Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Flaw of Neutrality

At least one of you read that in Sindragosa's voice, you have my condolences.

In a previous post, I mentioned that one of the reasons why there was such backlash against the idea of Thrall as a world character was the treatment of "Neutrality" in general in WoW, and the way that they altered it for Thrall in this particular instance.

There are two types of neutral characters in this game. There are characters who are born neutral, which is to say that they were designed from their inception in the game to be neutral, and there are characters who are naturalized into neutrality, which is to say that they existed as faction exclusive characters in game, but as the story line progressed, they moved into a position where they have to interact with both factions. A good example of the former would be Tirion Fordring, who's first appearance in game was as a neutral NPC in Eastern Plaguelands, who then proceeded to become the primary NPC for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The latter includes characters such as Malfurion, Thrall, Khagdar, and Bolvar Fordragon, all of whom made their first appearances in game tied to a faction, but have since found themselves turned neutral for various reasons.

A character who was born neutral might have affiliations with a faction in his back story, as Tirion had with Lordaeron in the short story Of Blood and Honor, but that's back story, it serves to set the table for the actions in the game's story arc. Well, at least for pre-Wrath stories. Tirion never raises arms against either faction, and it's believable because of the weight of experience that he had in his back story. He spent the Second War fighting against the Orcs, and then spent ten years exiled from Lordaeron, including the Third War, where he watched humanity tear itself to shreds in the throes of the Scourge. He's seen the worst both factions have to offer, and because of that, he is beholden to nothing beyond his own sense of justice. He holds no allegiance to the Alliance, because they abandoned him, and he holds no allegiance to the Horde because of their propensity for conquest. His neutrality made sense because that's how his character was designed.

On the other hand, there are the multitudes of Night Elf associated characters in Hyjal who went neutral. The two standouts were Cenarius and Malfurion, who began as characters in WCIII. Both were staunch defenders of the Night Elves. Malfurion's first words in game:
The horn has sounded, and I have come as promised. I smell the stench of decay and corruption in our land. That angers me greatly.
Malfurion felt the desecration of Ashenvale even in the depths of the Emerald Dream.
I felt our land being corrupted, just as if it were my own body. You were right to awaken me.
He feels the destruction visited upon ashenvale as if it were commited upon his own body. This is extremely strong language to use. Strong reactions mean strong emotions, and strong emotions mean lasting emotions. You can see similar reactions from Cenarius' in game text.
Who dares defile this ancient land? Who dares the wrath of Cenarius and the Night Elves?
Cenarius identifies with both Ashenvale and the Night Elves as a people. He was willing to fight for them, he was willing to die for them, and die he did. Both of these prominent heroes turn up in Mount Hyjal, where they distribute quests and aid heroes from both the Alliance and the Horde without a second glance.

On the other end of the spectrum is Thrall's turn to yellow text. He supposedly went neutral before the Cataclysm, and since his shift to neutrality, he flew under a Horde flag, slaughtered helpless Alliance sailors, inducted a new race into the Horde, and threatened to split the Throne of Stormwind in two. These are clearly not the actions of someone who's neutral in the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. This is something that I think Blizzard did right. Thrall is the Horde, and even though he ostensibly needs the assistance of the Alliance to handle a greater problem, he shouldn't just instantly forget about those affiliations, it would be unnatural. Alliance players should feel some apprehension when it comes to working with Thrall. When you're going through the elemental bonds questline, an Alliance player should question weather by helping Thrall here you're simply trading one form of extinction for a slightly later form. They're making a choice between two enemies, and it should be a difficult choice, one that you dread making. The impact of this was compromised by Blizzard's incessant undermining of Deathwing as a truly credible villain, but the intent was there.

On the other hand, Blizzard completely failed at this in Mount Hyjal. Everyone was so happy go lucky in that zone that I secretly wondered if all the prominent lore characters had been given a prefrontal lobotomy. Horde characters resurrected a powerful Demigod that wanted to wipe them out the last time they met, for sins far less severe than they hard recently committed in the same place that they fought him at. They needed to surrender themselves back to the demonic corruption of the Burning Legion in order to even wound Cenarius. Bringing him back should be a terrifying prospect for Horde players, and one they only be considering because the situation is that dire. It should be the same with Malfurion, the most powerful druid in existence, who feels the wounds of the Night Elf homeland as his own, and the Horde just completely gutted Azshara and are working to do the same in Ashenvale. the Horde aren't their buddies, they're mortal enemies with whom their enmity should only be set aside because of the looming presence of the Firelord and the Destroyer. When a Horde player opens up that portal to bring Cenarius back, they should honestly be unsure as to weather he'll listen to them, or split their skull open on the spot. None of this happened, and that's a failure on Blizzard's part. Instead, Malfurion and Cenarius simply treated everyone equally. This undermines the story and it undermines the characters. It paints them as uncaring and impersonal at best, especially when put alongside the story of Leyara.

The transition of a character from faction specific to faction neutral is a treacherous road to walk, I think they got it right with Thrall, and they got it wrong with most everyone in Hyjal. Ultimately, they wind up with a cognitive dissonance between the way characters are described, and the way they are portrayed, and if you can't properly aknowledge and account for that gap, you're going to wind up gutting potentially interesting characters like they did with Malfurion and Cenarius.


  1. Thrall expresses misgivings, but doesn't pull punches when it comes to inflicting violence. During the War3 campaign, he constantly says he'd prefer to avoid fighting, but always chooses to slaughter everyone that opposes him. Including Jania Proudmoore's troops who were simply camped out on a mountain guarding her back (she never takes offense to this though).

    That's just typical Thrall though. He says one thing, but does another and no one calls him on it.

    My main problem with Thrall in Cataclsym was that he went Neutral so he could become the big hero. That's why he left the Horde. He really believed that it was up to him to save the world. That he could do more good as a mere Shaman than acting as Warchief of the Horde and using it's resources and all of it's mystical and martial talents.

    Now, I suppose he might have believed that the Horde could have still acted in a beneficial capacity even without him there at the reins, but did they ever really frame it that way? That the Horde didn't need him? No, they didn't. They framed it in such a way that the WORLD needed THRALL. The World didn't need every able bodied Shaman to deal with the disaster. It needed Thrall!

    That's why I'm resentful of him. I don't work with Thrall by chance. I work with Thrall because he's our only hope and when the punch line of the expansion is "The Age of Mortals" how can you catapult a mortal into being the one savior of us all?

    That's not how mortals work. We have leaders, but the actual work comes down to armies of individuals doing whatever they have to to accomplish something.

  2. This post says what I've been seeing and frustrated at. Even a single line of text from Malfurion and cenarius indicating their latent rage about events taking place in the land they previously named as theirs would be SOMETHING.
    But it wasn't.