Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Problem With Thrall

One problem that Blizz has somewhat on their radar is the irritation due to the overdose on Thrall in the current Cataclysm storyline. The Lead Quest Designer, Dave Kosak, posted a somewhat misguided developer blog, in which he touched upon the rising sentiments against the once and future Warchief of the Horde.

Blizzard feels that they made a mistake in assuming that Alliance players would enjoy the newly "neutral" Thrall, because he isn't a Horde character, he's a world character. That's part of the issue, although he doesn't understand the root cause of that particular sentiment, which stems from the treatment of other major lore figures who ostensibly went neutral, and how they compare to what happened with Thrall. That, however, is an issue that deserves its own post to lay out.

The majority of the backlash against Thrall in the recent expansion is, quite simply, because Thrall has been an incredibly poorly written character since the end of WCIII, and putting him in the brightest spotlight any previously defined lore character has ever stepped into put all those flaws on display.

Some of these flaws are incidental to concessions made by the story for gameplay purposes. One of the most dissonant experiences I had while exploring the Horde side of the game was taking my first Horde character, an undead warlock, over to Ogrimmar to get the quests for RFC. I embarked on a series of quest lines featuring Thrall trying to root out the warlocks from the midst of the city, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was employing one of those warlocks to do so. Despite the fact that from a lore perspective, Warlocks had nearly wiped out the orcish race, and condemned them to an existence of suffering, and as such were rightly banned from the Horde, people wanted to play as them, so in they went. These flaws are jarring, but they're ultimately a minor flaw, the pimple on the narrative that can be hidden with some discrete concealer, because the player character is but a single person in the narrative of the game, and not even a really important one anymore.

The flaws become much harder to conceal when they become part of major lore events. Thrall is not presented as a complex character. He's your standard feel good messiah stand in. He's wise, strong, capable, charismatic, fair, self sacrificing, and compassionate. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Not every character in a leading role has to be a morally ambigious Machiavellian schemer. It's OK to have the occasional character who's just a good guy. The problem is when you have the aforementioned good guy does something out of character, and no one calls him on his bullshit. At this point, you're not only undermining the character, you're undermining the characters who don't react, and the entirety of the story. If Aslan had given up Edmund in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and none of the Pevensies spoke out against it, then C.S. Lewis probably wouldn't hold his revered place in the pantheon of storytellers. The story worked because Aslan is the Jesus Allegory Lion, and he did what Jesus Allegory Lions do.

This is where Thrall falls short. He's the Jesus Allegory Orc, savior of his people, able to walk on water, and return from the dead. But he doesn't act the way his backstory and characterization have set him up. The driving influence in Thrall's backstory was his time spent as a slave and gladiator in Durnholde. So, when he fufills his destiny and forges a reborn Horde, does he outlaw slavery, as a just ruler would do? Nope, because one of the driving forces in King Wrynn's backstory is that he was captured and held as a slave by Rehgar Earthfury, and forced to fight in the gladiator pits in Dire Maul. Blackmoore was an uncharacteristic human, operating far from the oversight of authority, and was a drunk and morose man who plotted against his fellows and no one in the Alliance speaks well of. Perhaps, King Wrynn ran into a similar situation? Perhaps Thrall did take steps to stamp out slavery in the Horde, but its insidious nature persisted in the dark corners far from his steely gaze? This would be a bit of a stretch, but it's one that could have worked. But is it what happens? No. In the comic, Jaina convinces Varian to attend a peace summit at Theramore to attempt to build a peaceful relationship with Thrall and the Horde. Varian brings Valeera, a Blood Elf who escaped slavery with Varian, and his son Anduin. Thrall brings Garrosh, who from a chronological perspective, made the first of his asshat moments, and Reghar Earthfury, the orc who kept two of the members of the Alliance delegation as slaves against their will. Not only does he tolerate slavery within the Horde, he thinks it's a good idea to make the slavemaster a trusted adviser on the peace process. No one brought up how immensely hypocritical and bone headed this is, and yet people wonder why Varian doesn't like Thrall. It's completely out of character for someone coming from the backstory Thrall has, and it's completely out of character for everyone around him to not notice. Have the races of Azeroth simply not discovered the most basic of social prudence?

This leads into what becomes Thrall's most damning problem. He's a storyline singularity. A black hole that warps those around him such that even the most basic literary laws simply don't hold anymore.

