Crashed

Sometime early last week, I was sitting in the living room with one of my housemates playing video games. While he was single-handedly opposing an interplanetary genocide in Halo: Reach, I was logged into World of Warcraft to mindlessly farm copper to sell at the auction house. Josh is a long time Warcraft player and he and I often talk about the game, so it wasn’t unusual for me to voice a simple thought I’d had about the world’s naming conventions:

“Ya’ know, ‘The Exodar’ is an interesting name for a city. ”

His reply? “Oh, well that’s because it’s not a city. It’s a ship.”

I’d say it was around this moment that I began to realize that World of Warcraft is the first game I believe I’ve encountered where the narrative is optional to the experience.

For those unfamiliar with Warcraft’s lore(like myself prior to this conversation), the Draenei are more than just the tall, horse-legged blue people with face tentacles. In fact, they aren’t even originally from the same planet that the game takes place on. As it turns out, their home world was quite literally torn apart by war between a handful of powerful factions, including the Burning Legion. In the midst of the chaos, the leader of the surviving Draenei people commandeered a vessel known as The Exodar that could take them to another world where they might survive. The ship, built by a race of energy beings known as the naaru, was capable of inter-dimensional travel(ostensibly through the use of magic, similar to how mages are able to teleport). Having secured their salvation, the Draenei attempt to escape in The Exodar, not knowing that the Blood Elves had sabotaged its engines. The malfunctioning ship found itself screaming across the sky above Northern Kalimdor before crashing into a chain of islands near the Night Elf territory of Darkshore. The Draenei that survived the crash heard of the great victories against the Burning Legion and aligned themselves with the Alliance, seeing a common enemy and purpose.

After he told me all of that I looked it up and was astounded to find that he wasn’t kidding. I’ve been playing as a Draenei character for over two weeks now and was completely oblivious to all of this.

The realization that I had virtually no idea what the game’s story was about was pretty shocking. I’ve been questing and killing for dozens of hours, but without any narrative reason as to “why”. It’s just as likely that the Draenei are actually a race of war-criminals and conquerors as it is that they’re a noble race on the run from war. I’d decided in my head that we were the good guys, but I had absolutely no reason to believe that, nor had I realized that I had no such evidence. To top it all off, before learning all this, it was irrelevant as far as playing the game was concerned. My motivation was purely based on the numbers and metrics associated with my character: get that next level, get that better armor, earn more gold.

Many games, like Halo: Reach, don’t require a deep understanding of the story to appreciate and enjoy the game. For that series in particular, I’ve played every game, found every hidden terminal, seen every movie and read (nearly) every book. I find that the more I know about the Halo narrative, the more I enjoy the games. Yet my housemate, who has only played a small amount of the series and certainly hasn’t ingested any lore beyond the game space, still gets enjoyment from killing these aliens, and understands enough of the story to answer simple questions of “why” without having to search for answers. He knows he has to kill these aliens because otherwise they will happily kill him and his squadmates, and so he follows the in-game markers from one group to the next, rinse and repeat. In WoW on the other hand, I’ve gleefully laid waste to many enemies that showed absolutely no sign of aggression towards me. They simply made the mistake of finding themselves included on a list of enemies to kill for a quest, and I never bothered to question why they might be on it as I was spamming attacks in their direction. As I’ve been having fun during my time in the game world, it’s safe to say that- at least for me- the narrative is obviously not necessary for the enjoyment of Warcraft.

Games like Halo allow you to choose how involved you want to be with the story, but on at least a small level the story is part of the experience. With Warcraft the story is completely optional, leaving the player free to choose whether they seek out the intended narrative, or simply create their own. Or as in my case, to forego narrative entirely and simply chase the numbers.

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10 Responses to Crashed

  1. danwillisdan says:

    Does anyone really play for the narrative? Questing allows players to engage with small narratives within the game, but they almost never overlap.

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    • strikefacehwc says:

      On typical servers I definitely agree, but I know WoW has role-playing servers that exist specifically for players who want to immerse themselves in the narrative.

