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The Spectrum of Warcraft’s “Hero Factory”

November 8, 2011
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On the day before opening ceremonies for BlizzCon, Eurogamer published an interview with WoW’s senior VP of creative development, Chris Metzen.  It’s full of highly interesting tid-bits about Blizzard’s design philosophy (as well as a timely dig at Bioware’s focus on story above gameplay) and is definitely worth a read – I recommend you click the link and head over there.

What fascinated me, though, was a paragraph in the introduction to the interview written by Oil Welsh which describes the scene in Metzen’s office:

He’s surrounded by dozens more, a colourful cast of every comic-book icon – the purer of heart, the better. Thor and Captain Marvel take the pride-of-place positions flanking [Captain America], not Batman and Wolverine.

While this may just be one person’s observation of an arrangement of superhero statues (that may not even be a deliberate arrangement), it was an unusual enough assessment to get me thinking about what archetypes Blizzard uses for its Warcraft heroes … and its villains.  Does Blizzard have room in its cast of characters for a redeemed villain?  What about an anti-hero?  Just how diverse is the spectrum of Metzen and Warcraft’s so-called “hero factory?”

On Good and Evil in WoW

For the sake of argument, let’s say that most heroes and villains (in any setting) can be reduced to something along the lines of the following four categories:

  • Evil people who have always been evil
  • Evil people who have been redeemed and are now good
  • Good people who have fallen and are now evil
  • Good people who have always been good

Eternally good people, or the “pure of heart,” are represented by some of WoW’s most beloved characters.  Thrall and Jaina, Malfurion and Tyrande, Cairne and Magni: all of these figures are unquestionable forces for good in Azeroth, and most are people who have worked across faction lines in an effort to create a lasting peace.  Though they may have moments of doubt along the way (think of Jaina’s inner turmoil as she struggles to find the humanity left inside the Lich King, or of Tyrande’s choice to defy Malfurion and free Illidan), they are always working for the best efforts of not only their own people but often the world itself.  They are loyal and compassionate, brave and strong, always moral and never selfish.  Each of them fits the archetype of the hero.

There aren’t many examples of evil characters who have always been evil in Warcraft.  Probably the only true “pure” evil forces are the Old Gods and the Burning Legion, one of which appears to be a manifestation of chaos and the other a manifestation of lust for power, respectively.  The vast majority of Warcraft villains fall into the category of “good people who have fallen.”

Arthas is easily the most obvious example.  A “good” young prince who had a tendency toward vanity and self-doubt and who eventually did one terribly bad thing, Arthas makes a directional choice at Stratholme and we never see him look back after.  The destruction of his fleet in Northrend, his pursuit of Mal’Ganis, the discovery of Frostmourne, and finally the murder of his father – Arthas takes a bad turn and just keeps getting worse and worse.

Illidan and Deathwing, the other two big baddies from previous expansions, fall pretty nicely into this category as well.  Deathwing, a respectable dragon aspect once upon a time, had a pretty clear descent into madness thanks to the influence of the Old Gods, a descent that perhaps parallels Arthas’ corruption under the influence of Ner’zhulIllidan, on the other hand, has the dubious distinction of having no one to blame aside from himself for his fall; his selfishness and obsession with power of all kinds eventually led to his betrayal of the night elves and then his very long-term imprisonment.  Illidan may have been responsible for some good things after he escaped the confines of Maiev’s prison, but it’s impossible to miss the selfishness in his motives.  Yes, he defends the Skull of Gul’dan from Arthas and saves the night elf forests surrounding Felwood from the corruption of the artifact, but he clearly does this so that he can absorb the Skull’s demonic power himself.  Despite his continued “assistance” of the night elves (really, of Tyrande) during the Scourge invasion, Illidan’s motives remain the same – he lusts for power and does whatever he needs to do to get more of it.

Other WoW villains have had a more subtle, or at least more gradual, journey into evil.  Staghelm spent the majority of Warcraft being a pompous racist, who spent the better part of a millennium brooding over the death of his son.  It wasn’t until the latest patch that we found out just what he’s been planning since (at least) the creation of Teldrassil.  Though it took years for us to find out what was truly going on, how many of us ever doubted that the former Arch-Druid was doing something sinister with all that Morrowgrain?

