testing phase and one of the things they frequently tested then were race and faction changes. As a result, I had turned a lot of my Alliance characters in beta into Hordes and gotten a chance to check out how the other side lives.

Early on in the adventure into the Jade Forest, A Horde gas bag is hanging in the sky dumping pain and misery on...somebody on the ground. I honestly can't remember if it was Hozen or Alliance or Jin'yu. But for one quest you are ordered to "man the guns" and kill X number of bad guys on the ground. So I ran off and did that, but as soon as I jumped into "the gun," my heart sank a little.

This was no ordinary gun.

This was a machine gun.

Y'see, machine guns are weaponry that quite definitely begin their existence in the 20th Century. In fact, the machine gun took its bow almost exactly 100 years ago this year as it was pulled up by troops in World War I. It shocked the world just how horribly lethal it was and how cheap a soldier's life had become. It was a triumph of mechanical engineering and one of the worst things to happen to the human race all at the same time.

And, as of the beginning of MoP, The Horde has these things on the decks of their navy.

Since that time, we see more and more futuristic robots, we have the Warlord's Deathwheel, which is a cross between a tank and a tricycle. The Iron Horde has rocked up on our world with artillery that looks like it Napoleon's cannons on a bit of steroids.

Warcraft has always embraced an element of steampunk, and I can't say I'm against that. But artillery, machine guns and huge, city-destroying bombs seem like they have gone a bit beyond steampunk. You must remember, when the real life calvary raised their swords against a machine gun nest, it was the calvary that lost-- badly.  What place does a warrior's sword or mace serve in a world where Siegemaster Blackfuse is firing lasers at us? And maybe more importantly, how does this change the story?

Victorian era dress? Check? Goggles? Check...Science crap in the background? Check...
Generally speaking, steampunk is the trappings and style of the industrial revolution (mid through late 19th century) applied to futuristic technology. Add in a lot of brown and floppy anime hair, and you have steampunk. The time setting of most steampunk settings is indeterminate but I think most would agree that despite the cool tech, these times are "the past."

And with that basic definition, we've really already lost our connection to Warcraft. Our fantasy world in Azeroth could not be mistaken for an industrialized setting. Heck, the orcs, Tauren and trolls of the Horde shouldn't be mistaken for literate societies, let alone industrialized ones. I wouldn't argue against the suspension of disbelief, but under any sociological model, this level of industrialization is impossible in Azeroth. 

I'm less certain of goblin technology, but I'd go so far as to say not even the gnomes are properly "industrialized." They are more like a race full of Edisons and Teslas working on their own contraptions in their own laboratories and they produce things for themselves, not for mass consumption. I think this show of individuality and tech-bravado us in keeping with themes of steampunk, however.

But in the end, steampunk itself doesn't apply very well to a Dark Ages/Medieval world where the standard unit on the battlefield is meant to be an armored footman. It's also hard to say what a weapon of mass destruction in steampunk terms ought to look like, because while they do turn up, they are usually quite unique and unusual. Think of the coal powered spider in Wild Wild West (or don't because that's an awful movie) or better yet, the flying island of Laputa in Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant fantasy. Those are steampunk, but they show technology so unique as to be irreplaceable. They are not really the same as  a machine gun or a mana bomb delivered from he decks of a Horde battleship.

The Burning Crusade
Pay no mind to the floating spa-- I mean dimension ships in Netherstorm.
Desperately complicating any discussion we could have about technology in Azeroth, we must remember that my very favorite race on Azeroth kicked off The Burning Crusade by crashing what amounts to a spaceship into Kalimdor. 

Yes, the Exodar, along with its sister-ships in Netherstorm should be construed as spaceships constructed by the Naaru and usually flown quite badly.

The Burning Crusade's style definitely pushed the envelope of technology into new realms that were uncomfortable to some players who weren't sure what to do with aliens on Azeroth. Blizzard obfuscated this by suggesting that none of this came from "space" but from alternate dimensions fueled by magic rather than sci-fi energy of any particular sort. The Draenei were shielded from being masters of this high tech by being made passengers taken for a ride by the Naaru who really controlled the stuff.

There's this cool term I learned that game designers use: "gribbling." When designers make a weapon or a ship or some piece of gear like this, they design how it works (which is just coding). Then the construct a basic shape and put a texture skin on it. And then they cover it with gribbling, which is non essential polygons and shapes that give the device character. Bolts standing out, little hoses running from one spot to another, a blade or spikes coming out the top-- these are all gribbling.

