I’ve spent a long time on this Blog advocating the neutral faction path, but after Legion the idea of a combined, third faction has a great measure of attractiveness attached. Perhaps it is because, after over a decade of beating the crap out of each other via increasingly high-quality graphics and sophisticated mechanics, very little has actually changed. Maybe it’s because I play video games to escape from reality, not to be presented with a diluted version of it somewhere else.
Perhaps the answer is a lot simpler.
The entire foundation on which Azeroth is based is an RTS, where it is absolutely vital you have two factions fighting each other. That basic concept remained solid (and acceptable) until the start of Burning Crusade, where the alternate concept of two forces fighting a common enemy was introduced. Each subsequent Expansion had a variant of the same until Legion has us finally dispatching what is quite obviously a Legendary enemy, who then effectively dooms Azeroth with his final action. That ‘ultimate conflict’ should be enough to finally unify the disparate forces of Horde and Alliance into a single force, but nope.
It doesn’t take a genius, looking at the source material now freely available in three comics, to see why there’s a Horde v Alliance fight placed front and centre in BfA. There are clearly other factors at play, that we are not yet seeing. The characters that are following us from Argus, who are introduced from Draenor or that exist in Blackrock Mountain all are being placed with such deliberate intent that it is, at least from a writing standpoint, quite amusing to behold. The mess that this creates in narrative storytelling terms is, well… not helpful at all. What the game needs now is more focus on what already exists.
Perhaps we could finally be dispensing with ‘Big Bads’ to focus on what is good around our characters.
Like it or not, the ‘exercise’ of focusing on Class Fantasy in Legion has been summarily rejected as a bad idea. The tone and sense from communications since BfA was launched is of a far more practical, workmanlike approach to everything, which has included a plot which is very much appeasing the traditional. The problem with this, however, is those people for whom Class Fantasy matters haven’t simply vanished: the void that a gung-ho, fight each other narrative presents will only make shortcomings more obvious. Making our character important and then relegating them again to a bit player… well, this could be a bitter pill to swallow.
The narrative will need to be something very special in order to snare those unbelievers, and focusing on a larger canvas will undoubtedly isolate some. However, if this approach can again place us as a compelling narrator against a range of various antagonists, it might just work. Rather than the previous lens which pointed at us as some kind of special weapon as well as the one we wielded, we are now focused on as purely an observer to events, occasional storyteller and not always part of the action. Undoubtedly Wrath of the Lich King was so successful because so much of the action did not involve us directly.
Taking that step back, allowing space between character and events, is what the three Warcraft comics present as an introduction to the upcoming Expansion. Three distinct stories, which if Blizzard had wanted to could have been presented in game, but instead the choice has been made to offer them as stand alone ‘episodes.’ It makes me very sad this is the way we choose to move forward, because so many players will not be interested in such things choosing only to focus on what’s provided for them in game. By not allowing such narratives to exist in the UI, telling this story will not happen successfully.
Conflict has always been a part of the game’s storytelling toolkit, and to bring it back will undoubtedly make some sad. What makes me more uncomfortable is that the methods by which this conflict is presented and dispensed have really not improved or evolved since we began this journey in Classic. There is a subtlety and sophistication missing from narratives which has existed before, but is no longer present. Legion’s broad brush strokes and only occasional shifts in to genuinely thought-provoking concepts (see Suramar) make me wonder if there really will be a sea change with all this ship-based gubbins, or if this really is going to be more of the same, predictable fare.
I really hope my concerns will be proved groundless.