The most egregious flaw in Cataclysm was the 4.2 quest chain which unveiled Fandral Staghelm as a traitor, and set the stage for the Aggra/Thrall love story that culminated with the probability of little green/brown babies in upcoming expansions. Staghelm was one of the best characterized and well written characters introduced in World of Warcraft. He's a seething mass of complexes and hatred and old wounds that refuse to heal. He was one of Malfurion's finest students of druidism, and after Malfurion went to travel the Emerald Dream, it was Staghelm who led the night elf forces against the Qiraji in the War of the Shifting Sands. The forces of the Old God C'thun poured out of Silithus, and the Night Elves alone stood against them. Fandral led the army in a brutal war in the deserts of Silithus and Tanaris. This conflict is the event that more than any other defines Staghelm. His only son, Valstaan, served with him in that harsh conflict. Staghelm recognized the threat that the Qiraji posed, not only to Night Elves, but to Azeroth itself, and he beseeched the dragonflights to aid him in his efforts to keep the Qiraji in check. The dragons deferred their entry into the conflict until the Qiraji had pushed all the way to the Caverns of Time. In one battle in the months before the entry of the dragons into the war, Valstaan was captured by a mighty Qiraji general. In front of Fandral's eyes, his only son, his pride and joy, was ripped in half, and left to die on the scorching sands of the desert.
One of the first short stories, and in my opinion, one of the best, that Blizzard made was in preperation for the AQ40 raid, and the opening of the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj. It showed the true measure of the toll that the war had exacted on Fandral.
Fandral looked down, his face twisting in contempt. "I want nothing to do with Silithus, the Qiraji and least of all, any damned dragons!" With that Fandral swung the enchanted object into the magical gates — where it splintered in a shower of fragments — and walked away.
"Would you shatter our bond for the sake of pride?" the dragon asked.
Fandral turned. "My son's soul will find no comfort in this hollow victory, dragon. I will have him back. Though it takes millennia, I will have my son back!" Fandral then strode past Shiromar...
... who could see him in her mind even now, as if it were only yesterday and not a thousand years past.
Clearly, this is a man who has lost much, and harbors much resentment over that loss.

The time preceding the games themselves, Fandral spent clashing with Tyrande over the path that the Night Elves should take. It was Fandral who pushed for the creation of Teldrassil , and who eschewed the blessings from the dragons which had empowered its predecessor. He was arrogant. After all, he had fought the War alone. He knew what a threat the Qiraji were, even before the Bronze Dragonflight could scry it from myriad visions of the future. There were those who would take advantage of his wounds, and his pride.

Xavius, the first Satyr, condemned to live as a tree by Malfurion for 10,000 years after the Sundering of the World, saw Staghelm's flaws as a means by which he could exact his revenge upon Malfurion. He used his magic to plant the notion into Staghelm's mind that through certain actions, he could bring his son Valstaan back to him. This involved using large quantities of Morrowgrain to poison Malfurion, trapping him in the corruption of the Emerald Nightmare, where Xavius could torment him at his leisure. It also involved grafting the tree that Xavius had become onto Teldrassil, exposing the Night Elves home to the corruption of one of Sargeras' oldest servants on Azeroth.

During the events of the novel Stormrage, Malfurion broke free, and confronted Staghelm at the demonic graft on Teldrassil, which Staghelm had come to believe was his son reincarnated. In order to stem the corruption of the tree, Malfurion was forced to destroy Xavius, and the graft. Staghelm, however, was forced to relive the death of his only son. Watching Malfurion kill Valstaan broke Staghelm, and he was sent away to the caves in which Illidan had been imprisoned for thousands of years.

From there, during Ragnaros' assault on Hyjal, Staghelm was intended to be moved to a more secure area in Moonglade. The green dragon Alysra was charged with moving him. She instead defected to Ragnaros, who offered Staghelm a chance to strike back against those that wronged him. Against the dragons, who refused to aid him until his son had died. Against Nordrassil, which had succeeded where his project, Teldrassil, had failed. Against Malfurion, who took his son from him a second time. It's a compelling tale about how the indifference of the forces of good can break a good man, and how a good man can be brought low, despite great physical power, through the exploitation of the weaknesses of the mind. It was one of the stories that I respected most in the Warcraft Mythos.

I've talked a lot about Staghelm in a post that is ostensibly about Thrall, I promise there's a reason for this. Staghelm had a lot of lore behind him. More than most other characters that were introduced in WoW proper. More than even some of the characters brought over from previous games. He was well written, and well developed. The player knows what he's been through, who he hates, and who he serves. It all led up to his becoming Ragnaros' Majordomo, and a raid boss in Firelands, and most importantly, it did so in a manner that made sense, in as much as a story with dragons and giant ant people fighting elves can make sense.