Similarly, Maiev Shadowsong makes a gradual but inevitable transition from Illidan’s over-zealous jailor to a megalomaniacal murderess hellbent on restoring the Night Elves to their former glory.  From obsessive warrior just doing her job to menace with a superiority complex in just a handful of plot points.  Poor Maiev.  I admit I had a soft spot for her and hoped to see her come back to WoW’s story in a less … villainous light.  But that begs the next question: Once a Warcraft character makes a seemingly “evil” choice, has she sealed her fate?  Is there no turning back?

On Redemption in WoW

What’s that Arthas says at the end, there?  I’ll admit, I killed him dozens of times but I always skipped over the cinematic after I’d seen it once.  But what the former prince of Lordaeron tells his father is: “I see only darkness before me.”  That sure as hell doesn’t sound like a redemption to me.  Arthas asks the ghostly Terenas whether it’s over, which perhaps sounds as if there is a shred of regret for his actions – but regret does not equal a get-out-of-jail-free card in the Warcraft universe.  Arthas sees only darkness before him.  No hope, no forgiveness, only darkness.

If I were in the mood to get particularly theological on you today, I might question whether Arthas is guilty of what (in Catholic terms) is referred to as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” or an “Eternal Sin.”  Essentially, this means a sin which cannot be forgiven, and the primary sin which is often cited as an example of this is despair.  In the context of Eternal Sin, despair means assuming that what you have done is so evil and so horrible that God (or, the Holy Light) will never forgive you.  The TL;DR version is: Arthas does not believe he can be forgiven, and so he is not forgiven.

Is this what actually happens?  Your guess is as good as mine.  We don’t have enough context about what Arthas is thinking or, really, enough information about how exactly the Holy Light works to know for sure.  But given that Arthas was a devout Paladin before his fall, and given the guilt trips he often lays upon himself through Christie Golden’s book, AND given the close associations the Church of the Holy Light has with Christianity, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true.

What of the other characters in the Warcraft universe?  I’ve wracked my brain for more than a week now trying to think of a major character who fits the concept of a redemption story in WoW and I’m at a total loss.  Grom Hellscream (particularly from a Horde perspective) and Medivh (though his “redemption” is more just him regaining self control – through a physical death and resurrection – after being unwittingly influenced by Sargeras for years), are the closest I can come.  When Metzen was asked, at the 2010 Blizzcon Lore Q&A, whether Illidan would ever return to WoW’s narrative, he responded that he would love that because he’s a “sucker for a good redemption story.”  That may certainly be true, but I can’t yet find Metzen’s contribution of a true redemption story to WoW – it just doesn’t seem to be there.

On Grey Areas in WoW

If not a case of an all out redemption, do we have heroes (or villains) who are some sort of subtle mix of both good and evil?  Do we have Warcraft antiheroes, you might ask.

Garrosh Hellscream is pretty fascinating for me.  I play almost entirely Alliance toons and know a great deal more about Alliance lore than I do Horde, so when Garrosh was announced as the new Warchief just before Cataclysm, my reaction was: “Who?”  Later I learned just who Garrosh was and that he, in fact, had been Thrall’s second choice for Warchief just behind a basic campfire.  (I kid, I kid!)

What I (actually) learned from reading The Shattering, though, is that Garrosh is a very interesting orc.  His father was, twice over, responsible for the Burning Legion’s control over the orcs, a legacy which deeply troubles Garrosh, though he has more recently come to terms with this.  The Horde’s new Warchief is an exceptional soldier and general, the sort of person whose regiments will follow him loyally to the ends of the earth.  He is primal, a proud warrior, and someone who is deeply concerned with how the other orcs and tauren perceive him.  As such, he’s not much of a politician.

On the other hand, we have Varian Wyrnn.  Varian is someone who was groomed, from the moment he was born into a royal family, to become the leader of his people.  He suffered through the First and Second Wars along with the other humans of Stormwind, and eventually took his place as king once the city was rebuilt.  Except then, some pretty awful stuff happened to him.

Varian’s wife, Tiffen, was murdered during the Stonemasons’ riots against the House of Nobles.  Not long after, the king himself was abducted, escaped, completely lost his memory, and then was enslaved again as a gladiator.  For years, this young man who had been trained in politics and king-craft was instead forced to fight in brutal combat under the new name of “Lo’gash.”  Yet, it turned out that Lo’gash wasn’t just a new name but actually a new Varian – the king’s conscience and will had been torn from him and Onyxia (as Katrana Prestor) created a second “Varian” to be her puppet monarch.  (I’m not nearly doing this story justice in my brief retelling of it.  Do yourself a favor and read the associated comics or, at minimum, the WoWpeidia entries on it.)

