Uncharted, Video Game Cinematography, and Focus

I want to talk about filmmaking in videogames for a second. Spoilers for a lot of the Uncharted games to follow, so be warned.

Something that I love about Naughty Dog is that the titles for the Uncharted games often have at least two interpretations that act as a lens through which you can examine the story of the game.  For Drake’s Fortune and Drake’s Deception, the easiest interpretations are that “Drake” refers to either Nathan or Sir Francis. In Among Thieves, it refers both literally to Nate being physically surrounded by thieves and to the adage about “honor among thieves”, a concept which is challenged repeatedly throughout the story. And A Thief’s End has literally dozens of different thieves that it could be referring to when it comes to the death of a thief when you consider everyone from St. Dismas to the pirate lords to Rafe, the game’s antagonist. It also refers to the end of Nate’s career as a thief, and since the beginning can also be “an end” of something, the epilogue where Nate and Elena’s daughter Cassie expresses qualities that might position her to take up that profession could be referring to her “end” as a thief.

With all that prelude, consider The Lost Legacy, the next (and potentially final) game in the Uncharted series from Naughty Dog, which stars Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross on an adventure to find the lost Tusk of Ganesh. One obvious interpretation for the title is that the “Lost Legacy” refers to that particular treasure, but there’s another interpretation, hinted at by this cinematic, that really has me excited for this game.

Chloe: Yeah, well. You can thank my dad for that; Hindu myths were his thing.
Nadine: Might have rubbed off. He must be proud.
*beat*
Chloe: Sun's almost up.

Start the video particularly at the two-minute mark. Listen to Chloe when she mentions her dad, to the silence after Nadine suggests that Chloe’s father must be proud of her. Look at Chloe’s body language, the subtle shifts in her facial expression, which are hidden, to an extent, by the fact that she turns away from the camera, going out of focus in the foreground while Nadine is in focus.

This is a wonderful combination of Claudia Black’s performance as Chloe, Laura Bailey’s as Nadine, the cinematography of the scene itself, and even the dialogue as written. You get so many layers to Chloe’s relationship to her father, whom we otherwise know nothing about at this point, as well as Nadine’s perception of Chloe’s discomfort with her father. The cinematography drives home the notion that Chloe is concealing something about her father in her unspoken response to Nadine’s line about “he must be proud.”

But the thing that caught me most about this exchange, the thing that made me decide I needed to write all of this down and share it with you, is Chloe’s line. “Sun’s almost up.”

The fact that the game’s title is The Lost Legacy, and the part where “sun” and “son” are homophones gives that line an amazing bit of resonance in suggesting another interpretation of the game’s title, and hence another lens into the story. Consider if the line was “son’s almost up” instead: we’re skirting around the notion of Chloe’s father having a son, and that opens up a TON of possibilities. The one I like the most is this: Chloe’s discomfort with her father stems from her being born a girl rather than a boy. This drives home the notion of “the lost legacy” as Daddy Frazer feeling that he cannot properly leave his legacy to a daughter.

Now, yes, at first blush there’s a lot of misogyny rolled up into that, and it doesn’t do Chloe any favors to have a game that ostensibly explores her character and backstory center it around her relationship with a dude. But setting that aside for a moment, it helps to drive home the idea that this was a story that Naughty Dog wanted to tell that they really couldn’t tell with Nathan Drake; not just because they’d pretty handily retired him with A Thief’s End, but also because a) that game already doubled down on Nate’s relationship with his family and the overall absence of importance that the unnamed Daddy Drake had in that family, and b) the mechanism of Sullivan being Nate’s father-figure has already been played with a lot in the series, and this story about a father’s regret that the kid he’d sired didn’t live up to his expectations can’t really be done when there isn’t that sense of blood binding father and child together.

I already had a lot of reasons to want to play this game: a) like a lot of other Uncharted fans, I always loved bad-girl Chloe and wanted to see her make a return, so her getting her own game is great, b) Nadine was wonderful in A Thief’s End and I’m happy to see that she’s getting a second lease as a protagonist after she could have easily been written off as a midboss, and c) despite how wonderfully A Thief’s End tied off the Uncharted series as a whole, I have a lot of trouble saying no to more of it, so a side story of kickass women going off to do kickass things is basically the best possible outcome for me. But THIS scene, and the wonderful way that it’s assembled to insert meaning and narrative heft without spending any actual words on exposition, totally sells me on the game.

Taken on it’s own, this is the glorious offspring of the union of filmmaking and videogames, and it makes my film-nerd heart happy.

Overmix: With the Sure Shot

Gonna be review 1 of 2 here today, since I missed yesterday and @Ventain‘s contest ends tomorrow! First up is @Lugger2‘s submission of the archer Enya:

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Artwork and design credit: Lugger (Artstation)

Basics:

  • (E-Ability): Enya deploys a rain from electric arrows that creates an electrified area. Enemies caught in that area are slowed and take damage; those who linger too long are paralyzed.
  • (Q-Ability): Enya creates a big arrow which travels and deals damage through the air in a line. That arrow knocks back the first enemy in the way and stuns it if the enemy hits a wall. It passes through any enemies in encounters.

Review:

Role: Given the properties of the hero being focused on area denial, it’s safe to say that Enya should be classed as a Defense hero and specifically also a Sniper.

LMB/RMB: I would assume that Enya’s primary fire is the light/fire arrows she’s depicted with. While they’re not specifically called out, the notion that they might deal damage over time when they hit would be a way to differentiate them from Hanzo’s standard arrows, but it’s also reasonable for them to just be stylish arrows. (However, damage-over-time arrows that deal aggravated damage on successive hits would contribute to mastery of the hero.)

