It had all seemed so breezily easy 15 seconds earlier. A casual stroll with a couple of faithful hounds, while rattling off occasional pot-shots at passing werewolves, then one wrong turn and suddenly we're being chased by, what, 30 of them? It's almost impossible to get killed at this stage, apparently. Call me a trendsetter.
Or, more accurately, call me a clumsy virgin, at World of Warcraft. For years I've blissfully steered clear of this global phenomenon, due to a lifelong suspicion of anything with pointy ears: elves, dwarves, Conservatives. But recently that healthy prejudice has been unexpectedly pricked, by my intended. As if entranced by elfin magic, I've inexplicably become betrothed to a WoW veteran.
"H" (who'd prefer I didn't mention her full name, for reasons that'll become clear) was cold turkey when we hooked up, but has gradually been lured back by the role-playing hordes. And it's not just the actual gaming, either. As a nifty graphic artist she now spends much of the rest of her time illustrating other gamers' WoW characters, which may well be paid in pixelated gold or goats or something but is still infuriatingly positive.
And so, with co-habitation looming, I'm biting the bullet – or the enchanted bloody sword, or whatever – and accepting a longstanding invitation to enter the WoW zone. Although it does strike me, as I gingerly join H at the keyboard, that this must be how it feels to be a right-wing Christian dad accompanying his son into a gay bar for the first time. It could be a short visit.
H has it all figured out, though. She'll set the scene by first whizzing me through the cinematics, animated trailers that whetted appetites/wetted pants for new expansions of this vast virtual world. H clearly gets a wee buzz watching them again. She's less enthused about the forthcoming film.
Be prepared, Warcraft characters could be everywhere next summer: on buses, Happy Meals, Graham Norton's sofa. At the recent San Diego Comic-Con the first footage emerged from the long-awaited live-action movie, out next June and directed by Duncan Jones (David Bowie's son), who did the fabulous Moon and great-until-the-stupid-end-bit Source Code.
Early reactions were decent but you'd imagine it'll be difficult to wow long-term WoWers. "They should just do full-length versions of the cinematics," muses H, and, true, these shorts are impressive, if often baffling for a beginner. But I do learn something: taking the piss will not go down well.
In the trailer for 2007's WoW: The Burning Crusade there's a naughty night elf called Illidan, for example, which strikes me as tremendously amusing. H, much less so. "Does Illidan have a magic limp?" I chortle. "Is the bad elf in bad health?" But that reverie is interrupted by the night elf himself. "YOU ARE NOT PREPARED!" he bellows. You're not wrong, sunshine.
This is immediately evident in the character creation zone, and a word of warning to fellow newcomers: mohican haircuts are apparently a massive WoW faux-pas, due to those old Mr T ads, I think. H looks genuinely horrified when I flirt with said 'do, clearly concerned that I'll ruin her in-game cred. It gets worse.
Swerving the tantalising cow and panda character options, I plump for a worgen – a Warcraft werewolf – and call him Gary. But that name's taken. Hey, he's a hirsute chap: FurryGary it is. "That is honestly the worst character name I've ever heard," says my stupefied fiancé, who's beginning to see the folly of this venture, particularly when I follow the formula for FurryGary's hangdog hound: JowlySteve. H, manning the keyboard, enters those names with all the enthusiasm of a teenage ASDA employee typing the lengthy barcode of a pasty that wouldn't scan. We take an early break.
World of Werecraft
In truth, I've mistrusted role-playing games ever since a debilitating mid-'00s addiction, which hit rock bottom the night of a cartoon-themed fancy dress party. I was pretty chuffed with my homemade Hong Kong Phooey-related outfit, got it on, then squeezed in a quick game before heading out, then another, and another... I am probably the only person ever to have played a whole half-season of Championship Manager dressed as Penry the Mild-Mannered Janitor.
Beneath the bullshit bravado I'm secretly concerned about becoming similarly lost in this labyrinthine universe, and suddenly finding real life tedious by comparison. WHERE ARE THE HEAVENLY CRIMSON CLOUD SERPENTS? Seven million people play WoW regularly, some of them presumably relatively normal, and for H there's a whole community. Genuine friends, so me dicking about isn't helpful. Indeed, I'm genuinely jealous of those mysterious characters, holding that little virtual party in the corner of the screen, H chuckling away, while I'm skulking on the couch typing bitter Twitter comments that nobody reads. Who's the tragic one there?
