Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Life as a Gamer: Storytelling In Gaming w/ World of Warcraft: Legion

I'm talking World of Warcraft today.

Today the last big chuck of release content for Legion got unlocked: The Nighthold. This raid instance, requiring a raid group to take on its challenges, is the location where all of the first narrative arc for this expansion concludes.

I'm talking story in gaming, so spoilers past this point.

From the launch of the expansion (v7.0.3) to now (v7.1.5), the player's narrative experience is one of initial defeat as conventional military methods prove insufficient to defeat the full-scale invasion of the Burning Legion into Azeroth. ("The Broken Shore" introductory scenario, for all characters except the new Demon Hunter class.) In the wake of that defeat, the player's survival--taken as proof of exceptional greatness as one of that profession--gets approached by, recruited into, and becomes the leader of an elite Order and locates his new base of operations at this Order's hidden Hall. Part of this process is the revelation of a handful of powerful Artifacts, weapons of power surpassing all others, and in the player's hands are believed to be key in defeating the Legion.

Once the new Order Hall master and commander is ready, the player then begins a campaign of securing the Broken Isles one region at a time. He goes directly into the field, acting as Champion for his Order while his subordinates handle other matters, and winning the support of the Isles' major factions. In the course of this campaign, he uncovers both Legion and Old God threats that he must put down to secure the Isles and make a return against the Legion's stronghold where they broke into Azeroth possible.

The last of these regions (only accessible at the expansion's level cap of 110) is Suramar, where a rebel faction of the native elf nation--the Nightborn, based out of the eponymous city-state--resists the mistress of that city-state: Grand Magistrix Elisande. Why? Because she struck a pact with the Legion, via the orc warlock Gul'dan, securing her position (and that of her supporters) in return for her feeding the Legion's war machine and granting local support to its operations. The city-state's source of power, The Nighthold, is sufficient to power a ritual calling forth the Legion's master: Sargeras, the Fallen Titan. This is Gul'dan's true objective.

The object of the ritual is the preserved corpse of Illidan the Betrayer. Slain years prior in Outland, at the Black Temple, the Wardens sealed it in emerald- as well as the living remnants of the Demon Hunters that Illidan trained returning from another mission (which the player plays through when selecting a Demon Hunter character). This matter of Illidan becomes the running subplot, revealing that his souls remains in the timeless realm of the Twisting Nether. After putting down the Old God threat of the Emerald Nightmare (the story of the raid of the same name), and breaking the curse upon the Titan Watcher Odyn by his faithless former subordinate Helya (plot of the Stormheim zone, Halls of Valor dungeon, and the Trials of Valor raid) allowing Odyn and the Armies of Skyhold (Valhalla) to finally directly intervene into Azeroth (the curse locked them away), the civil war in Suramar got the full attention of all anti-Legion parties.

The rebels ("Nightfallen") took up the aide of the elves of the Alliance (Night Elves and High Elves) and the Horde (Blood Elves), aided by the mages of the Kirin Tor (led by Archmage Khadgar), and marched on the royal palace; while they secured a foothold to continue guerilla operations in the city, a backdoor into the Nighthold proper had to be found and secured. This done, the Masters of the Orders gathered as a unit once more and--as with the cleansing of the Emerald Nightmare and the Breaking of Helya, they mounted a raid into the Nighthold aiming to break Elisande and Gul'dan.

During the pacification of these other threats or obstacles, the Illidan subplot involved finding fragments of his soul appearing in the dark places wherein these threats arose and bringing them together. Once done, his soul's true location had be discerned to be Helya's realm of Helheim; this meant that breaking Helya's curse upon Odyn had a second objective of locating and liberating Illidan's soul from her grasp.

But why?

The player learns that Gul'dan intends to use Illidan's preserved corpse as the host body for his master Sargeras, making it easier to bring forth his master from the Twisting Nether into Azeroth. Illidan's flesh had already been sufficiently fortified by extant exposure to demonic energy to make this a viable option. Once Elisande dies by the players' hands, they go on to thwart Gul'dan and thus bring this arc to its end:

If this were one of those fat fantasy novels, here's the end of Book One. If it were a cynical fat fantasy series, this would be the end of the first trilogy. Here we are, at the conclusion of a major narrative arc, and it sets up the next one: taking the fight to the enemy's gates. (That's the--as of this post--future patch, v7.2, "The Tomb of Sargeras"; I won't talk about that now.)

It's now mid-January. The start of this story, for players, came with the pre-release event in August of last year; the jump-off point came with the expansion's release in September, and only now are players coming to the end of the playable content there at launch. For a MMORPG in general, and World of Warcraft in particular, that's magnificent discipline for pacing. MMORPG players are notorious for being akin to locusts when it comes to playable content, mowing through stuff that took months or years to create in weeks and then whining about being bored with nothing to do; pacing content release is vital for a MMORPG's long-term viability as a business.

It is also notorious that MMORPG players, as a group, could not care less about storytelling or lore in a game. They're there for gameplay first, last, and foremost. (And, for a fair number, only; they don't need context to play.) Don't misinterpret Blizzard's use of storytelling techniques as a commitment to making the game into a narrative medium- especially with their infamy as writers. The purpose of using these techinques is to slow player consumption of content down to acceptable speeds. It's all about business, and fuck-all about anything else.

There is a secondary concern, but it has nothing to do with the game. Starting with the publication of World of Warcraft: Chronicle, Vol.1, which is their new setting bible, we've seen the execution of a plan to transform this game into a true transmedia intellectual property. Using storytelling techniques in this manner serves that end by creating a content consumption framework that doubles as a ready-to-go narrative framework for other-media adaptations, expansions, and parallel works. Novels, comics, animations, live-action films/TV series, can all plug into the narrative framework of this MMORPG expansion in whole or in part and not be worried about any story-important details messing things up.

At this point, only Square Enix does the integration of narrative technique as a content pacing mechanic better (and they are better, way better, at it) making Final Fantasy XIV the best alternative to World of Warcraft for a lot of players wanting an alternative that scratches the same itch- and they're not looking to make their MMORPG into part of a transmedia property. (For the best at that game, right now, you want--believe it or not--Lucasfilm.)

If you're thinking that this sounds stupid, you are not entirely wrong, but consider this: all that they learn fucking things up with their MMORPG, Blizzard puts forward into the property in their company conceived from its inception to be a transmedia property: Overwatch. Watch Blizzard in the days to come: all that worked, and what they learn from what doesn't, you will see put to effective use pushing the "Team Fortress 2 with Waifus" first-person team-based arena shooter psuedo-MOBA into a transmedia giant.

And all of this, just because they had to find a way to better pace how fast the players of their biggest game consume the content within it.

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