E-Ability: At first blush, there needs to be a way to differentiate this from Mei’s Ultimate, which appears to do the same thing (area slow, ticking damage, eventual paralysis). One way to do it would be for the E to trigger an alternate arrow (much like Hanzo switches between Sonic and Scatter Arrows), which, when it lands, generates a damage and slowing aura around it. However, Enya can continuously fire these arrows (up to a maximum number of charges) in order to stack the effect on a single target (or target area) or hit different areas in order to cover different entrances to the area. The damage could be multiplicative (that is, the more arrows overlapping in a particular area, the greater the damage and slowing effect) but it likely should not be AS damaging as Mei’s Ultimate even at max stacks. (I would nominate calling the ability “Snare Arrows” in this case.)

As a starting point for an ability, it’s a great place to start, and the visual of Enya peppering an area in order to visibly deny it to the enemy is pretty unique. Moreover, if the arrows have a similar effect when she lands them on a target, it means that when Enya can land multiple shots on a target, she’s able to pin them down from a long distance. This contrasts well with Mei’s function of pinning people down at a close distance.

Q-Ability: This is a great subversion of Hanzo’s Dragon Strike, since instead of a huge, slow-moving damage field, it’s instead launching a mini-Reinhardt at a target and taking them out of the fight. (The fact that the art depicts a Reinhardt-shaped enemy being hit by it is wonderful irony ^_^ ). Moreover, it doubles down on Enya as an area denial specialist, since one ability punishes players for stepping into an area she’s prepared against them, while this ability removes them from the area completely without necessarily killing them.

Mechanically, it might be interesting to have the ability do more damage based on how far the struck hero travels. So if the hero is hit and then immediately hits a wall, they take a little bit of damage and are pinned (a la getting hit dead-on with Reinhardt’s charge) but if they go a longer distance before hitting a wall, they take much more damage and are THEN pinned. And in circumstances where the arrow hits them, they don’t hit a wall, AND they aren’t carried off the map, then it does enough damage to kill them.

The only thing I feel that Enya is missing is a movement ability of some kind. Hanzo has his wall-climb passive that lets him get up to perches. Widowmaker has her grappling hook to reach higher perches. Because the art depicts Enya on the same elevation as her targets, I like the notion of her being a sniper that stays on the ground (especially since that’s important for her to launch her Q into someone most effectively). What leaps to mind first is something like Disengage, like hunters have in World of Warcraft, where she’s propelled backwards a short distance. That would let her get out of hotspots quickly, and also combo well into her launching her Q into a nearby enemy. Learning how to control a backwards jump properly would contribute to the mastery of the hero.

Assessment:

In terms of providing an alternate to Hanzo that brings a number of different tools to the table, Enya really delivers. Probably the best thing about this design (aside from her art, which has exactly the kind of vibrant color to it that makes Overwatch so bright and hopeful) is that it helps to emphasize that different heroes are going to be more effective at performing certain tasks on maps. Looking specifically at Defense/Snipers, Widowmaker excels at taking advantage of very high positions and getting headshots at the furthest distances. Hanzo excels at taking advantage of mid-height positions, temporarily providing sight on blind spots, and can punish with Scatter Arrow at any range. Enya excels at denying entry at choke points, and aiding takedowns for fleeing enemies, all while being situated on the ground.

Overall, she’s a great design, both in terms of her kit and the wonderful art she’s depicted with. ^_^

More Reasons Why Med’an is Awful and Why I’m Glad He’s Gone

Something that emerged from the the WoW Q&A at BlizzCon 2016 was a statement from Alex Afrasiabi that Med’an’s tenure as the Guardian of Tirisfal is no longer canon.

Now I want to clarify a few things here:

  • This, on its own, doesn’t mean that Med’an as a character is no longer canon. Afrasiabi dances around this a bit, but the impression I get is that what’s being retconned here is ONLY Med’an becoming the Guardian, and nothing else. The broad strokes of the comic book story arc focusing on Med’an can still happen even if all of the story’s details don’t happen or happen in an as-yet-undisclosed manner.
  • However, a lot of information has come out since then to indicate that Med’an MIGHT be getting deleted from the canon. Which is why I’m here writing about it, natch.
  • Now, in addition, I’m revisiting this topic because the original is easily the most popular post out of everything I’ve written on this blog, and yes I think the Buzzfeed-esque clickbait title plays a role in that. Sorry not sorry.
  • Final note: yeah I got pretty bombastic and hyperbolic in the original, and while I haven’t really calmed down re: my feelings on Med’an, I still want to be a bit more sober in my speech about him now.

Reason #5: Khadgar

The best place to start with additional reasons why Med’an is awful is by talking about the guy who has most clearly usurped his place in the narrative: Medivh’s former apprentice Khadgar.

Khadgar, both in his original role from the WC2 and The Last Guardian narratives and his resurgence in Warlords of Draenor and Legion, is patently more interesting than Med’an. His past as a nervous young apprentice sent effectively as a pawn of the Kirin Tor to spy on Medivh is already more compelling than Med’an’s contrived childhood.

That’s not to say that Med’an’s background doesn’t have the potential to be a great story. The narrative of a child who is trapped between worlds by virtue of his heritage is a great starting point, but the problem is that a) it’s already been done better with Thrall, and b) the way Med’an was sequestered with only Meryl for contact with other sentient life completely defangs the narrative. If Med’an doesn’t really ever have to confront his nature as an outcast with no tribe to call his own, then it makes his mixed heritage a complete footnote. Put another way, it doesn’t matter that Medivh is his father and Garona is his mother, because his worldview isn’t impacted by his parents being those particular people.

Who are Khadgar’s parents? It doesn’t matter. They’re of no consequence to the story, so they never come up. The fact that Med’an’s parents are characters who are important to the narrative, but whose narratives hardly impact the arc of Med’an’s narrative (his parents could be literally anyone else and it would change his arc very little) just drives home an awful truth: Med’an’s parentage is used as a kludge to artificially make him appear more important to the narrative than he really is.