Varian is, in many ways, the yin to Garrosh’s yang.  Where Garrosh is a rash warrior struggling with the expectations that are thrown on him when he becomes the political and martial leader of the Horde, Varian was born into leadership and royalty but must struggle with the primal tendencies still embedded within him from his experiences as Lo’gash.  Viewed as a pair, these two leaders are incredibly interesting, and I can’t wait to see how they continue to develop.

But … are either of them antiheroes?

My gut reaction is “no.”  Garrosh may be viewed in a slightly better light by Horde players now than he was when they campaigned for a basic campfire to be their new Warchief, but I wonder how many of them would call him a hero.  Does a hero and true leader of his people kick all the blood elves and Forsaken out of his capital city, and confine the goblins to the slums?  Probably not.

Varian, for me, is slightly closer to the description of “hero” than Garrosh, but I think he is lacking in the “anti” bit.  Though Alliance players often whined about what a moron he was throughout the WotLK expansion, we’ve seen a different side of him in Cataclysm and particularly during The Shattering novel.  Varian is concerned with how he presents himself to his people, and particularly his son.  He wants to do what is right for the Alliance, and is skilled at working with the other racial leaders to accomplish this.  His prowess and fierceness as a warrior are really the only lingering traits we now see of the time he spent as Lo’gash.

On the Undead Elephant in the Room

I know that, for the last several paragraphs, many of you have been screaming at your computers, “YOU’RE FORGETTING SYLVANAS, TZUFIT!!  SYLVANAS IS CLEARLY WOW’S ANTI-HERO!  DUH!”

WoW's antihero?

Well … yeah.  I can see where all of you Forsaken fans are coming from with that argument, but I’m not convinced.  Remember the patterns we’ve seen so far with good people who fall – they don’t get redeemed.  Perhaps Sylvanas could have been seen as a savior of her people prior to the events of the Wrathgate and her adoption of the Val’kyr.  Since then, however, Blizzard has made it only too clear what path she’s on now.  I’m not one for placing bets, but if I had to put money on any one plot point for the future of WoW, I’d say that someday we’re going to need to kill Sylvanas.

Don’t get me wrong, I find Sylvanas to be one of the most fascinating characters in the game.  She was the first faction leader I ever saw, and her Undercity was the first city I ever stumbled into.  Her story is amazing, her personality terrifying and captivating all at once, and her dialogue is some of the best in the game.  I love the character of Slyvanas, but I sure as hell don’t think she’s a hero.

If you doubt my assessment, for which I won’t blame you, go reread the short story Edge of Night that Blizzard released a few months ago.  Take a look at some of the things Sylvanas has to say about her beloved Forsaken:

The vision that had driven her and her people for years had finally been realized. And not a single fiber of her desiccated, animate corpse cared where the world went from here.

Before her waited a grotesque, quivering mass of corpses, their armor piecemeal, their bodies broken, the stench unimaginable. Their plaintive, desperate gazes reminded her suddenly of children. They disgusted her. But their need empowered her.

The army of undead that surrounded and protected the Dark Lady was still hers, body and soul. But they were no longer arrows in her quiver, not anymore. They were a bulwark against the infinite. They were to be used wisely, and no fool orc would squander them while she still walked the world of the living.

The Forsaken were truly a nation now … They had been honed into the perfect weapon. Her weapon. And they had struck the killing blow for which she had built them. She cared nothing for their fate.  “Let them perish!” Sylvanas cried. “I am finished with them!”

Does that sound like a hero or an antihero who gives a shit about her people?

For further reading on the topic, I highly recommend Cynwise’s post On the Forsaken, which describes the cult of personality Sylvanas has created for herself and the general hypocrisy of the Forsaken as a whole.  Former slaves who then enslave everything they can get their hands on, as well as offering themselves up “body and soul” to their Queen don’t sit well with Cynwise, nor do they with me.

Now It’s Your Turn, Lore Nerds!

It’s inevitable that I’ve forgotten someone along the way.  Who can you think of in Warcraft’s universe that represents a redemption story?  Who is WoW’s antihero?  Or, make the case for Sylvanas as antihero.  Are there better examples of characters who aren’t merely “good” or “evil” but fit somewhere in the middle of the description?  Or are good and evil a true dichotomy in the World of Warcraft?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 5:49 pm

    As I said repeatedly on Twitter – fantastic post.