Which brings us to the quest Elemental Bonds. One of the centerpieces of the 4.2 patch, Rage of the Firelands, this quest served as Staghelm's coming out party as an actual villain. Malfurion and the four Dragon Aspects unite to attempt to restore the World Tree. Five of Staghelm's most hated enemies, and Staghelm's hatred has brewed for millennia. Malfurion would go on to lead an assault into the heart of the Firelands, and eventually permanently destroys Ragnaros, Staghelm's new master. Not only does Staghelm hate Malfurion, but Malfurion is also a present threat to Staghelm's new employer. It's a two for one deal for vengeance, always a good move. So, with Staghelm's history, circumstance, and new found power, he crashes the ritual. His five most hated enemies, caught distracted and vulnerable. So what does he do? He attacks Thrall.

What?

A story that Blizzard has been brewing for seven years in real life, and spanning thousands of years in game, and they wreck the ending just to show how awesome Thrall is. That's how destructive Thrall has become to the fabric of the narrative of the game. He's creeping into story arcs that don't involve him, and ruining the endings. Characters are taking complete 180s to bow to the amazing Go'el.

There's a term for characters like this. They're called Mary Sues. They're generally reviled for being an extremely disruptive force in narratives. A lot of times, they serve as author inserts. A way for the writer to live out his story vicariously through the character. This isn't always the case, but they manifest as characters that lack depth. While this is OK for peripheral characters who don't impact the story greatly, when it's the main character, by dint of the amount of time the reader or player spends dealing with the character, they have to be believable. Familiarity breeds contempt. The more time you spend with a character the more the little flaws in the story irk you. It was fine back in Vanilla when Green Jesus could sit on his Throne in Ogrimmar and generally not bother anyone because the story at the time was about the player-character, and as such, it welded itself to the person playing that character quite well. It's the classic silent protagonist that worked so well for Link, Mario, and Crono in earlier games.

In the expansions, Blizzard moved away from the notion of the story really being about the player-character. They had to, because it was a persistent world, and having Bolvar greet me as the one who unmasked Onyxia when I did no such thing in game would be a jarring flaw in the game. As such, the players went from the driving force of events in game, to a more abstract ideal. They're "the adventurers". They're always there, but they're never the reason why the big events happen, because if your character didn't do a particular quest, or dungeon, or raid, some else did, and to keep the game on a single narrative track requires that those loose ends be tied up somehow. Blizzard opted to make NPCs drive the story. Illidan was defeated by Maive and Akama, with an assist from "the adventurers", Kil'Jaeden was banished by Kalecgos and Anveena, with an assist from "the adventurers". It continued into Lich King with Tirion, and Blizzard, in an effort to create a cohesive narrative, went as far as to retcon the Vanilla raids. Varian killed Onyxia, and Darion Mograine stormed Naxx. The players have been relegated to extras in the story that used to be about them.

This isn't a bad thing, per se. The problems have come to a head with Thrall in Cataclysm because Thrall is so poorly written. Thrall has been spoiled. The weight of the failures of the writers have ruined him as a character, and he is beyond redemption. He's been woven so tightly into the fabric of the game that a discrete retcon is impossible. Trying to continue Thrall's story will have ruinous consequences on the narrative, and trying to retcon the mess they've already published would be the most disruptive retcon in the history of the Warcraft Mythos. The time has come to give Thrall a good Wesley-ing. Well, the time came a while ago, but late is better than never. Retire him to Nagrand to raise his little green/brown kids. Kill him off. I don't care. But stop inflicting him on the story.

15 comments:

  1. Fantastic post. Thrall went from being one of my favorite characters during BC (I loved getting to help him in Durnholde Keep) to the person who irritated me the most since Cataclysm. You're right - his story is terribly written, predictable, and plain not interesting.

    As for Blizzard believing him to be a faction "neutral" hero - yeah, right. I play almost exclusively Alliance characters, but I don't really care much about the perceived Horde bias on most occasions. When Blizzard recently cited Thrall as a faction neutral hero in response to this complaint on the official forums, it was pretty hard not to scoff. Fortunately, they back-peddled about the whole thing shortly after - but it sort of demonstrates how they're not on the same page as the people making the complaints.

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  2. This, I honestly think is the root of the problem with the story of WoW in Cataclysm. The writers decided to make the meat of the story fundamentally about Thrall and his battle with Deathwing, with Thrall being aided by the dragons and adventurers. The focus of the story should have been the dragons, but it was Thrall.

    This is a significant issue because for it to work it's required that the majority of players care about Thrall, and that Thrall is actually an interesting and well-written enough character to care about. I would bet money on the theory that the majority of Alliance players do not care about Thrall, because they have no reason to. He was the Alliance's enemy for the first 7 years of WoW. Why should they want to help him? Thats a significant portion of the playerbase right there that simply will not care about this main character that you are forcing down everyone's throats.