Khadgar becomes important to the narrative specifically because of what he does, not what he is. He becomes Medivh’s apprentice, learns that his master is responsible for the Dark Portal, and ultimately aids in killing Medivh. He gets his youth stolen from him specifically because Medivh/Sargeras is spiting him for his ingenuity.We care about Khadgar because he did the right thing but paid a price for it. Throughout the Second War and the Alliance expedition beyond the Dark Portal, this mechanism of Khadgar doing the right thing even when he has to give something up for it continues.

Medan, however, becomes important to the narrative specifically because of what he is: a macguffin spawned from two significant characters, someone “foretold by prophecy” to be important. He is pursued specifically because he’s the Special, and he ultimately only succeeds because he’s the Special. I know I don’t find a lot about Med’an to care about

Reason #6: Garona

Something notable about the second volume of the Blizzard/Dark Horse collaboration called Chronicle is that it gives us a pretty good picture of what was going on with Garona, in addition to some clarifications about her nature.

  • She is no longer the daughter of Maraad’s sister. The timeline of Garona’s birth and childhood, and the capture and death of Leran (Maraad’s sister) doesn’t allow her to be born and grow up in time to join the Shadow Council’s shenanigans prior to the First War. So the filial connection with Maraad (used in the comic as a way to give Maraad a reason to drop science on Garona’s origins and guide Med’an) is basically wiped out at this point.
  • While Garona still spends time at Karazhan with Medivh, nothing is mentioned about the notion of a budding romance between them. The omniscient narration of Chronicles allows for information to be skipped over, so there’s room for the two of them to have possibly coupled up at some point, but nothing about Garona producing a child shows up at any point later in the narrative, and her role in the background of the Second War is greatly expanded.
  • Meryl, a key individual for Med’an’s upbringing in the comic, doesn’t warrant a mention in this volume. Khadgar is specified to be the only person Garona trusts, however, so it seems more likely that if Garona DID bear Medivh’s child but didn’t feel confident in caring for that child, it’s Khadgar who most likely would have been trusted with the baby. If this happened, it would likely have impacted Khadgar’s motivations in the later Second War and the Draenor campaign, but nothing about that is changed.

Now again, just because Med’an’s birth isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Principally, what his exclusion most likely means is that he wasn’t relevant to the narratives being told in Vol. 2. Could he become relevant in a later volume? It’s possible, because the narrative space still exists for his conception to take place. But critical details of his background and childhood are missing, which fundamentally alter his interactions with particular characters in the comic.

Reason #7: LEGION & Harbingers

The introduction of the class order halls in Legion brought a veritable TON of supporting characters from the lore of the game out of the woodwork to play supporting roles for the player. Med’an is notably absent from all of these order halls. It could be argued that because his narrative was based on him taking on the magical paths of a bunch of different classes, he doesn’t really fit into one versus another. However, it could also be argued that Med’an, as a cross-class, cross-factional character, would have made perfect sense to involve in the class campaigns or even the Light’s Heart campaign, and yet he’s completely absent.

For an expansion that really plumbed the depths of the game’s history to bring in characters for the class narratives, Med’an’s absence speaks volumes. He’s a character that SHOULD be involved if Blizzard wants him to have any relevance going forward, and yet he’s nowhere to be seen.

What’s more, you’ve got the Harbingers animated short that focuses on Khadgar, which was released as part of the lead-up to Legion‘s release.

Something specifically called out by Khadgar during his interactions with “Medivh” is that the Council of Tirisfal shut down the Guardian role following Medivh’s downfall, specifically because that much power residing in one person was a terrible risk. This position would essentially undo the entire Guardian narrative that was the foundation of Med’an’s powercreep in the comic: namely, that his nature as Medivh’s son and his heritage as an orc/draenei/human hybrid made him well-suited to wielding all the various colors of magic that he got from the New Council of Tirisfal, which Khadgar condoned but did not join.

Why I’m Glad This Kid Is Out

When you put all of these details together, combined with all of the glaring flaws of the World of Warcraft comic series that I called out in the original, what you’ve got is a situation where Blizzard seems to be very quietly shuffling Med’an off the canon history of Warcraft.

I, for one, am most pleased. This whole project has been about discussing that Med’an is superfluous at best and damaging to the canon’s integrity at the worst. While I always struggle with situations where a piece of work has to be decanonized, I think in this case I’m okay with cutting off the warped, unrecoverable branch that Med’an represents on the overall tree of Warcraft lore.

Of course, if anything about Med’an shows up (either cementing his removal from the canon or the unlikely event that he shows up again) I’m certain to write more about it here, so stay tuned. ^_^

MYSTERY OF THE COWLED RANGER

Spoiler Warnings: This entry will contain spoilers for certain quests in Warlords of Draenor, as well as story spoilers for Christie Golden’s Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War and War Crimes. 

Anyone who’s picked up the Inn or Tavern in their garrison has probably come across this guest quest-giver by now.

So what's your name?

So what’s your name?

The Problem

If you look at the skin tone, the hair color and style, the facial markings that are visible beneath the cowl, and the dagger she’s wielding, every outward sign indicates that this is Shandris Feathermoon. Additionally, the quest reward from the initial quest is a Sentinel’s Companion, which matches with Shandris’ past role as a Priestess of the Moon (which, in WC3, summoned an Owl Scout to scout around).

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Harder to tell with the mask she got post-Cataclysm, but even without the facial markings for confirmation, all of the other details signal it.

 

The problem comes up when you read the quest text for both the initial and repeatable versions of the quest she offers.

“The Huntresses” quest text:

I do not wish to come out of the shadows, but I mean you no harm. My purpose here is my own secret to keep, I simply needed a warm place to bed down for the night.

I can see that you are not the type to be easily swayed into leaving. Very well, perhaps you can aid my in my search.

I am looking for someone, it is not important who. All you need to know is that I will reward you for any sign of high elven weaponry that you should come across.

