The lore of the globally acclaimed massively multiplayer online role playing game “World of Warcraft” is set in the fantasy world of Azeroth, a complex and vibrant world which has evolved over a franchise of Warcraft games, since the very first “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans”, in 1995. Even back at the very start of the Warcraft narrative, the concept of “War” played a huge part in the opera that was the story of the relationship between the Orcs and the Humans. Although many games use the concept of War as a pivotal point of their narrative, when we take a closer look at the lore of Warcraft, we can see that the conflicts present are not a simple “Good vs. Evil” concept. (MacCallum-Stewart, 2008)
The main difference between the player choices in the original Warcraft series and the MMO is the fact that in the strategy games it was campaign based, and so the player would represent different factions in an alternating pattern. This would allow the player to see all points of view and establish their own views as to who was right or wrong. In the Warcraft MMO however, the player chooses the race – and so faction – at the beginning of the game, and so is opposed to the other faction for the whole of their character’s life span. The concept of war in “Warcraft” is very complex considering the cartoony art direction and simplistic game mechanics – as soon as the player enters the game, there are hints of conflict and uneasy truces – with references to “foul mongrels”, not-so-subtle bitterness towards the horde and even talk of “traitors wishing to destroy Stormwind from within” – even in the very first cinematic that any player creating a Human character will see. (Blizzard, 2005) This creates a feeling of unease and suspicious of all characters in Azeroth, even the supposedly safe starting areas. Furthermore, the connotations that the player will pick up when creating a character rely on references from traditional gaming and popular culture, such as Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954) and Dungeons and Dragons (Gygax, 1974), in the sense that Humans are a noble race, usually fighting for good but with questionable methods, and races such as Orcs and Trolls are usually savage, misunderstood beings fighting for their right to the land, but are generally portrayed as the “bad guys” – with the Orcs being “a non-playable race, described in the Monster Manual as “aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage and battle other creatures”.”. (MacCallum-Stewart, 2008) (Cook, 2000). The point of this is that if the player has any kind of fantasy or role playing experience at all in the past, they will pick up on these tropes, and they will alter their opinion of the races portrayed in Warcraft, whether the developers meant for it to be that way or not.
It could be argued that the focus of conflict has changed for World of Warcraft even since the launch, with the release of the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions showing how both factions are being brought together against the one foe – the ferocious undead Scourge. This is also depicted by main cities which have opened up, such as Dalaran, which is a “sanctuary” and so forbids any Player vs. Player combat between factions within their walls. Furthermore, it has been shown that many Role Play scenarios created by player characters as implicit narrative have been said to show a pattern of more inter-guild conflicts than conflicts between the Alliance and the Horde. However, it seems that Blizzard have found it difficult to represent this “uneasy truce” and cater for the player’s will to kill opposing players, which is arguably a very rewarding experience, presenting them with Experience Points as part of Character Advancement, Reputation with certain factions and access to rare items. (WoWWiki, 2010) (MacCallum-Stewart, 2008).
Despite the fact that this may leave some holes in the narrative, it is fair to suggest that Player vs. Player combat is necessary for a successful MMO. This has been demonstrated in less successful MMOs such as Richard Garriot’s Tabula Rasa – a narratively rich MMO which had no real PvP to speak of – since there was only one faction. Reviews later stated that the lack of PvP was a large factor in why it was not successful (Tabula Rasa Reviews, 2007). Furthermore, using the theories of Kant and Clausewitz we can see why Azeroth is a world in “Perpetual War” – a concept which is desirable for MMOs since the narrative is to be ever-changing and evolving. Kant suggests a series of values by which humanity should live by, should we seek “Perpetual Peace” – but also that this is unlikely to ever happen, since humans instinctively need social interaction, and there is no social interaction without conflict (Kant, 1795). This is particularly relevant to MMOGs, since they are driven by social interaction – with the fact that there are many players cooperating in one world being the main thing which would separate them from normal single player role playing games. Clausewitz also suggests that “War is a continuation of Politics and Policy with an added mix of other means” (Clausewitz, 1832) – which further backs up the point that whenever social units exist, politics come into play, and conflict occurs as units fight to defend those politics.