    Secondly, Blizzard failed to write Thrall to be an interesting character by any measure of the word "interesting". People who should have a reason to be upset with him because of his past actions instead faun over him like he's the messiah. He is an ineffective (though well-meaning) leader, but nobody calls him out on the mistakes that he has made in his flawed leadership, and instead it seems all the other characters seem to believe he can do no wrong. The only person who has ever called him out on his mistakes is Varian, and he comes off as a jerk because of it.

    Thrall has become a flat and boring character in WoW, and centering the story on him has made the entire story flat and boring.

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  3. Incredible post. I also agree about your thoughts on Fandral being a great character. Even when most of the alliance players who would meet him didn't even like him (and would happily cheer on a horde raid who made its way up his little tree) we knew who he was and what made him a character we didn't like.

    The insistence on making Thrall the centre of the story has just been a bad idea, and it doesn't seem like Blizzard has even realised it, much less is willing to admit it.

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  4. Scene: Activision-Blizzard HQ

    Metzen: I've been doing some thinking, and I've got some ideas to improve the game. One, Thrall needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Thrall is not visible, all the other NPCs should be asking, "Where's Thrall?"

    Scene: What needs to happen

    Garrosh: Hi, Thrall. You look like you've got something to say. Do you?
    Thrall: Yes I certainly do! I have to go now. My planet needs me.

    Note: Thrall died on the way back to his home planet.

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  5. I could not agree more. Plus, he was my enemy for seven years, why the hell would I ever want to fight alongside him?

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  6. I've always felt there was a large discontent between the presentation of Thrall's character and his actions or inactions as a ruler within the game's overall narrative. As you mentioned, Thrall is always presented as a fair and compassionate leader. Yet he ruled over a group of races that practiced slavery (if you look hard enough, you can even find it in-game such as the Gnome slaves in Silvermoon). He was also either indifferent about torture with the Forsaken carrying out biological experiments in the open on captured civilians or incompetent for not knowing what every player character in the game already knew about the experiments. If he was so compassionate, you would think he'd have reacted differently to this gruesome discovery in the aftermath of the Wrathgate.

    Surprisingly, I find the presentation of Varian Wrynn's reaction to the Wrathgate more realistic. He stumbles upon these scenes of biological genocide and is understandably pissed. Yet, Wrynn is vilified as a hot-head because of his reaction. No, he's acting like a believable character. Thrall's character has never been written to show flaws or shades of gray — they've been simply papered over and never addressed. Because of this, I actually find Garrosh and Varian's (and Fandral's) narratives far more believable and compelling.

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  7. This is a wonderful post and one that hits on a number of topics regarding the recent calibre of story-telling from Blizzard. For me, it was actually a bit of alt levelling in Hillsbrad that made me really think just how badly Thrall is written into the game. The conversation with Drek’thar highlights all of the reasons why a shaman would utterly despise the Forsaken, yet Thrall even goes so far as helping Sylvanas retake the Undercity when it was taken. Sure, the Kor’kron were posted there to preside over any misdeeds (and the Forsaken will ever be my favourite faction) in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that Thrall should share Drek’thar’s reprehension of the Forsaken.

    As for Staghelm… Like Deathwing, I can’t forgive Blizzard for relegating one of my favourite characters in such a fashion. Choosing to shoehorn him into a crap raid is an absolutely horrendous disservice to a character that could easily have been the focus of an entire expansion on his own; at least he could have been given his own six-boss raid.

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  8. This. Was. Amazing. I couldn't agree with you (and millions of other players) more about how Blizzard has just allowed Thrall to take over the lore and activities of this expansion. And reading all of the details and relatives you mentioned here renewed my dislike for the situation (and fucking Aggra's lame character). I remember The Daily Quest posting a very moving "biography" of staghelm at the release of 4.2 and hoping that this would be a storyline would play out epicly through raid content and such, but was very disappointed to see it sort of just restricted to a small blip in the Mount Hyjal dailies progress. Really, if you were one of those people who just kind of checks your quest objectives and moves on mindlessly to do what you must, the story could have been completely ignored and lost on you. (gg Leyara)

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  9. Staghelm wasn't the only storyline they sacrificed on the altar of Thrall. Remember Benedictus? For years the Alliance has had a traitor right in their midst in a major position of power... and he's revealed as a villain long enough for Thrall to help kill him. Say what?!?