    I like Garrosh, or should I say that I like the idea of him. I think the Horde needed something or someone to bring them back to the way that they were. I feel like the Blood Elves and even the Goblins were responsible for taking the Horde in a very different direction, from a play style standpoint and from a lore standpoint. We needed something to really bring back that aggressiveness and that sense of war that the Horde had sort of lost.

    I like that the next expansion is going to focus more on this and I would like to think that it’s because of someone like Garrosh, who is encouraging the Horde to take what’s theirs. On the other hand, I love Vol’jin and I would be quite giddy to see him take over, at some point, too. It’s been great to see a more invigorated Horde and I look forward to seeing how this plays out in the rest of this expansion and even the next one.

    Take care!

    • November 8, 2011 5:54 pm

      Thank you, again. 🙂

      Ah, good – it’s so interesting to have a Horde player’s perspective on Garrosh as well. I completely agree that he’s made for some interesting plot development, and that it was damn well time for the orcs to get some lore love in the game. I think that the arguments between Thrall and Garrosh throughout WotLK were a very cool way of describing the sentiments of the old Horde vs. the new.

      As an Alliance player, I’m excited to see what this epic questline is that they’ve cooked up for Varian. I actually find him to be likable now, which is a far cry from how I felt during WotLK. Blizzard gave us our king back and made him a total jackass.

  2. November 8, 2011 5:57 pm

    The Blood Elf story was one of redemption. They lost their Sunwell, fell from grace into addiction, captured a Naaru and started siphoning off power from it to create paladins. But in the end they broke with their leader, and worked against the Legion and ultimately redeemed themselves as a race.

    So I would class Lady Liadrin and the Blood Elves as a redemption story.

    The Death Knight story is one of redemption, especially Darion Mograine, who was redeemed at the battle of Light’s Hope Chapel. Blizzard did a good job with Mograine, but I felt they were less successful with your character, though it was clear they were aiming for the same thing.

    There are also small redemption stories. Taelan Fordring was redeemed from the Scarlet Crusade, though sadly he died soon after.

    • November 8, 2011 11:18 pm

      Oh, absolutely, the Blood Elves are a very good example of a redemption story. I hadn’t thought of them, I suppose, because I was trying so hard to think of individual people. But yes, great point.

      I had a long bit about DKs written and ended up not including it. My reasoning behind it was that Death Knights don’t necessarily *choose* to fall. They could have been innocent soldiers who died to Arthas’ army and then were raised to be his servants. (Though, granted, there were certainly some misguided souls who must have gone to the Lich King voluntarily, i.e. Falric and Marwyn.) I fought with myself over whether to include DKs over this reasoning, and eventually decided against it.

  3. November 8, 2011 6:03 pm

    Who’s Blizz’s antihero? Seems obvious ta me. We assasinates the rival gang leaders, we torture the prisoners, we burn villages ta the ground, we frees the wrong prisoner, we picks up the poop. We poor buggers is the antihero.

    • November 8, 2011 11:20 pm

      LOL, wonderful point. We do certainly get stuck with the dirty jobs with questionable moral implications.

  4. November 9, 2011 3:02 am

    One of the sticking points in World of Warcraft lore up until this point is that Blizzard tends to shy away from making truly morally ambiguous characters. Whill you could easily classify characters in WCIII like Illidan or Arthas during the human campaign as antiheroes, their appearances in WoW see them devolve to unabashed villians. Granted, in Arthas’ case, that was clearly the direction that his story was going, and rightfully so, but in the event of other major characters including Illidan, Kael’thas, and Lady Vashj you see them make almost complete left turns in order to justifiy their deaths at the hands of the adventurers. Illidan went completely mad and became a slavemaster. Lady Vashj became an aspiring hydraulic despot, and perhaps worst of all was Kael’s transformation from prince doing questionable things out of love for his people to madman trying to destroy the world. That’s why I look at Sylvanas less as a character than as a raid-boss-in-waiting.

    I think that the issue with both Varian and Garrosh’s characters is that blizzard is trying to write them to be percieved as leaders for one faction and villains for the other. The result of this is that they come out less like well rounded anti heroes than mentally bifurcated schizopheniacs. This is exacerbated by the fact that Blizzard has increasing turned to media outside of the game to do the heavy lifting of the story. While this does allow for deeper exploration of the characters in question, it also winds up excluding a lot of people from what are really key moments of character development. In game, there are moments for each character that are specifically aimed at one faction or the other, but are witnessed by both, and it becomes much more difficult to follow along the track that Blizzard wants Horde players to see Garrosh in when you just got a big dose of what Blizzard wants the Alliance to see him as.

