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.