Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Terror of Entitlement

As many of you know, Blizzard launched Diablo III last Tuesday, bringing to an end an almost twelve year wait. As possibly even more of you noticed, Blizzard failed spectacularly, at one point they even crashed World of Warcraft's login server. That's right, Blizzard managed to screw up the Diablo launch so supremely, that it crashed games that launched almost a decade ago. The servers pretty much melted, and the glowing, slightly radioactive remnants congealed in the bottom of the crater, spelling out "Error 37".

As with many major failures on the part of Blizzard and other major game development companies, the consumer backlash was vicious and omnipresent. Blizzard failed to anticipate just how many people would try to play Diablo III, and were caught embarrassingly unprepared, leaving the game unplayable for the majority of launch day. Throughout the day, error 37, the error code that indicated that Blizzard's servers were not up to the task, trended globally on Twitter, even when Diablo III itself did not. That's the equivalent of having more people knowing about error 404 than the internet.

This was mostly because of the DRM package that Blizzard decided to apply to their series that traditionally had a single player component to it. When Blizzard announced this style of "always-on" DRM, consumers questioned the necessity of it, and also pointed out its flaws, namely that a break in the connection, on either end, would render the game useless until it was repaired. While it would be annoying to not be able to play because the internet went down on the consumer's end, at least the consumer could do something about it. The bigger fear was that Blizzard's end of the system would do down, or that further down the line, Blizzard would turn off the servers, and leave consumers with nothing but eight gigs of useless data. Lo and behold, day one, and the exact scenario that consumers warned against takes place in probably the most visible failed launch since Vanguard TV3.

In response, the consumers responded in more ways than merely Twitter. Blogs lit up, the forums caught fire, reddit upvoted "error 37", and perhaps most damaging, unhappy consumers crushed Diablo III's user score on Metacritic, driving it down to a 4/10 as of Friday night. A lot of the gaming news sites seized upon this, painting the unhappy consumers as "whiney-snot-nosed-brats" in some of the most sardonic, virulent, and condescending editorials I've ever seen.

This has been a landmark year in terms of consumer anger in the video game industry, and Blizzard hasn't been the only target. The problems that are causing these reactions are endemic throughout the industry. Capcom got busted selling "downloadable content" that was already coded to the disc for Street Fighter vs Tekken. Bioware got busted for the same thing with Mass Effect's "From Ashes" DLC, and also caught flak for launching not one, but two incomplete RPGs in the past six months. EA got busted attaching hidden expiration dates to the "Online Passes" that enabled multiplayer on several of their games, essentially tacking on a hidden subscription to games like Need For Speed. That, along with EA's forcing consumers seeking to download games online to go through their Origin program, which was revealed to be chock full of spyware, got EA rated the Worst Company in America this year.

In each of these scenarios, the gaming media rose up and defended the developers and publishers, castigating those who complained as over entitled whiners who were never satisfied. They fall back upon the same pedantic arguments as if it were religious dogma: Stop whining, It's just a game, there are more important things out there, the developers need to do this, and they need to make a profit. It's as if they have this carved on a damn tablet that they keep over their desk as they write these arguments.

Either they don't understand what's going on, or they're being apologists. This past year, and the trends that it has brought up stem from unacceptable levels of greed that would not be tolerated in any other industry. It's evolved far from its original roots, and the consumers will not stand for it. Each 0/10 vote for Diablo on Metacritic, or 1/5 review on Amazon, isn't an indictment of the game itself, it's a vote in protest of the policies that surround the game, and the company that produced it. The mighty have begun to become corrupt. I once said that Blizzard lost their right to say "Soon™" when they shoved an unfinished Cataclysm expansion out to release in order to beat the Christmas rush. Since then, they've released two absolutely garbage raiding tiers that had less content combined than T6 had on its own, they shoved Diablo III out the door without PvP or AH functionality, the two things that they explained made the draconian DRM package necessary, and upon D3's launch, they completely failed to prepare for the rush. This from the company that once scrapped Starcraft: Ghost entirely because it failed to measure up to their standards. Bioware has become even worse, having fallen from a company that produced Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect, to the company that shoved The Old Republic out literally missing half of the endgame raiding tier, launched Mass Effect 3 with a heavily plagiarized ending that only made sense if you understood the context that it was plagiarized from. Not only that, but they locked portions of the game as it came on disc, until you paid extra for the privilege of unlocking the content you already had on your computer, the same questionable practice that got Capcom's rating with the Better Business Bureau knocked down to below that of Bank of America. In no world should these failures be considered acceptable.

What I find most interesting is the lines of division that have formed. The gaming media, aside from good ole Tycho, continue to cling to the infallibility of the game developer in these business models. The people, aside from the consumers, who point out time and again that these policies are bullshit? Time Magazine, Forbes Magazine, the International Business Times, The Consumerist, The Better Business Bureau. I think that's very telling.

Developers have enjoyed a long detente with the consumers, one that they had admittedly earned through producing excellent products in an emergent field. However, they have not maintained their standards in recent releases, and there seem to be no signs of a spontaneous return to form. As such, it is up to the us, the consumers, to make our displeasure known through the tools at our disposal, until such time as they understand that just because Video Games are a relatively new industry, that does not give them license to financially abuse us. We wouldn't take this from any other industry. Why should we tolerate this sort of disregard here?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Heavy Lies the Crown: Observing the Unfortunate Implications of the Warchief and His Expectations

When I made my post lamenting the decision to restore the mantle of Warchief to Thrall, I got some very interesting feedback; feedback which has been echoed across the multiple forums that host the debates that send people to this site.
Thrall is the only orcish leader who wasn't a despot, or one corrupted by power, because the orcs are a race that becomes corrupted easily if given to much of it. Thrall is the only one who can survive that because he thinks outside the normal orcish way of thinking...

Also, I vote for him as returning warchief. Vol'jin is NOT AN ORC. Saurfang is TO[sic] OLD TO LEAD. THERE ARE NO OTHER ORCS CAPABLE OF TAKING THE MANTLE.
Inevitably, most of the people who think that Thrall should return as Warchief claim that either there are no other suitable candidates, either because of oddball age and race restrictions, or because Thrall's just got that certain je ne sais quoi that lets him succeed where all others are doomed to failure. This is an extremely narrow minded viewpoint, and one that's constricting the narrative, preventing it from exploring it's potential. I've already talked about what this kind of mindset says about Thrall, but let's flip it around: let's take a look at what this viewpoint says about the Horde.

Whenever you're constructing a story, and you've got two major elements of your narrative interacting, you've got to look at the relationship from both sides to ensure that in your attempt to elevate one element in the interaction, the other element isn't denigrated in ways that you didn't intend. These problematic inferences occur on two levels, in universe, and out of universe.

In universe, these situations are destructive to future narratives, unless monitored and properly accounted for. A good example in WoW is Varian Wrynn's slavery at the hands of the Horde. What was intended to give proper motivation to Wrynn's hatred of the Horde also had the side effect of completely undermining the idea of the Horde as an entity that respects individual rights, and more directly made Thrall look like a tool whenever he raged about his own past enslavement.

Out of universe, it's not as dangerous to the story, but it's potentially hazardous to the author. These occur when the creator draws too heavily on stereotypes in their characterization, and then place those stereotypical characters in situations that run a little too close to comfort to modern hot button issues. Blizzard's one "pound of flesh" comment from their race of former slaves with huge noses and an insatiable avarice away from a visit from the Anti-Defamation League.