If we look a little deeper into the tropes of World of Warcraft, we can also detect many connotations surrounding the political state of Azeroth, and what the standing of each of the factions is. As mentioned before, the words used in the opening cinematic such as “savage” to describe the Horde (Blizzard, 2005), subtly suggest colonialism and racism, and suggests references to times of history when the British Empire was thriving all over the world – where the Alliance are representative of Colonialism and Horde represent Communism. In this sense it is reasonable to suggest that in some ways World of Warcraft is a simulation of modern life – a “Capitalist Fairytale” (Rettburg, 2008) of sorts which provides such a parallel to modern life that it has been used as a tool to promote ideologies of innovation and improvisation in executives and corporate business (Brown, 2009).
Narrative Structures and Constructs in Azeroth
It has become apparent from past released MMOGs that narrative content of these games is a very important – if not THE most important factor in creating a successful game. Despite some bad reviews, one main thing that Tabula Rasa boasted was “storyline…well-crafted, carried along by a variety of interesting mission objectives”(CommonSenseMedia, 2007). This is a prime example of a storyline negatively affected by gameplay.
This example brings forth the argument of Ludology vs. Narratology – or rather the question of which is more important – the Gameplay, or the Narrative. This is a big area of research and debate in games studies, with academics such as Espen Aarseth and Jesper Jules arguing the case for either side. Furthermore, the issue of Implicit and Emergent narrative comes to light – more specifically whether or not the player can create their own content. There are many different types of narrative within the MMOG genre, with something like EVE Online at one end – with player driven narrative – and something like Tabula Rasa at the other end with set narrative which is unchangeable. The question is –
How much power do players have to affect the narrative of World of Warcraft?
The ability for players to affect narrative is obviously very important, and millions of players log in to Azeroth every day to create their own story. It is still necessary, however to maintain a balance between giving control of the narrative to the players and providing an engaging and immersive spine narrative. It is often difficult to create deep and meaningful characters without forcing the narrative on the player too much. This is where the technique of “Directed Gameplay” becomes apparent. A term coined by Jeff Kaplan, lead game designer of World of Warcraft – Directed Gameplay is the way in which “design of WoW was [used] to improve immersion within the context of an open-world design.” (Kaplan, 2009). Using this method when designing Quests and Achievements helps the designers to maintain control over the fabula and the narrative experience that the player has. If the player has control over the fabula, they become their own narrators, and this could result in a less immersive or realistic experience than intended. It is beneficial to have an engaging story from the developer’s point of view, because it gives it a feeling of a TV series, in the sense that the player wants to stay tuned in to the narrative, and furthermore the narrative can be changed it needs to be, which is very important in an ever changing persistent world.
Having a set spine narrative increases the emotional connection to the game – and this in turn increases immersion, having an effect similar to that of a soap opera – where the player doesn’t want to miss what will happen next! This added emotional effect also helps to build up the lore around the game world, and also encourage a loyal player base to develop (PopularVirtualWorlds, 2010).
Another thing which encourages a loyal player base is the fact that the narrative of the Warcraft franchise has been built up over a long period of time –since the release of Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans – released in 2005. This has allowed Blizzard to carefully create spine narrative and fabula which appeals to both Eastern and Western markets – a feat which usually causes designers to aim for one or the other. The world of Azeroth is often subject to change depending on player culture (for example, popular culture references) or even affect player culture – such as in-game language being brought the real life (e.g. LOL, ROFL). The narrative works on a player level and is engaging thanks to the use of references and symbolism – the classic fantasy rhetoric is also present which means the player has some level of familiarity with the game and comes to expect certain tropes.
This is not to say that the narrative of Warcraft is completely static – instances of player driven stories completely separate from gameplay mechanics have been known to occur – often in role playing situations, such as marriages or funerals. This player driven content allows the player to feel as though they have much more free will in a controlled world – the very essence of Directed Gameplay.
All these methods help the player to feel closer to their character and so more immersed in the game. The main way in which the player develops a connection with their character is to experience events in the game which make him seem like a “hero” – especially events which tie in greatly with the spine narrative of the game. This is also demonstrated in many famous and popular movies – such as Lord of the Rings and Star wars – which, according to Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, all share a similar structure known as the “Monomyth”:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of
supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a
decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this
mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
(Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1968)
This is relevant to a player character, since the journey of a character from level 1 to the level cap has many similarities with this monomyth – with 5 basic stages that the player experiences being very similar to Campbell’s theory:
A Call to Adventure – The discovery of a quest.
