Shirotsuno waits next to me as we listen to the Forsaken commander’s explanation. The humans are attacking in force, he says, and he needs us to collect twenty of their heads. I stifle a yawn. I had faced the Black Dragonflight, combated the ancient Qiraji, and gone head to head with the Burning Legion. Now I come to Northrend to face the Lich King himself, and my first task is to collect heads? My backpack has been filled with so many heads, livers, brains, ears, and femurs, a single whiff of its interior would peel a goblin off gold.
We accept the quest begrudgingly – after all, we need the experience, recycled or not – and head out through the front gate. Suddenly, the Howling Fjord is stretching out before us, a verdant plain filled with hovering vultures and implausible shoveltusks. Far to the north, tribes of kobold skitter across blinding-white mountains. To the west, we witness open warfare between elves and humans. Up the road, lumbering vykrul fight against Forsaken soldiers and Orcish hordes, and beyond that we see a terrific fortress rising out of the fog: Utgarde Keep, seat of vykrul power. A stirring, mournful theme of bagpipes fills our ears. That’s when it happens.
“Do you feel like running?” I ask Shirotsuno. Running is the slow way to travel in World of Warcraft, and as a rule, players stop doing it as soon as the game permits them to.
“Yeah,” Shirotsuno replies thoughtfully. “I think I do.”
So we ran.
Why the change of heart? Why do I not even care that my warrior is inexplicably blocked from taking flight on his dragon – a creature capable of flying at nearly three times running speed?
The explanation is simple. The Howling Fjord was telling us a story. Significantly, it did not take a lengthy cut-scene or large block of quest text to immerse us. In fact, every experience that made the Fjord memorable had everything to do with discovery and nothing to do with heavy-handed storytelling. The startling conclusion: Blizzard has been doing this all along, starting with the day World of Warcraft launched nearly four years ago.
A Double Standard
The on-going debate over storytelling in MMORPGs is an ironic one. After all, gamers have long lambasted video games for relying on other forms of media to communicate their stories, particularly movies and books (translated to ‘cut-scenes’ and ‘dialogue trees’). So when the MMORPG, steeped in lore and light on cut-scenes, arrived, we might have expected gamers to cheer, “At last! We can experience game worlds and their stories on our own terms!” This is not what happened. Instead, the going byline when it comes to MMORPG storytelling is that they are weak at best and non-existent at worst.
There is some truth to this criticism. Cut-scenes, when done well, can help focus the narrative. They solidify important moments in the plot and motivate the player to continue. And Blizzard’s cut-scene track record has been nigh-spotless. No wonder, then, that their presence in Blizzard’s mammoth RPG have been sorely missed. Does that also mean, though, that World of Warcraft is not telling a story?
For long-time (Alliance) players, the story began in a little vale called Elwynn Forest with the intrusion of Defias rogues in an orchard. For the Horde, it began with a demonic infestation in a nearby cave. Not all of these stories would last for the sixty levels of gameplay the original game shipped with. The Defias storyline, in fact, all but disappears after level 20. The point is that the storytelling has been going on since level 1.
World of Warcraft has story. Its desolate wastelands have story spread all over their landscapes: the ruinous aftermaths of battles and the remains of dead gods. The trick is that World of Warcraft’s story is shown, not told.
Old World Storytelling
I am not arguing the popular notion that players create their own stories in game spaces, a praise often given to games like The Sims and Team Fortress 2. Such a thesis is, I think, a trite one. Humans will always bring memories out of their experiences. That does not mean such ‘storytelling’ is a profound substitute for more subtle methods.
World of Warcraft does storytelling the same way Half-Life and Bioshock have – through immersion in a cohesive, purposeful world. It does what I like to call ‘video game storytelling’.
Another early, pre-Wrath example is the Temple of Atal’hakkar, a ruin sunken in a lake called the Pool of Tears and guarded by a flight of green dragons. Quest text will explain it was a temple built by trolls to summon the god Hakkar, and that the dragons sunk it to protect the world from his wrath. But anyone can walk the ruins his or herself, fight the undead trolls and the draconic protectors, and banish the avatar of Hakkar. There is no substitute for discovery.
There is also the silithid. Horde players would have first met these creepy bug creatures in the Barrens (early level content). They would not have needed quest text to understand the mucus-covered mounds that spewed forth beetles and other unsightly things. Nor would they have needed quest text in the Thousand Needles, where they encountered an entire underground cavern system filled wall-to-wall with the disgusting things. At some point, it might have dawned on them that there was a growing infestation problem in Kalimdor. They might not have been too far off from the real explanation, either. Simply by placing these bugs around the world, Blizzard told a story. In a less cohesive world, we might have required a cut-scene to understand why we were raiding Ahn’Qiraj. In a world where we had been fighting bugs for sixty levels of gameplay, no such heavy-handedness is required.
Blizzard has not perfected MMORPG storytelling by any means. What their game continues to lack is strong characterization. (Saying the player is a character does not count, particularly when players mentally separate themselves from the world in order to fight the bigger villains. Illidan may have been slain by player characters, but he was also slain by a group of men and women whose victory cry was along the lines of, “Fuck yeah! We got the sweet loot!” It’s the stuff of a good time, but not a good story.)
Most non-player characters in World of Warcraft serve two functions: they hand out quests, and they hand out loot. There might be a good explanation behind Lady Vashj, queen of the naga (in fact, there was – did you know she was once a night elf?), but her appearance in the game is painfully limited to being a loot piñata. Blizzard is working to rectify this lack of connection with a stronger villainous presence in Wrath of the Lich King, but their world demands more personalities on the player’s side of the war that are also not the player.
Ken Levine, lead designer for Bioshock, remarked in an interview that seeing a host of non-player characters congratulate his character for finishing the Bloodmyst Isle storyline was a moment of excitement on par with being given an award at the Game Developer’s Conference. He even admitted to having no notion of the significance of what he had done. The gathered crowd was story enough.
These sorts of experiences are what World of Warcraft, and other MMORPGs, is about. In total, they work to tell a story, subtly but profoundly.
Maybe one day I will knock down Arthas in Icecrown and sputter, “That’s right, Arthas! Suck it!” And I may very well be rewarded with a cut-scene, a trick that Blizzard is already doing with things like Wrath Gate and the Sunwell. But nothing will really beat the day I first climbed that hill in the Fjord and spotted Utgarde Keep rising out of the mists like a black stain on the world – with nary a cut-scene in sight.