Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
We’re living in the wake of a new World of Warcraft expansion, and that means that I have the itch to dive back into the game. I have a lot of fond memories bound up in World of Warcraft, like many people do, and without very much effort at all I can summon up exactly how physically miserable I was sitting in a room with a broken air conditioner while grinding in Netherstorm. So for this new expansion, Battle For Azeroth, I thought that I would create a new character, level up through the past decade of content updates, and experience the new content with that character. I made it to level 18.
Level 18 of 120, mind you, which is a real massive failure on my part. I had these blue skies dreams of what I might be able to do in the month before the new expansion released. In previous years, I had leveled characters quickly and efficiently, skipping through Horde content (always Horde content) with maximum efficiency. But this time was different, mostly because I was actually interested in being introduced to the game again after the truly awful experience I had with the Legion expansion when it released a few years ago.
Playing in the lead-up to Battle For Azeroth, I found myself thinking some real Rust Cohle thoughts. Time is a flat circle. We’re living in a dead world.
The reason why? There’s a double edge to how World of Warcraft works. On one side, it is a nostalgic, comforting experience that always gives you the same thing. On the other side, it cannot ever exceed that basic experience. It has been pared down to such a specific set of feelings and events that it is almost foolish to expect or desire something that isn’t in the canned leveling, dungeon-crawling, and equipment-upgrading pathway that leads you from the first level to the last.
There’s a part of us, of me, that yearns for and loves that predictability. And I don’t mean just video games. Across media, we want to see the hero overcome the villain. We need tragedy, revenge, and the insurmountable difference between the two. We want the inexpert swordsman to defeat the master wielder without a thought after 90 minutes of hard-won victories. Genres are templates, and we find them helpful and comforting to us.
The difference between, say, a Transformers film and World of Warcraft has to do with intensity of familiarity. While there’s some derivation that happens in those films, they do change (or at least mix up) what happens in each film while following the same general plot.
Familiarity in video games is delivered through the exact repetitive actions. The same missions in the same order accomplished through the same abilities on the same hotbar slots mapped to the same keyboard keys. This hunter levels the same as that warlock. This hero character will be the one to stop the destruction of the world just like my last three characters were.
And in the past, I was able to settle myself in that nostalgia. I found solace in starting in the Valley of Trials, unchanged since the Cataclysm expansion (and not all that changed, honestly). Making my way to Razor Hill, Orgrimmar, and the Barrens was a journey that delivered the precisely correct amount of familiarity, and it allowed me to listen to podcasts or music. It turned the act of gameplay into a kind of sleepwalking, a passive enjoyment that was, ultimately, fulfilling in the same way that eating an entire bag of microwave popcorn in one sitting is fulfilling.
Not this time. I felt every moment that I spent slaying thornweavers and collecting bird beaks. A maelstrom of age, familiarity, and the pressing reality that I have other things I could be doing meant that I couldn’t get back into the groove of automatic activity that the World of Warcraft leveling experience requires.
It hit me then, and continues to hit me now, that you need to go to World of Warcraft wanting something. I was wrong; it doesn’t deliver comfort or good feelings to you. You need to want comfort, good feelings, and the sense of a cozy blanket slowly suffocating you. If that’s what you want, it is what WoW delivers. It’s like a lesser Stephen King story.
It hit me then, and continues to hit me now, that you need to go to World of Warcraft wanting something.
That comes with a wave of sadness for me. It washes over me. Because, in a general sense, I want that. I want to hold myself close to the leveling experience and just lose myself in it. But it is built like a mirror, and what I think I want isn’t really what I do want. And so I’m left at level 18, standing on the edge of a river, throwing my hands up in frustration because I need to kill how many crocodiles?
And on the edge of a new expansion, all these hours of doing these automatic actions, I can’t shake the idea that I could spend that time doing anything else. And so I do anything else.