Storytelling in an MMO -- Success of the Lich King
Over the past year, a span that has included games like Dragon Age, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2, I can say without equivocation or sense of shame that the best video game story I have experienced is World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King.
You may now vomit.
In just over 12 months since the release of Blizzard’s second expansion, the quiet and too rarely discussed reality is that a phenomenal story has unfolded that is only now beginning to reach its epic climax with the final major content push before World of WarCraft: Cataclysm destroys and reshapes the world of Azeroth.
As they did with Burning Crusade’s Illidan Stormrage — the big baddie for expansion one — they have held the final confrontation with once Prince Arthas now Lich King as the final act before moving on. The difference is that for the year leading up to the ultimate showdown, they have constantly crafted skirmish after skirmish that forwarded a grand story in a way that no MMO ever has, and with skill that absolutely rivals a game like Dragon Age.
Opening scene — you stand upon the parapet of the Ebon Blade, a mighty necropolis floating high above the terrorized town of Hearthglen. Before you, the Lich King himself. You are a minion of evil driving toward a confrontation with the Argent Dawn at Light’s Hope Chapel that may open the door for an all out invasion of Azeroth.
This is not some high level encounter. This is how the Death Knight story line opens. This is the starting area, and in as many ways it is the opening teaser of a grand tale. Within a scant three or four hours you will see a town slowly destroyed and razed, you will engage in a titanic battle, you will see the rise of a new champion against the treachery of the Lich King himself and you will be given a meaningful reason to drive toward the story laid before you.
If you are among the gamers who look condescendingly down your noses at MMOs as empty-calorie time sinks, or even if you played and abandoned WoW prior to the Wrath of the Lich King, mine may seem like the bold declarations of a hopeless fan. While I cannot dispute the latter, I can tell you that historically I have agreed that the weakest part of the genre was the inability of these games to tell a coherent story that a plurality of gamers would be able to enjoy to any kind of conclusion.
In the final analysis, the past year’s work of Blizzard in constructing, improving and maintaining World of WarCraft’s second expansion might be seen as a sea change in how MMOs can and should be crafted.
In the last expansion, The Burning Crusade, the overarching story was the impenetrable realm of lore that only the truly obsessed could parse, and for most of us it was just a matter of clicking the little exclamation points over heads and finding out how many Burning Legion livers we were to extricate from the corpses of possessed orcs. Instance and dungeon runs were loot dispensers, and I doubt seriously that many people came out of Botanica or Shadow Labyrinth with much in the way of a sense of wonder. At least I never did.
For me, the experience of Lich King has been very different. This expansion has provided an omnipresent enemy with a strong story line that walks with you through every zone. Time and again your quests are directly tied into to the fate of Arthas and those he betrayed across the frozen continent of Northrend. It is the culmination of something that began more than a decade ago in Warcraft III, and now as it begins its final climactic act, I have to admit that I’m more engaged with this game’s story than I have been with any in years.
This is not just because I’m a WoW fan or because I have read lore literature extensively — I have not. It’s because time after time The Lich King himself has been involved in my quests, appeared to thwart the efforts I had made, spoke in my mind and taken the battlefield to directly impact the story. Those who last November followed the Wrathgate questline that was almost universally accessible for Lich King players saw what was possible in MMO story telling, and it is extremely gratifying to watch Blizzard continue down that path.
For me, at least, the Lich King himself has become the Darth Vader of video gaming. A bad guy on a grand scale, with more than a few parallels to be made. He should be counted among the industry’s best and most lasting villains, and I am connected to him precisely because we have had so very many encounters.
Blizzard’s trailer for this final content push is, to me, an epic representation of where the story has taken me — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta6Dd.... What is unusual for the MMOs I have played, is that even as a relatively casual player, what I see here makes sense and it seems like content I will actually get to play, not because I will invest endless days into the effort, but because they have made it accessible and fun to reach.
Though the release of this last act is staggered, and the reality is that no one will finally face down Arthas until the snows melts under the spring time sun of 2010, I spent last night delving into the first scenes of this third act, and though I tread dangerously close to spoiler territory here, I can tell you that I delved into a realm of evil, that I raced through a cavern as it collapsed around me, that I followed a hero into battle only to have victory snatched from our grasp, that I encountered yet again the primary evil of this story and that as we eventually ran for our lives I compared what was happening on my screen less to other games and more to my favorite films and shows.
Dismiss the game mechanics of an MMO all you want. I can’t argue coherently with that, but do not hold onto the dismissed illusion that these games can’t tell great stories. On that point, you would be hopelessly wrong.