When the Warcraft setting first started, it was merely a thinly veiled fantasy version of early medieval England. The human faction openly referenced God, and used a calendar which seemed to place it in the 6th century AD. The obviously most striking departure from medieval England was the invasion of hellish monsters called Orcs, suggested to come from “underworld”. Some people, who started their interest in the franchise all the way back then, are very nostalgic about this ancient time. However, we can’t hide that there was very little to the setting back then. A couple of place names, an orcish invasion from hell, and names for characters which had very little personality.
A lot has changed since. The very next game in the franchise considered it necessary to differentiate Warcraft from a standard fantasy fare. We encountered new races – trolls, goblins, elves, dwarves and gnomes. The basics of the core philosophies of our present factions were formed, including the Alliance and its Holy Light, as well as a more detailed backstory for the Horde, which made it much more than just a rampaging infernal army. Even though most we’ve heard from most characters personally was “For the King!” or a collection of snarls from an angry orc, the setting started to shape up.
The trend continued in Warcraft III, which was a game changer for the setting. Taking place a generation after the last game, it shook up the setting to the core. Orcs got redeemed. The Alliance was shattered. The true bad guys of the setting finally reared their ugly heads personally. With the addition of Kalimdor and Northrend, this world has seen some things that truly made it unique, together with a much more complex and engaging plotline. And this is the game that many players fell in love with, not just for the gameplay, but its lore as well. For the first time, our objectives weren’t “go kill the bad/good guys”, but entailed characters who grew (and fell) before our eyes.
World of Warcraft gave us a chance to see the setting in an entirely new light. Although technically a game changer as much as Warcraft III, in many ways it was trying to fill the shoes of the previous game and stay true to the core values of the franchise, both in gameplay and story. WC3 players came to WoW often to see where their favorite characters and places go from where WC3 left off. And sadly, for a long time, they were mostly going nowhere in particular. WoW introduced a whole new slew of plots, many of which tended to feature rather one-dimensional antagonists whose sole purpose was to be dungeon bosses. Even though the Burning Crusade saw us cut through the ranks of famous, named characters, they too suddenly became one-dimensional.
I will not keep going through the entire history of the franchise. My core point lies here, in basic World of Warcraft. It was seen as necessary to divide the playerbase into the two opposing camps, the Alliance and the Horde. I always felt it was a mistake. Playing WarCraft III, I was getting the message that we finally worked out our old hatreds, and looked past the old factions. Humans and orcs are no longer at war and both have to rebuild from scratch on the new continent. Medivh, finally proud at us, leaves the world in our hands. This was a very uplifting message, and this was what made me a fan of the Warcraft franchise. And then, when WoW came, it was all immediately abandoned. Why? I couldn’t understand that.
But looking back at the setting, and reading messages of developers and creators of the franchise made me realize what was really happening. “Humans versus orcs, this is what the franchise is really about” they kept saying. But is it? It certainly used to be 20 years ago, but WC3 leaves the player with the feeling that the setting has evolved. That it has found new feet, new grounds, and new topics. Sadly, the franchise instead has reverted back to its roots, instead of growing up. Ever since, we stagnated at this war, replaying over and over again “orcs do something stupid, attack the humans, get beaten and wait for a new stupid thing to do”.
Look, I understand that Chris Metzen loves Warcraft I. I understand he’s very nostalgic about it. I can be nostalgic about things too. But let’s look at the franchise as it stood in WarCraft I and WarCraft III. Skeletal basics of a world with little memorable characters or plot, against a full-fledged world with multiple races, all with their own quirks and stories, and charismatic leaders you want to love or hate. I wouldn’t give a damn about rescuing Anduin Lothar from those mines because all I knew of him was “yeah, he’s totally badass” in the manual and his taunts on the battlefield. Arthas? I wanted to kill that douche so badly. Illidan, Malfurion and Tyrande made a very classical set of characters I will never forget.
Let’s even move beyond just arguing which game’s story was better. How much more you can derive from “humans versus orcs”? Why are we forgetting all the other colorful races the setting has found since? Ogres, who have been there in the background from the very beginning. Trolls, savage tribals that got turned into dungeon fodder. Goblins, crazy and cunning mercenaries which got turned into complete goofballs. Tauren, peaceful and spiritual nomads who no longer do anything in particular. Blood elves, a remnant of a people destroyed by a tragedy, no longer know why they’re even in their faction. Dwarves… okay, you got me there, dwarves are actually kinda boring. Gnomes, smart, kind and resourceful – turned into comic relief. Night elves, once proud, wild people became merely cheerleaders to their human overlords. And WoW, although in the core clinging to “orcs versus humans, orcs versus humans!” continued to add more races with unique plots and styles – like draenei, worgen, or arakkoa. We have all that – why do we keep clinging to “humans and orcs”?
This is really the crux of the problem I have with WoW’s story. It’s not solely a WC3 nostalgia. It’s this franchise’s failure to use its plentiful resources and its reach world in its full potential. It’s about the franchise desperately clinging to an old plot from over 20 years ago, and rehashing it over and over. I get it that you guys at Blizzard love “humans versus orcs” and the two factions glued up to them, but you’re only hurting the franchise by not letting it uncouple from this (at the core) primitive, one-dimensional line.
Night elves, and draenei, and gnomes, and arakkoa, and ogres, and tauren – they should all be allowed to breath on their own. Not “adapted to service the Alliance overlords”, as we’ve seen in Mists of Pandaria, including the infamous “A Little Patience” scenario. I don’t want draenei in WoD to become just blue humans. I don’t want night elves to be shoved aside only to appear as foils to Varian the perfect protagonist. I don’t want gnomes to only appear when Horde quests need some engineer mobs to kill. I want tauren to do something. And this can be really done only in one way: by dropping this “humans versus orcs, Alliance vs Horde” rubbish.
I have a dream. A dream about Warcraft where you could find draenei alongside tauren, together figuring out the whole Vindicator and Sunwalker thing. Azeroth where night elves still fiercely protected their forests, from anyone who might wish it harm – be it orc, human or satyr. The world of Warcraft where humans no longer dictate what races thousands of years older than them do. The world where Pandaren do not feel out of place because they’re in fact neither human lackeys nor orcish underlings. The Forsaken who can keep being bastards to everyone, and cooperate with whoever is as rotten as them. The world where new player races can be added, with their own plots, without figuring out very hard which faction to shoehorn them into. The expansions which do not, for a thousandth time, concentrate on a new reason the orcs found to attack humans.
I hope I will see that one day. But, to quote Elim Garak, I always hope for the best, but expect the worst. I expect Warcraft will keep grinding on “orcs versus humans” for as long as it stays profitable. And when it stops being that, it will be too late for innovation.
TL;DR: Warcraft is “at the core, orcs versus humans” only because Blizzard lets it to be. In reality, it was that 20 years ago. It’s time it grew and utilized its full potential.