There is something very strange about Warcraft’s lore. The longer the Warcraft series runs, the sillier Warcraft lore gets. Somehow, though, I’ve only come to love everything about Warcraft all the more. For a very long time, it seemed like Warcraft would forever be a cycle of corruption stories; X hero rises up, gets corrupted, becomes the new villain, and then is defeated by the players with the help of Y hero, etc. While the themes of corruption have not disappeared and it’s a guarantee that every new expansion will include a corrupted lead villain, the writers have begun to craft a certain tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that makes Warcraft and all its associated IPs still feel lovable and enrapturing so many years on.
One of the best examples of this sort of writing is Gul’dan, who I often joke is my honorary husband. Easily my favorite villain in all of Warcraft lore, Gul’dan made the otherwise just-okay Warcraft movie incredibly fun to watch. Gul’dan is laughably evil, but his origins in Warcraft II were much more serious. Gul’dan was, at some point, a true antagonist who more or less sold out everyone who trusted him and scourged an entire generation (sometimes more) of nearly every major race across two planets. In Warcraft III, this trend more or less continued. The demon hunter Illidan sought out Gul’dan’s skull, which resonated with incredible residual power long after his death.
Then came World of Warcraft, changing the delivery of Warcraft’s lore forever. World of Warcraft right off the bat was a much less serious game. The dark themes of Warcraft II and III were in contrast with the bright, often silly presentation of World of Warcraft. This new tone solidified after the merger with Activision, at which point I feel Blizzard entered its most awkward phase.
After the merger, two of Blizzard’s most questionable releases came: Starcraft II and Diablo III. I won’t go too in-depth about each of these games simply because the topic is more about Warcraft, but both succeeded and failed in similar ways. Both games were financially successful, and both games languished in the long run. Both games had good, even great, multiplayer, but lost something of their soul in the single player. Diablo III’s storyline was greatly out of pace with the tone of the series thus far, as was Starcraft II’s story. Starcraft II launched to a wave of retcons and sudden changes in character personality.
Starcraft II went supernova as an e-sport and then experienced a crash so sudden that it more or less killed the competitive scene just as the newest expansion was releasing and being played. Diablo III released with a real-money auction house that utterly broke the game and encouraged pay-to-win play. The ire of the Diablo II fans who made up much of Diablo III’s audience was so great that the first expansion to the game removed the auction house altogether.
(For a FANTASTIC video on Diablo III’s missing the mark, please watch Mr.BTongue’s “Stay awhile, and listen to me gripe about Diablo III.” Really, though; ITS REALLY FANTASTIC AND YOU SHOULD WATCH IT AND BECOME SMARTER ABOUT VIDEO GAMES.)
During the first few years after the merger, much experimentation happened, and a lot of that experimentation was not good at all. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm were being made, and ultimately launched with the fingerprints of Activision all over them; micro-transactions had become the name of the game.
Through all of this, though, World of Warcraft still sailed steadily. Somehow they’d managed to grow from their roots, instead of leaving them behind. There were no glaring retcons to the Warcraft lore or characters who suddenly behaved like someone totally different. There was a great respect for where Warcraft came from, while still managing to bring in a whole lot of sillier elements.
Maybe it was Chris Metzen, who took a hard stance on continuity for the World of Warcraft ongoing lore. Maybe it was just chance. Somehow, though, Warcraft’s lore has gone from “orcs vs humans” to “Gul’dan is dead in this universe, so demons brought in a version of him from another universe to ensure that things turn out the same way after the incredibly Hitler-esque warchief of the horde travelled back in time to prevent the main story of Warcraft II from happening.” Gul’dan isn’t mocked or sold out; he is still the power-hungry, evil bastard he always was, even if the storyline has gotten almost hilariously wacky.
I think, perhaps, World of Warcraft benefited from the fact that there was some inherent silliness in Warcraft II and III both due to technical limitations and to writer humor. Orc peons were goofy, but loveable dopes who shouted, “me not that kind of orc” when poked too many times by the player, and, on the technical side, Warcraft III’s character models had the tendency to look pretty silly at times, especially in dialogue.
In the end, the story of Diablo III was forgettable, the story of Starcraft II was almost embarrassing, but the story of World of Warcraft has only ripened with its wackiness. In other spin-offs, such as Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone, this ripening is very visible. Hearthstone, for example, comfortably slid into centering much of its “story” around the silliest aspects of Warcraft lore and the culture around it, lovingly picking on players, writers, and characters in the greatest ways. Hearthstone’s online video series about Uther, Jaina, and Gul’dan working in an office building is hilarious, and the latest expansion only played this further, with card battles against the ever-famous Lich King being enhanced by his dialogue about net-decking, cheating, and poor deck construction.
In the end, Warcraft doesn’t take itself too seriously but still has respect for its past. The writers know how to self-parody within Warcraft lore without selling out the soul of the series. Starcraft II, in my opinion, was the corollary to the Simpson’s infamous “the Principal and the Pauper” episode, which is largely credited as the nail in the coffin of the show’s previously unchallenged status as the King of Television comedy. Warcraft, despite completely shifting genres from RTS to MMORPG, kept true to its tone, self-parodying without disrespecting what it was or pretending things didn’t happen.
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