So you may have heard of this little series called Warcraft, a relatively unknown property from the creators of Tracer’s ass. The series’ achievements are meagre: spawning an MMO sequel and creating from its custom map maker relatively unknown genres – the tower defense and the defense of the ancients. None of the above thankfully left any real mark or, god forbid, a legacy of clones; this industry is, after all, known for its creativity. In light of Blizzard finally making Team Fortress playable and popular among fan-artists, however, it seems their prior history has been swept into obscurity. As such I thought it time to let people know about these long forgotten cultural artefacts.
In reality I don’t really have that strong of a position on Overwatch itself (other than fury at its theft of our OWL brand naturally). Bemusement at Blizzard somehow wrangling a “woke” entertainment brand out of their unbelievable lack of sensitivity (to put it mildly) is about the best I’ve got on that front. I could write a whole thing out about the fascinating business practice of getting your audience to write all the story for you and then just sort of rolling with it, but I’m already getting off track.
Warcraft! It’s a game about building up camps of humans and orcs and then having them hit each other until one of you gets to control a gold mine. Well, nowadays it’s a game about making a magical tormented elf or a friendly panda fighter or whatever and, listen, I know that sounds about a thousand times better but I’m here before you today with a controversial statement: “It isn’t”.
Much of Warcraft’s legacy has been from spin-off genres that Blizzard itself had no hand in; similarly, much of what people consider to be the characterisations of Overwatch have largely arisen from fanworks and headcanons that frankly Blizzard can only ever let down. Long term fans of the Warcraft series will know this fact intimately, as even without the freeform Build-A-Character workshop Overwatch seems to have become, Blizzard couldn’t even live up to the standards of their own canon. The process of being a kid who grew up on these extremely silly games about extremely silly wars and somehow becoming unreasonably invested in their worlds is something that is happening on repeat with the company now. That is to say, there is a company culture in misunderstanding what it is people are attached to in their worlds and just trampling all over them. That I was ever emotionally invested in the world of Warcraft must be just as baffling to many of you as people being invested in the story of Overwatch is to me, and while I can come up with many explanations for the latter, I have a very simple set of them for the former.
The answer is Warcraft 3, or more specifically its expansion The Frozen Throne. This is more than a little biased on my part, as it absolutely arises from this being the point at which this whole thing became a world and not a bunch of comedic dipshits killing each other on my screen. I think the argument that it is the emotional core of what every single disappointment that anybody ever expresses with World of Warcraft’s endless miserable story beats is sound though. You see, Warcraft 3 took the series in a sort of strange direction by lifting the leveling up and gear acquiring heroes of their own Diablo (also every RPG ever) series and making them a central mechanic to their new RTS game. To thirteen year old me, at least, this was really out there and exciting; it not only directly led to the creation of game types based around controlling just those heroes (DotA) but also arguably it is what inspired the creation of WoW to begin with (the experimental RPG orc campaign an obvious bridge). More than that though, it made the story about its characters instead of having those characters just be maniacal excuses for big battles to happen. A lot of missions didn’t even feature RTS base building and resource racing gameplay at all.
Warcraft 3 initially used this in a pretty mixed manner, the latter parts of the original are pretty dull Blizzard fare – Orcs escape human oppression, accidentally get turned into blood demons again; Night Elves are just kind of dickheads and lose a big tree, which they drag everyone else into fighting for, when it’s entirely their own problem and they were just killing everyone else. The human and undead campaigns, however, are a continuous story of the same man and something that became so integral to the tone of the series that the audio from his big heel turn (is that what that means? Everyone likes wrestling now I don’t know anything about it please help me) moment is played as if on the whispers of the wind forever in World of Warcraft.
