This is a post that sat in my drafts folder for about four years. Yep, four years. The entire time it’s been simmering since the Cataclysm at the back of my mind. Two things have propelled me to dust this one off and finish writing about it. The first was the announcement of Vanilla servers at Blizzcon in 2017; the second, taking a second look at the journey through Azeroth as I level my lightforged draenei paladin.
Blizzard took a huge risk back in Cataclysm when they decided to wipe the slate clean and redo Azeroth. It’s something almost everyone wishes they could do but can’t – and for good reason. We don’t get do-overs sometimes. They in effect, rewrote history by erasing some of it – and the question I have long sought to answer out loud: Was it worth it?
Sometimes I get nostalgic for Auberdine, for Taurajo, for the Mirage Raceway and Southshore. It’s the kind of thing that trolls on the forum would gladly rip apart with accusations of rose-coloured glasses and whatnot. But it’s not really about looking back and saying things were better, because they weren’t. Quests were undoubtedly more difficult to accomplish, they were scattered and tedious, dungeon groups weren’t easy to form – the list just goes on. So what is this about then?
In short, it’s about the world. The world we play in as our characters and the one that has a huge impact on our perceptions, often without us knowing. While mulling through my nostalgia, I’ve pondered Azeroth’s importance and the effect it has on your average player. I think we often underestimate just how much a world can mean even if as a player we don’t roleplay, or aren’t particularly interested in lore, or aren’t terribly active on the Story forums. I’m looking at the unconscious, the passive and the unsaid.
The changes in Cataclysm came with a more dynamic way of storytelling, a better flow to quests, advanced tools such as phasing and cut scenes, and a variety of quests of themselves. On the surface it all seems quite good and it is, and I’m tempted here to ask myself “So what’s the problem?” And this is the tough part because my answer to it is a question.
Is it a problem when I can’t point to the game I fell in love with and tell someone “hey this is where I started out and this is how I got into Warcraft!”?
Scattered History and Immersion
A broken timeline has been brought up over and over again so I’m not going to delve into it too much, but it does play a role here in breaking immersion. The leveling journey is no longer a linear story being told. We hop from one time to another, from one dimension to another and for the sake of gameplay and resource allocation, it is how it is. But I have to wonder if we can simply write off the consequences of having the game in such a way.
You’re immersed in a world not necessarily because you read every line of quest text, or roleplay your elf to the fullest. It happens simply by virtue of being in the world where the little things make the world a real and believable place to be. Quite simply, things make sense.
A bit of that is broken currently when we quest from 1 to max level. And it is further fractured by splitting bits of the story into other forms of media. We already have time issues between Azeroth and the Outland onto Northrend.
A story that starts at the beginning and progresses in time and story through the levels just made more sense. Back when I first made a character, I was simply a druid starting my journey in Azeroth. As I leveled, I saw the story progress. Now, if I were to start a character anew – I am no longer simply a druid…I am a druid with time issues. (And this hasn’t even touched on sloppy Draenor yet).
The Definition of Real
One of the arguments for getting rid of the old world was that well things change in reality and it’s no different in Azeroth. I understand this: every year or two I would fly home to visit and to my utter dismay, could barely recognise my city each visit. It just changed so much and a lot of the places I went to as a child don’t exist anymore. I have my memories, and similarly have memories of Southshore, Auberdine and the Mirage Raceway.
The one question here is though how ‘real’ does Azeroth need to be? It has the privilege of being a virtual world that doesn’t need to deal with our real world’s problem. No banking crisis, no overpopulation, no economic recessions and no epidemics. There is a wide spectrum of how close to reality games want to get. Some worlds try to get as close to it as possible while others not so much. In Azeroth, I’ve often wondered if the irreversible changes to the world (in much the same way my hometown changed) is a tad too real?
Afterall, we do play the game to get away from our own world sometimes. Much the same way we watch movies with improbable plots or sappy romances that can never happen in the life we know. It was perhaps refreshing to know that no matter what happened in your life outside of Azeroth, Ashenvale would still be around, you could race down the raceway, or that gnomes would still be fighting troggs.
I think is fantastic that they’re pushing the story forward and it’s almost necessary – but erasing parts of it simply negates the positives of progress. Many characters will never see key parts of the world from Vanilla WoW simply by lieu of the fact that they were made after a certain point in time.
Example: Any druid I make now will only hear the story of Morrowgrain and that’ll be it. Fandral Staghelm will be a “who?” to anyone who sees him in Firelands. Vol’jin’s Darkspear Revolution is a footnote if that for those who joined after it.
There is so much story simply being made obsolete and wasted without it having to be so. In a linear journey, noone has to miss out on any part of the story.
This is why I was one of the many cheering for the announcement of Chromie’s little time machine at Blizzcon. We need to know where our journey began. I am not advocating for the rewriting that Cataclysm put forward be undone as much as it would be nice… but it’s important to know why need that beginning of our journey.
Taking that away turned out to be one of Blizzard’s worst mistakes and one I believe they aren’t likely to repeat. But bringing back the missing chapters is a good thing. This isn’t about rose-coloured glasses about Vanilla, and this isn’t some strange flavour of masochism where hoofing it to Stormwind from Auberdine while level 20 was considered “fun” by any means. (Makes for some great memories though).
This is about bringing back the beginning of our story and the beginning of our journey. And it’s more important than one would think.