The Importance of Time

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It is said that the simplest stories are often the best ones. All it takes is a character, a world that draws you in and a journey. And the journey, the ups and downs, and the events and people in it keep us coming back to it. The journey is usually the highlight of story in a game world like Warcraft’s, and the journey is inextricably tied to what happened before and what happens next.

Somewhere along the line, Warcraft seems to have forgotten this mantra along the way. In the tug of war between game-play and story, I imagine story has usually come in second place. The results are glaring cracks in the game world, and a distinct lack of a compelling journey. The importance of story is not in question here – it affects the entire game world and gives players a reason to want to be in it. Today’s post is more about how Warcraft arrived at this point.

There are two points in Warcraft where I feel like the game world took a huge hit from decisions, and both these decisions took a single thing for granted: the importance of a timeline.

The importance of having a beginning to a journey, and knowing exactly how things follow after is huge. And we lose that continuity if time is this flexible thing we can manipulate at the drop of a whim. The story isn’t a journey anymore then – it becomes more about figuring out what the hell’s going on.

Cataclysm and a broken timeline

The first of these decisions took place in Cataclysm when they decided to revamp rather simply update the quests in old zones. Now I’m all on board that the old zones needed an update but, my one and only unwavering criticism of Cataclysm is that they decided to break the timeline doing it. As is well-known, the 1-80 leveling experience in Warcraft makes absolutely no sense anymore. We swing from Deathwing’s fire to the Outland to the Lich King and then all the way back. The problem is that this is deemed ok.

But this is obsolete content, so why should we care? Because we suddenly have a journey with no beginning. The first season of a show is erased and everyone now has to start at season 4 and then skip back to watch the other two seasons before moving on. New players I imagine, would be confused by the story in the beginning – why did the dragon take a break? Hardly compelling stuff. Much the same way we sometimes like to reread a good book not for the ending, but for the narrative and the journey – older players can never experience that journey again either.

More things to do with time were forthcoming in dungeons like End Time. I’m not sure I ever entirely understood what was going on in that one. The official description we got was:

timewayNot quite as simple as Caverns of Time which w as straight up the occasional: “someone is trying to change the past, stop them!” Personally, I wasn’t thrilled with the explanation and wasn’t quite sure how it was all fitting in but it was one dungeon, so I just moved on.

Alternate Universes Etc. 

Fast forward to today, we have an entire expansion based on an alternate universe – or as it was called during the Blizzcon announcement, timey-wimey. And it was seemingly for the sole purpose of being able to revisit age old Warcraft characters like Blackhand and Durotan. It would be, as Chris Metzen put it, returning to the DNA of Warcraft. And time was a convenient tool to do it.

Here’s the issue: us time-travelling adventurers have no investment in a place that isn’t connected to our own. It doesn’t matter if Velen dies in Draenor because our Velen is alive and well back home. You see where we go with this – if nothing ever matters, then why are we here in the first place?

This is a key question that story in Draenor failed to convince players like me of: WHY ARE WE HERE?

Because Garrosh ran off and we’d like his head for his wrongs against us. Fine. Then why not simply return after he was killed? Or better still, simply shut the portal down from our side and let Alternate Universe Azeroth deal with their own problems? Surely Azeroth has enough problems of its own?

The list of questions can go on and there are really no good answers to any of them. If a story requires more explanation than it’s entire plot, it doesn’t seem like it’s a very good story to begin with. For Warcraft, when story and time are constantly used as tools for something – the flaws eventually catch up.

The result is that we’re left behind with a world that doesn’t give adventurers a reason to be in it. Just think about it for a moment – the entire point of having story in a game is to make an immersive world and give folks a reason to want to be in it. And we really don’t have that in this world.

Adventurers with a PhD in Physics

Time in Warcraft started out as something cool and something simple. I loved Caverns of Time for two reasons: 1) It gave me an opportunity to peek at the past 2) We had a good “stop someone from messing with the past so our future isn’t doomed” reason to be there. It added to the magic and it wasn’t over the top – there were time troublemakers and we had to stop them, that was all.

Given our time experience since, it would almost seem as though we all somehow got a degree in physics along the way – distinguishing neatly between “time-ways”, alternate universes, and time anomalies.

There was a point in Blizzcon during the announcement of WoD where the devs didn’t want us to focus on the “timey wimey” of the story. And that makes sense because the biggest issue with dealing with space-time and string theory is that it’s complicated and it takes away from the the actual events of the story. But once you go there, as they did, its impossible to divorce one aspect of the story from the other – inconvenient things cannot be simply brushed aside or ignored. They will always have their effects and we felt it at full force this expansion.  

Perhaps it’s time to return to the basics. Have the power of story come from the characters, their choices and events. Let debatable parts of the story not be about figuring out what’s going on, but rather about discussing decisions that growing characters took in their journey. What would have happened if so-and-so chose option B?  A story doesn’t have to be complicated to be good.

My advice to Blizzard’s decision-makers is simple: focus on rebuilding the world, focus on rebuilding the journey and for the love of the Light, don’t screw with time.

One thought on “The Importance of Time

  1. I always chalked this up to Blizzard’s self-professed “gameplay first” attitude because they used “story first” as another example. In their minds apparently it doesn’t matter that the early story is disjointed (or heck, even the current one) if they can provide good gameplay. But for me, like yourself, this has gotten a little ridiculous. I mean, I always read “gameplay first” as a tiebreaker, not a “to hell with the story, we do what we want.”

    Also I always found it weird that people in the 1-60 leveling area will reference Outland and Northrend events as having happened, then suddenly you go back in time to do them.

    I dunno, I ramble. I liked your post and find I agree. The timey-whimy was alright at first but now it’s lost its appeal for me.

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