Even from the beginning Arthas’ story changes things with the series. “Reinvention” is a popular brand in games now but I’d argue it’s always been a key component of these franchise storytelling monstrosities. Arthas is an arrogant young Paladin and also the Crown-Prince, he’s every bit the standard and desperate hero holding back the tide of darkness, but unlike the good and evil stories of before, his arc is very much about the inherent violence of everything he represents. I believe this arose from RTSes being just fundamentally a great genre to play villains in, the inherent transformation of violence into maths, the expansionist nature of the gameplay and the total lack of production that isn’t about war adds up to not even really needing to push the player into dark moral decision territory. So Arthas’ story is one of Blizzard’s favourites: it’s a person who is a symbol of what is considered goodness turned bad by some nefarious force he couldn’t control. What makes Arthas different to the infinite reruns of this plot that will come later is that the story goes out of its way to demonstrate he was always primed to be like this. Arthas was never a good person; he was a brash and arrogant man who happened to be rewarded for acts of socially ordained heroism and conquest. When he goes on a purge of people who may have caught the zombifying plague, he isn’t pushed into it by some curse or eldritch whisper, his men with all certainty follow him into mass murder entirely because he is the symbol of the holy prince hero. His “downfall” is a cursed blade that grants him power he is willing to sacrifice his friends for, but the blade itself doesn’t make him constantly turn on his own people at a moment’s notice. One assumes the implication is meant to be that he had designs on murdering his father prior to picking up a sword, and that bringing the very undead he made all of his (friends’) sacrifices to fight in his wake is meant to show the total lack of care he had for anything but power. The very picture of a realistic monarch, no?
Anyway, he becomes an undead overlord in thrall to a tyrannical wizard king who is himself in thrall to a tyrannical demon king so on and so forth it’s all very Blizzard. In the middle of it all, there is a bunch of surprisingly human drama that even Blizzard managed to pick up on back then. Arthas’ crusade fundamentally changes the world, countless people die only to be raised again as part of his army, the High Elves lose their big magical pond that supplies them with all their favourite elf magic, and the orcs of course have already fled to make a new home based on co-operation and being obviously fundamentally the good guys of the setting now. Arthas and his wizard god-king get undermined by Illidan, the brother of a man who is basically king of the male elves who sleep for hundreds of years while the women do everything in what was clearly meant to come across as a matriarchal society in an extremely poorly considered fashion. Illidan got locked up for eternity effectively for the combined crimes of drug addiction and trying to bring demon-nuclear power to the world to fight demons. Illidan’s story is basically a tortured and morally gray guy doing tabboo things for the good of everyone else and getting constantly punished for it. The story of the misunderstood anti-hero that runs parallel to Arthas’ corrupted goodness bit. Similar to Arthas his story arc is one Blizzard will use again and again and again without really knowing why they or anyone else liked it.
It’s in the expansion that my sad queer teen faves all begin to emerge. The human lands are in ruins, unbelievable numbers of people lay dead, families are broken, and somehow Blizzard ends up focusing on this stuff instead of the high level drama of these large figures, to an extent anyway. The “Human” campaign becomes the story of the High Elves who now call themselves Blood Elves fighting to survive in a world where their source of magic and most of their civilization has been wiped out. It deals with them trying to cope with an addiction they can’t resolve, and an increasingly brutal and bigoted human society that uses them for cheap labour and ends up shoving them all in camps, the same fate the orcs suffered after they lost the last war. The Undead campaign is still about Arthas but, in a move I still think is way too interesting to have come from Blizzard, its all about his slow loss of power. All of his missions are about him running away and hiding and having to deal with existing in a world he can’t just put to death. It not only puts the main villain in a really vulnerable position, but it does so in a way that just demonstrates how truly committed to his downfall he really is, pursuing his goals even as his lich-king given power bleeds out.