While this scenario has the potential for both, let's look closely at the in universe implications, because if they offend someone in real life, then it's a completely different problem, and one that I may or may not cover in a separate post at the time that it becomes and issue.

Let's look first at the comments that only Thrall can lead the Horde, and any other candidate would succumb to their baser impulses and threaten both the Horde and their neighbors with ruination, as Garrosh's regime has done. What does that say about the Horde, and orcs in particular, when the only orc that can lead the orcs successfully is the only orc that was raised by Humans? Are the orcs so inept at basic social conduct that even Adelas Blackmoore, generally considered one of the worst human beings to set foot on Azeroth, is a superior parent to every orc in existence? If Durotar and Draka had had their shot, would Go'el be just another bloodthirsty orc who wars with everything that comes within reach of his axe?

So far, there have been eight orcs that have claimed the title of Warchief to one degree of legitimacy or another, not counting the ancient warchiefs that predate the Draenei Genocide. Blackhand the Destroyer, Orgrim Doomhammer, Ner'zhul, Thrall, Garrosh, Kargath Bladefist, Rend Blackhand, and Mor'ghor.

Blackhand the Destroyer was the first Warchief of the Horde in the Warcraft era. He ruled the Horde from just before the opening of the Dark Portal, until his assassination at the hands of his subordinate, Orgrim Doomhammer. Some of the highlights of his command: The consumption of Mannoroth's blood, the use of fel magics to steal the youth from orcish children in order to grant the Horde more soldiers, the invasion of Azeroth, and the Corruption of Draenor. He consumed the blood of Mannoroth, and was, in general, not a great person.

Orgrim Doomhammer succeeded Blackhand, via assassination. He ruled the Horde from the Siege of Stormwind until the Battle of Blackrock Mountain at the end of the Second War, where he was defeated and captured by Turalyon. Some of the key points of his reign: Torture and murder in the sacking of Stormwind, the use of necromancy to create Orcish Death Knights such as Teron Gorefiend, the use of fel magic to corrupt the runestones of Quel'Thelas to warp his Ogres into Ogre-Magi, the Burning of the forests of Quel'Thelas, and depending on which source you consider cannon, the cowardly ambush of Anduin Lothar under the auspices of parley. It was under Orgrim's command that the Horde became so corrupt and decadent that Eittrig fled in shame. Orgrim did not partake in Mannoroth's Blood, so his decisions fall upon his own head. Thus far, Orcish Warchiefs are 0-2.

After the capture of Doomhammer, a large contingent of the Horde fled back to Draenor, where Ner'zhul assumed the mantle of Warchief. Leaving the atrocities the Horde committed under his command prior to the official formation of the Horde, and the atrocities he committed as the Lich King after his capture by Kil'jaeden, Ner'zhul's reign was not a peaceful one. Ner'zhul promptly turned to a visitor to Draenor for an alliance, Deathwing, the Mad Aspect of Earth. Under Ner'zhul's command, the Horde raided Azeroth once more. They destroyed Alliance outposts in Alterac, stole the Book of Medivh from the Stormwind Library. They raided Dalaran and murdered Sathera, a close friend of Archmage Antonidas, taking the Eye of Dalaran in an eerie forshadowing of the attack on Dalaran that Ner'zhul would command in his future capacity as the Lich King, which would take Antonidas' life. These items, along with the Jeweled Scepter of Sargeras, granted Ner'zhul great power. When the Alliance Expeditionary Force laid siege to Ner'zhul's bastion of power in Shadowmoon Valley, Ner'zhul panicked, and attempted to flee the world to escape his fate. The magnitude of power he unleashed tore Draenor apart, and cast him into the Twisting Nether, where he came into the cruel embrace of Kil'jaeden. Ner'zhul never drank Mannoroth's Blood, and puts orcish warchiefs at a dismal 0-3.

Following the shattering of Draenor, the Horde bifurcated into two entities, with two Warchiefs. On Draenor, Magtheridon rallied the remaining orcish clans to his banner, empowering Kargath Bladefist as the Warchief of the Horde of Draenor, commonly known as the Fel Horde. Kargath was an easily manipulated orc, far closer to Blackhand the Destroyer, than either of the two more independent rulers who directly preceded him. Kargath served Magtheridon, and warred constantly with the Sons of Lothar, who held the line at Honor Hold, in the very shadow of Hellfire Citadel. When the Illidari enslaved Magtheridon, Kargath's loyalties turned to the new ruler of Outlands, Illidan Stormrage. Kargath led the Fel Horde until the rebellion of the Ashtongue Deathsworn led to the downfall of Illidan, and without Illidari support, and with the forces of Honor Hold bolstered by reinforcements from the reopened Dark Portal, Kargath was eventually hunted down and slain within the Shattered Halls of Hellfire Citadel. Not only did Kargath drink Mannoroth's blood, but he also drank Magtheridon's blood, to the point where he turned red. Corruption ran deeper within Kargath than any other Warchief in the bloody history of the orcs. 0-4.

Meanwhile, back on Azeroth, the overwhelming majority of the orcs languished in internment camps. One Orc had a dream. A dream to reunite the disparate souls trapped under the lock and key of the Alliance. So he raided the internment camps, freeing those orcs that he could, and reached out to a downtrodden tribe of trolls to aid him in rebuilding a Horde where orcs could live free of the humans who defeated them so long ago. That orc's name was... Rend. Personally, I find Rend Blackhand to be one of the most damning, and compelling indictments of the orcs. Rend IS Thrall. A young orc was the son of a prominent clan leader who was assassinated by a fellow orc. His youth was stolen from him. Upon seeing and escaping the ruin of his race through sheer luck, he took it upon himself to free his brethren and to fight to create a place for the orcs in a world that was not their own. Personally, I'm very disappointed that Blizzard didn't take the time to explore the relation between Thrall and Rend. Rend escaped the final battle at Blackrock Mountain because his clan, the Black Tooth Grin, was tasked with reigning in Gul'dan's renegade Stormreaver Clan. After the Horde was routed, Rend and his brother, Maim, served as the rear guard for the Horde's flight back to Draenor. At the foot of the Dark Portal, the brothers fought against Turalyon himself, barely escaping with their lives as they fled into the wilderness. Thereafter, Rend declared himself Warchief of the True Horde, and freed the warriors of the Blackrock Clan and Dragonmaw Clan from the internment camps, leading them to an ancient city carved into Blackrock Spire. There, they became caught up the internal struggles of the denizens of Blackrock Mountain. The depths of the mountain was ruled by the Elemental Lord of Fire, Ragnaros, who dominated the Dark Iron Dwarves who inhabited the Shadowforge City, and sent them to purge the new alien presence within the mountain. These attacks quickly began to overwhelm the nacent Horde, and took the life of Maim. Rend's Horde was only saved from annihalation by a timely alliance with the rulers of the peak of Blackrock Mountain, Nefarian and the Black Dragonflight. Ironically, Nefarian's backing gave Rend a strong enough position that he could turn away envoys from Ner'zhul's Horde seeking the aid of the Dragonmaw who served Rend. This forced Ner'zhul to obtain his airpower from another source, an alliance with Nefarian's father, Deathwing. Rend conducted several incursions into Alliance territory, most notably in Redridge. Rend's reign finally came to an end at the hands of adventurers who slew Rend during their assault on the way to Nefarian's lair in the peak of Blackrock Mountain. He drank the blood of Mannoroth, much like the other mediocre warchiefs, and leaves the orcish warchiefs at 0-5.