Completion:

This is… it can’t be.

I must be off, here is your reward. I do not part with it lightly…

“Fate of the Fallen” quest text:

I feel that I can trust you, perhaps. You have, at least, not spoken of my secret to anyone, and for that I thank you.

I have need of your aid again, and in return, I will share some of my own information. I am here, you see, to find an elf by the name of Alleria. She was lost years ago, on Draenor. It is my faint hope that the twisting nether brought her here.

I do not know if such a thing is even possible, but do keep an eye out for any signs of high elves as you travel.

Completion:

Another one? How curious.

I may not be much closer to finding her, but these arrows bring some comfort to me, at least.

Here’s what’s weird about the quest text: it seems pretty evident that the quest-giver is someone who a) wants to keep their identity secret and b) has a personal stake in Alleria’s fate. There’s a pretty short list of people for whom those two criteria are true, and it really comes down to Vereesa and Sylvanas Windrunner, Alleria’s two surviving sisters. Moreover, Shandris doesn’t normally meet either of those criteria. She’s never even met Alleria.

And the last weird thing is this: the Sentinel’s Companion Pet Journal entry indicates that it comes from a quest called “Little Sister Lost” which doesn’t exist in the game data. The description of the pet then reads “the companion of a night elf sentinel, rarely given out as a gift.”

The most obvious bit of dissonance, then, is this:

  • The Cowled Ranger is definitely a night elf, sporting a night elf weapon, and handing out a night elven owl companion as a reward…
  • … but the quest text and the title of the non-existent quest in the pet journal both suggest that it’s one of Alleria’s sisters who is looking for her, neither of whom are Night Elves.

To put it another way: the quest-giver is deliberately intended to be Shandris in disguise, but there’s no existing justifiable lore reason why she’d be looking for Alleria.

Possible Solutions

Sylvanas in Disguise: She’s not really well-loved in the Horde right now, and she’d have to disguise herself to visit the Alliance garrison. And from a meta perspective, she’s worn a night elf body before (her original model prior to Wrath was a modified night elf), so this wouldn’t really be that much of a shift for her.

The reason this fails is because of what just happened in War Crimes: Sylvanas’ plot with Vereesa to kill Garrosh before the end of his trial failed, specifically because Vereesa lost her nerve and revealed the attempt to Anduin. The very specific quote I’m looking at comes from the end of Chapter 33 in that book: “Sylvanas Windrunner, Banshee Queen of the Forsaken, would never again make the mistake of believing she could love.” As the end-cap of a book-long plot where Sylvanas was attempting to reconnect with one of her sisters, it stands to reason that she would be less than interested in trying to find Alleria for the same reason.

Vereesa in Disguise: She’d have to disguise herself going into the Horde garrison, and while her last scene in War Crimes suggested that Anduin kept her secret, it’s possible that he informed Varian of it, making her persona non grata with the Alliance as well.

The reason this fails is because Vereesa’s not a night elf, and why she’d choose to disguise herself as Shandris Feathermoon who is in turn also traveling incognito beggars belief.

Shandris On Assignment: The solution that meets the most criteria but requires the most assumptions is this one. Recall that in Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War, Vereesa and Shandris worked together while skirmishing against the Horde in Dustwallow Marsh during the attack on Theramore. They were among the only Alliance leaders to survive the destruction of the city, specifically because they were outside when the mana-bomb dropped.

Shandris has had a history of making friends in battle pretty readily (she called Jaina Battle-sister after the defense of Mount Hyjal where they first cooperated) so it stands to reason that she might have struck up a badass sisterhood with Vereesa during their shared experience at Theramore. Assuming Vereesa was unable to travel to Old Draenor on the possibility of searching for Alleria there, asking Shandris to do it makes sense, since Shandris would have the resources to do it.

Shandris traveling incognito, however, is the only hitching point for this (if you accept all of the other assumptions). She’s a lauded commander of the Alliance. If it was a named NPC who would be a valid candidate for running the Lunarfall Garrison, she’d certainly be someone I’d put on the short list. She also worked with Thrall’s Horde just as readily at Mount Hyjal, so in a post-Garrosh world it would stand to reason she could probably waltz into Frostwall Garrison without much concern. Finally, the list of guest NPCs who make appearances in the Inn/Tavern has plenty of characters who really don’t have much reason being faction-neutral.

However, I can accept that Blizzard didn’t want to build faction-specific quest-givers for the Inn/Tavern guests, and for whatever reason, Shandris was built to be traveling in secret.

Internal Miscommunication: I can also buy the possible explanation that all of the conflicts in this quest are the result of last-minute changes internally at Blizzard, where the quest text was written to support Sylvanas and Vereesa as faction-specific quest-givers (hence the “Little Sister Lost” quest title in the pet journal) but was later changed to the night elf Cowled Ranger, which resulted in the pet reward being changed to something more appropriate to a night elf character.

Status: Unsolved

Why such attention was paid to making the model into Shandris in disguise is really the most mysterious part of the whole affair. Regardless of any reasons you could conjure for why Shandris of all people wants to find Alleria, her being in disguise doesn’t make sense when none of the other faction-aligned guest NPCs have any reason to conceal their identities. Why someone who’s in disguise as a night elf ranger would end up have all of these accouterments that suggest Shandris when there’s all of these other lower-profile night elf rangers to imitate only adds to the mystery: if it’s NOT supposed to be Shandris, why all the clues suggesting it’s her?

Maybe we’ll see something about this in a future content patch, but if it’s a seed for future content, it’s pretty well-buried. If it’s an artifact of some past design or just one of the quest-designers having fun with us, it could amount to nothing. And right now, with how the repeatable ends and with zero evidence to suggest anything Alleria-related in WoD, the likelihood that there’s nothing here is pretty high.

