Up goes the knife! Down comes the knife. The mottled boar squeals with indignation, its low-polygon face a terrible mask of icy confidence. A worthy opponent indeed. He gores me for 4 damage. I am wounded! Oh, friend, send word to my mother. Tell her I always… tell her…

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No, wait, I’m fine. The boar grunts and falls over. Checking the corpse, I find a Splintered Tusk worth 6 copper. Beautiful. I bet you wished you had a Splintered Tusk, eh? I bet you go crazy for tusks. Sorry, man. We can’t all have this luck.

I’m doing my best not to think about a few things, here. Let me explain.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm sees the return of the enormous, molten-bodied dragon Deathwing to Azeroth, and his careless exit from his sanctuary over in Deepholm breaks a stone called the World Pillar, which carries the weight of all the elemental and magnetic forces in Azeroth. So, with the release of Cataclysm many familiar areas are sundered, flooded, even irrigated. Sprawling plains now have peaks and hump-backs, deserts are given life, and the zone of Thousand Needles has become so flooded that its once-majestic butte tops are now islands.

But down on a human scale, there’s something more disruptive going on here than the reboot of various territories. When World of Warcraft first came out, two of the areas receiving apocalyptic attention in Cataclysm, Durotar and The Barrens, were my home- or at least the home of my Troll warrior, Jatin, who I carefully guided to level 30 back in 2004.

Hearing that these places I’d spent tens of hours hiking around were going to be torn apart, reshuffled and “improved” made me nervous. In that moment, I realized that the only emotional investment I had in WoW was in Azeroth itself. So when I got access to the Cataclysm beta, I didn’t make a Goblin or Worgen. I made a female orc shaman called Jilan. She was stocky and earthy where I remembered Jatin being lanky and elegant, but I wasn’t really thinking when I designed her. I just wanted to see my home again.

The ability of the player to explore is what makes games unique. We all know this. The history of gaming is rife with keys and grappling hooks, full of caves and secrets and treasure. What is considered less frequently is the longer-term effects of exploring an environment, the ones that surface after that initial thrill of discovery. The more time a player spends in one area, the more they’ll develop emotions towards it, and as the landscape becomes populated with memories, the place gains history.

In some ways, if a developer wants a player to gain an emotional attachment to something in their game, a location is a much safer bet than an NPC. Games have yet to develop any kind of tech that allows us to talk or interact convincingly with characters, meaning that there’s always going to be some disconnection there. Plus, there’s the risk that the player will find themselves forced to spend time with a character that they don’t like or don’t find believable.

But a location? All a place has to do is be there. It doesn’t have to be realistic. And strangely, it doesn’t even have to be likeable. Gamers thrill at dropped into poisonous dungeons, foreboding alien worlds, and sun-scorched, cannibal visions of the future. Super Metroid might be set on a decidedly miserable planet, but it’s so atmospheric that it’s impossible to finally escape from it without some attachment to it, gross ecosystem and all. Even Red Faction: Guerrilla managed an enjoyable sense of place, and that was a game about industrial facilities on Mars.

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I’m not sure how much I ever liked Durotar, with its cracked earth and grumpy orc sentries, but that doesn’t matter. I spent some important hours there, and it’s familiar to me. Or at least, it was.

The changes mess with you from the very start. I remembered that the first quest in the orc proving grounds was to kill yourself some boars, but Durotar is now mobilizing for war. Those boars are now packed into fenced farming enclosures which double as training yards for newbies to get their feet (and weapons) wet. Killing my first few boars, I was trying not to think about the fact that I was going through all this again, or that I was having my hand held even tighter. Most of all I was trying not to think about the fact that this place that I had such vivid memories of was no longer how I remembered it.

As I pocketed another Splintered Tusk, a level 83 player came plunging out of the sky, astride an enormous drake. Another purpose of Cataclysm‘s world-twisting is to make the entirety of the original game’s world accessible by flying mounts. This player landed right next to the boar pens and looked at me, gazing out from his nest of shiny weapons and armor. He was yet another anomaly in the world that I remembered; such powerful characters rarely alighted in Durotar.

He promptly took flight again, soaring off as quickly as he’d arrived, but my new character’s contrast with his power took the wind out of my reverie. Grudgingly, I turned back to my work, this sea of idle boars. All the majesty that I remembered from this game and this place – the sense of adventure, the grandness of my quests. It couldn’t have all been my imagination. Could it?