Both Rend's Horde and Kargath's Horde had one common element, both included portions of the Dragonmaw Clan, which was split upon the collapse of the Dark Portal. One portion escaped to Draenor under the auspice of the Clan's chieftain, Zuluhed the Whacked. The remainder of the clan was trapped on Azeroth, and were led by Nekros Skullcrusher, Alextrasza's jailor. Zuluhed's portion of the clan pledged alliegence to the Fel Horde of Draenor, and Nekros' portion pledged themselves to Rend's Dark Horde. Both leaders were killed shortly before their Warchief's own deaths, and the Dragonmaw clan found itself split, isolated and alone. Zuluhed's second in command, Overlord Mor'Ghor, took advantage of the reopened portal, and traveled to Azeroth, where he seized control of the Azerothean Dragonmaw, and named himself Warchief of the Dragonmaw, and presumably the successor to Rend's Horde. Mor'ghor was by far the most impotent warchief that any orc ever had. When confronted by Garrosh Hellscream, he found himself deposed in a bloody manner in very short order. He drank the blood of both Mannoroth and Magtheridon. 0-6.

We can safely assume that Garrosh will do something even more atrocious than usual that will condemn him to be the 7th failed orcish warchief, nearly half of those failed leaders having been free of any corruption on the part of the blood of either Mannoroth or Magtheridon.

This leaves us with Thrall, the only somewhat functional leader the orcs have ever had. Like Garrosh, Orgrim, and Ner'zhul, he never partook in the blood of a Pit Lord. Like Garrosh, he was spared the horrors of the First and Second Wars. Like all the Warchiefs, he never suffered within the internment camps. Like Ner'zhul, Thrall is a powerful shaman. The only thing that separates Thrall from the multitude of failed despots that his race has produced is his upbringing among humans. What does that say about orcs? Is that really the message that Blizzard wants to send? The only time that the orcs weren't a terrible menace to everything around them is when they were kept human supervision, and barring that, the only time that they were ever within spitting distance of civility was when they were being reigned in by the most human orc in history. Great message to put out there, Blizz.

Putting Thrall back on the Throne just reinforces this ugly truth. The moment he takes a breath from the laborious job of holding back the orcish bloodlust, everything falls apart. So he must return to the throne, and resume his role as the warden who holds back the base nature that damns the orcish people. Garrosh might have asked Sylvanas what difference there was between her and the Lich King, but this plot begs the question: what difference is there between the orcs and the Scourge? The same mocking answer applies: isn't it obvious, they serve the Horde.

However, truth in fiction is malleable. The future is unwritten, and with skillful craftsmanship, anything is possible. If Blizzard wants to raise the orcs above their current depiction of the base savage, then all they need to do is find a way to write it in that fits with the narrative. Give the orcs a leader. Not someone like Thrall, who's a few broken tusks and a skin dye job away from being human, but a leader of the orcs, from the orcs, and for the orcs. Give them a leader who can coexist with their neighbors better than Thrall could, which honestly, looking at the constant skirmishing in Ashenvale dating back to prior to Thrall's formation of the Horde, shouldn't be too difficult to accomplish. It could be an older orc, to show that an orc can rise above their past. It could be a younger orc, one born in the aftermath of the Second War. An orc born just after the Battle of Blackrock Mountain would be in their mid twenties now, a young charismatic leader, perfect for deposing a despot like Garrosh. Che Guevara was 28 during the Cuban Revolution. Mustafa Ataturk was in his thirties during the Turkish War of independence. Give the Horde an icon like that, someone with that kind of charisma and magnetism, without all the baggage that Thrall has unfortunately accumulated. A young revolutionary who challenges the orcish mindset that has existed for decades, and wins. That's the leader that the orcs need. That's the leader that this story deserves. And no, that doesn't mean Med'an.

Blizzard spent two expansions building up Garrosh to take the mantle of Warchief. The overall leader of the Horde should be a well developed character. Someone that's been seen before. As many people have mentioned, there really isn't an orc that's had the degree of exposure that Garrosh got during BC and Wrath outside of Thrall and Saurfang. Thrall is a terrible choice, which leaves Saurfang, whom many write off as too old, and I tend to agree with them on that point. I do think that they could make a salvageable go at things with Saurfang in charge, I really like the idea of infusing some young blood into the orcs. With both the available candidates being sub-optimal, a question presents itself. Why does the Warchief have to be an orc?

Several reasons have been presented in arguments. The Warchief must be an orc because the warchief has always been an orc. Fat lot of good that's gotten the Horde thus far, eight Orcish leaders have managed to get the orcish population decimated, corrupted, and took them from holding nearly an entire world, to holding some deserts and blighted lands on an alien world. Some traditions aren't worth clutching to.

The Warchief must be an orc because the orcs are the core of the Horde. This one has a degree of merit. As long as the orcs are the majority in the Horde, both in terms of population and military power, then the other races are second class citizens, and their voice is of minimal importance. But as I said earlier, the future is unwritten and the status quo is not god. Just because the orcs are the core of the Horde now, does not mean they have to stay that way. There's going to be open war in Orgrimmar. Garrosh is going to die. The Warchief is going to die. Do you think the core constituency of the orcs will just roll over and let it happen? Do you think he won't have supporters who will fight with him, who will die with him? No. Like any civil war, casualties on both sides will bleed the whole. I expect the Kor'kron, the Warchief's elite bodyguards, to die to a man to protect their Warchief, to protect their honor. Think about that for a minute. The finest warriors the orcs have to offer, making their final stand. How many of the rebels will they kill before they fall? We're going to watch the core of orcish military strength eat itself alive. Once that's happened, can the orcs still make the claim that they're the heart of the Horde? If the tables have turned on the orcs, and they're but a shadow of their former selves within the Horde, then what's preventing the Trolls, Tauren, or even the Forsaken for making a push for the Throne?

It was the plan all along for Thrall to come back. This is probably the dumbest defense out there. Plans can change. Bad plans should change.

Ultimately, I've become more and more convinced that not only should Thrall neither return as the Warchief, but that the orcish leader who replaces Garrosh should not also succeed him as Warchief. Sylvanas, Vol'jin, and Baine are all more established than any of the current crop of orcs, and any of them could produce more compelling stories than we would get with Thrall back at the helm. However, it would be difficult to justify a cease fire between the factions with Sylvanas running the show, which really only leaves Vol'jin and Baine as viable candidates. Vol'jin is a pretty stable character, his leadership credentials are well established, and he's already established a degree of cooperation with the Alliance. While it would be more difficult to create internal storylines with Vol'jin in charge, it would do wonders to stabilize the situation and allow Blizzard to put the focus back on external threats. Baine is a much less proven leader, and as such, it opens up a lot of potential openings in terms of internal Horde storylines with regards to his struggle to find his leadership identity, and weather he can be firm enough to reign in the disparate factions that make up the Horde. He's also the easiest to shore up the relationship with the Alliance, as he already has a friendship with Anduin and Jaina, which might help take the edge off Jaina's purported bloodlust, and Anduin is the easiest route to soften Varian.

