Friday, March 16, 2012

Between Narration and Demonstration Lies the Flaws

I'm going to revisit the concept of neutral factions here. With the emphasis on Horde vs Alliance hostilities that began in Wrath, blossomed in Cataclysm, and has been promised to be even more prevalent in Mists of Pandaria, neutral factions wind up in an awkward position. Lines are being drawn, and tensions are rising, and while this marginalizes the importance of neutral factions, it also places a spotlight on how they react to the evolution of the world around them.

Neutral factions do not live in a vacuum. They exist in a tenuous position that is defined by the actions of the superpowers of their time, in this case, the Horde and the Alliance. Some neutral parties may try to straddle the line between the two, and maintain their neutrality, other parties may cast their lots in with one side or another, but everyone is going to be strained by it.

During WWII, both Switzerland and Sweden declared themselves neutral, but they felt the strain of the war raging around them. Switzerland gave economic concessions to the Nazis, allowed Jews to seek refuge within their borders, were forced to turn away many more as the numbers grew to large. They also shot down several nazi aircraft that violated their airspace, and forced many more to land and kept their crew prisoner until the cessation of hostilities. Switzerland paradoxically had to fight to maintain its neutrality. Sweden acted similarly, trading iron ore with the Nazis, but allowing 8,000 swedes to fight for Finland when Russia invaded. Many more nations, such as the United States, initially began the conflict as a neutral party, but as the war expanded in scope, were eventually forced to take a side in the conflict. Such is the way of neutrality, neutrality is maintained through action and reaction to the evolution of the situation around you.

Ultimately, in a fictional world, characters are expressed through two methods, narration and demonstration. Narration is being told what attributes a character has. Demonstration is being shown those attributes in action. In the majority of cases, to create a believable character, the two attributes must match. A character who is stated to be dangerously unhinged needs to do unhinged things. A character who cowers in the face of danger can't be built up as a brave man.

This is where Blizzard has failed spectacularly with regards to neutral factions thus far. Nearly every neutral faction has more or less acted in a vacuum. Despite a host of previously introduced factions being updated and brought into the current timeline, every neutral entity acts as if they existed within a bubble, completely oblivious to anything that happens outside of their demesnes. It doesn't matter if you murdered their god, murdered members of their organization, or are engaging in actions so foul to their beliefs that they were previously willing to travel across the world to hunt someone like you down, the neutral factions don't even so much as express their displeasure with a strongly worded letter.

Particularly egregious are the failures of the Cenarion Circle and the Argent Crusade in Cataclysm. Despite their previous actions, and vows, they completely ignore the developments in the storyline with regards to the factional conflict. The Cenarion Circle can kind of skate by with the whole "Hyjal is burning" schtick, but it still comes off as stilted. The Argent Crusade, on the other hand, has the Forsaken commiting atrocities across the street, and the Orcs murdering their agents in Kalimdor, and they're more concerned with clearing out gnolls, spiders, and one necromancer, all while admiring the brand new statue of Tirion they erected in Hearthglen. After Tirion promised that evil will never hide behind the shroud of politics on his watch, and he traveled across the world to strike at the heart of the Scourge, this new apathy doesn't suit him. The complacency of the Argent Crusade in this matter makes absolutely no sense.

There were a couple neutral organization that I thought was handled well in the Cataclysm story, the Knights of the Ebon Blade and the Zandalari Tribe.

The Knights of the Ebon Blade had one purpose, to bring ruin to the Lich King by whatever means necessary. Come Cataclysm, the Scourge has been by and large neutralized, and the death knights of Acherus find themselves without a purpose. When previously in this situation, Blizzard would leave them to rot in their expansion, *cough*Shattered Sun Offensive*cough*, but this time, Blizzard decided to come back to them. Rather than taking a side in the conflict, the Ebon Blade tore itself apart, with individual death knights taking sides in the conflict, as shown with Thassarian and Koltira in the conflict at Andorhal. There they brought the characters full circle when their previous associations began to color their actions in the battle, leading to Sylvanas taking Koltira down, and Thassarian, rather than stay in Andorhal to try and rally the Alliance forces, deserts the battlefield in an attempt to find his friend.

