Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mythmaking in Warlords

So let's step back for a minute.  This whole exercise of telling stories isn't new.  The art of creating heroic narrative and framing the narrative on several levels and placing the audience in the story, this has been going on for centuries.  We have the tools to make this happen, but sometimes we choose not to, and the question is, Why?

The easy answer is, because that's not what we're interested in.  The game designers want to create something more akin to a facebook game, an engaging activity to pass the time, rather than an demanding vehicle for communicating complicated and often demanding narrative. We want a game that will reach the broadest possible audience.

And also because creating complicated and demanding narrative is hard work.  The longer you try to sustain the narrative, the harder it becomes to retain the story's cohesion.  From a historical perspective, epic narratives don't happen overnight, but are shaped through years of re-telling, refining, refashioning characters and events to the point where they create a message that is satisfying and meaningful to their audience.

So let's look at one of those epic narratives.  The stories of King Arthur are entirely legendary, with only a passing basis in historical fact.  And the legend itself has emerged over centuries of retelling, development, and embellishment, from Nennius in 830, to Geoffry and many other in the 1100s, to 1485 and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur.  Tennyson visited it in 1859. Certainly, that tradition continues today in modern films and novels. 

And each time it is re-visited, some new piece is added to the canon.  A warrior becomes a king, the Round Table is added here, the Holy Grail is added there, the chivalric code emerges and flourishes, brutal warriors become knights errant, Merlin is important in one tale, Guenivere is prominent in another.

A similar process happened with the assembling of the Homeric epics (Iliad and Odyssey), and the Norse tradition.  On a compressed scale, this is how Tolkien developed Middle Earth.

What I'm suggesting is we are observing and participating in the same kind of myth making process that produced the Arthurian legends.  That is the process we are participating in right now with the Arthasian legends from Blizzard, the Jedi-Sith conflict of Star Wars, and the Neverwinter saga of Forgotton realms.  These are stories that have been shaped over many years of re-telling, with subsequent chapters adding new history and new details to old incidents.

Why did Arthas fall and become the Lich King?  Was he a tragic character or an evil one?  Each time Blizzard re-visits the story (in the original game, the expansions, and the book), the audience gets slightly more, and perhaps slightly different information.  In the end, it is the audience who gets to answer that question, from all the available material, in the way that they find most satisfying. And the answer may change depending on the race of your current character. Every time we run another character through the first 90 levels of WoW, we get another chance to experience and shape that same story.

All this calls our attention to Warlords of Draenor where Blizzard returns to the scene of a central piece of its lore.  We've heard this story before, the drinking of the blood of Mannoroth and the corruption of the orcs. We saw it in the RTS games, we read about it in the library of Scarlet Monastery, we saw its aftermath in Burning Crusade, we're reminded of it in the Caverns of Time. And now we get to look at it more closely in this new expansion. 

We see the same iterative storytelling process, the same mythbuilding tools.  The same story re-told with slight or significant variations.  Was Sir Lancelot a vile betrayer with Guenivere or the only knight pure enough to find the Holy Grail?  Was Guldan a vile betrayer, or a misguided patriot who truly wanted to empower the orcs?  These aren't contradictions ("Blizzard's messing up the lore again"), but valid techniques for developing and elevating major lore figures.

What I expect to find in Warlords of Draenor is much the same process unfolding.  Even though the events were first mentioned decades ago in real world time, the final and definitive history of what happened there hasn't been written yet.  What we'll see this fall may go farther to shape that mythology than anything that has taken place in the game so far. 

Post twenty in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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