For the crazy, out of nowhere, no chance in hell candidate... Magatha Grimtotem. The Grimtotems had already allied with the Alliance in Stonetalon, and she has all the reason in the world to want Garrosh to go down. If she were to take advantage of a poor turn in the war to return to Thunder Bluff and finish her coup, she could then withdraw Tauren forces from the conflict, holding them in reserve as the orcs and trolls take the brunt of the punishment from the Alliance forces. Once the Battle of Orgrimmar concludes, Magatha seizes the throne and uses the Grimtotems recent assistance to the Alliance to leverage Varian to withdraw his forces and treat with her diplomatically rather than risk an occupation of a hostile populace. This can create far more internal storylines than any other option. Vol'jin will likely distrust Magatha, the new orcish leader might fall on either side, Sylvanas' approval will depend on entirely how much Magatha tries to leverage control over the Forsaken, and odds are Lor'themar will fall in line behind Sylvanas. On the Alliance side of things, Varian might trust Magatha, but Jaina and Anduin, who befriended Baine, will likely be suspicious of her. I think Magatha would build quite a compelling story upon Baine's corpse. But as I said, there's no chance in hell that Blizzard would pull the trigger on that.

As for the orcish leader, there are a number of character who have had about as much development as Garrosh got in BC. I've got a couple that I think might have potential. Warlord Zaela is one of the best candidates. She's a young orc with limited ties to the Horde. She's essentially an unknown quantity to the majority of the Horde. She developed nicely in Twilight Highlands, but unfortunately, she hasn't been seen in the MoP beta yet. A more likely candidate would be Nazgrim, who went from a lowly sergeant in Grizzly Hills, to a Legionnaire in Vas'jir, to a full fledged general in Mists of Pandaria. He seems level headed, and his combat experience would make a strong case for an Ataturk or Von Stauffenberg style revolutionary. A military leader who sees the route that an increasingly erratic leader is dragging the country in, and he takes it upon himself to try and overthrown the tyrant. Ultimately, I think that Zaela is the best choice to take over the orcs, but I think that given Nazgrim's implementation into Mists already, he'd be the easiest choice to implement that wouldn't be terrible.

Forcing the orcs to step back from their primacy is the best way to allow the orcs to evolve as characters, and it's also the best way to advance the Horde's narrative. Stories need to move forward, and the return of Thrall to the Horde would force stagnation onto the World of Warcraft's story.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

They Cut the Legs Out From Under Him! Errr... Wings... Tentacles... Whatever

I started this post about a month ago, but some other issues cropped up, and I've just now gotten around to finishing it, my apologies if some of it's out of date. Also, looking back over it, there's spoilers for a lot of things beyond WoW here. Be warned.

A big complaint about Cataclysm was that Deathwing wasn't a very compelling villain, especially in comparison to the titular Lich King of the previous expansion. There's a lot of reasons for this, but I think the most prominent is one that WoW shared with another major video game storytelling failure, Mass Effect 3. Both Blizzard and Bioware made the mistake of undercutting their primary antagonist.

The undercutting of a villain occurs for several reasons. Sometimes it occurs because the writer wants to foreshadow a future plot arc, and takes it too far. Other times the writer tries to add additional complexity to the plot, and fumbles it.

WoW runs multiple antagonist storylines, and as such, it gets a little difficult to track which one is active at any given time. You've got the Burning Legion under Kil'Jaeden, Sargeras and his portion of the Burning Legion, which might be at odds with Kil'Jaeden's crew, the Old Gods trying to corrupt everything, the Titans playing a game so large and vast that the entire world might get crushed with all the concern that an wrecking crew has for the roaches in a condemned building, The Scourge, many of whom are now independent, the war between the factions, The Black Dragonflight and their insane patriarch, the Troll Empires, and many more lesser foes that I'm leaving out. Each of these groups vie for the right to be the current target of the player's ire. Mass Effect on the other hand, really only has one enemy, the Reapers. Sure, there are batarian slavers, krogan warmongers, and douchebag turians to deal with, but hey, when the Reapers liquidate the human race, they all seem like small potatoes.

Both the Old Gods of WoW and the Reapers of Mass Effect share the same common root for their origins. Both of them are HP Lovecraft ripoffs. Blizzard's incarnations are blatantly and unashamedly so, while Bioware tries to mitigate it by stealing heavily from The Armageddon Inheritance, very heavily.

HP Lovecraft is a popular starting point for a lot of fiction, not because of his writing style, which was so chock full of gilded passages that Hemmingway would have cried if he read it. What makes his work compelling is that he took the dark, dismal world of victorian era authors like Poe and Melville and cranked it to the extreme. He created a world of monstrosities that aren't evil, they're simply so far beyond humanity that our entire race might be wiped out by Azathoth's burp. It's not a mater of black and white morality stories, it's mauve and cyan morality, and the decisions to be made will drive men mad.

What makes this fertile fields for the more action oriented stories that you find in WoW, Mass Effect, or works like The Atrocity Archive, is because it makes creating a hero extremely simple. He just has to not go insane. By simply being able to stand against the monstrosities out there, he's already a better man than most heroes.

A work that draws upon Lovecraftian principles tends to have several key elements that get drawn together. The disbelief of the larger populace, if they confront this threat, they have to acknowledge its existence, and their pitiful minds lack the fortitude to do so. This plays out in both WoW and Mass Effect. The Dragonflights refused to acknowledge the threats posed by C'thun's forces in Silithus until the Qiraj almost kicked down the doors to Norzdormu's house, leaving it to Fandral Staghelm to hold the line as best as he could with his followers. The citadel council repeatedly ignores all evidence of the Reapers, up to and including a Reaper attacking the Citadel, leaving it to Commander Shepard to hold the line as best as he could with his followers.

Another key aspect is the Elder Things themselves, a creature vast an incomprehensible, that's liable to drive you insane if it doesn't kill you outright. The Old Gods and Reapers fill this role in their respective universes. Tentacles are often used to represent the alien nature of the Elder Things, a common feature of every Old God and Reaper seen.

Another common element is the Deep One hybrid from The Shadow Over Insmouth that was created to serve Dagon. Wow is rife with Faceless Ones, Elemental Acendents, and the Quiraj and Nerubians, all of whom were once other races, but were twisted to serve the needs of the Old Gods. Mass Effect also jumps in with both feet here, with the implications of the possibility that many of the races that the Reapers wiped out were twisted, the Protheans being turned into the Collectors was made explicit, and it's likely that the Keepers in the Citadel were another one of the races the Reapers wiped out. In a plot line that I thought was masterful, but was ultimately discarded in order to keep the story aligned to that of The Armageddon Inheritance, was the implication at the end of Mass Effect 2 that the Reapers themselves were hybrids. Techno-organic hybrids that required compatible sentient races to reproduce themselves. The notion that your whole race amounts to sperm for this alien behemoth, and wiping out your civilization was just foreplay for them drives home the notion of just how small you are compared to them. I thought that that was an incredible idea, and it was one that explained the whole notion of the cycle, one of the biggest questions in the Mass Effect universe.

Now that I've shown you where these two stories were coming from, let's examine what went wrong.

