Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Warcraft's Ends (Part 1): No Ender's Game

With the end of the development of  the Mists of Pandaria expansion and Blizzcon 2013 coming in a few months, we're taking a look at some concerns I have in regards to World of Warcraft.

Mists of Pandaria is a breath of fresh air in the storyline of World of Warcraft.
Much like the Burning Crusade expansion, it is a summer vacation we take to another environment, where we met new people, new threats, a huge change of scenery and graphic assets.

It's like opening a big variety of new casks when you're starting to get tired of the same old stale beers.
The opinions on the new beers are also quite varied: a majority likes the simple new twists on the known recipes, some will take a liking to the new types of flavors, some will prefer the more unusual brews.
And of course, much like Brewfest, a crowd can't agree on a single unanimous winner.

But one thing was sure from the players' feedback in the first few weeks of the expansion: this is the best that Warcraft ever gave its' players.

And though I agree with that sentiment, why do I feel so... weird about it?

Best storytelling yet
Mists of Pandaria is the whole package.
The Jade Forest is a FANTASTIC introduction; the other zones do a very commendable job of moving you along whilst giving you enough time to truly enjoy the scenery and characters; and the combo of Dread Wastes, Heart of Fear and Terrace of Endless Springs brings a satisfying conclusion to the story of the adventures of your character in Pandaria (before patches).
There's no loopholes, no open-ended stories.
There's a beginning, development, end, and almost no great deviation from the main threads of the story you're playing through.
Yes, if you start digging around, you'll start finding some details about things without a proper explanation (such as "Wait a second, there's supposed to be 7 Sha in Pandaria. Did I miss one?"), but I'm talking about the overall story here.

I did not feel any disconnection like I did in Cataclysm, which was felt in every zone and every dungeon and every raid.
They've done a really good job of tying everything together in Pandaland, and then they can play around with bits and pieces here and there with patches and add complimentary storylines.

Which leads me to think that we're probably not going to have a ton of open-ended stories from Pandaria.
We're not going to have legions of lore buffs asking questions about Pandaria to Dave Kozak and Chris Metzen at the next Blizzcon.
We might have questions about the other 2 threads they've brought to Pandaria - the never-ending war of Alliance VS Horde and the Titan/Old Gods stories - which are things that they made sure were still front-line and center of your character's preoccupations as a resident of Azeroth.
And that's good, because these are the stories that are vital to the franchise and that keep the overall lore going.

But lore aficionados know that we're going to have other questions...

Scott Panda VS the World (of Warcraft)
If Mists of Pandaria has shown us storytelling done right, it unfortunately shines a light on the faults and errors of previous content.
The major ones being:
  • having clear introductions
  • having satisfying conclusions
  • knowing who is the enemy
  • knowing why they're the enemy
  • knowing who are your allies
  • knowing why they're your allies
  • understanding why you're going into dungeons and raids and your objective in them
And what you end up with is threads upon threads of people with questions about lore, lots of different answers, and even the guys in charge of storytelling (seemingly) unable to answer them.
From a development point of view, you can always go "That's great because that gives us a lot of material to work on in the future if we should ever need some", and that's perfectly legit.
Look at revamped Azeroth 1 to 60: that's a perfect example of them fleshing out stories they've left behind.
However, there's rarely any conclusion to them.

There's a lot of quests where you have to act in the current situation in which you find the quest giver, but there's not a lot of attention put on the bigger picture of what's happening.
What will happen after you turn in the quest?
What will the NPC do with the things you've collected for him?
How will the enemies or environment act once you've taken something from them or disturbed them?
A lot of these concerns are addressed in Pandaria questing, but not so much for the rest of Azeroth.

The benefits of endings (sad or happy)
Yes, I know that it's great for an MMO to have a lot of options opened for future storytelling.
Yes, I know they need to have re-occurring characters, plots, storylines, to have references for the players so they can create easy associations and embark easily on new ideas you're trying to push on them.
Yes, I know an MMO isn't supposed to end.
I knooooooow.

However, when you create a plethora of characters, storylines and conflicts, and you're trying to engage players emotionally into them, you have to do something about that once in a while.
You either infuse more story to bring new life and continue/renew that engagement with the players, or you bring a satisfying conclusion.
Doesn't matter if it's a happy or sad conclusion as long as the 2 important elements are there: 1- the story's definitely done; 2- it is a fulfilling conclusion that leaves no place for an ambiguity of feelings.

And this is something I've been picking up from the WoW community during Cataclysm and onwards: you can only have so many open-ended stories before people get frustrated/angry at you for not giving a proper conclusion to a story that they got themselves invested in.
That's not just something that's limited to WoW - there's books, movies, TV series, etc.

But in the case of WoW, there's a couple of things that are pushing towards conclusions, and one of them is time.

Who wants to live forever? Me!
At the time of writing this, I am 32 years old.
I've invested several years into World of Warcraft, and even longer in Blizzard's franchises, having played Warcraft III, Starcraft and Diablo when they were originally released.
Blizzard and their stories and their characters and the mythology of everything they've created are a part of my life.
Their games may live on forever, but I certainly won't.
And the good people at Blizzard won't either.

At some point, some of us are unfortunately going to be reaped, leaving the others sad and brokenhearted.
Much like the fans of George R. R. Martin, I want to tell Blizzard "Don't you guys want to finish this story before one of us goes away?".

At every expansion, we have people leaving, people coming back, and new players wanting to know what all the fuss is about.
We also have some people, because of RL reasons, that can't or won't come back because the time investment is more than they can afford to keep this MMO relation going.
I don't have anything really pulling me away from WoW and my accumulated /played stands for itself when it comes to designate me as That Which Has No Life (which should be an in-game title of shame).

But I want answers at some point.

There was so much fucking around that I could stand in the X-Files series before I just gave up on the whole thing (and I still don't want to watch the other series or movies - I'm done and fuck 'em).
I've felt the same way about the Anita Blake novels - there's so much relationship/powers/metaphysical sex discussions that I could take (and a disturbing scene that got me thoroughly disgusted) before I lost patience in the overall plot of a Great Evil and stopped reading the books.
I haven't watched Lost, but I guess that there's some analogy I would write here if I spent some time watching the series.

And that's the odd feeling I've been getting before and after experiencing Pandaria.
All those unanswered questions that we've just left behind to go have a vacation.
Granted, we needed the change of scenery.
After all the destruction and chaos, Azeroth was getting a bit stuffy and we needed to give the Earthen Ring some time to fix things, open up a few windows, hang some air fresheners, and take a little walk outside ourselves.
But there were some things broken back home and we'd have to come back to them at some point.
That's what's been nagging me in different moments of the expansion whenever I'd run some alts around or help friends with old dungeons and raids.
So is Blizzard going to let us address those issues or will we have to spend our time taking care of another catastrophe in a different room of our house?

What I'm saying is: I'm still here, but I'm starting to get annoyed at you, Blizzard.
I'm not going anywhere, but the longer you choose to ignore the things I care about, the more likely the chance is that I'll turn into one of those forum trolls or just stop supporting WoW, which would be heartbreaking for me.
Why should I spend more time on story lines you're never going to finish?

Really, it's less about filling a Warcraft lore Mad Libs, and more about finding closure after investing so much time in your stories before I simply decide you're not worth it anymore.
Just give me satisfying endings to your stories and I'll follow the new ones you're starting.

I just want closure.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll cover my expectations of the next expansion.

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