Much as the the human campaign is entirely about the victims of the humans’ rule, Arthas has his spotlight routinely stolen by perhaps the most prominent victim he has ever had: Sylvanas Windrunner, the Haughty Elf Bitch™ that the player is hamstrung by as Arthas previously, and later rewarded with as a traumatised ghost super unit you raise from her corpse. Sylvanas is the hero unit figurehead of a group who come to be known as The Forsaken: they are people risen again as Arthas’ undead horde, who have, in his moment of weakness, regained their self-awareness. These are people who have awoken to a horrifying world in which not only have they been killing their friends and neighbours as shambling automata, but also one in which everyone who remembers them is either dead or actively invested in eradicating them. They find themselves stuck between the true undead, the demons that want to reclaim them and the humans that want to purge them. If the sad beautiful elves who are punished for being in need weren’t enough, then the Banshee Queen and her traumatised refugee army of people waking up in a world that wants them dead was absolutely enough for my teen queer brain to latch onto forever.
Sylvanas fights to establish control over enough land to ensure The Forsaken can survive, every bit the ends-justify-the-means anti-hero character already. Kael’thas leads his Blood Elves in a desperate escape to the ravaged world the Orcs come from in an attempt to make a new life with other exiled races of old Azeroth, with none other than Illidan extending a hand to them. The Orcs themselves flee across the sea to find a peaceful life that they set about building with the other besieged peoples they find there. Some groups of humans even flee their homes with Jaina and ultimately go on to preach co-existence and an end to war. Even Arthas’ story is about escaping the fallout of conflict and temporarily learning what it’s like to be vulnerable. In short, The Frozen Throne is the story of what happens after war, it’s a story that focuses on victims and their desire to escape it and those that relish it. Though they all end in different places, with different methods and causes, almost every major player in The Frozen Throne sets out to create a world that is not based on warcraft.
Enter World of Warcraft.
I could just wrap it up there, but here is the essence of my argument: WoW ruined everything I liked about Warcraft even as it gave me the joy of getting to run around in it as my beloved sad elves and zombies. It’s an MMO! It’s modernising the genre! It’s going to become the most popular thing in the world ever! It’s called Warcraft we’ve gotta have war! Therein lies the problem, the demands of making something so heavily invested in the eternal conflict between Alliance and Horde already tramples so much of what happened previously, but in having to try to make out both sides of the conflict as equally valid choices, it only gets worse and worse over time. First of all, all the broadly humanlike races just sort of join up with the Alliance to make up the numbers and I guess because the Alliance didn’t really get over that “kill everyone who doesn’t look like us” thing. The Horde are made up of all the people who ran away from the Alliance, and now have to be made to seem equally as warlike and bad as the Alliance. So the Forsaken have to become a race of pointlessly evil trickster rogues and slime-obsessed poisoners, the orcs have to follow anyone who beats their leader at punching, and their new leader has to be Orc Hitler and be the main antagonist for the next 100 years of expansions. Illidan, Kael’thas and the Naga all have to become raid bosses who go vaguely mad because of demons or whatever. Jaina is too good, so she has to get nuked and become a bloodthirsty racist too and it’s all just all around miserable.
To make matters worse, they don’t even do a good job at trying to make the Horde look equivalent. The game is still full of moments like asking you, in the Pandaren starting zone, if you want to side with the people operating the prison ship wearing full plate armour or their washed up prisoners armed with sticks and clothed in rags. Immediately following that joyless interruption of the goofy panda fun-time land, your Pandaren character is then immediately swept off to get talked to by the extremely epic and cool action hero king who was even better than Orcs at gladiatoring and has a really cool sword and etc. King Varian impresses upon you how the world is beset by savages who need to be slaughtered at every opportunity and it’s all just extremely uncomfortable. It’s this stuff that not only kind of broke the heart of my little emo forsaken teen self, but also starts to make the extremely reactionary ideas pumping through the veins of this game become more and more obvious. It’s not only that, no matter what crimes the humans commit, they are always excused and/or made cooler for it, it’s not only that stories like them being controlled secretly by evil dragons just conveniently disappear, it’s not only that all the women are killed off or made into evil manipulative traitors and whatnot, and it isn’t even only the bizarre constancy of extremely indepth plotlines like becoming an anti-union police infiltrator or learning about the importance of torture.