In Mass Effect 3, things are going swimmingly until the very end. It was quite possibly the most disappointing ending to a game I've ever seen. After you raise an army to come back to Earth and build a superweapon called the crucible that gives you a chance to take out the Reapers, pretty much everyone gives up everything in order to give Shepard the chance to take out the reapers. He activates the Crucible, and this is where things go wrong. Shepard is confronted by an AI represented by a five year old kid who explains that he controls the Reapers, and if you can convince him to back off, he'll take his pet techno-eldritch abominations and go home. This happened in Mass Effect, because it happened in The Armageddon Inheritance. That story ends with the ancient army that wipes out all sentient life every 50,000 years as being directed by an AI, which explains a lot of the issues set up in earlier segments, such as the Achuultani's inconsistent technology levels with regards to Gravitonics. It sets the stage for the reveal that the human's Superweapon, was in fact an AI that through 50,000 years of maintenance free existence it had transcended its core programming and decided to fight for humanity. Mass Effect had no such reveal planned, and had no prior set up to justify it. It just suddenly went from the Reapers are the ultimate threat in the universe, to the Reapers are the toys of a petulant child. It completely undercut their credibility, and cheapened everything the player had accomplished in three games. If they had simply carried on with the amazing story they had assembled up until that point, it would have been a slam dunk, but slavish adherence to source material without understanding the underlying mechanics creates problems.

Cataclysm, on the other hand, set up the Old Gods all through Cataclysm. The Old Gods were explicit throughout the the raiding tiers. They were behind Cho'gall, and two of the major end of raid bosses were Elemental Lords, Ragnaros and Al'Akir, who were explicitly powerful servants of the Old Gods. There were giant gaping maws in Twilight Highlands, the capstone zone for the expansion, and there were two Faceless Ones as bosses in the final raid of the tier. They made it explicitly clear that Deathwing was serving the Old Gods.

However, Cataclysm was supposed to be Deathwing's expansion. Instead, they sold out the entire expansion trying to set up future story arcs. Southshore, which was originally going to be destroyed by Deathwing's Cataclysm, was instead wiped out by the Horde, as part of the poorly thought out campaign to ramp up faction tensions in MoP. Go through the zones released for Cataclysm, and it's the same thing through and through. Vas'jir is all about the Old Gods and the Naga. Hyjal has a token visit from Deathwing, who is promptly never mentioned again, and then it's all Ragnaros all the time. Uldum has the Black Dragonflight's influence at times, but it gets drowned in Nazi comic relief quests. In the Twilight Highlands, aside from a few side quests, it's mostly about the Horde's invasion, and Cho'gall and his cult serving the Old Gods. Deepholme is the only zone that's focused on the events that the expansion is built around, and even that's only tangential.

In raid content it's even more palpable. Tot4W is about Al'Akir. Bastion of Twilight is about Cho'gall, while Sinestra might be the final boss, and one of the best of the few sections of the expansion actually dedicated to Deathwing, the overwhelming majority of raiders downed Cho'gall, and never even saw Sinestra. BWD was a magnificent raid, but didn't have the slightest connection to the outside world. Firelands didn't have a single mention of Deathwing, and even in Dragon Soul, Deathwing's apex raid, there's two bosses devoted to the reminding the players that the Old Gods are really in charge. That's like having two Burning Legion bosses in ICC.

Contrast that to Wrath of the Lich King, where the Lich King and his Scourge was a palpable pressence in every zone. Even in the lighthearted Sholozar Basin, they made sure the Scourge showed up in a manner designed to create the most emotional impact possible. The Lich King was a palpable presence in every raid tier. Naxxramas was his advance guard, ToC was the preparations for the assault, and ICC was his fortress. Even in Ulduar, the final encounter provided keen insights into the story of the expansion.

That's not to say that you can't foreshadow future plans, that was something else that they did well in Wrath. The Nexus War introduced the Aspects into the game a full expansion before their time in the spotlight, and the fights with Sartharion, Malygos, and Halion showed the plots brewing for Deathwing well in advance of Cataclysm. Hell, the Yogg-Saron encounter didn't just give us great insight into the path of the Lich King, it also showed us glimpses of Deathwing's decent into madness for Cataclysm, and the roots of the conflict between Orcs and Humans in Mists of Pandaria. But the story of the Lich King was always front and center. There was never any doubt or ambiguity about that.

The fundamental problem with Deathwing's Cataclysm is that Blizzard spent so much time foreshadowing their future stories, they forgot to actually tell Deathwing's story. They should have definitively linked Deathing to Nefarian's return. They should have explored Deathwing's origins, his actions, and his relations with his "siblings" much closer than they did. When your story is nothing but foreshadowing for the next story, then it's not a story, it's a prologue, and no one gives a damn about the villain in the prologue.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ji Firepaw: Use the Right Tool For the Job, In This Case, Two Razors

Once again, there's a bit of a kerfluffle on the internet regarding WoW. As usual, people are attaching a lot of excessive connotations to something that's not a social issue, but a storytelling issue. There's been a huge outcry over the Horde's panda escort character, Ji Firepaw, who was given a lecherous personality, in order to attempt to draw comparisons to other "mentor" stereotypes from anime/manga culture, which seems to be where Blizz is drawing a lot of their ideas from. Happosai from Ranma 1/2, Master Roshi from Dragon Ball, and Jiraiya from Naruto are all the sort of creeper mentors that are used as a stereotype now days. Blizzard tried to replicate this with Ji, giving him flirtatious and borderline obsessive lines to greet the players who come to him. He greeted female characters with:"Wow you are some kind of gorgeous aren't you? I can tell we are going to be good friends!" Male characters are greeted with: "You've got a strong look to you! I bet you're all the rage with the ladies!". The character was clearly designed to have sex on the mind, at all times. That whole vibe is reinforced with other lines in some of the other quests.

The blogosphere, Tweetosphere, and beta forums have exploded with all sorts of drama. People accusing Blizzard of misogyny and people accusing the people making the accusations of being kill joys have begun drawing lines. It's drawn some pretty hilarious reactions, my personal favorite being the two WoW Insider colums that saw the first getting its comments locked, and when the second topic came up, a few commenters were speculating as to how long it would take for this topic to be locked. Adam Holisky, the editor in chief of WoW insider showed up, explaining that the previous lock was do to technical problems with the new commenting system, certainly not due to the site's taking the easy route out of moderating the discussion. Ten minutes later, and exasperated Holisky locked the topic. That's why you can't have nice things, kids.

Anyhow, eventually, Blizzard opted to change the female dialogue, without changing any of the other dialogue. Which makes the character seem a little lopsided. Suddenly, people started raging about Blizzard caving to pressure, which they did, and claiming that the dialogue was crucial to the character, which it wasn't.

So let me make this clear. You're both wrong. Blizzard wasn't being misogynistic when they created the character. However, the lines needed to change, honestly, more dialogue needs to be changed.

First let me explain why the dialogue wasn't written with misogynistic intent. We do not live in a perfect world. No one's perfect. You can't create a perfect character and put them in an imperfect world, people won't identify with them. It's the literary equivalent of the uncanny valley. Characters need to be fleshed out. They need legitimate flaws. Making a character who's lecherous, or even outright misogynistic, might be vital for driving the plot. While there are works out there that are written with misogynistic intent, simply having a misogynistic character in the work doesn't necessarily equate to misogynistic intent on the part of the creator. Stanley Kowalski is one of the most misogynistic characters ever written, but it doesn't mean that A Streetcar Named Desire was written to push a misogynistic agenda, Stanley was simply the engine that pushed the story to a Pulitzer. In order to push an agenda within a narrative, you really need to associate the agenda with beneficial outcomes. If the story was constantly about women following their baser emotions to destructive ends, or constantly acting submissive to a dominant male character... Ok, that one kind of got away from me. But that's not the case with Ji, I promise, he didn't save the island by ogling female characters.

