Cataclysm in Review: Writing, Lore & Storytelling

I originally had about 1500 words typed up for this section. But halfway through, I realized I’ve already discussed the storytelling in this expansion at length in the preceding sections. So I will instead offer a brief summary and conclusion to my thoughts.

Cataclysm has reinforced my opinion that WoW’s writing is generally poor. It is a world of missed opportunities: opportunities to explain Deathwing’s history in greater detail, opportunities to bring more major characters from his past back into the narrative fold, opportunities to make better connections between various characters, and opportunities to make sure each zone or dungeon is presented with a higher quality in writing, production and direction.

It’s not as though Blizzard isn’t capable of doing any of these. They proved they’re more than capable with the Thrall questline they added in 4.2.

(The video is courtesy of Wowhead. It’s from the PTR, so it is missing the better music and bugfixes that are currently in the game.)

When I consider that questline particularly, I have to wonder why the stories told in the zones and dungeons of an expansion can’t be written, produced and directed just as well.

I’m not going to try to put my finger on the reasons why. MMOs are so massive in their production, you can only really look at things objectively. And what is clear to me is that the major narratives in Cataclysm are generally unfocused, uninteresting, and poorly produced. This is one of WoW’s biggest downfalls. And it’s especially tragic when Blizzard has shown us it’s capable of doing great things with the story in WoW. Warcraft is a universe rich in lore and characters. So, please, Blizzard… do them justice in more than just a few quests and dungeons that are introduced post-release.

And, please, for the love of god, don’t bring characters back from the dead merely for the sake of bringing them back from the dead!

Lore and Storylines: The Sunwell

A couple weeks ago I made an entry including screen shots of my guild’s first look at Kil’jaeden and the Sunwell. In the comments section of this entry, I noticed a rather startling question posed by Matt from World of Matticus.

What’s up with the chick? (Or general backstory?)

The “chick” in reference appears in this screen shot:

Anveena in a prismatic bubble.

Having read The Sunwell Trilogy and played Warcraft III and The Frozen Throne, I felt I could answer this confidently and provide the full backstory. However, after writing my long explanation, I began to question just how much of the Sunwell’s story is explained within WoW itself. While the Sunwell does contain one of the best presented arcs in all of WoW, I realize it contains some major flaws that highlight the general problems regarding WoW’s usual presentation of plot.

The War and Events of Quel’Danas as Told in WoW: A Summary

The Sunwell’s story arc, as it is presented in WoW, provides some intriguing developments. However, it also leaves a few holes unfilled and questions unanswered. Furthermore, the story is not self-contained, as there are many crucial details omitted that exist in material outside of the game. So the experience of playing through Quel’Danas, Magister’s Terrace and the Sunwell Plateau are simultaneously compelling and perplexing.

A Brief Summary of the Events as They are Presented within WoW Itself

  • Kael’thas survives the assault on Tempest Keep and promises to deliver the wrath of Kil’jaeden.
  • Kael’thas and his Legion minions flee Outland through a portal located at Kil’jaeden’s Throne in Hellfire Peninsula.
  • Kael’thas has his felblood elves steal M’uru from the blood knights of Silvermoon City, bringing him to the Sunwell Plateau.
  • Lady Liadrin seeks aid from A’dal in desperation after losing M’uru as the blood knights’ source of power.
  • Kael’thas intends to summon Kil’jaeden into Azeroth, seemingly through what appears to be the Sunwell.

Kil\'jaeden and Kael\'thas

  • The blue dragon Kalecgos comes to Quel’Danas to rescue Anveena, a woman who once rescued him.
  • Kalecgos explains Anveena is not mortal, but a powerful entity.
  • Anveena is imprisoned in a primatic bubble in the chamber where Kil’jaeden is being summoned.
  • Kil’jaeden seems to be draining Anveena’s power.
  • Kael’thas is holed up in the Magister’s Terrace and meets his final demise there.
  • Kalecgos is briefly captured and possessed by a nathrezim of the Legion, but is freed by adventurers.
  • Madrigosa, a blue dragon who accompanied Kalecgos to help find Anveena, is killed by the pitlord Brutallus during her interrogation of him.
  • M’uru, now a being of darkness, serves to protect the chamber in which Kil’jaeden is being summoned.
  • M’uru turns into a powerful voidwalker named Entropius before he is defeated.
  • The adventurers, with Kalecgos, halt Kil’jaeden’s summoning before it is fully completed, meaning he can only come halfway through the portal.
  • The adventurers do battle with Kil’jaeden and push him back through the portal.
  • During the battle against Kil’jaeden, Kalecgos professes his love for Anveena. This causes her to awaken from enslavement and sacrifice herself to weaken Kil’jaeden.
  • In the aftermath of the battle against Kil’jaeden, Velen arrives with Lady Liadrin to fulfill the prophecy he foresaw regarding the Sunwell.
  • Velen states that he has saved the heart of M’uru. And, using it, he reignites the Sunwell and its power.
  • Lady Liadrin atones for her sins in having drained M’uru’s power and appears redeemed.