That said, much of Outlands gear has spacey gribbling more than it was actually spacey. And what's more, a ton of that gribbling is pulsing, glowy crystals which are about as likely to represent arcane energy as fusion or anything we might be able to describe with science. 

Nevertheless, this opened the door to really sci-fi looking weapons in future expansions. After the Burning Crusade hunters rifles went from muskets to pulse rifles to... blast cannons. 

But it's important to recognize that none of these designs changed the basic functions of the weapons themselves.

But then, there's the mana bomb.

Alliance players in the Terrokar Forest eventually encountered a stronghold belonging to Kael'Thelas where for some reason he's developing Warcraft's first large-scale bomb. It's powered by arcane energy but works very much like an atomic or nuclear weapon in that it's meant to be dropped on an enemy in order to kill everybody on site. Alliance players hit the right guy until he falls over and rummage his corpse for the codes to activate the bomb. Then they set it off there in the middle of town,  killing the unwitting Belves and deprive Kael of his weapon.

This is nothing less than a stand-in for a nuclear weapon and it serves totally the same purpose. Although magical in nature, it is the worst of 20th Century style devastation come to Azeroth. If you weren't certain of this during the Burning Crusade, just know that it was the exact same device (powered with an even more powerful artifact than the first one) that was unleashed on Theramore at the beginning of Mists of Pandaria.

Garrosh Hellscream
An early piece of gear Garrosh quested for during the Pandaren campaign: The Divine Bell.

Among Gary's more interesting traits was/is the fact that he is quite the technologist. I have read analysis of his battle plans that shows how he depends on dominating the battlefield with unexpected forces and weaponry his enemies won't be able to counter. The mana bomb dropped on Theramore is a perfect example, of course. He blackmailed magnataurs into serving as shock troops in Ashenvale during his campaign in the novel Wolfheart. Every move he made in Pandaria was an attempt to get some powerful artifact or weapon that could give him an edge over the Alliance. Look at the Spoils of Pandaria that he locked up in the bowels of Orgrimmar. None of that was particularly valuable. All of it was just good at smashing adversaries. Look at all the stuff Seigecrafter Blackfuse crafted to repulse the siege.

His ultimate weapon, of course, was the Heart of Yasarj. Arguably, he couldn't figure out how to use it correctly and that's why we were able to defeat him.

Running away to New Draenor like the chicken he is, Gary brings as much of his high tech as he can carry-- like those goddamn flaming stars he uses I the first phase of his raid fight, and needs Kairoz's Time Turner to perform shenanigans.

Interestingly, I think the overall story here only damns the Orcs further and further. They don't fall prey to the Burning Legion as in our world, but they still make the same choice to become insufferable warmongers and attack us anyway. I've long maintained that the Horde made bad choices long before they fell prey to the Burning Legion. This really only clinches it as far as I'm concerned. Instead of demon power, this Horde chooses to do the same thing with technology power.

Honestly, I didn't care for the overarching story of Pandaria. Chris Metzen and his boys were trying to give us insight to the nature of "war" and I think they muddled it in a lot of ways. Whoa! War is bad! Who'da thunk? But why is it bad? Why is it still necessrary? Piling anachronistic hardware into Garrosh's warmachine did nothing to clarify that. What were we supposed to think about the mana-bombing of Theamore? The knee-jerk reaction is "It's bad!" and yet most Americans are pretty alright with having done this in real life to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A Long Rumination in Sum

Unlike in the real world, the technology genie can be put back in the bottle and there could be good reason to. We don't need any more thematic cautionary tales about WMDs. And there's no technological weapon that can't be re-jiggered as a magical device. The developers just need to recommit to the world as fantasy and to design that way.

1 comment:

  1. To the east of K3, in Storm Peaks, there are hundreds of charging Kobolds & Magnataur, trying to invade K3. There is a daily quest in K3 to set up pressure mines & blow the invaders to kingdom come. Somaric has done it many times. But, if you look closely, there is a point to point laser line, before K3. The charging invaders touch this line & disintegrate. Poof, Gone. Now, the question is, where did this weaponry come from? Who designed it and why hasn't it been weaponised?
    Somaric is still using daggers, how 17th centure. Why can't I have a laser weapon to disintegrate regular Horde, Iron Horde, Forsaken, Mantid, Mogu, et all.