Hiking to the Horde capital of Orgrimmar, I found that it too was changed. I went about my business (and immediately got lost) with a stunned, fish-mouthed expression. It wasn’t that I was saddened. Anyone who’s seen their childhood bedroom gutted, or even emptied of furniture, will tell you that it’s not simply a sad experience. It’s something else, something not entirely unpleasant. Seeing these places change makes you realize your overwhelming connection to what they were before. It’s fascinating. You feel your memory double-taking and making fevered corrections. “That’s not how it used to be.”

For a videogame to produce that emotion is a huge achievement, and at this point I hadn’t even realized how much fun the guys at Blizzard were having with it. That happened next. After Orgrimmar, I travelled to the steep canyons of Thunder Ridge for a very different quest than had taken me there the first time.

The first time was all about heroism. Back in vanilla WoW as a Warrior, I’d come to slay the hardy thunder lizards that lived here, and, by returning with their scales, I’d prove myself and advance along the Path of Defense. I had this vivid image in my head of my old stubby orc running the huge creatures down, claustrophobic cliff faces on either side, taking swing after swing with his ridiculous two-handed sword.

In Cataclysm, the canyons of Thunder Ridge are flooded. I returned with a quest to swim down and attach ropes to the waterlogged corpses of the once-majestic thunder lizards, timing my dives with the pulsing of their still-electrified bodies. It was bizarre. Swimming through these canyons which had once been an imposing maze was odd enough, and then this was mixed with the sadness and humor of having this once-worthy adversary floating belly-up on such a large scale.

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Cataclysm doesn’t simply create an emotional impact by altering familiar areas. There’s some of that, but it manages to be so much more. With total control over this simulated world, the designers have changed some areas in ways so absurd or inventive that you have to explore them all over again, with the added fun of having history there.

Finally, down there with the ropes and the thunder lizards, I began to understand. Cataclysm is as much about bringing old areas in line with new areas as it is about rewarding old players. The more time you’ve spent in this world, the more of a kick you’ll get out of seeing it changed.

After Thunder Ridge, I became addicted. I wanted to see my old haunts through this murky lens of nostalgia and disaster. I’d heard that The Barrens had been split in two and was desperate to see it, so I steered Jilan onto a road and hit the autorun key, sending her hurtling on her way. I smiled at the old zhevras and plainstriders, familiar yet misplaced in this new, more curvaceous savannah. Similarly, I was starting to fall for Jilan and her low centre of gravity. With her totems and protective spells, she felt like she had power. Who needs elegance?

I brought up my map to check my location. Yeah, I should be almost there. I closed the map and let out a terrified, animal yelp, and stopped Jilan two feet before she went jogging off the lip of the biggest chasm I can remember seeing in a game.

The ground was torn open like a piece of fruit. Down a sheer drop of jagged rock, a broad river of lava flowed slowly. It ran all the way to the edge of the graphics engine’s draw distance in either direction, where it faded. There was no way to cross it. The South of the Barrens would have to wait.

Standing on the edge of that awe-inspiring gorge, I found myself thinking about Catalysm from Blizzard’s perspective for the first time. The truth is, they’re making the bigger sacrifice here.

When Cataclysm is released, whole chunks of Azeroth will be destroyed, forever – the Shimmering Flats and its mad racetrack will be lost below a hundred meters of water, and the foundering city of Auberdine will finally undergo total destruction. What does that mean to the individual player? It’s nothing more than a blow to your nostalgia. But what does it mean for Blizzard? They’re putting their own work to the torch. They were the architects of World of Warcraft‘s original Azeroth, and soon nobody will ever be able to see their creation as it once was. That is huge.

It’s true that you can never go home again. But then, who says the world in your head was going to match up with what you found when you returned? Time isn’t kind to games, after all. Maybe in doing this Blizzard is not destroying, but actually preserving the memories we have of their world. They are removing the option for us to return and discover that the places we remembered are disappointing; that they’ve lost their magic.

The happy memories that I have of Durotar and the Barrens are, with Cataclysm, set in stone. That is beautiful. For all the lava and drama that Cataclysm brings, I’m not sure there’s any catastrophe here at all.

After debilitating stints as a shoe salesman, builder and chef’s assistant, Quintin Smith is now a proud and nervous editor of www.rockpapershotgun.com. He lives in mortal fear that one day actual work will find him again.

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