The Zandalari Tribe was introduced in Vanilla as a group of Trolls who sought to prevent the summoning of Hakkar the Soulflayer by the Gurubashi Trolls in Zul'Gurub. Once Hakkar was banished, they lay fallow for the next two expansions, until their return in patch 4.1. Seeing the threat that the increased belligerence of larger factions would devour the troll tribes piecemeal, the Zandalari sought to unite the troll tribes and establish a new troll empire that could stand against groups like the Horde, Alliance, and Scourge. Rather than remain blithely neutral, or pick a side, they opted to make a play for power on their own, going from a neutral faction to an enemy to both factions.

Both those factions were incorporated into the fabric of the storyline, they saw opportunity, or lost purpose, and shifted their actions accordingly. Other factions, however, were not so lucky. As a paladin main, I find the treatment the Argent Crusade got to be particularly egregious. Rather than reacting to new threats, they just sit in their town and ignore everything going on. While I truly enjoyed the role that the Argent Crusade and their offshoot, the Brotherhood of Light had in Eastern Plaguelands, in Western Plaguelands, where the story is defined by the battle at Andorhal, the Argent Crusade is overshadowed by the Ebon Blade and the Forsaken. After pushing through Andorhal, the segment of quests in Hearthglen seem less like an actual part of the story, and more like a cameo that hung around too long. All the T9 gear floating around, and the huge statue of Tirion, with no real substance just comes off as going "Hey! Remember ToC? Wasn't that awesome?" Did being frozen in a block of ice at Icecrown give Tirion such a brain freeze that he doesn't notice that his neighborhood is being engulfed in a necromantic war that threatens to undo all the work that Tirion has put into reclaiming the Plaguelands from the plague and blight that afflicts it?

Complacency has its place in the arsenal of characterization, but only when given justification. It would have been better if they had left Tirion in Northrend. Inaction due to non inclusion in the story is irritating, but it doesn't savage the flow of the narrative like inaction against character type does. Tirion has been built up as a man of action, both in the narrative, and through demonstration. His inactivity in this situation makes absolutely no sense.

If I were writing the script, I would have thrown out the Argent Crusade questing as it stood, it's not necessarily a bad questing area, but it serves no purpose within the larger narrative, and that fact makes it stand out like a white quarter panel on a red car. I would questing line along factional lines at this point. The Alliance players go to Hearthglen to demand an explanation from the Argent Crusade as to why they permit Val'kyr to run wild so close to their seat of power. There they meet with the Brotherhood of Light, one of the more reactionary subsets of the Argent Crusade.

Horde players would travel to Hearthglen for a different reason. Garrosh, knowing that there was going to be a confrontation between the Horde and the Alliance at Andorhal, and knowing that the Argent Crusade's might could turn the tide of battle if they discovered the questionable methods being employed by the Forsaken in the area, Garrosh took steps to keep Highlord Fordring's men off the table. To accomplish this end, he commands Eitrigg, a close friend of Highlord Fordring, to keep the crusade from deploying in opposition of the Horde.

Alliance players would liaison with Eligor Dawnbringer as they seek to provide proof of the Horde's duplicity in the situation, while Horde players follow commands from Garrosh to conceal the evidence, while Eitrigg struggles with his dual loyalties which will soon come into conflict with each other.