I personally like the headcanon that Vereesa saved Shandris’ bacon during Theramore, and as a reward Shandris is hunting for Vereesa’s sister on Old Draenor, despite the fact that Alleria being anywhere near a past version of Draenor is… well, calling it a moonshot would be a pretty terrible pun given all the circumstances. But the bottom line is that the quest hinges on players finding a silver-lined arrow in the Shadowmoon Burial Grounds, which the NPC, whoever she is, recognizes as belonging to Alleria.

Is it foreboding that we find this arrow on a grave? Is it Alleria’s grave? Or the grave of someone killed by this arrow? THE MIND BOGGLES.

I want to believe there’s something deliberate here, but hell, we all thought that Arator’s big appearance in Honor Hold was a deliberate thing, and it amounted to nothing. Sometimes, the little notes are just in there for no rhyme or reason.

 

Rulkan is the Orcish Jaina Proudmoore

Focus on a young couple. They go through a fairly traditional courtship, filled with the promise of a great future for their people. Suddenly, however, a dark threat appears over the horizon. She advises caution, but he chooses to rush in headlong, and each choice he makes draws him further and further down a path of darkness. At last she realizes that she no longer knows the man he’s become, but a timeless and fervent love still survives.

You look at that story and it’s easy to assign it to Arthas and Jaina and what they’ve been through together, but with the new narrative we’ve got in Warlords of Draenor, it’s actually something that plays perfectly well with Ner’zhul and Rulkan.

For Arthas and Jaina, the threat was the Cult of the Damned. For Ner’zhul and Rulkan, it was the Iron Horde. Both Arthas and Ner’zhul made a fateful choice that broke their relationships: for Arthas it was choosing to cull Stratholme in order to save Lordaeron, and for Ner’zhul it was reviving the Dark Star to keep the Iron Horde from slaughtering the Shadowmoon Clan. After that break occurs, both Jaina and Rulkan take the survivors into exile, while Arthas and Ner’zhul continue down a path of destruction. And ultimately, both Jaina and Rulkan are willing to put past hatreds aside in order to combat the greater threat; Jaina works with Thrall and the Horde against the Legion invasion at Mount Hyjal, and Rulkan enabled Prophet Velen and Yrel to assault Ner’zhul in his place of power at Anguish Fortress.

The idea that Rulkan joins the Alliance Commander as a follower is pretty much where her story stops at this point, but the commonalities with Jaina’s story up until the Battle of Mount Hyjal is something that really sticks out to me. Combine that with all the Cult of the Damned-like qualities that have been impressed upon the new Shadowmoon Clan in WoD-SMV, down to Ner’zhul summoning an Army of the Dead during his boss battle, and it really feels like Blizzard made an active attempt to align Ner’zhul’s narrative with Arthas’ as strongly as they could. I think it’s a pretty interesting turn, since it amps up the connection with the Lich King story (and Ner’zhul of all people going down in a launch 5-man really feels like a plant for future content), but it does so without really altering the existing Ner’zhul story.

Moreover, it infuses what I feel is a lot of additional character into Rulkan, who was essentially killed off introduced in Rise of the Horde as a way for Ner’zhul to get duped by Kil’jaeden. Having her alive completely shifts his state at the start of the Iron Horde narrative (one of Kairozdormu’s “blades of grass”) while also putting a strong female orc character squarely in the Alliance narrative.

I’m pretty hopeful that we’ll see more of Rulkan going forward, because I feel like her addition to the narrative was for a greater purpose than even what we’ve seen so far. Callbacks to WC3 are great and all, but I’m really interested in seeing some new story as well, and Warlords has delivered on that while setting the stage for even more. We’ll see.

THE NEW FOCUS

Personally, I don’t find a lot of value in stocking up on a full log of Mists of Pandaria daily quests to turn in when the servers switch over to Warlords. Nothing against those colleagues and friends of mine who swear by it or their reasons for doing it, but it doesn’t work for me, and here’s why:

  • I don’t feel an overwhelming need to give a kiss goodnight to the daily content. It was good content and I enjoyed it well enough to accumulate thousands of Lesser Charms on my main, but I can’t say that I’m super-attached to it. Moreover, it’s not going anywhere.
  • I’ve got limited play-time. Trying to stack up a full log of dailies is time-consuming, and when the XP and gold rewards simply don’t compare to the XP/gold per hour of doing the Tanaan experience (especially given how practiced I am with that content from doing it repeatedly on the beta) it makes a lot more sense from an XP/gold gain perspective to just get started with Tanaan Jungle from minute one instead of flitting about Pandaria turning in quests.
  • I’ve got seven level 90 characters, which is by far the most I’ve ever had at max-level EVER. Even if I could somehow justify stuffing the quest log on my main to get a negligible headstart on XP gains, I know I couldn’t do it for the other six. (And I just remembered that I plan to use my boost on my gnome mage once I get the expansion, so that’ll be EIGHT. Sweet sisters of mercy.) I’m not really what you’d call an altoholic (I just like covering my bases with professions, really) but the bottom line is that it’s just not a positive ROI for the time needed.
  • I fly out tomorrow Wednesday to Los Angeles for BlizzCon and a bit of a holiday and won’t be back at my gaming rig until next Tuesday. My wife works next Wednesday, so it’s back to the grind of taking care of my son. The expansion comes out Thursday. If I was going to attempt to do a project like this instead of what I’ve been doing (farming old raids for incremental progress on old legendaries because I can actually do it now as a priest also GOLD) I’d have had to start on it weeks ago.

Again, this isn’t meant to slight folks who a) have time on their hands, b) feel an attachment to the content and want to give a send-off, c) REALLY LIKE DAILIES, d) maximize their gold gains at every turn, e) aren’t disappearing to SoCal for a week-long drinking binge, or f) do what they want b/c it’s a fuckin’ game and they’ll play however they like. The game has latitude to support a lot of play styles, and it’s not my job to tell people what they should do with their play time, since I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it if someone said “you need to do this with the slivers of time you set aside to game.”