A Road of Trials – The challenge of the quest.
The Goal – Completing the Quest.
The Return to the Ordinary World – Returning to town to hand in the Quest.
The Application of the Goal – Receiving a reward in terms of character advancement for completing the quest, or accepting the following quest in a chain.
The fact that these can be applied to MMO player characters helps to greatly increase the level of immersion and familiarity that a player feels towards their character – and means they are much more likely to keep playing! World of Warcraft manages to incorporate this theory while still keeping it simple – making the player feel like the hero and as though they are each individually contributing to the spine narrative of the game.
Narrative Techniques in Azeroth
A general rule of thumb for character design in general, not just for MMOGs, is to encourage the player to empathize and relate to the character. A sense of familiarity and relation helps to immerse the character and so increase interest in the narrative and lore of the game world.
There are many narrative techniques that Blizzard use in order to create engaging narrative and help the player feel a connection with their character – while still enforcing the principles of Directed Gameplay. The use of these principles gives the player the illusion of freedom, including free will and complex choices. The theme of Illusion however is not just limited to the gameplay mechanics, but also stretches to the geography and level design of the world. An example of such an illusion would be the fact that there are many Non-player characters in the world of Azeroth, each with a purpose that adds to the narrative and even some with complex back stories and relationships. What they don’t have, however, are homes – as seen here as one the unwritten rules of Warcraft:
“5. The Bubble-Hearth Housing Market
The population of any major city is listed as being in the hundreds of thousands, but you can only find 12 actual houses or homes in it.”
[“This is a list of hyperbolically-stated truths making fun of everything from raid progression to role-playing, to the players behind the characters, to the various classes, to quests, to game physics, to PvP … and more!” – (DwarfPriest, 2009)]
A lot of work is put into the NPCs of WoW in order to increase the player’s engagement in the narrative, and they do add a lot to the game experience – especially for Role Players who actively converse and interact with Non-player characters in a big way. However, the fact that there are no homes for the people breaks this immersion somewhat – as it doesn’t seem realistic. Furthermore, the fact that they do not have realistic life schedules – for example, a Pie Seller in Ironforge will walk the same path selling pies no matter what time of day it is – shows more cracks in the illusion.
The back story and lore surrounding the world of Azeroth is a long and complex one – but one main way that it appeals to so many player types is that the player can take what they want from the story. In order to give the player the basic storyline lots of kernals are used so they can understand what is going on at all times, and perhaps give helpful hints for more difficult quests. Dynamic satellites are also used in order to provide more in-depth information – for players who wish to learn more about the universe – since some players will wish to grind through the quests without reading the back-story, but some will wish to get more involved. This usually depends on the target player types of the game, but since WoW caters for such a varied audience, more options are needed. The use of these techniques results in a basic fabula which runs as the spine narrative throughout the game, but a more complex sjuzet and focalization depending on the point of view the player chooses to take on. No matter what take on narrative the player chooses to take one matter remains constant – the narrative is formal, and is arguably unaffected by player interaction. This could be seen as a bad thing, if you consider another successful MMMOG such as EVE Online – which has a very loyal, although smaller player base, and allows players to affect and change narrative – but remains so because of the fact that the WoW player base is so huge – it would be difficult to allow players to all have an impact. It is possible for the players to create their own narrative, as mentioned before, but the spine narrative is constant and developer-set.
Directed Gameplay is also enforced by the use of Quests, and the hubs in which these quests are found by the player. The quests fill in the lore as the player levels and results in a further knowledge of the narrative by the time the player reaches the level cap. The quests also teach the player how to travel throughout the world, and funnel the player from hub to hub – using a technique known as “Breadcrumbing” – with the use of different types of quests which lead the player to new locations. Breadcrumbing helps to keep the player on an optimal path through the game zones, and reduces the chance of too many players ending up questing in the same places – moving the players along a metaphorical production line from starting areas to end-game content. The level design on zones also contributes to this, with elements such as cliffs and water bodies preventing the character from travelling to places they shouldn’t be yet, or moving from the optimal path. Warcraft was also intentionally designed so that the “Quest Log” is never empty – making sure the player always has something to do, and won’t get bored – this is following a complaint from Beta Testers that the quest logs were “Broken” because they were empty (Kaplan, 2009), leading Blizzard developers to realize that empty quest logs reduce the bread crumbing effect and lead players off the optimal path. As the player advances in level, the quests may become sparser, but may also become much harder, and will often also push for interaction with other players. This encourages Guild Mechanics, such as grouping together and helping each other out to advance – or dungeons and raids which further increase social interaction in gameplay.
