Writing: learning from Warcraft’s mistakes?

I won’t deny that several aspects of Warcraft universe were an inspiration for my writing – but there are also parts of the story that don’t work so well… in this post, I’ll share how my experience with this game series affected my writing – and how it might in the future.

One fact is that different mediums have slightly different approaches to storytelling (and I’ve delved into the differences between movie and book storytelling recently). Game storytelling has its own specifics (and is a topic I touched in past), more so when there are several factions on a long scale between good and bad.

Spellbreaker artwork

Warcraft 3 was the first game where I paid any attention to the story – and it shaped my initial concept of Shadow vs. Light themes as well as my approach to the Paladin archetype – things which only got a stronger dose of my own spins when I began drafting the story. The Spellbreaker unit, when combined with the nature of SWAT teams and Aurors from Harry Potter became the inspiration for Magic-Breakers (more on that in this 2017 post).

Then, most elementals in World of Warcraft dropped some kind of ‘core’ or ‘heart’ of <element> which had an impact on how I approached elementals (which I described more in May 2018).

But enough of that, I am here to talk about storytelling. As I said in one of the linked articles, there’s only so much a game story can do. World of Warcraft improved many things in their narrative and Blizzard’s cinematic team deserves a praise for everything they do but… the developers can only do so much, limited by development cycle and the aging game engine.

The early years, specifically the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions, were self-contained stories mopping up villains who survived Warcraft 3, with no tie-in between them. Cataclysm brought in a villain so far seen mostly in the books, which led the players who did not read them to think they started pulling bad guys out of their hat (which still happens here and there) – but it was Cataclysm that started having some kind of bridges between individual expansions and forming a coherent long-term story.

The lesson from this is simple: even with many sub-stories, a story should feel coherent. This is most important in books and very important in movies/series – but lack of coherent story can hurt a game as well. Another issue was the fact that many stories shown in the book had no reference in the game so those not reading them were left in the dark and, in some cases, it led to discrepancies in estimated power level of some characters.

With Mists of Pandaria, the story of World of Warcraft returned to the Alliance vs. Horde conflict (which had grown much since the original bad orc vs. good human trope in the very beginning). And the game’s story suffers from that decision to this day.

The issue with a faction conflict in a game based around two faction is more about the actual limitations of game storytelling than about the conflict itself – as the game is built with those factions in mind. Thus, the game’s story on that particular front becomes extremely static. Due to the core of the game, it’s obvious that there won’t be any long-term consequences for either faction because the game engine doesn’t allow that.

This goes against one of the basics of storytelling: each conflict should have some visible resolution. A war leads to several shifts in the balance of power between all involved (sub)factions and the end should lead to a major shift – which is something the game can’t do. And this was made even more obvious with the story of Battle for Azeroth which featured many poor twists just to start the conflict, not to mention all the discrepancies and inconsistences needed to keep the plot going – only to have it end with (next to) none consequences. Again.

The lesson learned here is simple: keep the balance of power in mind during the whole story – it’s just as important as the characters and their values. And keep in mind that writing ‘the end’ should be done only after the reader sees how the world has changed with the conflict’s end (but I advise you to wrap it without needing 100+ pages *wink* Eragon *wink*).

The last set of ‘lessons’ comes from the Legion expansion. The first touches the death of Varian Wrynn – which was a plot device to allow his son to grow as a character and leave his shadow. The problem here is the fact that a game can only focus on so many characters and, in many cases, the only way to let another one to take the spotlight is to kill whoever has it now where a book could do without the lethal solution.

The second lesson of Legion touched the continuity. Despite the major battle on the Broken Shore, the Legion itself is not seen in action until the second battle for Broken Shore – a year later in our time, several months in story’s time – and giving the players enough time to mop up their lackeys around – which is another weak point of game storytelling: the need for progression in a generous timespan heroes in a book won’t have.

And as most of the secondary big bads had to be spread around several raid tiers, it led to whittling away the Legion’s forces so much that the Argus campaign had us facing off against enemies that were powerful but did not have the feel of being someone we knew to be the big bad’s most powerful minions.

Which gets me to the third lesson of Legion – the Argus campaign. One problem is that the story had much more potential than it was given, especially what was hinted about the Army of the Light. Then comes the issue of landscaping and feel because there’s only so much you can do with a world infested by demons pretty much everywhere. Despite that, the limitations of games turned this into yet another set of hit-and-run objectives as with most patch content – and introduced more inconsistencies than it explained, especially when it comes to demonic regeneration.

And, finally, the fact that most of the named characters – whose power is greater than the players story-wise – were only shadowing the players instead of directly taking part of the fights – which I hope will change in games, at least for the major bad guys for more story immersion.

There are a few other small issues that taught me some lessons for both the present and the future of my writing – but I can’t touch those due to potential spoilers. Thus, I’ll wrap it up here.

I’ll welcome your comments – was there a moment when the limitations of storytelling in other media (not just games) affected your writing? Did you learn something from those moments? Feel free to share.

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