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.