Thus ends the story arc. But it does not satiate an appetite for every hole to be filled and question answered. Instead, if you consider the story as it is only told within WoW, you would be left to wonder:

  • How did Anveena rescue Kalecgos?
  • Who was Anveena really? Why was she so powerful?
  • Why was the Legion draining her power?
  • How exactly was she captured and imprisoned?
  • How did Kael’thas go about summoning Kil’jaeden? Did he play a part in Anveena’s capture?
  • Why would Kael’thas be holed up in Magister’s Terrace if the most important cause of the Legion is to summon Kil’jaeden?
  • Why do Kalecgos and Anveena love each other? Is this love romantic or platonic?

There are also flaws in the manner of this plot’s presentation. Cutscenes are extremely limited until you actually play through the Sunwell Plateau. Before this, the plot is explained merely through quest text, dialog, events from before those in Quel’Danas, and a brief event in Magister’s Terrace involving Kalecgos and a flyover of the Sunwell Plateau. It is not until you experience this flyover that you begin to become involved in the deeper story on a more personal level. But the amount of information revealed during this event is limited to seeing M’uru hovering before the summoning chamber and Anveena imprisoned above the Sunwell. Additionally, you learn that Kalecgos has come to put an end to the Legion’s activities in the Sunwell.

That said, the presentation of the storyline within the Sunwell Plateau itself is second perhaps only to the Black Temple. But it is the best in terms of encompassing the most bosses of any instance. Five of the six encounters either have characters involved in the overarcing plot or provide prologues or epilogues that relate to the story. So there are many positives to be had once you begin to delve deeper into the story. But, as stated before, portions of the plot are left unresolved and some questions unanswered. Of particular note, the closure provided for Kalecgos at the end of the Sunwell, despite his “love” meeting her demise, is minimal. And there is no way for a person who has only played WoW to really make assumptions about just how Kalecgos might come to terms with her loss, because Anveena’s history and existence are never explained. However, her backstory does exist outside of WoW itself in a three-part manga titled The Sunwell Trilogy.

Shedding Light on Kalecgos, Anveena and the Sunwell with Material Supplemental to WoW

Anveena is a major character from The Sunwell Trilogy, a three-part manga by Richard A. Knaak and Kim Jae-Hwan officially sanctioned by Blizzard as canon. In the trilogy, her backstory is provided, shedding light on the events of the Sunwell that occur after its destruction during Arthas’ march on Quel’Thalas in the undead campaign of Warcraft III.

Anveena’s pre-WoW history is directly related to the destruction of the Sunwell and its rediscovery. Of all of the characters in The Sunwell Trilogy, Anveena’s connection to the Sunwell is by far the most profound. This is because she is the Sunwell, or rather a manifestation of its remaining energies put together as a result of the red dragon Korialstrasz’s efforts. In the aftermath of the Sunwell’s destruction, Korialstrasz rescued these energies before others could find them and chose to hide them in the unassuming guise of a young girl named Anveena. Unaware of what she truly was, Anveena became more than a mere illusion, developing into a young woman with emotions and a life of her own. However, it was only a matter of time before she would begin discovering the powers she contained.

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Several years after Anveena’s creation, the blue dragon aspect Malygos detected strong energies emanating from somewhere near Tarren Mill. Sensing this anamoly, he sent a young blue dragon named Kalecgos to find it. However, during his search, he was assailed by dragon hunters and dropped from the skies. But before the dragon hunters could reach his point of collapse, Anveena found him in his human form and rescued him. This event served as the beginning of a series of adventures involving Anveena, Kalecgos, Kalecgos’ “suitor” Tyrygosa, a paladin Jorad Mace, and a baby blue dragon named Raac. Anveena, Kalecgos, and their band of followers were persued by a numerous host of characters, amongst whom the primary antogonist is Dar’Khan.