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  10. Thrall's characterization being hijacked for Varian's benefit is evidence of Thrall being a Sue, now?

    You're right in that it makes absolutely no sense for Thrall to employ Rehgar as an adviser, but after that you're completely wrong. Thrall only employs Rehgar this way so the writers can make Varian look more sympathetic when he accuses Thrall of treachery. The other characters don't call Thrall out on it precisely because the writers know it doesn't make any damn sense and is a total hijack of his character for the sole sake of advancing Varian and making him look better.

    There's also another way to look at why Staghelm targeted Thrall. Rather than because Fandral was suddenly more interested in Thrall than in Malfurion or the dragons, it's entirely likely that Thrall was simply the most vulnerable target whose removal would still stop the dragons' and Malfurion's plans. The dragon aspects are too powerful for Staghelm to use that shattering trick on in the first place, and the spell works by feeding off the victim's emotional turmoil, of which Malfurion has none. The dragons are too powerful and Malfurion is too stable. Thrall is the most vulnerable, the weakest of the potential targets, which makes him the logical choice to attack. Staghelm hasn't forgotten his grievances with the dragons and Furion, he's still thwarting them by removing Thrall from the equation. It's just that removing Thrall was easier than trying to take down any of the others.

    As for the above commentator's mention of Benedictus, context is relevant. Benedictus wasn't originally alone in his treachery, several Horde characters were supposed to join him to make up the Twilight Council, a plot point that was scrapped and their boss encounter replaced by the Ascendant Council in BoT, but Benedictus's sound files for the encounter had been data mined and leaked. Blizzard decided to go ahead with Benedictus's fall after all because this information got into the hands of players, and putting him in the Hour of Twilight dungeon was the most convenient place.

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  11. What. Fucking. Bullcrap this is.

    Well I mostly agree your entitled to your opinion and giving your own interpretation of Thralls character how you perceive him, what I just read tells me less on what Thralls problem is and more on what you fail to understand of the changes made to him, and what that boils down to, it how before cata, the consistent whining and douchy crying from the fan boys saying Thrall didn't do enough. So they made Thrall get up and do something amazing... and it receives this kind of negative feedback from the same lawless community.

    Honestly, your bias take on 'Staghelm is one of the best characters in warcraft' is nothing more then you vaunting your opinion of favored characters, and I can pick up here your got pissed that Staghelm got turned into a bad guy and was involved with Thralls story, to you use Thrall as a scapegoat to vent on here.

    You fucking people wanted Thrall to be more involved in the story, so they do this, and now you whiny cunts use the tied and overused derogitory of calling him a mary sue, even when THIS IS BLIZZARDS CHARACTER, NOT ONE INTRODUCED INTO THE LORE FROM AN OUTSIDE SOURCE.

    you have no fucking idea what your saying, your post is bias, rhetorical, misinformed and set on a track of single ideas you pulled from your own interpretation of events. And I'm sick of seeing this crap spread about. You think yourself a better writer or something, that you could conceive of a story where you make a flawless character who's damaged but not enough that he's not likable?

    Obviously, you don't follow the kind of way these characters develop, considering the alliance has had Malfurion super druid as the alliances atomic weapon held in the story for so long, yet the moment a horde based character shows any sense of power in the story, you freak out and call it out well ignoring whats come before, and act surpried by it.

    This post is nothing more then bias ridicule, and I don't take anything the op says on board, simply because its his own single minded interpretation.

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    1. Calling the post a bias ridicule is like the pot calling the kettle black.

      What I see from you is nothing more of angry fanboyism over someone pointing out the flaws in something (in this case, a character) that you have an attachment to. Being a fanboy is one thing, but the angry, swearing tirade is another.

      So, since the blog's auther "doesn't know what he's talking about", where's your proof that he is wrong? Insults don't exactly provide proof of your argument, rather, they serve to weaken your own already lacking argument.

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  12. I totally agree with this 100 percent. Thrall being thrown into the biggest spotlight ever is because Metzen himself admitted that Thrall is his favorite character and ruined many story lines by doing so. Thrall is the biggest mistake in Cataclysm. Story lines are being altered to make him fit, lore it going to hell in a hand basket all because the writer favors him over all the others. I hope after all this crap Thrall disappears from the lore, but I am willing to bet that he not only saves the world in cataclysm but he magically appears at the end of the Panda stuff and saves the world again.

    Metzen do us all a favor and wake up, get rid of Thrall and put the story lines back the way they supposed to be done.

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  13. You've got a point man. It feels as though Thr... Go'el is all WoW is about anymore and he is no longer an interesting character. I fear that many characters will be facing the same bland fate soon.

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