Another feature in WoW which was different to most MMOGs on release was the fact that there is only a very small penalty for character death. Moreover, there is no penalty for death in Battlegrounds at all – except for vengeance against the player who killed you – resulting in the desirable consequence of increased social interaction and an aspiration to play more to get even. This feature was very intentional by the developers, and the reason for this is explained in the WoW frequently asked questions:
“…We felt that the challenges in the game should come from interesting, complex encounters and events, not from forcing players to lose one to eight hours of progress when their characters die and making them recoup any experience or equipment they had earned previously…”
(Blizzard, WoW Stratics – Death FAQs)
Therefore this helps to maintain a balance between the game being challenging and rewarding without making it too difficult and reducing any of the fun aspects of the game.
Main Characters of Azeroth
Even before the player enters the game, some preconception of the world – and this will mainly come from the characters that they are presented with. Although there is obviously formal narrative depicted about each race, most of the knowledge that they player will have of characters will be discovered through tropes, or connotations from the environment, their appearance, or of course from the starting area cut scenes for each race. Each race also has mythic races, which tend to differ depending on the faction that they are in – for example the Alliance arguably a Neo-medieval faction, with everything to gain from the war, which contrasts with the Orcish Horde’s Kantian perspective (Kant, 1795) which suggests elements of the Romanesque. Although the tropes of colonialism can be detected in a strong way, there is no clear way to tell from the narrative which side are the “good guys” or who are the “bad guys”. Both sides are justified but wrong in their actions, which is a desirable state for an MMOG since it makes the fight between the players in each factions less clear cut, and more of a grey area – both sides feel justified so the conflict is less likely to end anytime soon.
It is difficult to pick out any handful of characters that are the most important in the Warcraft lore – the narrative is so expansive and complex – however the main reason for the lack of main characters could be to make the player themselves feel like a hero – one who can greatly affect the course of the world.
Seen on the World of Warcraft Official Forums, this comment sums up this situation perfectly:
“The good thing about Warcraft´s lore is that there´s not any character that stands out. There are tons of important lore characters and you can´t say that the overall story revolves around any of them. Some might receive more credit, or have starring sub-stories, but none are the “main Warcraft character”.
For each expansion there are an Antagonist and a Protagonist. This allows the narrative to progress through each expansion and add new end-game content each time. For the most recent expansion, the Wrath of the Lich King, the hero and villain could be said to be Tyrian Fordring – a mighty paladin, and Arthas – now known as the Lich King, a Prince twisted by chaotic magic. Furthermore, it is easy to apply Vladimir Propp’s theory of characters to the main characters of Warcraft – similar to the results he found from studying generic fantasy and folk tales. (Propp, 1928)
The villain — struggles against the hero.
The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object
The (magical) helper — helps the hero in the quest
The princess and her father — gives the task to the hero, identifies the false hero, marries the hero, often sought for during the narrative. Propp noted that functionally, the princess and the father cannot be clearly distinguished.
The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
[False hero] — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.
In this instance, The Lich King would be a Villian, and Tirion Fordring would be that Hero – and the player would take on many of these roles too – for example, the helper and/or the donor.
Other than the main two, there are also heads of each faction – usually a forefront member of that race, who will be a shining example of what that race stand for and the tropes they suggest.
The humans are perhaps one of the most surprisingly controversial races in the Warcraft universe – it is hard to find positive representations of them in the level design and quest set ups. Furthermore if you look a little deeper into the less travelled areas of the Kingdom, there are signs of torture equipments and whispers of genocide – the Stockades, Stormwind’s own dungeon, especially shows signs of this. Furthermore the king of Stormwind was absent for many years – leaving a juvenile to control the Kingdom – showing signs of desperation, and perhaps not such a prosperous nation after all.
In contrast with the Humans, the Orcs – especially their leader Thrall – have tropes symbolizing Honor and the fact that they are justified in their actions. The Orcs have connotations of blood lust, brutishness and stupidity – but in contrast also of nobility, loyalty and spirituality.