All of that is horrible, of course, the union thing in particular being a horrifying confluence of setting up a sympathetic and caring female character and demonstrating all the suffering at hand, only for Blizzard to wave their hand and go “ah, but she’s violent so they all have to die”. It’s Blizzard’s unrepentant and seemingly almost uncommented-on racism that underpins so much of their work that does it in. So many of these “savage” races have obvious real world stereotypes they are based on, and sometimes there are just barely touched on enemy types, such as the comedy “Pygmies” of the Goblin starting area that are just frankly unbelievable to behold. This isn’t limited to WoW either or even Warcraft itself, one only needs load up Diablo III to see the unfathomably insensitive depiction of the only playable black character. So it is not only that Blizzard sees people outside of whiteness in this light, and it is not only that it treats even the obvious downtrodden of its own canon with utter disrespect. It combines both of those into one, and it is hard not to see a process by which the Humans always become the heroes and the others have to become villains precisely within that structure of Whiteness vs. The Other. Even the Blood Elves and the Forsaken can be argued to be kind of camp and well, there was even a quest where a Blood Elf male love interest is presented as a joke.
It is all the more horrifying through the lens of Blizzard’s obvious ability to see the world from the perspective of those victims to then just decide it really doesn’t care. It is, in a way, a perfect summary of what the fantasy hero represents to society at large. The World of Warcraft is a world where victims will always become more villainous than the perpetrators of their victimhood and should always be treated with distrust, and in that sense, in the context of our dominant cultural beliefs that infect everything from the processes that lead us to war down to our interpersonal interaction with and around victims, it really doesn’t present a fantasy comfortably removed from reality. At some points when I was younger, the fantasy of Warcraft was heroic, but troubled people with stories of loss and rejection; but it seems like even that just existed to fuel the engine that would become King Varian’s Heroic Pre-Emptive Invasion And Monster Truck Tie-In Simulator.
They still get some things right – playing a demon hunter and getting to play through the last moments of Illidan’s raid instance from the perspective of his soldiers stands out as a creative high point in recent years. The no-doubt Overwatch fandom success inspired foray into allowing players to create characters of all kinds of subcultures in a clear push to grasp on that OC creating attachment that had me obsessed with the world in my teens. Unfortunately, though, the world was never for everyone, and as it goes on Blizzard continue to be wilfully unaware of that fact. Their new branding as the socially progressive gamer company has been pulled from the work of the Overwatch fandom that rewrites their stereotypes and applauds them for half-measures that, admittedly, the fans aren’t even getting elsewhere. Inevitably Blizzard will end up letting them all down one by one, but the elephant in the room is still there. The company hasn’t done anything to address the foundational hatreds their work is based on. A glance into their history on their launcher client alone (or even within their established Overwatch canon) can show you it is still there. Warcraft needs War and Blizzard still needs Warcraft and they have no idea how to create a conflict that isn’t based on the ideals that lead their own society to war in reality.
Jaina Proudmoore went from being a figure that was heroic because she wanted to repair the wounds of the past to being a violent “crazy” figure bent on revenge for the bombing of a tower. An upsettingly unsubtle and entirely accidental depiction of exactly how the demands of the storytelling changed, but also a deeply honest depiction of how not only the internal culture of Blizzard writers has changed, but the whole of western society in general.
Warcraft won me over by zooming in on struggling victims in a cartoonishly derivative fantasy world. It lost me when, one by one, its fleeing slaves and victims of persecution all became cartoon villains to sell the heroics of the western civilization stand-in. By the time Wrath of the Lich King happened and I’d crafted my own tragic world weary character, I was already hoping the big surprise Forsaken plot to wipe out the entire world would succeed and also was sanctioned by Sylvanas. It wasn’t to be, but there are few other characters that I think deserve to pull the plug, and if Blizzard don’t see any need to make any changes then somebody is going to have to.