Dar’Khan was once a member of the Convocation of Silvermoon. However, he believed he lacked recognition for the accomplishments he made as a member of the convocation. Eventually, he turned his back on Silvermoon and offered his aid to Arthas during the Scourge’s march on Quel’Thalas. His intentions were to claim the Sunwell as his own in the aftermath of Arthas’ war with Silvermoon, but he did not meet his goal because Arthas wrought the Sunwell’s destruction by using it to resurrect the necromancer Kel’Thuzad as a powerful lich. In the aftermath, Dar’Khan began searching for the remnants of its energies, but to no avail because of Korialstrasz’s intervention. However, with Kalecgos coming in contact with her and peril becoming a part of Anveena’s life as a result, the energies could no longer be entirely hidden. And while no one initially suspected Anveena herself of containing these energies, Dar’Khan suspected she and Kalecgos knew where to find them.

Over time, Dar’Khan recognized Anveena for what she truly was: the Sunwell itself. In discovering this, he seeked to drain its powers from her and take them for his own. He enslaved her with his powerful breed of necomantic magic granted to him by the Lich King, and she became as a zombie uncognizant of her own existence. But Kalecgos and a host of characters too numerous to explain arrived to stir her from her catatonic state. Awoken, she realized her true powers and incinerated Dar’Khan with a simple exhibition of the power he helped her to discover.

Throughout the trilogy, it is rather apparent Kalecgos has a zealous obsession with Anveena’s well-being, despite him being unaware of her true power until the very end of the trilogy. Tyrygosa constantly urges him to abandon his quest, reasoning that she is merely a mortal girl for whom risking their lives is pointless. Her lack of compassion for Anveena makes her appear cruel and even jealous, while Kalecgos appears noble in his selfless pursuit.

A New Perspective Given Supplementary Content and The “New” Sunwell

So with the events detailed in The Sunwell Trilogy we suddenly have answers to some the questions left open before.

  • Anveena saved Kalecgos from a band of dragon hunters.
  • Anveena is the Sunwell.
  • The Legion is draining Anveena’s power because the Sunwell’s energies are some of the most potent in the history of Azeroth. They could be used to power the summoning and strengthen Kil’jaeden to a point where he may be unstoppable.
  • Kalecgos probably loves Anveena because of the care she showed for him in saving him. Perhaps he had also distanced himself from Tyrygosa, given her cruelty during The Sunwell Trilogy. And Anveena probably loves him because he was selfless in seeing to her well-being.

This radically changes the perspective a person has on the story as it is presented in WoW. After fully reading the trilogy, I found an excerpt of dialog occurring between Kalecgos and Anveena to be truly compelling.

Kalecgos: Anveena, I love you! Focus on my voice! Come back for me now! Only you can cleanse the Sunwell!

Anveena: Kalec… Kalec?

Kalecgos: Yes, Anveena! Let fate embrace you now!

Anveena: The nightmare is over! The spell is broken! Goodbye, Kalec, my love!

After which Anveena sacrifices herself, throwing Kil’jaeden into a fit of desperation. And in having read The Sunwell Trilogy, one realizes the Sunwell’s remaining energies were sacrificed along with Anveena, meaning she can’t reignite the Sunwell herself. Perhaps this is why M’uru’s heart was used in her stead.

The Unresolved Thread of the Story

Even with the supplemental material, however, there are still a few points left unresolved. For example, the consequences of Anveena’s sacrifice are left unexplained within WoW, so they can only be assumed using information from The Sunwell Trilogy. And the fact that Velen doesn’t even address her sacrifice in his epilogue still leaves me perplexed. It’s as though Blizzard wanted to recognize her importance from the trilogy by including her in the storyline, but forgot about her halfway through shaping the way the events would unfold. For this reason, I can’t imagine players who haven’t even read the trilogy being anything but confused by her involvement in the story.

What Blizzard Did Right

Despite my grievances with the story, there are many things Blizzard did well in presenting the Sunwell Plateau’s backstory. The biggest success of the instance is that five of the six encounters contain elements directly relating to the overarcing plot. While Madrigosa and Brutallus initially seem like peripheral characters, they become more involved when Madrigosa interrogates him about Anveena and meets her demise in the process. Brutallus positions himself as an important figure merely by aggressively exhibiting that he is a protector of the Legion’s knowledge and intentions involving Anveena and the summoning of Kil’jaeden.