They also have connotations of military organizations, by the fact that they use ranks such as “Peon” to hierarchy their men – this also helps players to associate with them in the sense that these ranks can translate to real life organizations, such as the use of “Managers” and “Executives”.
The Night Elves are an aloof race of spiritual, nature-loving beings that live in the out-of-the-way kingdom of Darnassus. Many of them are also very religious, praising the goddess Elune – and they speak their own Elven language which again suggests tropes of intelligence and separation from the main Horde races. As a reflection on humanity, Night Elves represent the xenophobic nature of humans, and the loss of old ways of being closer to nature, and the rejection of technology.
The Dwarven race perhaps makes the most references to historically accurate events – namely warfare techniques such as trench warfare and festivals with similarities to the Christmas Truce of 1914. In this sense Warcraft is very honest in its portrayal of war. Furthermore the use of alcoholism references and the fact that the female dwarves do not play a big part in the narrative lead us to the conclusion that the Dwarves are a chauvinistic one, focusing on a patriarchal society with interests only in typically male activities such as hunting and drinking.
The Gnomes also have some reflections on humanity during the lead up to World War One. They represent the loss of god and the introduction of technology for humans, which results in a twisted race focused on engineering and machinery. Furthermore, instances such as where engineering tools fail, or the fact that their home city, Gnomeregan, has been over-run by toxic monsters suggest tropes relating to apocalypse – literally “death of man by his own hands”.
The Forsaken, or Undead race of the Horde also present a social critique of the human race. Most if not all of their main towns and cities lay in ruins – the main undead city, Undercity – itself being built underneath the ruins of the Human city Lordearon. It could be argued that the Undead represent the fall of man, or a loss of humanity. Furthermore, the Undead seem somewhat separated from the rest of the Horde races – preferring personal success over the success of the faction. Perhaps the reason they are so successful derives from this – they do not fight one another, and work together as a team. They have no desire for dominance over each other, and no lust for power.
Case Study: The Wrathgate
The Wrathgate Quest line is a chain quest in the Dragonblight area of Northrend, and consists of the following quests:
 Into Hostile Territory
 Steamtank Surprise
 Scattered To The Wind &  Breaking Off A Piece
 The Chain Gun And You
 Plunderbeard Must Be Found!
 Plunderbeard’s Journal
 Chasing Icestorm: The 7th Legion Front
 Chasing Icestorm: Thel’zan’s Phylactery
 An End And A Beginning
 To Fordragon Hold!
 Audience With The Dragon Queen
 Galakrond and the Scourge
 On Ruby Wings
 Return To Angrathar
 Reborn From The Ashes
 Fate, Up Against Your Will
 A Royal Coup
 The Killing Time
 The Battle For The Undercity
(WoWWiki, Quest:Into Hostile Territory, 2010)
If we look at this quest chain in detail, it is easy to see that this chain is a good example of one which follows the principles of Directed Gameplay. Although the chain may seem quite long, many of those which require the player to talk to another NPC, directly feeding them the spine narrative as they go.
The main reason why this quest chain is such an integral part of questing through Northrend is because in incorporates many of the main characters of the Warcraft lore, and unlocks an important cut scene for the player after they have completed the “  Return To Angrathar” quest. This cut scene shows both Alliance and Horde characters calling out the Lich King in front of “Angrathar the Wrath Gate” – a looming colossal gate surrounding the Icecrown Citadel. Furthermore, it shows advances in the uneasy truce between the Alliance and Horde, as they battle against the Lich King, and how the Forsaken had broken away from the Horde and made dangerous moves which not only show their prowess against the Lich King, but also put the lives of their allies in danger, showing their recklessness and desire to defeat their enemies no matter what.
After the cutscene it is revealed that the some of the events of the cutscene were in controversial circumstances – for example the actions of the Forsaken were not on the orders of Sylvanas (the leader of the Undead), but rather a rebellion of Varimathras – an assistant of Sylvanas. The findings of the following quests lead up to the last quest in the chain which is a raid on the Forsaken city of Undercity which lurks beneath the ruins of the old human city of Lordearon. Although the player doesn’t actually make much of an impact on the conflict itself – since they are accompanying the king of Stormwind himself – it is still a very good example of, as mentioned before, the player feeling as though they are part of a bigger machine and making a huge difference to the narrative and lore of Warcraft.
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