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Did Deathwing Win?

September 24, 2012
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The time has come to bid farewell to Cataclysm, an expansion which many of us are happy to move beyond.  It’s hard to say how we’ll feel about Cata when we look back on it in a year or two from now, but I doubt our rose-colored glasses will be quite so rosy as they are when we think of BC or Wrath.  I think it’s fair to say that Cataclysm was eagerly anticipated by almost all of the playerbase when it was announced, and even through most of the Beta period.  So why now do so many of us look back at the last two years with so much ire?

The things that Cataclysm got right, it got really right.  Transmogrification may have not been available at launch, but its later addition is probably my personal favorite of any new feature we’ve seen since I started playing.  The first re-invention of our talent system occurred with Cata, and it finally allowed our characters to specialize their abilities very early on in the leveling process.  I wrote a post a few months ago outlining the ways that Cataclysm vastly improved our WoW quality of life, and from a practical standpoint there really was a lot to love about Cata … but why didn’t we love it?

Call me crazy (you will), but as I bide my time before Mists, I’ve been leveling a handful of alts - and almost every one of those alts is a goblin.  That means that in the last week I have completed the entire goblin starting area no less than 3 times.  Maybe I’ve been drinking too much of the Kaja Cola, but I have an IDEA (and, no, it’s not for headshoes).  After a week on Kezan and the Lost Isles, I realized that the goblin starting area is a pretty good microcosm of Cataclysm itself.

The goblin starting area is light-hearted and goofy fun … until it isn’t.  Have you played the goblin starting area, or – if you have – given much thought to exactly what your character goes through?  Yes, you spend a few quests getting dressed up and hosting a party, and generally being a well-respected, dirty-dealing, goblin badass.  But then,Deathwing swings by Kezan long enough to send the island’s volcano into a fatal eruption.  As you scramble to gather your worldly possessions to leave your home, you find out that the only way off the island is on Gallywix’s boat, which just so happens to be the only boat docked at Bilgewater Port.  To buy your way onto the boat, you have to turn over your life’s savings to Gallywix (the equivalent, for a goblin, of handing over your first-born child – and then maybe the second and third born, too).  Then, the other shoe drops.

Turns out that Gallywix has actually decided to sell you into slavery, a fate you narrowly avoid when your ship explodes.  You’ve managed to sail directly into a battle between the Horde and Alliance fleets.  You make it to the shore of a nearby island, but Gallywix enslaves most of your friends anyway.  Then you happen upon a dead orc and decide to make nice with his friends, as the orc ships were being slightly less hostile to you than the Alliance ones were.  Then you meet some nutty orc shaman who is apparently really important, and he asks you to free him and help him slaughter a bunch of his captors.

Then you manage to make a second volcano erupt.  Then some pigmy tribe starts kidnapping your buddies and turning them into zombies.  Then you discover that your enslaved friends in Gallywix’s mine have been brain-washed.  Then Gallywix decides it’s time to just murder you and that orc shaman guy because you’ve both been a lot of trouble.  Then the orc shaman won’t even kill the asshole!

Point is, life as a goblin seriously sucks.  You leave Kezan, which seems to be a goblin paradise, and every attempt you have to find a new home ends disastrously.  So, of course, by the time Thrall offers you a place (and a home!) with the Horde, you are only too happy to accept.

The goblins weren’t the only victims, of course.  The Cataclysm, Deathwing, drove us all from our homes.  The destruction Deathwing caused in Stormwind still hasn’t been fully repaired, and since he spent the entire year prior to his death flying around Azeroth igniting zones at random, I think it’s pretty safe to say that there were very few places entirely untouched by the Cataclysm.  Home is a pretty important place to most people, and probably even more so to Azeroth’s battle-weary heroes.

In the pre-Wrath launch event, Arthas brought the fight to our doorstep … but then he retreated.  We took the fight to him in Northrend to finally destroy him, meaning that we weren’t fighting on our home soil.  There’s a pretty huge psychological difference between fighting the Scourge on an entirely different continent and worrying that Deathwing could literally burn your house down at any time.  Both are threats to our safety and the safety of those we love – but one hits, well, a lot closer to home.

Think about the mental state of your character (and perhaps, to some extent, yourself) at the end of Wrath.  You have been away from home for 2 years, fighting atrocities from your worst nightmares, fighting against comrades who have fallen and then rise against you, all the while in a cold, foreboding environment.  You’re tired.  You’re broken.  You’ve defeated the Lich King, but at such a high cost.  You want to go home more than anything in the world.

Boom.  Deathwing.

See how that might be a little demoralizing?

Despite all of the darkness in the narrative of the Wrath expansion, somehow Cataclysm has managed to be the most depressing installment of WoW to date.  We returned to our homes to find that they weren’t the same anymore, that beloved friends had died, and favorite places were forever ruined.  We were sad but ready to fight back when the expansion began, but somewhere along the way we lost our resolve.