    • November 9, 2011 8:59 am

      Thanks for your comment – insightful as always!

      I can see why Blizzard would think that doing a morally ambiguous story for a character we’re just going to have to kill eventually could be kind of daunting. But think of the places where they’ve done it before and how well it worked. The first thing that comes to mind for me is Drakuru’s questlines. You spend an entire zone helping the guy only to find out, once you finish Drak’Theron Keep, that he IS the bastard who sold out his entire tribe to the Lich King. It was a fantastic bait-and-switch, and one that left you hungry to go take him down when you meet him again in Zul’drak.

      I can imagine similar constructions for end bosses in a raiding environment. Imagine that you spend a significant part of your 85-90 leveling experience adventuring with a specific character. You watch her have a moral crisis here and there as you fight alongside her, but she usually ends up doing the right thing in the end. Then, one day on one quest, she makes a decision and you cannot follow her. Perhaps you meet her again a few times in the future, and maybe even temporarily team up, but she is no longer one of the “good guys.” Later, you find her in a raid instance and you’re terribly sad about it. You have to kill her, you know, but she was your sister-in-arms for the majority of the expansion. Why NOT create a character and a questline like that? It would be so much more emotional and interesting than Deathwing flying all over the place and burninating the villagers.

      You’re absolutely right that each faction only gets to see one side of the opposing faction’s leader, and that’s too bad. Horde players may not have had a chance to see Varian’s concern for his son in the Alliance opening quests that eventually send us to Twilight Highlands, and they may also not be able to participate in the “epic” questline we’re told is coming for him sometime soon. Alliance players, on the other hand, have probably not seen the amazing moment when Garrosh “dismisses” Overlord Krom’gar because he bombed the grove of young druids. Unless you play both factions, you will never get a complete story of these characters.

      Sadly, even then it probably won’t be complete. As you mention, and as I’ve complained about before, so much character development is now done in the novels and comics. Blizzard seems to have the forgone conclusion that we all read each and every one of them, but the sad truth is that many players don’t have the interest, money, or time to do so. It’s unfortunate that their understanding of the story is what suffers because of it.

  5. November 9, 2011 1:04 pm

    I’m not usually too interested in lore, but I really enjoyed this post. Great job!

    • November 9, 2011 8:00 pm

      Thanks Jasyla, glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  6. November 9, 2011 3:02 pm

    Now I know why you were asking that question on Twitter! Great post! however since you know I am the eternal Sylvanas diehard fan, I still think she is a hero. I am not sure Forsaken will be able to continue without Sylvanas. Where do new Forsaken come from? Someone has to raise them from the dead, and now that is Sylvanas’ job. Her whole fibre of her being was bent on revenge and destruction of Arthas for raising her as undead, soulless, and I am sure she missed the warmth and beauty of life. When he died, what was her purpose? She saw her undead brethren, grotesque, decayed… It reminded her of her lost life. Her purpose for existing, she felt, was gone. She tried to end her life and saw that was nothing beyond undeath, not for her. The Val’kyr gave her new purpose, though it felt like they were twisting her arm, and she saw that all undead would have nothing beyond what life they had now. If she was gone, the whole Forsaken would eventually die. So in her own reasoning she is trying to save her people, be eir beacon as every race would probably like nothing better than to see every last Forsaken die out because they are abominations to the natural order of things. Gosh this is a lengthy reply! So maybe you are right and she is more of an antihero than a hero but I don’t think she is a villain… At least not yet. I cannot see how the forsaken line can continue without someone to Rez the undead… And it might as well be their queen.

    • November 10, 2011 11:09 pm

      Yeah, this is quite a problem. If Sylvanas does die, then Blizzard could handle Forsaken essentially the same way they’re currently handling “new” Death Knights. Technically, there really aren’t any “new” Death Knights at this point, so from a lore standpoint any DK you roll today is actually going to start out at the same point in the timeline as any DK who was rolled at the start of Wrath. It’s sloppy, but simple. I would think the simplest fix would be to do the same thing with the Forsaken. Without Sylvanas (and, maybe more importantly, the Val’kyr), there can be no new Forsaken. So any Forsaken created after that point in time would actually be starting at a time when Sylvanas and the Val’kyr were still around.

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