I’m talking about the new World of Warcraft expansion: Cataclysm. Although it doesn’t come out until December 7th, Blizzard pre-patched the world last week so that everyone now lives in the world post-Deathwing. Almost all of the quests in the game from levels 1-60 have been redone. Many are simply brand new, while others have had their narratives touched up and a few of their progression points adjusted to be more seamless.
One of these new quests is found in the Badlands, a somewhat desolate place with an environment similar to Mars or Arizona. In this new quest, the player meets a trio of gentleman hanging out by a fire on a small hill overlooking a vast furrow carved into the earth. What happened here? Each member of the trio tells his version of the story: The Day that Deathwing Came.
The quest has many things going for it, not least of all, good old Blizzard humor. If for nothing else, go take a character through it for the laughs. Aside from the pure happiness I got from playing through it, I also started to think about how Blizzard is telling stories in this new version of Azeroth. What really happened that day when Deathwing came?
Last Tuesday, we all awoke to a new Azeroth. The way Blizzard communicated what had happened while we were sleeping and they were patching was through this cinematic. We see Deathwing getting his armor on and then flying across the world. Various famous landmarks are crumbled and destroyed before our eyes. It would be like waking up, turning on the news and seeing the Statue of Liberty broken by a tsunami, the Eiffel Tower devoured in a chasm of the earth, and the Great Wall splintered as the ground beneath heaved and trembled.
After the cinematic, we enter the world near where we last were and are then free to seek answers to our questions. Blizzard has used the quest system in the game to give us some history and background to the events that took place and what happens now. We can travel to any area and start doing quests there to be taken through the story of the Cataclysm’s aftermath and whatever they know from before. Occasionally, we will see flashbacks to the world we remember as a character in the game tells a story of how events got to where they are. (I’m thinking of the Deadmines in particular). Sometimes we will meet characters we knew before and they will tell the story of how they changed locations. Slowly, we acquire bits of knowledge to piece together the world as it is and was and somewhat knit together that gap in between on the day Deathwing came.
But if you really want to know what happened that day, you have to ask someone who was there, right in the thick of it. The trio in the Badlands are your go-to guys, but there’s a problem with their stories. They all conflict. You get the general impression that Deathwing was there and very close to them. Aside from that, there’s little else you can take away.
One member of the trio claims to have punched Deathwing in the face. As he leads you through his tale, you, the player, play his part in the story. Yes, this means you too punch Deathwing in the face.
As hilarious as this is, the storytelling mechanics are what I want to focus on. Blizzard takes a simple quest mechanic and transforms it into an unforgettable experience that is, nevertheless, obviously a complete lie. Instead of just reading quest text, this trio of gentleman transports you into their version of the story. For a brief moment, you are a gnome with illusions of grandeur. For a brief moment, you are a fist-throwing dwarf. For a brief moment, you are there the day Deathwing came. What would you have done? Looking out over that furrow in the earth, you follow his trail. Are you fearless? Are you excited? Do you want to punch Deathwing in the face?
After completing the quest, you realize you know nothing more about that day than you did before. Instead, you know more about the characters standing in front of you. The Day Deathwing Came isn’t about Deathwing at all. It’s about the people that he affected. Ingeniously, Blizzard makes the world come alive through its people because now we, the players, share something with them that we never did before. It’s our world that has changed and none of us know how or why or what to do now. It’s our homelands that have been shattered and destroyed. We – you, me, this trio of gentlemen, and everyone else – we are in this together.
Telling a story well doesn’t mean that you need to tell it just how it happened.