World of Warcraft. War is right there in the name. It’s been the centerpiece of the series since it started as a real-time strategy game in 1994. Back then, the war centered on Orcs and Humans. In sequels, that evolved into the Alliance (Humans and their friends) vs. the Horde (Orcs and their friends).
World of Warcraft uses the Horde and Alliance as two factions that divide its player races. But while these factions battle each other in player-vs.-player scenarios, most of World of Warcraft’s story and gameplay focuses on wars against greater forces, like invading demons, a king of undeath, or a giant dragon that wants to destroy the world. The Horde and the Alliance are more often uneasy allies, which makes sense. Their world is constantly on the brink of destruction. Why fight among themselves?
But that’s exactly what’s been happening in the lead-up to Battle for Azeroth, World of Warcraft’s seventh expansion. It doesn’t launch until August 14, but a pre-patch has introduced many of the expansion’s gameplay changes and new features. It also includes some new story content that sets up the war between the Horde and the Alliance. And after playing through these pre-Battle for Azeroth missions, it’s clear that the Horde is the aggressor in this war. But calling them aggressors isn’t enough.
The Horde acts downright evil.
I’ll try to give you the short version of recent World of Warcraft events. The last expansion, Legion, had most of Azeroth (Warcraft’s main planet and setting) teaming together to fight off an invasion of demons. And we won! But right when we killed the giant evil guy who leads the demons, he hit Azeroth with a giant sword. A new mineral, Azerite, began showing up all over Azeroth as a result. We learn that this mineral is literally the blood of the planet (which has its own soul).
Magni Bronzebeard, who used to be the leader of the dwarves, is now a crystalline being that speaks for Azeroth. He’s telling everyone that the planet is dying. But all the faction leaders instead focus on scooping up as much Azerite as possible so that they can harness its powerful properties.
So things are already kind of dumb. Magni was an important character during Legion who helped save the planet. If he’s saying the world is in danger, we should probably listen to him. Instead, Sylvanas Windrunner (the leader of the undead race and also the entire Horde) decides to launch a preemptive attack on one of the Alliance’s major capital cities, the world tree and night elf home Teldrassil.
Azeroth has two main continents: the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor. Most of the Alliance races live in the Eastern Kingdoms, but the largest source of Azerite is in Kalimdor. Teldrassil is the biggest Alliance stronghold in that continent. Sylvanas figures that if she can occupy Teldrassil, then the Horde can secure the Azerite and win a potential Horde/Alliance war before it starts.
Her logic is already bad. She plans to win a war before it starts by … starting a war. She wants to march an army into a capital city to take it over with no real justification. And it gets worse! She also proclaims that she’s going to kill Malfurion. He is one of Night Elf leaders and also a major druid. He’s been a huge force for good in Azeroth, having helped save the planet in the past.
So, why is Sylvanas sentencing him to death? Because it will “break the Night Elves spirit.” Um … will it? What if it just makes them mad? You know, that whole martyrdom thing. But even without killing Malfurion, the march against Teldrassil is a declaration of war that will draw retribution from the Alliance. And the Alliance, not being the aggressors, will be the right.
Spoilers for the pre-patch quests, but Syvlanas eventually invades Darkshore, the coastal area nearest to Teldrassil. Malfurion escapes death thanks to his wife, Tyrande. The night elves lose. Sylvanas can take control of Teldrassil. But then this happens:
Sylvanas instead burns the world tree and all of the innocent lives inside of it because … a Night Elf mocked her? I don’t know. It seems like a psychotic action. What happened to just occupying the city?
The Horde are the evil transgressors in this war. Is that a bad thing? Some players would argue it isn’t. World of Warcraft is a fantasy game. For many, playing as the bad guys is a compelling fantasy. And if you look at the Alliance and the Horde, the latter look like the more sinister faction. It has trolls, undead, goblins, and other races with rough edges. But for much of World of Warcraft, most of the Horde races profess to follow a code of honor. How can any of them be OK with the unwarranted destruction of a city, even an enemy city?
I don’t like playing as the bad guy. But World of Warcraft has now forced me to. My main character is on the Horde because that is the faction most of my friends play on. Now, that faction is suddenly evil, but I’m stuck on the Horde unless I could convince all my friends to pay for expensive faction changes (not going to happen). Yes, the Horde looks evil. Warcraft’s writing has been its strongest when it uses that perception based on appearances against us. The Horde appears like they should be bad with their fangs and roars, but they’re actually heroic and honorable. That is interesting, and that’s a faction I can get into. Now we have Sylvanas, a banshee queen that looks and sounds evil and … is actually pretty freaking evil.
I’m not alone in my frustration. On World of Warcraft’s Reddit page, one of the largest community centers for the game, the most active posts are talking questing this story. Many fans are asking the same questions. Why is Sylvanas acting so irrationally? Why is Blizzard portraying the Horde as being so evil? Why don’t other leaders in the Horde try to put a stop to this? Some morons are taking to Twitter to harass World of Warcraft’s writers because of their dissatisfaction with this campaign. That’s idiotic and immoral. Criticism is fine, but it’s sad to see parts of fandoms so often default into this kind of vile. And, thankfully, the better (and larger) part of the WoW community is condemning any harassment. It’s horrible that this point even needs to be mentioned, but it’s not OK to attack someone on social media (or anywhere) just because you don’t like their art.
Writing for video games is hard. I imagine an online multiplayer game must be one of the harder types of games you can write for. You need to keep a story evolving and interesting. But I don’t like this direction. It seems Blizzard is setting us up for some kind of Horde civil war. The more honorable races, like the Tauren and Trolls, will try to put a stop to Sylvanas. This is actually something that Blizzard has done before. A former Horde leader, Garrosh the Orc, turned evil, destroyed a city, and eventually became a boss that both factions had to kill.
We’ve known that Sylvanas was going to burn Teldrassil when Blizzard announced Battle for Azeroth last year. Even then, players questioned why she would do something so sinister. Blizzard has defended its portrayal of the Horde by saying evil is subjective. But there is nothing subjectively evil about killing innocents and destroying a major city just to prove a point or break someone’s spirit. Some players became convinced that the story wouldn’t play out so simply, that another character would be responsible for burning the world tree. But, nope, it’s Sylvanas, and she may as well twirl a mustache while she does it.
Sylvanas will either have to be redeemed (which seems unlikely) or destroyed. Or Blizzard will have to go all-in and designate the Horde as the bad guys, a decision that won’t sit well with many players. We don’t have the full picture of this story yet. Maybe it will surprise me.
If nothing else, this story is giving WoW’s fans something to talk about. It’s clear that Blizzard wants us to hate Sylvanas. To that end, the writing is working. I just don’t think it’s very fun to hate the person that’s supposed to be my character’s “leader.”