‘World of Warcraft’ Continues to Thrive, But I Miss Blizzard’s Storytelling Magic

As the MMORPG got bigger, so its once-fascinating story got lost to the demands of online play.

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28 April 2015, 4:00pm

Arthas had seen better days by this point in 'Warcraft' lore

Let me tell you a story about a man called Arthas Menethil. Son of King Terenas and heir to the throne of Lordaeron, he became a Knight of the Silver Hand and trained as a paladin. Although he was rash and stubborn, he quickly became a great fighter and helped in the fight against the orcs. However, he would soon face a much greater threat.

He encountered a necromancer named Kel'Thuzad, who was helping the demon Mal'ganis unleash a plague across the kingdom that not only killed its victims, but also turned them into vile, undead creatures. Arthas arrived at the city of Stratholme too late, and found that infected grain had already been delivered to the citizens. In a shocking turn, he ordered the paladin Uther, his former mentor, and the rest of the knights to purge the entire city, even though the inhabitants had not yet begun to turn.

When Uther refused this horrific order, Arthas proclaimed that he had committed treason, and disbanded the Knights of the Silver Hand. Many of Arthas' friends and allies left with Uther, but with his remaining forces he raided the city and set it aflame. This event began his gradual descent into madness. He ventured to the frozen wastes of Northrend to find a powerful sword named Frostmourne in order to end the scourge.

Arthas did not heed warnings that the blade was cursed, and although he defeated the demon behind the plague, it came at a terrible price. Arthas returned to Lordaeron a hero, but was now under the influence of the Lich King, master of the undead scourge. Arthas approached his father the king, and to the horror of everyone in the kingdom, ran him through with the cursed blade. He then left Lordaeron without a leader and disappeared to command the undead armies.

Arthas' betrayal from 'Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos'

This is a short version of the story of just the first of the four campaigns in Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, and back when I was a kid, I thought it was the coolest shit ever. Actually, I still do. The image of Arthas' silhouetted figure plunging Frostmourne into his father followed by the bloodied and broken crown tumbling down the steps of the throne room is probably forever burned into my memory.

Released in 2002, Warcraft III was the first game that sold me on the idea that games could be a fantastic storytelling medium. Even after I had completed the game and its 2003 expansion, The Frozen Throne, multiple times, I would spend hour after hour on the 'net, reading up on all the backstory and lore that wasn't shown in the games. So when World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game carrying on the story of my favourite game, was announced, you can imagine how excited I was.

Little did I know at the time that it would go on to be the most successful MMORPG ever, and that 11 years and five expansions later over 10 million people would still be playing it. I lasted about seven or eight of those years, loving the end-game raiding content with various groups of friends. However, something was missing. I loved Warcraft III for the story, and it helped that the real-time strategy gameplay was top notch, too. I realised that in World of Warcraft I was barely paying any attention to the narrative. After acknowledging this, I was disappointed in myself for taking so long to notice, and disappointed in Blizzard for not continuing the story from my childhood in a way that spoke to me.

The story still goes on, of course. Arthas eventually became the new Lich King (pictured, main) in The Frozen Throne, and was the main antagonist and final raid boss in WoW's second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Herein lies one of the many problems that WoW, and just about every other MMO for that matter, faces with its storytelling.

The battle with Arthas in World of Warcraft was a very cool moment. At one point he kills every member of your raid in a single, mighty attack. However, just as he is about to raise you all as an undead army, the mighty paladin Tirion Fordring destroys Frostmourne, and in doing so, the souls of all the victims it had claimed are released, including Arthas' own along with his father's. Terenas resurrects your group, and Arthas dies with the spirit of his father comforting him.

But here's the problem: when Wednesday rolls around, all the raid content resets, allowing players to go back in and get more loot from the bosses. This completely undoes all your work. Arthas is back and terrorising the lands once again, Frostmourne is remade, and you'll have to go through the same process to kill him. Week after week this goes on, and all of the story impact is lost. For me, it became all about getting the best items and the rare achievements. At that point, the fact that this was Warcraft didn't matter – I could've been playing a game with any old story attached to it, and experienced the same enjoyment.

In Warcraft III, you were controlling Arthas and several other mighty heroes throughout the course of the campaign. You got to see them grow and change, and interact with everyone and everything around them. In World of Warcraft it's you who is billed as the mighty hero. However, so is everyone else who is playing. In fact, most of them are probably even mightier than you are. You're just one drop in a sea of people who are all "single-handedly" yet simultaneously saving the world. Even if you do nothing, the world is still going to be saved by someone else. You're no hero. This isn't a story about you. The story is happening around you, and only if you're in the right place at the right time, that's when you might catch a glimpse of it.

In 2012, 'Mists of Pandaria' raised the 'WoW' level cap from 85 to 90 (and if you know what that means, you're one up on the editor writing this caption)

I was lucky that for most of my time playing World of Warcraft I was in a guild regularly able to get 25 people together, multiple times a week, in order to take on the hardest bosses in the end-game content. However, not everyone is in the same position. This poses a problem for players who want to see all the juicy lore and watch the story progress for themselves. If you're not in a good enough raid, you're not going to see what happens. You're no longer guaranteed to see those awesome moments like when Arthas betrays his father and his people, or when Archimonde destroys the entire city of Dalaran just by thinking it. You might get snippets of information, and eventually you'll figure out what happened, or simply watch it on YouTube, but it's not the same.

Alternatively, you could wait until the new expansion comes out. Arthas is still up there in Northrend in a state of limbo. Multiple expansions have raised the level cap far enough that you can now go into his lair, Icecrown Citadel, and kill him alone. The world has moved on around him, and now there are way harder bosses to take on. The fight will still play out as if he's the most powerful being in all the land, but it'll be over in a matter of minutes. This is what my favourite character from my childhood has been reduced to, and this is why I desperately want a "proper" Warcraft 4. Sadly, with 10 million people still playing World of Warcraft, that probably won't be happening any time soon.

@Matt_Porter44

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