I just wanted to throw out why I won’t be doing this, and affirming that my focus on November 13th will be collecting heads in Warlords of Draenor. So long, Pandaria. I’ll likely visit for brews and mounts and other stuff when I run out of stuff to do on Draenor. /wave

I’ll Bet Cash Money We Get Ogres Next Expansion

In terms of evidence, here’s what I’ve got:

  • Ogres are the only humanoid race that worked for the Horde in WC2 that hasn’t become playable.
  • Metzen wants playable ogres (or at least did once upon a time).
  • Warlords of Draenor has a ton of situations predicated on the existence of a vast ogre civilization that’s so old it’s in decline.
  • Chilton’s recent comments indicated that new races would be a thing in “some other expansion that is coming up.” Combine with the following:
    • Blizzard has stated that Expansion 6 is already in development.
    • They also identified a second continent on Draenor as the ogre homeland.
    • Much lip service has been paid to the idea that the timejump to Draenor was not meant only to set up WoD but to set up future expansions as well.
      • Expansion 6 takes us to the Gorian Empire for blood and glory. QED.
  • The Horde started off with a bunch of brutal monstrous races, and the races they’ve gotten since have either been a stark contrast (blood elves) or only semi-monstrous (goblins) or the pandaren. Adding the ogres to the Horde at long last gives them another bruiser race that fits the savage sentiments of the faction.

Maybe there are some counterarguments out there (“what do you do about two-headed ogres,” “wtf do ogre women look like,” “dammit ogres are stupid,” etc.) but I feel like all of that can be countered by solid design. The bottom line is that the evidence for keeps cropping up and the evidence against is the same as it was ten years ago.

The big issue that comes up for me is what to do for the Alliance.

  • High elves are the only humanoid race that worked for the Alliance in WC2 that hasn’t become playable FOR THE ALLIANCE. They’re playable on the Horde, and quite frankly there’s not enough reason to have identical elf races on both factions; the pandaren are an exception.
  • Assuming that a playable ogre faction would actually be Gorian ogres, arguments could be made that you could have a separate faction of ogres join the Alliance. This also invokes the Pandaren Exception.
  • The expansion races for the Alliance have all been homeless, lost races, with the main difference being whether they had a choice in it. The draenei are exiles hundreds of times removed from their homes, the worgen homeland got blighted by the Forsaken, and the Tushui pandaren chose to leave the Wandering Isle. Another race of exiles (as in a high elf faction, or any other race for that matter) doesn’t compliment the concept of the Alliance as a league of nations in a mutual defense pact.
  • No other race jumps out at me as a playable contender that could meet the following criteria:
    • Is a sovereign kingdom that mostly controls its own borders,
    • Is made up of bipedal humanoids,
    • Has not already been implemented in game using another playable races’ skeleton (which knocks off the jinyu, mogu, saurok, mantid, and various others).

Now, that’s a personal limitation: just because I can’t think of a solution doesn’t mean no solution exists. I just don’t feel like there’s anything for the Alliance that’s as much of a shoe-in as ogres for the Horde.

Before I leave you, one last thing:

The Pandaren Exception

When it comes down to it, the two factions need to have distinct silhouettes. That means having distinct races that, in turn, have distinct silhouettes. It’s not just a matter of being able to identify a player as an enemy or an ally in PVP (people throw out same-faction arena as a typical counter, for example) but also a matter of that silhouette immediately letting you identify a race, and having that race be associated with a faction helps to build the faction identity. So when you break down silhouette as a pillar by putting identical races on both factions, you’re breaking down faction identity.

In a franchise like Warcraft where “orcs vs. humans” is a core aspect of the narrative, breaking down faction identity and uniqueness is bad.

So why do pandaren get a pass? The best answer that’s ever come out of the devs has been that the pandaren were too cool to limit to one faction. Players on both factions would have rioted if they didn’t get the chance to play a pandaren, and all things considered there was nothing about the race that locked them into being one side or the other. There’s also the statement that just doing one playable race and one starting experience let them focus on their efforts and ensure that the starting experience was as awesome as it could possibly be.

Doing another neutral race would chip away at faction identity. The more races who join both factions, the less reason there is for the factions to be distinct, and there’s less defensible reason to keep tauren from joining the Alliance or have dwarves join the Horde.

And yeah, I can hear people saying “but that’s what I want” and my only response is this: you’ll have to convince Blizzard’s devs that this is good for the game as a whole, which is a lot more work than it takes for them to maintain the status quo.

So the pandaren were a special case. I don’t think we’ll see another neutral race again.

The Swordsman’s Lament

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There’s a particular character archetype that I love that I know will likely never be expressed as a character in World of Warcraft: the martial swordsman.

Now the immediate response is that there are plenty of mans who use swords in the game, and that’s true, but none of them match the archetype I’m thinking of. Let’s debunk each:

Warriors: Ultimately, the archetype aligns the most with Warriors, because it’s the concept of using a sword, not magic of any kind, and not shapeshifting, in order to combat your opponents. Each spec clashes with the archetype in different ways.

  • Protection warriors can use a sword, but this is in combination with a shield. That matches up with a different archetype, and is more along the lines of using both the weapon and the shield as the tools of combat. The martial swordsman only uses the sword.
  • Arms warriors use two-handed swords (among other two-handed weapons) and to a great extent, the temperament of the spec gets close to aligning with what I’m thinking of, but it’s a huge weapon being wielded by a huge bruiser in plate armor. This is also what locks out Death Knights.
  • Fury warriors have the same problem as Arms in that respect, and while they can use one-handed swords via Single-Minded Fury, they’re using two.

Rogues: Ultimately, where the rogue similarity comes in is in the use of light armor and a focus on agility over strength, speed over brawn. But that’s where the similarity ends. The dirty tactics, the stealth, the poisons, everything else that’s the hallmark of being a rogue doesn’t mesh for the swordsman archetype.