Some writers, either thinking they're being slick and people won't notice it, or amatuerish writers who are grasping at some flaw to add to a character, might tack on misogyny to a character who's otherwise lacking a flaw. Those who do it intentionally are trying to associate those negative tendencies with an overwhelmingly positive character. It's kind of the opposite of Reductio Ad Hitlerum. Only instead of "Hitler had a dog, therefore dogs are evil!" it's more along the lines of "Jesus beat his wife, therefore wife beating is good." These are typified by presenting the trait one wants to associate with Hitler/Jesus in a vacuum. They don't examine the consequences at all, they just rely on the association to make the case. Blizzard has made this mistake before, Thrall being a major offender, albeit for other things, like slavery and the fantastic white man's burden. But that wasn't the intent here. Ji isn't an admirable character, by any stretch of the imagination, even without the whole pervert aspect. He's short sighted, aggressive, prone to rash action, and doesn't care much about the consequences of his actions. His time spent in the starter zone shows a display of bumbling incompetence that puts him a Hugo Boss suit and a Swastika away from being Colonel Klink. He's an utterly two dimensional character who's redeeming features are roughly limited to "He's consistent" and "Well, he doesn't eat babies."

However, the whole Pervy Mentor idea needs to go. I mentioned that Ji is an extremely two dimensional character, and that's ok. Main characters need to be well rounded. The reader, player, or viewer spends a lot of time with that character, and inconsistencies will be noticed. The farther away from the main character you get, the more two dimensional the characters are. This is important, because if you learned everything there is to know about every ancillary character in a work, Jack and Jill would be a 400 page novel, and A Song of Ice and Fire would require the deforestation of the Amazon to print one copy. A character like Ji Firepaw, who shows up on the Wandering Isle for two purposes, to provide conflict, and to usher Horde Pandas to Orgrimmar, is so far on to the ancillary side of the spectrum of characters, that he's a bad fall away from being Captain Placeholder, who was replaced by a boat.

Ji Firepaw is a literary tool, not only in the sense of the character being a bumbling fool, but he exists in the story with a specific purpose, and doesn't exist beyond that role. In order to properly analyse and evaluate this tool, we have to use a couple tools of our own, Hanlon's Razor, and Occam's Razor. Hanlon's Razor is used in the analysis, and Occam's Razor is used to elucidate the solution.

Hanlon's Razor states: Do not attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. We're talking about Dave Kosak, here. He's not siting in a high back swivel chair stroking his Persian cat commenting on how his master plan is 3/53 complete. I'd be shocked if his thought process on that quest series went anything beyond "Ji's a perv."

To observe how to correct the situation, we turn to Occam's Razor: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity. It's better known in literary circles as Chekov's Gun, named after Anton Chekov, who once wrote: One must not put a rifle on the stage if no one is thinking about firing it. Blizzard should either take that aspect of Ji and do something with it, or they should excise it in its entirety. If they continued his story, and showed the consequences of his actions, then it would be a legitimate use. If the next time you see him is during the Pandaria Campaign, and he chats up Zaela and spends the rest of the campaign fleeing in terror from her, or he flirted with Sassy Hardwrench and didn't read the fine print, and winds up penniless after the first date, or he hits on Angry Jaina at the Siege of Orgrimmar and catches a pyroblast in face. Blizzard could use it to set up a further plot development down the road, but they're unlikely to do so. As it stands, Ji takes his place alongside Nobundo as starting zone characters who might show up again, on the other side of the Maelstrom, with no speaking lines, and as long as that's Blizzard's intention, then trying to add extraneous characterization to him is just piling on to the detriment of the narrative.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

[Non-WoW] The Invisible Enemy

This isn't a WoW post. This is something that I feel needs to be said, and this is the largest audience that I can reach at this time.

I knew Abel Gutierrez. He was a good man, and a good soldier. We called him "Guty". He never complained about what was going on, no matter how stupid the brass was getting. He never caused any confrontations; he was always polite. He was a good athlete, a good shot, and possessed both a sound tactical mind and a strong work ethic. Whenever some lousy detail cropped up, he was the first to volunteer to take care of it, without complaint, regardless of the fact that his rank would allow him to slide that work onto the newer soldiers. He always pulled more than his share of the load. Every unit he served in was a better place while Guty was there. He was not the first friend that I lost, not in a warzone, but to the stresses of returning to life at home. It is my most profound fear that he might not be the last.

I know this is a cliche, but unlike the rest of the world, that is how I will remember him. For all my cynicism and arrogance, I can't let whatever darkness claimed his final hours to obscure the years of great service that he gave this country, and my unit. I couldn't live with my self if I was the kind of person who could.

Being an infantryman in wartime is the most difficult job in the world. The country asks these men to bear a burden that no one should have to shoulder. We do it because someone has to, but we should never do it alone. The Army, and the nation at large, owes it to these soldiers to do everything within its power to help them deal with the inevitable wounds that wartime service inflicts, both the physical trauma that a soldier suffers when his limbs are torn away by the enemy's bombs, and the mental trauma that comes from coping with such a drastic change from the mundane existence of a citizen in a first world nation. We all struggle with our demons; we all fight that invisible enemy; there is no shame in that struggle.

However, something is amiss. Before Guty came to my unit, he served with the 2nd Infantry Division on Fort Lewis. As I'm sure anyone who watched the news can attest, that's the same posting as SSG Robert Bales, the man accused of the recent massacre of Afghani civilians. For those with a sharper memory, the troubles pile up. The Afghanistan "kill team" a few years back were also soldiers on Fort Lewis. A Mount Rainier Park Ranger was killed by a Ft. Lewis Soldier a couple months ago. A recently discharged Ft. Lewis veteran shot and killed a police officer in Utah. There's a string of suicides, murders, and abuses that have taken place on Ft. Lewis.

While there has been an increase in suicides and crime rates on bases across the country, rightfully attributed to the increased stress of a wartime operating tempo and the relaxed standards of entry allowing soldiers who would have otherwise never made it through MEPS into the military, not only does Fort Lewis stand out among its fellow Active Duty postings, but when you begin to factor in events involving the Washington, Oregon, and Idaho National Guard, it begins to seem like the Pacific Northwest has become the epicenter of post deployment tragedies.

These events have involved soldiers from nearly every unit in the region, from 2ID, to 2nd Ranger Battalion, to the 41st Brigade Combat Team in Oregon. They're too disparate to pin the blame on unit leadership. There is, however, one common denominator linking each of these tragic acts.

Every soldier in the region routes through Madigan Army Medical Center for their health evaluation to determine what level of treatment they require, and weather or not they're capable of continued service, and if not, what level of disability they're accorded. They are the front line for America's responsibility to the troops, and they are failing, inexcusably so.