But even she quit, for a bit. "I needed a few years off. I was a Guild Leader, lots of different personalities to keep in check. It was like running a small corporation."
Sounds fun. My own exploits begin in a realm called Gilneas, which is enduring an awkward werewolf outbreak. I thought FurryGary was supposed to be a worgen too, but for now he's just some regular dude, which, frankly, makes the name seem a bit silly.
FurryGary looks even dumber when he's moving. I'm having kittens mastering the keyboard/mouse control combo, so the poor fellow spends his first hour lurching from VERY LARGE to FAR AWAY, disappearing completely, briefly conjoining with JowlySteve to form a disturbing man/canine hybrid, then repeatedly butting a wooden fencepost. H is mesmerised. "This is like when we used to play GoldenEye with my dad," she says, clearly wondering how I've survived in the real world this long.
I may be losing the respect of my significant other, but I am getting quite attached to JowlySteve, as we're proving pretty effective worgen killers, when I'm facing the right way. Although, given my haphazard blasting, could I accidentally kill my own dog? "No, but monsters can," says H, "so be careful."
Man, I'd be devastated if I ever lost JowlySteve.
Worgen, Worgen, with Hope in Your Heart...
Flustered by my cack-handed ineptitude, H keeps wandering off, as does my interest. And yet during those staccato strolls around Gilneas I can't help marvelling at the scale and detail of even this tiny element of the WoW environment. Although the soundtrack gets on your tits. "You know I went to see it performed live?" says H, "in Paris." Oops. This was at BlizzCon, it turns out, the regular bash by WoW makers Blizzard, where attendees were particularly thrilled to receive a code for a rare in-game pet. The lucky devils. "My one's worth £700 on eBay now." Ah.
In Warcraft, as in life, I lack direction. Even shooting werewolves has lost its sheen. "Look for the chevron, that tells you what to do next," says H, but there's way too much happening onscreen even for me, a dedicated Sky Sports News scholar. And the controls are horribly fiddly. "It's really easy," sighs my exasperated other half. "You just can't steer. Look, now you're throwing yourself off the roof..."
Possibly on purpose. I am hopeless at this. Even my epic worgen-killing isn't great, as it transpires that JowlySteve is doing much of the actual work, like Hong Kong Phooey's cat. Then a lady called Lorna Crowley sends me on a vital mission, one that mainly seems to involve me dogsitting her mastiff. "Now you've got an extra action bar," says H. "You're controlling the new dog too." Oh god.
H is off brewing tea when everything comes to a head. My new task is to locate and kill invisible worgens, so naturally I ignore the relatively harmless regular ones. But as we blithely saunter through a hefty worgen gathering, they take offence. Cue the comical sight of me and two mutts suddenly legging it, swiftly followed by 30 furious werewolves. Comical for a few seconds, that is.
"Errr, I think I died?'
"You died?" shouts H, from the kitchen. "In the starter zone? Wow... that's quite an achievement, hon."
To be honest, I'm not too bothered. Clearly I'm not cut out for Warcraft, and dying seems a pretty natural end point. But then H returns, hands over the tea, and breaks the news. "You know this means JowlySteve's dead too?"
'NOOOOOOOO... JowlySteve, what have I done?'
On Motherboard: Watch These Shamed MMO Cheaters Beg for Forgiveness
Anyway, it turns out you can just resurrect yourself, and your dog, and the dog we were dogsitting, which is handy as we have to return it ("Congratulations on completing your quest!" she says. Er, yeah, it was a piece of piss.)
H, like a patient driving instructor, then takes the reins to complete the stage, which looks a lot more exciting when she's rattling through it, concluding with a corking animation in which FurryGary finally becomes a worgen – with half a pointy ear missing.
"I reckon JowlySteve bit his ear off," H concludes, as we stare at the hairy pair, "just for calling him JowlySteve."
She'll never let me near this world again.
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