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  2. exelsisxax says:

    The draeni questline sort of flopped for me once I was told that the nigh-invulnerable ship that they used to move between dimensions successfully, while under attack by essentially infinite numbers of demons of untold power, crashed because they couldn’t quite see that planet in the way.

    The whole WoW fiction is a sort of Jenga tower precariously balanced on a lot of situations such as these. Some faction does something monumentally stupid or experiences a crippling misfortune, and their enemies do something equally or even more foolish, generally “because demons.”

    Quite frankly, I’m extremely interested in how Blizzard is going to end this whole thing without imploding and/or the game becoming sentient and resisting shutdown just because of how long it has been going on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • strikefacehwc says:

      I found that a bit odd as well, that the Blood Elves could just “sabotage the engines” the way action movie stars hotwire a car. This giant, magical, super-advanced trans-dimensional ship seems to have been very fragile at a very opportune moment, and in a very particular way.

      I saw someone from Blizzard quoted on WoWWiki as saying that the Exodar isn’t supposed to be a spaceship in the Millennium Falcon sort of way, that it was more magical and trans-dimensional than that. And yet we have it careening into the planet in a hail of crystals and Light like something out of science fiction. I think when you have so many different writers working on the same project, you’re bound to run into discrepancies like that due to differing visions of the world and characters.

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  3. larsondanger says:

    I feel that the narrative in Warcraft is just so complex that it’s not even worth trying to follow. And it’s changed; the overarching narrative used to be that the Alliance and Horde were at war. Then, the developers changed it to make the Alliance and the Horde loose partners against other enemies like the Burning Legion. If the story keeps changing, what’s the point of trying to follow it at all?

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    • strikefacehwc says:

      Some of the most interesting narratives I’ve encountered involve radical shifts in direction due to plot-related events. The PC shooter Crysis (late 2007) begins as a military expedition by US Special Operations Forces into North Korean held territory, and in the space of the first two or three hours of gameplay it suddenly becomes a fight for survival against a previously unknown alien race. The fact that the story changes is what makes it interesting, I feel. If the extend of WoW’s narrative was that there are two factions and they are at war and that’s all we’re even given, that’s very unimaginative and relatively lazy from a writing standpoint. It’s easier to understand, yes, but it also lacks a considerable amount of depth that can be found in more complex narrative structures.

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  4. plorei says:

    I too play WoW without much appreciation for the narrative at all. In a lot of games where narrative is vital it seems that cutscenes and mini-films play a large role. I wonder if the absence of cutscenes in WoW has anything to do with us overlooking narrative?

    Liked by 1 person

    • strikefacehwc says:

      It’s certainly one way in which we see an absence of mandatory narrative interaction in WoW. That’s a really common way for games to tell important parts of the story, and without it we’re left primarily with only short textual pieces when we’re given a quest. Failure to read them doesn’t prevent advancement in the game, but it does prevent an understanding of the story. I just find it really interesting that the two can be treated as entirely separate items.

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      • exelsisxax says:

        I feel like quest dialogue is treated the same way as Elder Scrolls lore, tucked away in some little corner where you never have to visit if you don’t want to, but there if you feel like it. The difference is that the quest dialogue is essential to have any idea what the hell is going on. I’d like to know how many people across our two classes still read any dialogue at all, and how many know anything about what they have been doing the last two weeks.

        It’s weird that it looks like an RPG, but nobody even reads the quests enough to know what the role is.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. rwl14 says:

    In World of Warcraft, I feel like the narrative is somewhat improperly named, seeing as how it is entirely optional. In most stories, the narrative is the driving force for the story. It is what we read books or watch movies for. Something similar could be said for most games. Halo has a story. There is a why that goes with what you must do as the player. But in WoW, that is not the case. Most of what players do is decided entirely by themselves. Any story simply serves as the backdrop. My character’s narrative in WoW is that I’m a hunter who kills a lot of murlocs and goes through dungeons. Another person’s narrative may be similar, or it may hinge on the actual events of the game’s narrative as a whole. That’s what makes WoW’s narrative interesting and optional; it is different for each person.

    Liked by 1 person

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