There's something rotten at Madigan. William Keppler, the Chief of the Department of Mental Health at Madigan has been quoted as advising his subordinates to "be good stewards of the public's money" and informed them that a diagnosis of PTSD would cost the government $1.5 million dollars in treatment and disability over the course of the service member's life. The mental health team at Madigan overturned 285 confirmed diagnoses of PTSD. Soldiers with 100% disability, who were living in inpatient programs to attempt to control their wounds were turned out with the stroke of a pen, and then couldn't even secure a face to face appointment with the physician who denies them the treatment that they need, that they deserve, that they are owed. Lives have been destroyed by this, not just soldiers, but the lives of their families, and even those of people who had nothing to do with this situation. Park rangers, and police officers, and children. But hey, at least they saved 427.5 million dollars! I've never been ashamed of my service, of what the uniform I wear represents, but this disgusts me.

To my fellow infantrymen, you beautiful sons of bitches, know this: You are not alone. No matter how dark things feel, no matter how bad things seem, you are never alone. Your enemies mass against you. The guilt that gnaws at the back of your mind. The anger that drives you against your will. The despair that seems like it will swallow you whole. Your courage will stand with you. Hope will illuminate the darkest nights. Your pride will push you to victory. Although, be mindful of that last one. Use your pride to keep you beholden to a higher standard. Do not allow it to drive away those that would help you. You need everyone weapon you can get in this fight, but pride has two edges.

The Army has taught us to attack the enemy with overwhelming force, both with superior firepower, and superior numbers. This fight is no different. Your friends will stand with you. Your family is there for you. Your brothers in arms will watch over you. Don't turn them away.

The fight is long. That invisible enemy is patient. He will strike when you are feeling at your weakest. But you will always have resources. If you're feeling particularly low, the VA will help you. The Vet Center will help you. There are councilors waiting 24/7 in every state to help you through your crisis. Win this fight.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Siege Addendum: Mistakes of Futures Past

Sometimes, they just don't learn. Some things are like watching a cheap horror movie where everyone repeats the exact same mistakes that got everyone else killed in the previous movie. No, you can't keep your loved one around now that s/he's a zombie, they'll just break loose and eat everybody. No, the bathroom is not the safest place to run from a slasher killer, there's only one way in or out, you'll die in that bathtub. But do they learn? No. They seem like they learn, but they have the memory span of a goldfish, and they constantly repeat the same hackneyed plot scripts with a fresh coat of paint on them.

WoW's story telling is quickly devolving to that level. In the wake of the NDA on the MoP press release, and a shockingly quick turnaround to Beta, there's been a lot of information getting put out. I already spoke about the Siege of Orgrimmar, what it represents, what its flaws are, and what Blizzard should avoid to really fuck things up.
If the raid devolves into "Help Thrall defeat Garrosh!" for Alliance players, then it would be, as I said earlier, the death knell for the Alliance as a interesting faction, they'd be nothing more than foils to help propel Green Jesus to greater glory. It's an incredibly demoralizing prospect.
This was something that Blizzard seemed to have picked up upon during the massive discontent at the direction of the story during patch 4.2. Dave Kosak wrote a blog post attempting to address the discontent, writing most of it off as a byproduct of good storytelling *snicker* There was one thing that made me thing that they had at least an inkling of the actual root of the problem.
If you’re a die-hard Alliance player, I can understand if you feel left out of Thrall’s story arc. Thrall feels like “their guy,” and Thrall’s journey over the last couple of years may not feel like “your” story, even if his mistakes are about to send the whole world into a potential death spiral. Fair enough. Stick with Thrall as he fulfills his destiny at the end of Cataclysm, and I promise we’ll catch up with other characters -- from both factions -- as we pick up the pieces in the aftermath.
So, just tough it out until the end of Cata, and then the focus will be off of Thrall, and onto other characters. Ok, you're asking for a mulligan. Make use of it.

Back to this week, and the flood of information showing that Garrosh was being deposed, and rampant speculation as to who would take the reigns of the Horde. The usual cries for a basic campfire were thrown around, and a lot of people thought that Vol'jin would be a good choice given the foreshadowing from the Troll starting zones where Vol'jin swore that the last thing Garrosh would feel would be Vol'jin's arrow piercing his heart. Others mentioned Overlord Saurfang, Garrosh's mentor in Northrend, who swore to kill Garrosh himself if he began to lead the Horde back down the dark paths that led to their downfall on Draenor. That speculation ended very quickly when Machinima Realm released a video of an interview with J. Allen Brack, WoW producer, who explicitly stated that players are fighting to restore Thrall as the Warchief.

There's another, someone less high profile source that has also been putting out information. At Blizzcon 2010, someone caught Alex Afrasiabi and Chris Metzen in a continuity error on the lore panel for the upcoming Cataclysm expansion. This led to an alteration on the Beta, and ultimately live servers, an that person became a wow celebrity, with his own avatar in game. He's known as the Red Shirt Guy, after the shirt he wore when he caught Blizzard at their own convention. Among the perks he received was a personal interview with Chris Metzen on the path of lore in the upcoming expansion. Now that the Beta has opened up, he's been open about some of the things Metzen told him about. He asked about who gets to kill Garrosh in Mists, and Metzen's quote was "Garrosh's been a bad boy, and Thrall's gonna have to give him a spanking."

*Sigh* Really? This whole expansion, this whole story arc that's been brewing since Burning Crusade is going to culminate in Thrall, again. People didn't like it in Cataclysm, when he was ostensibly, neutral. How bad are you going to have to warp the story to make the Alliance feed into the idea of replacing Garrosh with Thrall and being ok with it? Everything involving the Horde or Alliance directly in the past two expansions is being thrown away for the greater glory of Go'el, just like Staghelm's narrative was chucked aside to puff that orc up a bit more. Cairne's death, Vol'jin's animosity, Saurfang's guilt, Ashenvale, Turajo, King Wrynn's return and rehabilitation, the destruction of Theramore, the Siege of Orgrimmar, the entire war between the Horde and Alliance, none of it matters as anything more than a plot device to allow Thrall to be painted as the messianic bringer of peace in addition to the World Shaman, Aspect of Earth, and the Once and Future Warchief.

Enough is enough. Most of the core of the story is already locked in. WoW is on rails that they can't leave at this point. But the Siege of Orgrimmar is still the final content patch of the expansion, it's at least 18 months away, and there's still time to fix the crescendo of this flawed song. Here's how:

There's several arcs that need to be wrapped up. I mentioned several of them. In order to establish the final raid, both factions have to have a reason for participating. Contrary to Blizzard's thinking, the Alliance actually doesn't need any more motivation to invade, they just need to do so. The content patches leading up to the Siege should feature the Alliance turning the tide and beginning the march towards Orgrimmar. Do not have them just show up overnight. Scenarios will be a powerful tool here, because they will allow the developers to play create additional content in certain zones that they would otherwise no longer attempt to overhaul again.

There needs to be at least three points on the road to Orgrimmar. First is the turning point. The Alliance needs to decisively defeat the Horde, and get them on the run. This could take place on Pandaria. Once the tide has been turned, the pursuit needs to be shown. With the destruction of Theramore, the Alliance two real roads to Orgrimmar, either from the North through Ashenvale, or from the South from Feralas. I prefer the second option, Feralas is closer to Pandaria, and Shandris Feathermoon's sentinel army has been begging for a real use. Show the might of the Alliance on the march, traveling across Feralas, towards thousand needles, where they will cross into the barrens. Horde resistance in this scenario should be guerrilla, tricking the Ogres of Dire Maul into attacking the Alliance flanks, blowing up the roads, and setting up traps. Once the army is established to be on the move, then the next stop is Orgrimmar, pretty easy.

