For all its lack of originality, the storyline in the Warcraft games is fun – I’ve been a fan ever since Tides of Darkness back in the day, and (as evidenced by the series’ popularity) so have millions of others. So it’s rather irksome to be engaged in a discussion about the progression of the storyline via WoW and encounter some smacktard who jumps into the topic, complains about the lack of a “proper” Warcraft IV, and then vanishes into the night like an overly opinionated and misinformed internet Batman.
In case you were curious, the answer to the question, “When will we get Warcraft IV” is “Probably once the RTS team is finished with StarCraft II,” but that isn’t the point here: When it comes to moving the saga of Azeroth along its path, World of Warcraft is Warcraft IV, even if people don’t want to accept it.
With WoW, Blizzard finds itself in a curious situation. It’s a game set in a pre-existing universe, not one constructed from scratch for the sake of the game (like Aion or EverQuest). But unlike licensed games like Lord of the Rings Online or Warhammer Online which either retell the story as it already happened, or exist in an alternate non-canon reality where the actions and events that happen in-game don’t affect the “main” storyline, WoW is the continuation – and end – of several plot threads from the previous games in the series. And for some reason, people have a hard time accepting this.
On some level, I can sort of understand where they’re coming from, and why there’s such a knee-jerk reaction against having a popular story continued in a popular MMOG. There’s a widespread perception that MMOGs don’t have any sort of story whatsoever, and that the games – particularly WoW – are filled with one “go kill twenty wolves” quest after another. That’s another popular misconception in itself, but we don’t have to address that here; after all, even killing twenty wolves can make sense in context.
Another argument prods at the idea of the genre’s persistence (and hundreds of thousands of players). If a small tribe asks you to save them from rampaging war bands of orcs, and you do so and are heralded as their Eternal Savior… can you really internalize that even while knowing that the orcs will respawn ten minutes later, and that every other level 75 character is their Eternal Savior as well? While this argument is made slightly less relevant by WoW‘s phasing system letting players actually perceive the world changing thanks to their actions, it still comes down to a matter of suspension of disbelief. It’s the same reason that Nathan Drake can gun down hundreds of goons while searching for lost treasure and still be a loveable roguish good guy rather than a horrible mass murderer.
But the perception that MMOGs can’t tell a storyline, let alone continue one from previous games in the series, is absolutely ludicrous. In early World of Warcraft, we met a disgraced former hero in exile who was living as a hermit, and helped him try to convince his estranged son to leave a dangerous and fanatic order of paladins. Over the course of the quest chain, we learned about his history with his family and the terms and reasons for his exile, we fought alongside a son who had renewed faith in the father he’d once thought a traitor, and we watched as the story ended just shy of redemption. Said former hero has grown from minor (albeit fan-favorite) quest giver to one of the central characters of Wrath of the Lich King.
This is particularly relevant as WoW builds to Patch 3.3’s Icecrown Citadel, where the central storyline in Warcraft III – the fall of Prince Arthas Menethil and the rise of the Lich King – will finally be concluded. Blizzard isn’t using the backstory already present in WC3 or the novels to force the climactic encounter into the game – go get ten more levels, now suddenly fight the Lich King! – but has incorporated the villain into the quests and storylines since players first stepped off the boat in Northrend.
In the Dragonblight, we learned that the Lich King had his gauntleted fingers in the fanatic Scarlet Onslaught, and both factions prepared for open war against his undead forces, culminating in the battle at the Wrathgate. I pretended to be an agent of one of his lieutenants in Zul’Drak before betraying my false masters and foiling their schemes. All of that led up to Icecrown itself, where I relived the Lich King’s memories as he attempted to rid himself of his past humanity once and for all, and fought alongside the paladins of the Argent Crusade as they established footholds in the treacherous landscape in order to wage war against the fortified Citadel in a final assault.
That sounds like a proper in-game story to me, don’t you think?
If all the storylines in WoW had been told in a hypothetical WC4, the same folks who rag on the game for having no story would have probably been all over them – hell, if it makes them feel better, just think of the player characters in WoW marching on Icecrown accompanying the major lore heroes as the little grunts and footmen you’d produce in an RTS to fight alongside your hero units. Just because the lore won’t ever name <Me So Hordey> as the specific champions of Azeroth that brought the Lich King to his knees doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
WoW may be the most prominent game at the moment stuck in this particular position of continuing a popular series, but the sooner people get over their hangups and accept it as the next proper installment in the lore, the better for the industry. BioWare is going to face a similar outcry (if it hasn’t already) over its choice to make The Old Republic instead of KotOR 3, and that isn’t even a direct continuation of the storyline.
There is one argument that still manages to resonate with me, and that’s because it’s more a matter of personal preference than anything else: “What if I don’t like MMOGs?” That’s a perfectly valid point, and I can see how the change in genre might be a point of contention. If you love Real-Time Strategy games, but would rather not touch a Massively Multiplayer Online game with a twenty-foot pole, then some feelings of bitterness would be rather understandable.
But that does come down to a simple matter of opinion, and just because someone doesn’t like MMOGs doesn’t mean that they’re not capable of continuing and finishing storyline threads from previous games, or even starting their own plotlines that might well be finished in another game down the road. You can tell a story in an FPS, in an RPG, in an RTS, in a fighting game – it’s completely asinine to claim that you can’t tell a story in a game like WoW, and Blizzard has chosen to do exactly that.
Of course, when the time comes to move back to the RTS genre for Warcraft IV, everybody who never played WoW might need some help catching up with the story thus far – a “Previously, on Warcraft” recap. Hell, they could make it its own DVD, because otherwise that’d be one hell of a game manual. Until then, though, there’s always WoWWiki instead: If you’re still not convinced, go read twenty lore articles, and get back to me in the morning. All right?