This sort of storyline could end several different ways, and hinges on the development of several characters. Depending on the wording of the orders, Eitrigg may or may not be aware of the extent of the crimes the Forsaken are committing, and what initially seemed like an innocuous request to keep Crusade forces clear of a conflict that did not concern them might come to shock Eitrigg. Or he might view the unity of the Horde as paramount to their survival, and place those concerns above all others. The Horde players might be successful in concealing their actions from Fordring, or the Alliance might convince him to mobilize in securing WPL. If Eitrigg places the Horde above the Argent Crusade, then it could create a schism that splits the Argent Crusade in two, just as the Ebon Blade fell apart. If Highlord Fordring does decide to throw the Forsaken out of the Plaguelands, does he actually side with the Alliance, or does he expand Hearthglen's influence as a neutral city-state? There's so many ways to take that storyline, and it's much more compelling than scaring away some spiders.


  1. Very nicely done. Personally I think of Fordring as a 'War Leader' who is probably still great but feeling like everything he had was given already.

    1. That would have been a believable story if Tirion had left Ashbringer at Light's Hope and retred to his shack on the banks of the Thondoril river. But he and his Crusade were extremely active in the interim between expansions, they built up Hearthglen and expanded it, deplagued much of WPL and are working to do the same in EPL. They expanded their ranks in an aggressive recruiting and training drive. They even built a giant statue of him. Weather other factions like it or not, he's basically carved out his own kingdom in WPL, and those aren't the actions of a war weary man who yearns to lay down his blade.

      That was what I liked about the DKs in Andorhal, they acknowledged their past, and how it tied into their current intentions. They felt like part of a coherent story. The argent crusade just feels like a cameo.

  2. For whatever it's worth, remember that the Eastern Kingdoms are about the size of North and South America combined. Imagine how long it would take for someone in New York to reliably know what was happening in California with medieval technology levels and travel time. That, at least, lets Tirion off the hook for not knowing what's going on in Silverpine. As for Andorhal, remember what his sources would be: Frantic Alliance survivors of a massacre who might be willing to lie about the Horde's actions to force the Crusade to pick a side, or triumphant Horde warriors with no reason to let the cat out of the bag regarding the val'kyr.

    You're absolutely right that the Cenarion Circle and Argent Crusade cannot remain neutral for much longer. Hopefully Blizzard knows this, and is willing to do what it takes to serve the story.

    1. Yeah, it's a big world, filled with Jet Planes, Airships, a robust mass transit system, tanks, and the ability to teleport across continents. The idea that information only travels at the speed of a horse in Azeroth is laughable, and flat out wrong. While they might not have the speed of something like the internet in the real world, important news would travel across Azeroth in a matter of days, at the slowest. By the time the Horde and Alliance came to blows in WPL, the Argent Crusade should have already known everything that happened in Gilneas, considering that there are worgen on Tirion's land, and the murder of the Argent Crusade members by the orcs in Ashenvale.

      And that's disregarding the fact that there's a necromantic war being fought in the next town over. The town that you can see from Hearthglen. That sort of thing isn't something that's very discrete. It's pretty easy to look south and go: "Hmmm... that blight wasn't there before. Something's wrong."

  3. Excellent points. I play a pally as my main, and WPL struck me with ALOT of confusion.

    So, while undead beings may not directly always be evil, their creation indisputably is. It twists and corrupts the souls of the previously living and forces them into a life of complete and utter pain and torment.

    So, the Argent Crusade HAS TO BE at war with the forsaken. That's fact one. They have no excuse to allow the forsaken to spread. They don't need to kill them, but they do need to kill the ones responsible for making more forsaken.

    Second point? All forsaken must be evil. They know Sylvanas is creating more of them, and that that is a horrible thing to be doing. Any forsaken willing to spread their curse are bad guys. Not misunderstood, not anti-heros, not patriots. Their existance is wrong and evil, that is accepted cannonical lore. They might as well endure it themselves, but to force or even gift it to another is unbelievably evil.

    So yeah, Argent Crusade? Pretty much the worst paladins ever. I miss the Scarlet Crusade, at least those guys were consistantly themseves.

    1. "All forsaken must be evil" I'm pretty sure that tailor must have fun torturing people right?

