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I still remember the moment almost six years ago when I fell in love with World of Warcraft.
I had just created my first character, a grizzled and elderly orc warlock. After rooting out the cult in the dusty, barren Valley of Trials, my gray-bearded orc was sent out into the larger world to deliver a package to some far-off place I'd never heard of called Razor Hill (which was actually just down the road). I left the Valley and started hoofing it in a run that seemed interminably long, when I finally reached a small hill. It was the moment I ran up that hill that sticks with me. As I crested the top, a lonely French horn began to wail in the background, and an entire world stretched out before me. "Holy shit," I muttered to myself. "This world is huge."
I could see spires of civilization across the dry red dirt in the distance, and more importantly, I could go there. Suddenly, everything I'd done felt so much tinier. The Valley of Trials was a puny little hamlet in the much larger region of Durotar. Durotar itself was dwarfed by its next-door neighbor, the Barrens, and even the mighty Barrens was nothing compared to the whole of the continent of Kalimdor - and there was another continent, too! The hill that I was standing on suddenly looked more like a glorified mound. How could everything that had seemed so big just seconds ago feel so insignificant now?
How could I ever explore everything this world had to offer?
Five years later, I still haven't done everything. Oh, I've done almost everything. I've rescued Taelan Fordring from the fanatical Scarlet Crusade only to have him die in his father's arms. I've befouled a moonwell in Felwood and found oats to feed a poor old horse in Westfall. I've killed crime kingpins, ancient forgotten gods, dragons by the handful and even a radiation-crazed gnome in a suit of power armor with a penchant for explosions. I've flown through the rubble at the edges of another world and leaped from the highest peak in the frozen north.
And soon, all of that - or at the very least, most of that - is going away.
With its Cataclysm expansion, Blizzard is destroying places in World of Warcraft that were never real, but that hold a place in the heart of millions of gamers. It's returning the game to a lovingly-crafted world long-forgotten since we went through the Dark Portal in January '07, and things won't be the same anymore. Sure, I'm excited, but, with that excitement, comes the strange realization that nothing will be the same.
Blizzard has talked at length about its grand plans. The orc capital of Orgrimmar is now a fortress city, Stormwind's park has been entirely burned to the ground by big bad dragon Deathwing, and the Barrens have been split in two. But without fail, my thoughts keep coming back to that hill I stood on as a level four warlock more than five years ago, gaping in awe at the unfathomable vastness before me. Will that hill still be there? Will it be cracked in two by the fury of the earth? Will it be overgrown with flowers, or will the trolls have built a hut on it as part of the expansion of Sen'Jin?
I don't know. It seems silly to keep thinking about a tiny, insignificant mound of virtual dirt in a world that boils down to an extremely complex string of ones and zeroes. It's just a game, isn't it? Blizzard is changing models, that's all. It's changing places that aren't real, and never will be.
The places may not be real, but the memories we have of them are. Like moving into a new house in a new city, those memories may eventually be the only things that we have left of our old home. Maybe the new house will be better than the old house, and that's why we moved - but it's still different, and change is scary.
This week in Issue 267 of The Escapist, we look at just what the changes to the world of Warcraft mean to a handful of people. Blizzard's own Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street speaks with us about the art of designing an apocalypse, Quintin Smith examines the memories that go hand-in-hand with fictional places, Dr. Mark Klein reflects on the emotional attachments player have to games, and Brendan Main learns that, sometimes, you just can't go Gnome again. Whether good or bad, though, the end of the world is coming and there's no stopping it.