M’uru also seems like a peripheral character, at first. But in watching the dialog between Lady Liadrin and A’dal in Shattrath and recognizing he was the naaru who was being drained by the blood knights in Silvermoon City, one can understand his role to play in the story itself. Especially when Velen arrives and uses his heart to rebirth the Sunwell.

Kalecgos is a constant figure in the story, as well, making his purpose and intentions known midway through the Magister’s Terrace all the way through the end of the Sunwell.

And, obviously, Kil’jaeden is rich with history and is constantly referenced throughout all WoW.

However, Blizzard did not do with the Sunwell what they did with Black Temple. Before a person can enter the Black Temple, they must complete a long questline with several cutscenes involving Akama’s backstory and actions leading up to his entrance into the Black Temple. The Sunwell only contains one introductory cutscene inside Magister’s Terrace. There is also no cutscene showing the imprisonment of Anveena, no cutscene showing Kael’thas’ actions leading up to Kil’jaeden’s summoning, and no cutscenes throughout the entirety of WoW exhibiting Kil’jaeden’s importance to the story. Instead, you have simply in-game dialog without voiceovers and quest text that act as remote references to these events. And, furthermore, while Kil’jaeden is constantly referenced throughout The Burning Crusade, he is actually never seen until the very end of the Sunwell Plateau. Even if he was too busy to oversee Outland directly, cutscenes could have been made to detail his backstory. Powerful mages can conjure images to emphasize the stories they tell, yes?

So with this lack of cutscenes and treatment of the events leading up to the Sunwell Plateau, and with holes and questions left open, Blizzard could do some things better.

Make WoW Self-Contained

The first thing Blizzard needs to do is drop its reliance on supplementary content to tell WoW’s stories. If people haven’t read the game manuals for Warcraft I, II or III and their expansions, nor studies some of the literature produced outside the game, they won’t understand the holes left within WoW itself. This is perhaps the folly of franchise. And while this is acceptable when such information is not crucial to the developing arcs within WoW, Blizzard needs to understand it will only confuse people if information important to explaining plot occurrences is left omitted from the source material.

I’m reminded of the way in which the producers of the TV show Lost approach their content. While there is supplemental material outside the show that provides insight into some of the backstories, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse (the shows primary producers) have stated that they do not want this material playing a role in making Lost‘s story complete. Rather, their goal is to make the show self-contained, giving people an experience that feels whole when simply watching only the show. And while mysteries and questions might exist before the show’s conclusion, they should be resolved once the show has run its course.

Lost

WoW, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be produced in the same manner. When a character has been given an integral role within WoW, there should be at least some explanation addressing his or her background and purpose. Leaving random characters and minions unexplained if their purpose is to simply act as filler is acceptable, but Anveena was too important to only refer to her obscurely throughout WoW. People shouldn’t be required to read The Sunwell Trilogy to obtain any insight into her presence.

Tie Up Loose Threads

I think it’s a disservice to WoW’s playerbase for Blizzard to leave the stories of seemingly important characters unresolved. I also think it’s important for Blizzard to explain the relevance of various events to others. The consequences of Anveena’s sacrifice should have been explained. If M’uru’s heart was meant to stand in stead of the energies lost during Anveena’s sacrifice, this should have been explained. And I believe Kalecgos deserves much better closure than he received for his involvement. It would have been nice to have Velen address Kalecgos’ in his epilogue.

Conclusion

If the end of loose plot threads had been tied, Anveena’s existence better explained, and Kael’thas and Kil’jaeden better highlighted throughout The Burning Crusade, the story told in the Sunwell Plateau could have been epic. Instead, we are left with a plot that is highly visible, but flawed in its open-endedness. And while the presentation of the Sunwell Plateau itself advances the needed refinement in making all encounters more relevant to overarcing storylines, the introduction of it was a step backwards from what we saw with the Black Temple.

Blizzard needs to take more care in constructing WoW’s stories. While they have exhibited profound skill in doing so with their RTS games, WoW’s presentation has proven to be a difficult nut for them to crack. With dungeons becoming more accessible by providing a 10-man version of each, Blizzard needs to ratchet up their treatment of WoW’s plots and encompassing backstories. Otherwise, WoW will simply remain as entertainment with superficial narratives.

Artwork and media related to World of Warcraft is copyright Blizzard Entertainment. Panels from The Sunwell Trilogy are copyright Blizzard Entertainment and Tokyopop. Screens from the show Lost are copyright ABC, Inc.