Certis sent me a screenshot from the World of Warcraft beta he's been...well...beta testing. He told me he was using it as his desktop wallpaper, and the minute I saw it, I understood why. In one simple image is captured the promise of extraordinary adventure. He who said a picture is worth a thousand words must have been bidding low. In this picture I see a thousand stories. I've made it my own wallpaper and have stared into it for a very long time. I am, at once, both hungrily excited and wistfully sad. I'm eagerly anticipating my own first steps into Azeroth, but know even Blizzard's world will not be the immersive land of lore of which I dream.
It is not the graphic prowess of the screenshot itself that offers so much promise. Certis has a graphics card that other graphics cards dream of being when they grow up. Blizzard has designed this game to function well for its purpose. Polys are low and textures are simple. The graphics are not the jaw-dropping graphics that, say, a low-population FPS would be capable of. However, the art direction absolutely screams style. It's the same brilliant design that makes me continue to play Warcraft III, despite suffering humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat. Of course, the shot itself is spectacularly framed. If you're ever faced with the daunting task of taking a screenshot, I would suggest hiring Certis as your Director of Photography.
A lone female night elf rests on a rocky clearing deep in what I assume is the forests on the island of Teldrassil. She seems weary but content, perhaps because she feels secure in the sanctum sanctorum of this village. All sense of scale is lost in these woods as the immense trees soar into the purple evening twilight. Perhaps that building in the background is a modest shop, or perhaps it is a vast hall or temple. It is difficult to be sure when everything is dwarfed by the surroundings. But if that building really is a temple, and if that tree off to the left really is that big, then what at first glance appeared to be a small well is, in fact, a structure more akin to Stonehenge. Could it be a Moon Well I've seen so often in Warcraft III? And if that really is a Moon Well, then those tiny specks next to it are actually other elves. And on this scale, what originally appeared to be a sort of menacing shrubbery is, more likely, a towering, lumbering Ancient Protector, muscular cousin of the Ent.
So who is this young elf and what is her story? Might she be a prodigal daughter, lost to the world when she was a troubled child? Ah yes, I see it in her gaze. She is Lain Gladrain, daughter of Swordsmith Eppin. Nearly eight years ago she stormed off after an argument with her father, furious that he would assume she wanted to be another Swordsmith and never leave this place. She would show him by leaving before her own Dewsong Ceremony, before she was even considered an adult. Eppin knew everyone in town and he would be forced to face his shame of having a wayward daughter day after day in his shop. Alas, the fiery fury of even the most stubborn child burns itself out in time. Lain grew tired of exploring unfamiliar land after unfamiliar land once she had earned passage on a trading ship to the Kalimdor mainland. Of all the places she called her house over the years, none of them felt like a home. She eventually crossed the waters once again and returned home to the quiet forests. The Swordsmith and his wife, her kind parents, said not a disapproving word. They welcomed her with open arms and a glorious meal.
Actually, now that I look closer, she doesn't appear to be weary from adventure. In fact, she seems caught in a rush of melancholy. Yes, that's actually poor Irilin Waywisp who just saw her older brother off to join the King's army. She adored her brother and wanted to be like him in every way. Her brother loved every minute of it, too. He felt blessed to have a sister he could confide in. She protected him emotionally as much as he protected her physically. They got along better than any parent could ever really hope for. So when Irilin's brother decided he would take the Elder's advice and join the army to help protect the wood, the poor girl was devastated. She at first begged him not to go, but knew when he set his mind on something, not even a Druid in bear form could change his course. When she had accepted her brother's decision she had tried to join him. She walked tall next to him as the village saw him and his friends off, but the Elder put a warm, strong hand on her shoulder and she had no choice but to stay back. She's been sitting in the same place all afternoon and into the evening, lost without her best friend and closest family member. She simply doesn't know what to do next as every decision she's made up until now has been run past her brother at least once for approval.
Or maybe this elf is taking a moment to collect her thoughts before embarking on a journey of her own, perhaps even leading a group of travelers into the wilderness. It may not even be her village at all. She may have stopped here to replenish supplies. She may have just completed or is preparing to embark upon any one of a number of quests or tasks or adventures - a thousand stories. However, I know that in all likelihood, she is simply the avatar of a gamer who, like myself, yearns for a little more magic than World of Warcraft will ever provide.
I certainly don't mean to pick on WoW. Blizzard is probably going to be the closest we've ever gotten to an immersive MMORPG. However, as long as that MMORPG is populated by other gamers, we're going to find ourselves playing along with the game's mechanics and following quest instructions, battling mobs, and making pants. We'll be able to live those thousand stories only within the confines of the code as it has been implemented. Understandably this is done intentionally to keep the game as fair and even to all players as possible. I mean, let's face it, if a single player were able to recruit a legion of followers, storm the castle, win the crown and rule over all lands bound by the horizon it would probably be called a bug and the next patch would stitch everything neatly back into place. If we strive for anything resembling "role-playing", we're going to be fumbling around inside these developer-designed confines to invent a collaborative story where one does not exist, and trying to do this while ignoring the various zone-wide shouts and other in-game distractions. I will be just as guilty as the next player to inadvertently blurt out, while nursing an ale in a dusty tavern, that my cat has knocked over my Dr. Pepper or that my wife is yelling at me to put away the laundry. This is, as they say, the nature of the game.
Again, this is not meant to decry the game before I've ever even played it. I guarantee there will be "gaming moments" to be had in this game. You know the kinds of things I'm talking about. You may be going about your business working your way through an area's low level mobs and wander into an uninhabited corner of the map where brightly colored birds circle lazily around a stunning waterfall lit by a fiery sunset. And you're stuck there without anyone else to show it to, which is good because you're crying. I am sure these moments will exist, and I have no doubt that I will probably look back upon my time in Azeroth fondly. But it cannot compare to the world I see right now in the screenshots - the world I have yet to even visit - the world of a thousand stories.