So that’s what it’s not, but what is it?

It’s easy to just say “dude it’s a samurai” and call it done, because that’s going to call to mind a very particular silhouette of a swordsman that’s not as heavy as a Western knight. But I feel like that does an injustice to samurai; they were experts with a variety of different weaponry, not just the katana.

I’m talking about a guy who’s an expert with a sword, and the sword alone serves as his weapon. The sword is the delivery method of the man’s deadly skill. That’s why huge two-handers don’t fit the design; in those cases, the sword is more dangerous than the man. The man should be the source of the menace, even when the sword is sheathed.

All that being said,  I completely understand that it would take a momentous amount of work to make a swordsman-type character work. Everything from the Blademaster Hero unit in WC3 has already been farmed out to other classes. Coming up with different specs for the class is notably difficult to do, and to a great extent it crowds out rogues in the same way windwalker monks do currently. Because the visual component is so critical, you’re talking about a bunch of new animations for thirteen races to learn how to do iaido. It’s something that’s visually interesting in duels, but once you start adding more combatants (and when the swordsman is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the rogue shoving blades in the boss’ hindquarters) that starts to wear off quickly.

Ultimately, I know this is something I’ll have to go to other games to get. Which, as an aside: it really aggravates me that I can’t do this as a Jedi in Old Republic without being a tank.

Ah well. At least I’ll always have Mitsurugi.

Hellscream and the Orcish Destiny

Parallels are something that I love being able to draw out.

In the WC3 cinematic that showcases Thrall and Grom’s bout with Mannoroth (and Grom’s epic death), the first hint we get of Mannoroth’s presence is him chuckling off-screen. The same thing happens with Mannoroth in the WoD cinematic.

In both cinematics, Mannoroth is expressing his dominance over the orcs; in WC3, he states it plainly, while in WoD, he calls the gathered orcs mongrels and goads Hellscream: “did you bring [the orcs] here just to watch you die?”

In both cinematics, the first attack on Mannoroth fails; in WC3, Thrall’s assault with the Doomhammer gets knocked aside effortlessly, while in WoD, the ballista’d chain meant to pin him down so that the Iron Star could end him gets countered.

In both cinematics, Mannoroth goes down in one hit from Gorehowl. It’s much more believable in WoD, because getting an axe embedded in your skull is more certain of a killing blow than getting it in the chest, especially with as much mass as Mannoroth has. To an extent, this is something that really remarks both on the strength of a weapon like Gorehowl, which has the most mundane of origins, and on the strength of the guys who have wielded Gorehowl.

It’s where the parallels give way to even greater shifts that I get really interested.

In WC3, Grom attacks head-on after he gets taunted by Mannoroth. This sells the idea that Mannoroth knows exactly how to manipulate Grom, and the only thing that goes south for the pit lord is that Grom gets a killing blow in past his defenses. In WoD, if you’re going in with the WC3 cinematic in mind, you expect Grom to do the same thing… but instead he smiles, and you see the catapult fire coming in behind him. This younger, uncorrupted Grom is already acting with greater foresight than his older version; all of this builds to the idea that this Grom is patently more dangerous.

Grom makes sure the Iron Star gets deployed rather than just going toe-to-toe with Mannoroth. Not only does this continue building the “new/improved Grom” concept, but it also demonstrates how the Iron Horde is going to marry the brawn and determination of an uncorrupted Horde with the Blackfuse technology that the Iron Star represents. It’s foreshadowing how much more technological this Iron Horde will be in comparison to the Blackhand/Doomhammer hordes of the past.

Clearly, having Grom get silhouetted against the explosion coming from Mannoroth’s corpse is a callback to the WC3 cinematic, but it’s so important that Garrosh dives in to keep Grom from getting killed. This is a huge expression of the heroic qualities that Garrosh has; your standard villain would probably let Grom die after doing his job, but Garrosh saves him. And while people drawing Back to the Future parallels might argue that Garrosh is only saving Grom in order to ensure his own future conception (which is a self-serving villainous thing to do) that’s dependent on duplicating that franchise’s plot devices.

Garrosh saves Grom because Grom is his father. Garrosh believes in the brotherhood of the orcish people when (and only when) the orcish people are being true to his vision, and that vision is modeled after Garrosh’ perceptions of Grom as his father. Saving Grom from death is emblematic of Garrosh rescuing the orcish people from what he feels was a degradation of their culture.

The other side of it, which some folks have pointed out, is that Garrosh saving Grom represents Garrosh doing something that Thrall failed to do. Thrall’s project in Lord of the Clans was to save the orcs from their bondage, both in terms of the internment camps and the bonds of Mannoroth’s blood curse. Thrall was able to do that, but he failed repeatedly to keep any of the icons of the old Horde alive or on his team; Orgrim died, Grom died, Rend and Maim refused to join him, and the Dragonmaw and Blackrock clans both essentially stayed rogue. More specifically, it took Grom killing Mannoroth to finally free the orcs, since Thrall was demonstrated in the WC3 cinematic to be completely ineffectual against the pit lord.

Garrosh is, to a great extent, the  perfect complement to Thrall. Both of them want to embrace the old ways of the orcish people, but both are focusing on different things: Thrall wants a return to a life guided by the spirits of the ancestors and in harmony with the elemental spirits, while Garrosh wants a return to the life of orcs expressing their worth through acts of strength and valor. Both of these are facets of the pre-Legion way of life for the orcs.

Garrosh is not wrong for wanting what he wants. Where Garrosh goes wrong, and the reason he’s ultimately an antagonist instead of a protagonist, is that he wants the unified orcs to express their strength and valor against other equally heroic races. Moreover, by saving Grom and saving the orcs from enslavement, he’s ensuring that the Iron Horde will be empowered to do just that. Which ties in perfectly with Grom’s final line:

“We will never be slaves, but we will be conquerors.”

