Mists of Pandaria and the Zen of Warcraft
Aside from a few brief tweets on the subject, I’ve maintained radio silence on the BlizzCon announcement of WoW’s newest expansion this weekend. I felt somewhat as if the news hit me like a ton of bricks, and I’m still trying to digest everything I’ve read and seen.
The Dark Chi
I’ll be completely honest with you – Pandaria wasn’t what I expected at all. I knew about the copyright when it was filed months ago, but never in a million years would I have believed that Mists of Pandaria would be our new expansion. When I saw the news on my phone while working Friday afternoon, I think you could have knocked me over with a feather.
I’m not … disappointed. But I do have this very odd, indescribable feeling of not being particularly happy or excited by the news. For some reason this announcement – more than any apocalyptic report of lost subscribers or angry blog post about the “good old days” – this announcement in particular has made me come to terms with the difficult realization that someday WoW will end.
It’s difficult to say why this suddenly hit me without sounding overly pessimistic about Pandaria – and that’s not at all what I mean to do. It’s just … when I saw the announcement, I was hit with a sense that perhaps the climactic days of WoW were now behind us. That maybe Wrath was the high point of the story the game, and that while there may still be some great things to come, we are essentially beginning a process of winding down. That, perhaps, we’re living in WoW’s dénouement.
Allow me to explain with a bit of context. I didn’t play any of the Warcraft games before WoW. What I have learned about lore I’ve learned in-game and through external websites and blogs that have additional information. So the news that I’d be seeing Pandaren in-game was a pretty odd experience for me. Most of what I knew about them made them sound like a cuddly, fuzzy, drunken joke. (This is NOT me saying that I expect Pandaren to be a joke in this new expansion; I realize that Blizzard has gone to great lengths to develop their culture and story.)
Add to this the notion that there’s no “main villain” in Pandaria and it’s difficult for me not to feel as if my characters are about to enter their retirement years. Hell, even the trailer gave me that impression. “When we were young, we fought Onyxia and Illidan and Kel’thas and Arthas and Deathwing. Then we began to have back problems and our social security checks kicked in, the kids all moved out and we figured – to hell with all of it! We’re taking a cruise to Pandaria where our next great conquest will be helping a giant panda clear out the rabbit infestation in his brewery.”
I’m being a little facetious, I know.
Pandaria looks beautiful; it may well end up being my absolute favorite collection of zones in the game. And while exploration and forging alliances can certainly make an interesting game, do those themes truly fit this game? I hate to use the old cliche, but … aren’t we playing World of Warcraft? Now that the villains have all been defeated (Note that they haven’t; we’ve yet to face all the Old Gods, Sargeras, Azshara, etc.), we’re left to quibble with our neighbors instead – except that narrative attempts to progress this aspect of WoW’s storyline can never be as fulfilling as when we fight against something larger than the factions. Arthas can be defeated. Deathwing can be defeated. The Horde and the Alliance, by definition, CANNOT be defeated because doing so would mean that people’s characters would no longer function in the framework of the game. An expansion that highlights the struggle between the factions is one that ensures that neither side will win over the other – and, so, none of us will “win” the story the way we did when we killed the Lich King or Illidan. As I explained a few weeks ago, experiencing this extremely emotional sense of accomplishment at seeing a story through to its epic ending is what makes or breaks a raid encounter (and, by extension, an expansion) for me.
The changes to the talent system have me in a funk as well. I worry that, in order to give us actual choices which are not defined by math and theorycrafting, the developers haven’t given us interesting choices at all. I think they may actually achieve their goal of finding a system in which there is no one correct talent spec, but in doing so talents may become rather meaningless. And the formula of giving us a choice between 3 things that are extremely similar (so close as to essentially do the same thing in a very slightly different way) reminds me entirely too much of the soul system that I hated in Rift. More than anything, I’m scared to death that this new talent system is going to kill the weird hybrid stuff I love – most notably Atonement healing, which has been an absolute joy to learn over the past month.
Notice what I said there? I said I’m scared … scared of change and of losing things the things about WoW that I’m especially attached to.
The Light Chi
I’d never have guessed that Blizzard would create a WoW expansion that would inspire me to quote the Dhammapada, but then I didn’t guess that Mists of Pandaria was coming:
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of the way.”
What is it about these pandas that has me running scared?
The answer is simple: change.
I consider myself an adaptable person. I hardly batted an eye when the changes to the talent trees and healing model were announced for Cataclysm. “Bring it on,” I recall telling a guildmate. “We’ll do what druids always do; we’ll adapt.” When the flexible raid lockout system was enacted at the end of Wrath, I figured that I had enough healers in my alt arsenal to be able to participate in both 10 and 25 man raids. When talents, spells, quests, zones, stats, and more changed, I rolled with the punches.
Mists of Pandaria is different. Whether for legitimate reasons or not, the announcement of this expansion has been polarizing. People who have already quit WoW have said that this validates their decision, and others have said that MoP seems as if it will be so different than their idea of WoW that they may leave as well. Our raid’s discipline priest, and one of the sweetest people in our guild, told me last night that she wasn’t sure she’d stick around once the pandas went live. This was within the context of a conversation in whispers discussing how depressing it was to hear so many of our guildmates complaining about MoP. She agreed with me that it was depressing – she’s always such an optimistic person – but then told me that Pandaria wasn’t really something she would be interested in, either. I was floored.
MoP is scary not because of the changing face of Azeroth, its races, or its heroes’ abilities. It’s scary because it is so polarizing. I believe I will lose guildmates over this, and I believe we will see a turnover in our raid team that is even worse than what we saw between the end of Wrath and the beginning of Cataclysm. MoP is likely to cause me to lose people with whom I enjoy playing, and will make my Warcraft world smaller and lonelier because of it.
All this might be manageable if I felt like it was time for me to part ways with WoW … but I don’t. I still love playing this game as much as I did the first night I zoned into Teldrassil over 3 years ago. Every few months I find a new aspect of WoW that I either didn’t know existed or hadn’t really experienced before. I am not done yet, even if MoP doesn’t exactly fit my expectations of what Warcraft should be.
At the end of the day, there’s something I must remember: World of Warcraft does not belong to me.
WoW, due to its nature as an enormous MMO, is different than nearly any other game. It is constantly changing and evolving because it must. WoW belongs to hardcore raiders and to players who have never leveled a toon to 85. It belongs to bloggers, guilds, solo players, children, teenagers, adults, PvPers, lore nerds, pop culture fanatics, free-to-play accounts, its developers, and to each and every one of the millions of people who have played it over these last 7 years. Its reach is broader than any other game in history, and it tries to appeal to a wider customer base than any other game could ever have dreamed was possible.
It’s time for me to let go of the fear and attachment I have when I think of what WoW “should” be. The only thing that matters is whether I still find this game to be an enjoyable source of escapism and fun – which I do. Faces may change, raids will come and go, but my love of the game remains the same.
I swear I can feel my stress melting away just from looking at that panda, you know?