Was it because “killing” elemental lords feels painfully futile when they always manage to return (see also Onyxia, Nefarian)?  Or perhaps because Deathwing spent so much of the expansion as an absentee villain, causing us to wonder what, if any, connection he had to the events that transpired after the Cataclysm?  Was it exploring zone after altered zone and finding that the world had, indeed, been shattered beyond recognition?

Cataclysm needed a happy ending.  Think of me as sentimental or cheesy if you want, but for an expansion that was so depressing overall to end in a way that still allowed us to feel like champions, we needed that happy ending.  Dragon Soul’s final cinematic just doesn’t cut it:

So Deathwing is dead and it took everything, quite literally everything, we could possibly throw at him to make that happen.  The dragon aspects gave up their immortality and their aspect powers to finally kill him – a feat which is both depressing in and of itself, and also additionally demoralizing because it proves that the mortal races could not have done this alone.  In one encounter, we instantly see just how defenseless we really are – and those dragons who saved the day for us do NOT get to do it a second time.  Our Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card is gone.  (And if you are even thinking of telling me that the announcement of Thrall Jr. is the uplifting moment in that cinematic, you can go shove it.)

Wrath of the Lich King featured a sad, terrifying narrative.  But when it was over and we finally killed Arthas, we did it ourselves and with the help of one paladin whose Mass Rez wasn’t on cooldown.  We slayed Arthas in the name of the Light, and as proper justice for the atrocities he had committed.  It was a satisfying end to the story.

In Cataclysm, we found ourselves in the same sinking boat as the goblins of Kezan – kicked down over and over again and longing for the moment when we could pick ourselves up and be heroes once more.  It never comes.  Instead, we are left with the fear that comes from knowing that now we are truly alone as we return to our destroyed homelands.

So did Deathwing win?  If his plan was to depress, to demoralize, and to make us feel that our place on Azeroth is a precarious one, then I think he probably came out ahead.  My hope for Mists is that we will find our happy ending, and that we will get to feel like the champions we never were over these last 2 years.  When I hear WoW’s Art Director, Charles Robinson, speak about the differences between the atmospheres of Cataclysm and Pandaria, I get really hopeful that we’re on the right track:

… from a visual perspective, I feel like we were really trying to strike a different chord, specifically because we are talking about a continent that’s been hidden for so long.  There really is no need to tie the two [Cataclysm and MoP] together, other than the fact that it’s in WoW and it should look like it’s in WoW.  So, I think we kind of set that aside and went, ‘Let’s paint a different picture here.  Let’s use this as an opportunity to really – to take a step back from the craziness that happened in Cataclysm.  Let’s introduce a new, beautiful, kind of calming environment, and take a breath in our timeline, and also make sure that we have that underlying theme of death and destruction and everything we’ve become accustomed to with WoW.’

(source, at 1:53)

Goodbye, Cataclysm.  It would be dishonest to say that I’ll miss you, so I will instead say that I appreciate the lessons you’ve taught me.  I’ve learned that my perseverance and desire to progress through a raid have limits – limits that were painfully tested by Nefarian and Ragnaros.  I’ve learned that rolling a new alt isn’t a proper substitute for new content.  I’ve learned that my guild, which I once thought immune to end-of-expansion slumps, can suffer greatly from them just like every other guild.  And I’ve learned that without a compelling narrative, both in questing and in raids, this game simply is not as much fun for me.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2012 2:24 pm

    Interesting interpretation of events. For me, Deathwing actually seemed very impersonal. What you’re saying makes sense, but since Deathwing’s random attacks never had any lasting effect, they seemed pretty meaningless. Basically, I’d see him blast a town; I’d visit the town to get the “Standing in the Fire” achievement, and then everything was back to normal.

    The most depressing event to me was the Horde’s downward slide into savagery. The new Hillsbrad zone was pretty disturbing by WoW standards. However, I think that the bigger problem in Cataclysm was its seeming inability to decide on a tone, jumping from dark and grim to jokey and referential without warning.

    Warcraft was usually able to strike a balance between these two attitudes, but I think by going to extremes on both ends, Cataclysm ended up feeling very confused. It was hard (for me, at least) to appreciate the scope of the devastation when I was stuck watching an interactive machinima of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

  2. Ben permalink
    September 24, 2012 3:12 pm

    The other thing that sucks about the goblin story is that it seemed like the story was going to be ‘How I got to become Trade Prince’ except that you never get to become Trade Price at all.

  3. September 25, 2012 2:24 pm

    Very good post. The emotional aspect summed up, in large part, why I unsubscribed even before Cataclysm launched.

  4. October 9, 2012 9:01 pm

    I also did goblin starting area 3 times – in part to avoid the expense of server transfer. First one I thought I’d never get off the damn island, next time it when quicker but all three ultimately hit the Orgrimmar docks, jumped ship, followed the taurens home and never looked back.

    Cata was depressing. Many of my favorite alliance areas are gone but so far mop is starting on a more cheerful note.

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