Back in 2002, Blizzard released Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (henceforth WC3) a “real-time strategy” game which has the “scare quotes” because companies do not understand the difference between strategy and tactics. “Scare quotes” has scare quotes because they are quotation marks: the quotes are the things they encompass. Still with me?
WC3 joined franchises in its genre such as Command and Conquer in having an interesting story and a developed fictional world in which to tell it, complete with interesting themes and twists. The way in which the games as a whole shied away from a simple “good versus evil” take on conflict served as a good foil to the striking visual
pauldrons style, and those are just two of the ways in which it is similar to Warhammer.
Warcraft‘s world-building is variable in quality. Whether or not it is a Warhammer rip-off by intention, it was developing in its own direction by the time of WC3. As with most playable media, the world-building developed in part due to commercial forces, but although WC3 had some plot-holes when viewed in light of its predecessors (or so I am told), they were minor, and the changes were at least exciting, allowing us to see more of the world of Azeroth. Not all commercially-led narrative decisions need to be bad, after all: artists have always survived by pleasing their patrons, and it is clear that simply because money is involved does not mean that a piece of art’s integrity is automatically compromised. That only happens if I dislike the finished product.
Although the perpetual warfare between a civilization of humans and a civilization of orcs (or equivalent) is stale fare now – as is the death of magic and the concomitant decline of elven superiority, to say nothing of the corruption and fall of Arthas Skywalker – there are other world-building decisions which were very interesting: orcs’ extra-planar nature; their part in the rise of the Lich King and the Undead Scourge; the elves’ cultural and magi-biological schism, and so on. Many aspects were not discussed in great depth (the limits and mechanics of Azeroth’s magic, for example, or the socio-political status of mages in Lordaeron), but it is hard to cram all that interesting information into a boring game about undead demon-wizards scheming to overthrow the natural order with an army of eldritch abominations.
The creators also sprinkled their games with humour, references both coy and overt, and various hidden and silly secrets. Highbrow it was not, but it was entertaining, and at times even compelling, even if the characters and narrative tropes were original more in their combination, than in concept. But then, almost every author, save perhaps the first hominid to daub paint on a cave wall, is guilty of that.
It was not until the spin-off MMORPG World of Warcraft (hereafter WoW) that the world-building really began to suffer. WoW was a sociological breakthrough: usually, money does not flow as quickly from one human being to another except in the cases of burglary and death. People’s lives literally collapsed about them as they delved deeper into a parallel universe which rewarded the
addict player with largely indistinguishable jumbles of pixels with numbers attached.
Blizzard retained subscribers through regular content updates and expansions. Of course, not everyone was willing to stick around in the server for the promise of yet another palette-swap of the same sets of pixels, and so these updates and expansions usually altered the world in some way by adding playable races, changing the geography, altering faction dynamics, and so on. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for these to become, quite clearly, gimmicks, with all sorts of plot-holes arising from them, which more, um, specialist blogs than this can no doubt expound at length.
For our sake, it suffices to point out that these gimmicks not only began to bloat the world-building and fill it with contradictions (not an uncommon phenomenon in fantasy worlds) but also cheapened the integrity of the story – why bother trying to rescue any giant magical trees if they are just going to be blown up again in the next update? – and carried unfortunate implications.
WoW, like its, er, distant cousin is largely Euro-centric, influences from the Native Americans and Celts on WC3 notwithstanding. It had the history of the world mapped out according to tropes derived from Euro-American stories and with a historical sweep revolving around those cultures already incorporated into the story. The world-building required to bridge the gap from Warcraft II to WC3 was extensive because of the way in which cultures (Night Elves, Tauren) had to be able to enter the fray as discrete entities whose own baggage augmented, rather than disrupted, the world-building as established.
Thus, when Pandaria was unveiled, a whole new continent of world-building had to be done with even greater care and sensitivity, if the world-building were to survive. It would not have been good, for example, if a whole civilization were simply shoe-horned into the game, with thinly-veiled excuses as to why the world-shattering events of Pandaria and the world-shattering events of everywhere else had had so little bearing on one another. Ahem.
Is the MMORPG format inherently toxic to world-building? Yes and no: it does not seem, in Warcraft’s case, to have led to consistent world-building throughout the whole project, although it has done a lot of world-building which works, or is at least entertaining, on a small scale (i.e. “don’t look too closely or think too much about it”). Whilst writing this blog, I was torn in two directions: I would either have to refer to the world-building in only the most superficial ways or I could end up writing over a dozen posts, or even starting my very own wiki. I have had to opt for the former. That, in itself, shows that the world-building has had a lot of work. It might even have a lot of imagination.
Yet, simply having lots is not enough. It causes bloat and plot-holes. In many respects, the world-building of Warcraft has reached a dead-end, exemplified by the way in which WoW continues its cameos and re-boots, like a hyper-active Marvel executive. References alone cannot carry a plot, and ideas alone cannot support world-building. Even uninspired ideas can make a convincing world, as long as they relate to one another properly. Otherwise, all that is left is a vaguely story-shaped wasteland. So where does the world-building of Warcraft go after WoW? Or can it go anywhere? Could any non-MMORPG be set in the same universe and still have the structure necessary for narrative and world-building? This strikes me as unlikely, and I suspect that the brains at Blizzard know it too. I suspect that, when the magic finally fades, when the guilds drift apart, when Molten Core is silent and empty, the only way to move forwards for any fans of the franchise will be to burn it all down and start again.