      "Not misunderstood, not anti-heros, not patriots. Their existance is wrong and evil, that is accepted cannonical lore. They might as well endure it themselves, but to force or even gift it to another is unbelievably evil."

      Keep your internet pixel justice to yourself boyo.

    2. That tailor provides the clothes that protects the spell casters who commit genocide in the name of Sylvanas. In the aftermath of WWII, Hugo Boss, the tailoring company that provided the uniforms to the Waffen-SS was nearly run out of business by penalties. Their founder was stripped of his rights, and died two years later from a tooth abscess, as a penniless war criminal, all because he stitched clothes for the SS.

      There's a difference between the undead, and the Forsaken. There are undead out there who do not serve Sylvanas. They mostly served in the Argent Crusade or the Ebon Blade. However, Sylvanas is an amoral psychopath whose cult is committing war crimes that even their allies in the Horde find reprehensible. The Forsaken, as a faction, are evil people doing evil things. They're doing the exact same things that the Scourge did, and they're doing it on Tirion's lawn. Why is Tirion ok with it when it's Sylvanas, and is willing to go across the oceans to fight against all odds when it's Arthas doing it?

    3. Come now. We are applying real life morals and logic in a fictional game?! (Have we met somewhere before?) I always thought it was a horrible idea for the writers to keep bringing in this neutral organization stuff. My suspected nightmare of keeping the crusade in the game became a reality. Either have them pick sides or disband them after serving their purpose. If not we will just get more unrealistic characterization like displayed with the crusade and the forsaken.

      Side note: There are undead from the Undercity that joined the crusade (not many but they are there).

    4. We're applying human characteristics to human characters. A good character is not malleable. It doesn't suddenly change its motivations, beliefs, and thought processes to suit the inorganic needs of a rigid story. The straight man cannot become a comic overnight, nor can the zealot suddenly overlook sin.

      There are undead within the Argent Crusade, but there are no Forsaken. Argent Apothecary Judkins, in EPL, is a prime example:
      "I broke my vows with the Forsaken and joined the Crusade. Now, I use my knowledge of alchemy to seek a counter-plague agent. And the Plaguewood is the perfect place to do so."

      Another example is Leonid Bartholomew:
      "I look at my undeath as a malady, Human. An illness that merely requires treatment; however, it is also a great blessing for the Argent Dawn."

      None of them serve Sylvanas, in fact Judkins actively works to undermine her, they are not Forsaken, they are merely undead. They understand that their state is unnatural, and that it is evil to force such a state on anyone else. That's a belief held as gospel throughout the Argent Crusade, and that's why their ignorance of the Forsaken's actions in WPL come off so badly. When someone refers to the Forsaken as evil, don't try to paint them with the ugly brush of racism, the Forsaken are not a race, they're a cult, designed from top to bottom for the sole purpose of protecting Sylvanas. They are nothing more than arrows in her quiver, tools to be discarded once they cease to be useful. The undead, on the other hand, can be more than that.

  4. This is something that has annoyed me quite a bit about Cata. Blizz gave us this long story about how the Forsaken are trying to turn everything that lives into undead monstrosities, they wipe out Southshore and start taking over the northern parts of the Eastern Kingdoms and Tirion just sits on his ass? Tirion is one of my favorite characters, and his inaction during this expansion makes no sense.

    I do have an idea that I think Blizz needs to consider though. We have a subfaction calling themselves the Brotherhood of the Light. The Naruu gave Velen a prophecy that one day the Draenei would join an army of of enlightened races and this Army of the Light would fight against the ravages of the Burning Legion.

    Well, the Plaguelands definately count as ravages of the Burning Legion. I could easily see the Draenei half of the Shattered Sun offensive moving south and joining up with the Brotherhood of the Light. This would probably be a misguided attempt to jumpstart the Army of the Light, but seeing them wage war against the Forsaken in the plaguelands would be interesting and would also explain what they've been up to.