Getting the Horde players to be willing to depose Garrosh is more difficult, especially trying to do so in a manner that doesn't just cut off the hanging plot lines. There needs to be something that Garrosh does that makes Horde players hate him. The answer, in my opinion, lies with his relationship with Varok Saurfang. After taking time to properly mourn the death of his son, Varok returns from Northrend to witness the destruction of Theramore, and as with the lion's share of the Horde military, he travels to fight over Pandaria. As he serves, and sees what Garrosh has created. After the Alliance routes them on Pandaria, Saurfang realizes how close Garrosh has become to the orcs like Orgrim, Blackhand, and Grom, who led the orcs to the brink of extinction, and decides to live up to the promise he made to both Garrosh and himself. He confronts Garrosh, who challenges him to Mak'gora. This mirrors the challenge laid down to Garrosh from Cairne during the Shattering. Garrosh defeats Saurfang, the student surpassing his master, and kills him, much to the outrage of the soldiers present. Saurfang was an old soldier who had served the Horde faithfully his whole life.

Seeing another dedicated elder of the Horde struck down by Garrosh in a duel resonates with Vol'jin and Baine Bloodhoof, who had watched Cairne die in the same manner, fighting for a last chance to keep the Horde away from the monstrosity that it has become. As the full fury of the Alliance reaches the walls of the Horde's capitol, Baine and Vol'jin decide that the time has come for their words to become actions, rather than merely speaking their discontent in shadowed halls, they rise up against the Warchief. In Orgrimmar, the heart of Garrosh's power, Baine and Vol'jin's rebellion is savagely persecuted, and with their backs against the wall, facing both the relentless shelling of the Alliance and the implacable blades of the Kor'kron, they resort to desperate measures. Baine throws open the main gates of Orgrimmar, allowing wrath of the Alliance to flood into the city, creating chaos. Garrosh and his Kor'Kron loyalists find themselves suddenly fighting street to street against two enemies, and the end of his reign is suddenly far closer than he could have ever imagined.

That's how I would like to see it done. It empowers the Alliance, and allows the Horde to reclaim a piece of what it once was while still evolving, rather than devolving into the complacent entity that it was under Thrall. I could flesh this scenario out for days, involving every race in both factions, but I just wanted to get the bare bones out there.

I mentioned that it wasn't too late to change the ending here. Here's how. Blizzard reads the forums. They know when you're angry about something. You lit the forums on fire when you were unhappy, and they responded. You didn't like Garrosh, so they're letting you kill him. Express your displeasure. There's already a thread on the official forums where people are expressing their irritation at this development, and Daxxari is actively asking people if they would rather see someone else as Warchief. Go post in that thread, make other threads discussing potential alterations that you'd like to see made. When those threads cap out, make new ones. Don't let it rest. Keep the fire alive.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Siege of Orgrimmar: A Roadmap for Failure

On March 19th, Blizzard lifted the NDA on the Mists of Pandaria press tour. It was already known that Blizzard intended to focus on factional conflict in the upcoming expansion, even more so than they did in prior expansions. Blizzard is continuing to paint themselves into a corner here, and one of the keystones of their presentation was the unveiling of the final raid of the expansion, The Siege of Orgrimmar. Apparently the final boss of the expansion that they weren't willing to reveal earlier in the process is going to be Garrosh Hellscream. We know a few things about the intended raid and its storyline, both factions will be involved, with King Wrynn leading the raid for Alliance players, and the end result will be the restoration of Thrall to the throne of the Horde. Some bloggers and many forum goers and commenters have mentioned their fears of this being a signal of Alliance favoritism. Spinks has a good post on her fears, you should read it. There are others who fear that it signals yet another expansion of Horde favoritism and Alliance marginalization. Both these groups have valid fears, there aren't many ways Blizzard can take this, a lot of people are going to be unhappy no matter what they do, and there's some major concerns that will need to be addressed to minimize the impact of this poor choice of plot arc on the overall narrative. I'm going to go over their fears, and lay out a blueprint for Blizzard to try and minimize the damage, as they are clearly too far into development to completely abort the story line.

It seems like the story is going to progress through Mists of Pandaria that Garrosh is going to come increasingly under the influence of a mysterious entity called the Sha. These creatures gain strength from negative emotions, such as doubt, and use that strength to corrupt those around them. Eventually, Garrosh is going to cross a threshhold, possibly the destruction of Theramore, possibly something hitting closer to home, such as the murder of Varok Saurfang, that will convince Thrall that it is time to remove Garrosh from the throne. That's the Horde side of the raid, the Alliance side is pretty much that they finally figure out that they're at war. I have a lot of issues with that set up, but I'll save those for when we have more information, or I'm particularly bored. The biggest fears at the moment are with regards to how the event itself will be handled and how the aftermath will go down.

Alliance players are afraid that this is going to be a rehash of the second half of Cataclysm, where it's nothing but "Save Thrall from his own angst!" and "Help Thrall become the Earth Warder!" and Alliance players are wondering why they're helping their sworn enemy. If the raid devolves into "Help Thrall defeat Garrosh!" for Alliance players, then it would be, as I said earlier, the death knell for the Alliance as a interesting faction, they'd be nothing more than foils to help propel Green Jesus to greater glory. It's an incredibly demoralizing prospect.

At the same time, Horde players are understandably upset at the prospect of an Alliance army, led by King Wrynn, smashing down the gates of their capitol city and butchering their leader. If an opponent can take your capitol and decapitate your leadership, then your nation is a step away from the dustbin of history. Spinks was worried that it could herald the annexation of the Horde into the Alliance in order to facilitate cross faction grouping in the expansion afterwards. While I find that notion unlikely, the fear of losing their unique perspective within the game is a very primal one.

Blizzard is walking the razor's edge here, and they don't even have a good reason for it. But I have some advice for them as to how they can avoid catastrophic alienation of either factions.

The first step, and admitedly, the most unlikely, is to scratch Thrall from the story. Either just put him on the first bus to Nagrand so he can raise his oddly colored children in peace, or, my personal favorite, have Garrosh kill him as the catalyst for the Horde players to rise up against him. Whatever you do, don't just put him back as Warchief and then carry on as if nothing happened. Doing that exposes Garrosh as nothing more than a cheap plot device to create the war that allows Thrall to come back as the messianic peacekeeper. The Horde then gets to deflect all the blame onto Garrosh, completely undermining any analysis of the foundation that the Horde is built upon. At its core, this path is tantamount to retconning away everything the Horde has done in Cataclysm. Nothing that happened would matter because it was "Garrosh's Horde".

Regardless of weather they keep with the decision to use Thrall as Garrosh's successor, or someone else, there's another thing that they need to keep in mind, faction segregation. Do not have the Alliance following the Horde leader around again. Do not have Horde players following King Wrynn around. You can have them meet up in an ICC gunship or ToC faction champs fight, but don't make them feel subordinate to the opposing faction. That's a recipe for discontent. Both factions need their own reasons for pushing after Garrosh, and their reasons have to be driving force within their instance.

One final tip. Do not make the impetus for Horde action be that Jaina went and cried to Thrall after the Horde smashes Theramore. That'll just piss everyone off.

As far as to how the Alliance is going to be convinced not to simply crush the Horde under its boot after they storm the streets of Orgrimmar, you're on your own there Blizz. I warned you this would be coming, and you really don't have a way out that doesn't involve some ridiculously hack writing.