Thrall exists because of the enslavement of the orcs. Thrall’s name is a word for “slave.” It can’t get more overt than that; Thrall is a representation of what the orcs inevitably became as a result of drinking the demon blood. Grom’s statement (and you can almost hear Garrosh being the guy who planted the concept in his head, Inception-style) defies that future, defies the very idea that an orc like Thrall could ever come to pass, and instead sets the Iron Horde on the path of strength and strength alone governing their destiny.

There’s an elegance to this that I think a lot of players miss out on, and which Blizzard does little to emphasize by having so much of nuance of the game’s story outsourced to novels and short stories. There’s a nobility in the Iron Horde’s desire for self-determination that I think players are never going to see, because the orcs are going to be self-determining through butchering innocents, and as heroes, our job is to stop them. It’s a really different type of opposition than we’ve ever faced before (though there are hints of something similar with Lei Shen’s death line “I was only trying to do the work of the gods”) but I think it’s a bit sad that players are going to gravitate towards killing these guys because of their fat loot without ever questioning if it’s right to kill them.

 

 

Hellscream’s Unbound Ambition

Back when the trailer for Patch 5.4 came out, (exactly a year ago today, it turns out) I wrote a big piece that dug into Garrosh Hellscream’s motivations as a character and how that’s demonstrated across a wide spread of media. It’s fitting, I think to look at the cinematic trailer for Warlords of Draenor  and consider not only Garrosh’ role in the action (and how he’s developed since the start of 5.4) but also Blizzard’s present characterization of Grom Hellscream.

To really dig into the backstory on Grom, you have to understand the origins of the orcs and where they came from. Without basically sitting down and reading Christie Golden’s Rise of the Horde to you, the short version is like this: the orcs were a loosely-affiliated nation of semi-nomadic individual clans who occasionally tussled with each other over resources, and occasionally traded with the unusual draenei folk who’d appeared some centuries before. They weren’t 100% peaceful, but they had their guidance from their shaman, who got their directions from the spirits of the orcish ancestors. This is a pretty self-sustaining system, in that it conditions the orcs to keep doing what their forebears did, and to eschew revolutionary concepts.

When Ner’zhul unwittingly leads the orcs down a path of war against the draenei, the orcs take to it with gusto. They’re a savage people living in a savage world; their coming-of-age rituals have got a high mortality rate; they are a race that praises strength and fortitude, and going to war against another people, even under false pretenses, is an opportunity to demonstrate that strength. And when Gul’dan wrests control from Ner’zhul, the only thing that really changes is that the shaman are becoming warlocks and everyone’s turning green. Ultimately, the orcs have always been a violent people, but no one ever pointed them all at the same target before.

This is why it’s so critical that the turning point we’re shown in the cinematic is when Gul’dan offers the Cup of Unity to the orcs. Grom is the one who pushes to the front of the pack to drink, even ahead of Blackhand, the Warchief, because Grom is someone who already lacks hesitation. Gul’dan needs Grom to demonstrate to all of the other orcs (not just the ones cowed by Blackhand) that the power promised by the blood of Mannoroth will make even the ideal orc into an even more powerful fighter. In the original timeline, Grom does not ask any questions: he stomps up, takes the cup and drinks it. Yet here, in Warlords, he looks to the Stranger for confirmation, and then asks a question.

“And what, Gul’dan, must we give in return?”

This is when you know that everything will change. Grom is not hesitant, he is not fearful. But he’s been warned ahead of time about what would happen if he drank the blood… something that Durotan himself feared to do in the original timeline. Through his question Grom is demanding that Gul’dan be upfront about the consequences, and while it’s played up much more dramatically here than it was in Rise of the Horde, Gul’dan lifting his hood and revealing his green skin and red eyes tell the whole story of the path the orcs are meant to take from this point.

“Everything.”

As an aside, it should be noted that this is a character moment for Gul’dan just as much as it is for Grom. Gul’dan being willing to sacrifice himself for power feels like a statement he’s making about all orcs: “I’m okay with turning green in order to become a god, isn’t everybody?” The way he replies, the conviction in his voice… Gul’dan flat-out doesn’t care who or what gets doomed so long as he’s more powerful at the end of the day.

And again, it’s so important for GROM to be the one that sells this to the other orcs by example. He’s the ideal orc, and Gul’dan is trusting that he won’t ask questions. So when Grom pours out the cup instead of chugging it, it’s the logical result of him getting confirmation from Gul’dan that this is going to be exactly what the Stranger warned him about.

Now, Mannoroth being on the scene is new, and I think that warrants it’s own post, but let’s focus on what Garrosh, as the Stranger, must have done here:

“Gul’dan is going to promise you something you already have.”

“What he promises will strip away everything that is pure and right with the orcish people.”

“He would turn us into slaves for his masters. Will we gain power? A pittance, and the price we pay for it is our freedom.”

“Drink from the Cup of Unity and we shall be the slaves of monsters.”

When I talked about Garrosh before, I talked about how Malkorok may have sold him a narrative about how badass the Horde was before Thrall’s Shamanistic Repentance Train started up. It could be that Malkorok might not have been too off the mark; if what he said bolstered Garrosh into having a vision for the Horde, and if Grom ends up buying into that same vision, then there’s weight to the idea that the orcs always wanted to be conquerors. They just needed the right push in order to realize that, and once they got going on the conquest train, there really wasn’t any turning back.

So by merely extracting the truth from Gul’dan about what the demon kool-aid would do, and by killing the monster trying to push it, Grom saves his people: as a mirror to how Grom saves his people in the original timeline, you can’t get a more stark reflection, except the twist here is the timing.

I want to talk more extensively about the usage of Mannoroth here, but I think I’ve gone on enough for one day. ^_^