It was inevitable that World of Warcraft would ruin its story. The current hubbub surrounding the leadup to the Battle for Azeroth expansion has Horde leader and fan-favorite character Sylvanas Windrunner becoming a war criminal to kick off the storylines. And while there are debates surrounding whether this fits the characterization of Sylvanas, how it fits into the lore, or whether the writers are succeeding or not, these seem to me to all miss the point: That World of Warcraft is unable to maintain its serialized storytelling.
There aren’t many parallels to WOW’s narrative progression in game history. A story told across a main game, seven expansions, 14 years, and millions of players while using the same characters is essentially unprecedented — most franchises have long since rebooted or ended or switched focus. Instead, World of Warcraft’s closest parallels in serialization are on television or in comic books, and the precedent there is not good.
Who’s the Big Bad?
So let’s talk about how serialization works. In television, one of the most common forms, pioneered by The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is “Big Bad” storytelling. In this, each season of the show is its own fairly contained storyline, with a major antagonist that the story is usually, though not always, centers on. (Examples: Richie Aprile in The Sopranos season 2, The Mayor in Buffy S3, Lily Kane’s murderer in the first season of Veronica Mars, or the Bennetts in Justified S2.) While the plotlines largely resolve at the end each, the character development, which is sometimes massive, sticks around for the next season and affect how that story goes.
Sound familiar? That’s roughly how an expansion for a massively multiplayer role-player game works! A new major conflict is introduced each “season,” and the characters you’ve grown to care about, including your own, rearrange their relationships in order to deal with that. The Big Bad of one Warcraft expansion is the Lich King, the next is Garrosh, and so on.
Thing is, most serialized shows run out of gas after several seasons. Look at a classic serialization and chances are good that if it ends well, it ends between five and seven seasons. (And by this logic, Battle for Azeroth is … season 8 of World of Warcraft.)
The serialization collapse
Why do serialized stories, even the best ones, tend to fall apart at this point? There are three reasons, all of which can apply to World of Warcraft. First, serialized stories tend to need to escalate conflict, but, at a certain point, conflict can’t be escalated. Save the town, save the country, save the world, then … save the world again? And again and again and again? This repetition leads to exhaustion, both from the writers and from the fans.
Second, because serialization brings its own history, the longer it goes, the more convoluted it becomes. A throwaway line about, for example, how there are 12 human-like Cylons in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, becomes the focus of the storyline in later seasons when five models hadn’t been revealed. Every piece of history has the potential to get in the way of new viewers or players, while also potentially annoying existing ones for whatever reason they get annoyed by things.
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly to Battle for Azeroth, continued serialization inherently makes stories darker. The reason for this is simple: Serialization relies on character history being remembered, and drama relies on characters doing bad things, whether intentionally or not. So every choice a character makes has the potential to define them. Buffy begins with Willow Rosenberg as a cute, enthusiastic dork. By the third season, she’s become a practicing witch; by the fifth, one of the most powerful witches in the world; in the sixth, that power turns dark and she threatens to destroy the world.
Likewise, in World of Warcraft, Garrosh Hellscream is introduced in the first expansion as weak child who needs the player’s help to take his father’s role as a great warrior; he then becomes the leader of the Horde, and by the Mists of Pandaria expansion, has turned to darkness, with his terroristic acts making him the final raid boss of that release. And the darkness of his actions pushed Jaina Proudmoore, previously one of the most peaceful, honorable, and neutral of the human heroes in the game, down her own “warbringer” path.
Sylvanas Windrunner has been a notable character in World of Warcraft for all seven expansions, and the initial release, and both Warcraft 3 and its expansion. That’s 10 seasons of Sylvanas! Small wonder her story has become so convoluted as to become incoherent; small wonder her darkness has shifted her from sometimes-cruel nationalist to literal war criminal.
Can it be fixed?
Is there a way out of the inevitable disappointment of serialization for Blizzard? Well, the parallels aren’t good looking at TV, where cancellation, planned endings, or Showtime shows dragging themselves into hell are the only options. But another constantly serialized, never-ending set of stories does present an alternative, albeit a difficult one: superhero comics.
Superhero comics tend to have all the same problems as TV shows in regards to serialization: They rarely have set end-points, they have to try to escalate conflict, and they have to balance fan favorite characters and storylines with novel ideas. So how do they deal with it? Reboots.
Sometimes they’re hard reboots, like DC’s New 52, which relaunched all of the iconic characters into a supposedly new universe, which anyone could jump into and not be overwhelmed with continuity (it worked, in a sales sense, for a while.)
But far more common are soft reboots, where the darkness and convoluted continuity are simply ignored as needed in order to revert characters to a default state. This often happens with a new creative team on individual books, but even major, multi-book segments of continuity soft reboot regularly.
For example, the X-Men — the most convoluted of them all! — have a few distinct eras. Chris Claremont’s writing run, from 1977-1991, involved a storyline that got darker, weirder, and more confusing the deeper it got, until it ended with a soft reboot that brought all the characters back into a default, heroic state. After the mess of the 1990s, a soft reboot began, slowly, in the early 2000s when writer Grant Morrison took over New X-Men. That storyline, centered on Cyclops becoming darker and darker, ended in the mid-2010s, with another (disastrous) soft reboot that they’re still recovering from.
You may have noticed that these soft reboots tend to take around 10-15 years (true in general, not just with the X-Men), which World of Warcraft, in its 14th year, is running up against. Much like TV, it’s clear there’s a wall that WOW is running right into.
But how does a reboot work for a game with as much investment as World of Warcraft has? The easiest answer at a conceptual level is a hard reboot for a World of Warcraft 2, but that’s also the hardest answer at a pragmatic level, and exceedingly unlikely at a business level. A soft reboot would require a lot of difficult thinking from the writers and designers, but perhaps the best case scenario is that Sylvanas is burning everything down because, well, World of Warcraft needs to burn everything down.
And if all that fails? No franchise on earth is better placed to wave it away with “a wizard did it.” Good luck, Blizzard.