Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great Expectations: Lessons from Pandaria

We're poised on the eve of destruction, with the time until a new Warcraft expansion opens counted in hours, now, rather than days or weeks.  And from this perspective, I have to look back over the past two years and say that it has truly been a wild ride.  But more than that, it's been a revelation.  What from the outset seemed like a questionable choice on Blizzard's part has turned into a story experience that I found to be both unexpected and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.

So let's back up over two years ago and join in the BlizCon where it was announced that the new expansion would be called Mists of Pandaria, and the new race to be added to the game was a giant panda.  The look of shocked incredulity soon gave way to full fledged rants about Kung Fu Panda and how Blizzard was dumbing down the game, and trying to attract the pre-teen customer base with silly cartoon avatars.  Like Chris Metzen said at a Q & A session, "This is going to hurt, isn't it?"  This was nothing short of the developers ruining the franchise; a once-proud tradition thrown away for a quick buck.  I'm sure that there are still some people who feel that way.

But I don't.  After two years of playing on this continent, I am still impressed with the detailed paintings that we call the playing environment.  I can still follow the twists and turns of the ever-changing narrative and marvel at how far we've come, how deep we've become a part of the land, at how fully-formed and consistent the culture of the Pandarens was developed and slowly revealed to us through gameplay and interaction.

As a quick example, I like the way the story of the Mantid was handled.  First we see it from the perspective of the pandaren in the Valley of the Four Winds, to whom the mantid are monsters in the night, horrors who come seeking only to kill and who must be held back by the thin gray line of the Shado-Pan manning the Wall -- the only thing that keeps out the darkness.

Then we cross that wall and see things from the other side.  We see the wall in reverse, and come to know what motivates the swarm, and what trials they are subject to from within the Klaxxi council of Paragons.  And then, finally, after we have struggled along side these mantid champions to correct the wrongs in their own society, suddenly the perspective changes again.  We are brought down into the inner chamber and realize that the mantid are exactly what we knew them to be at the beginning: monsters in the darkness, with whom there is no reasoning, no negotiation.  There is only the madness that comes with worshiping Old Gods.

Everywhere we turn, from the Klaxxi to the yaungol to the hozen in upper Kun-lai Summit, the enemies we face weren't simply impersonal mobs to kill.  They were characters like we were, dealing with the reality of their own situation and the interaction of various pressures that drove them.  And these pressures were made the more urgent by the resurgence of the Sha.

The pandaren had imprisoned themselves within their own continent, sealed from the rest of the worlds by the mists, but also leaving the pandaren to their own fate.  Because of the ever-present spectre of the Sha, they could not fully live at peace.  At the same time, any hostile or violent act  threatened to unleash the sha that lurked beneath the Pandaren soil.  As a result, no progress could be made, and the pandaren culture remained virtually unchanged for the past 10,000 years.

All the violence represented by the Yaungol and the Mantid  could not be addressed, for fear of awakening the Sha, so year after year the pandaren endured the Mantid invasions from the stasis of their wall, fought a stalemate war with the Yaungol in Townlong Steppes, but never to the point where they could come to terms of peace with them;  never to the point where they could negotiate a peace from a position of strength.  Instead, they were locked in an ongoing struggle to hold the wall, against the mantid and yaungol alike.

As a result of this uneasy peace, this tenuous stalemate, Pandaria has remained largely unchanged.  This has been both a blessing and a curse.  When we look at what has happened to the rest of Azeroth in just the last 10 years, we can see events that would have effectively threatened the very existence of the planet, invasions that would have reached even the mist-shrouded pandaren and they have had no influence in the outcome, mere passengers on this burning train that is the Titan's favorite planet.

So then along came the Alliance and the Horde.  And the first thing they did was to begin to enflame old hatreds, both with each other and between the indigenous populations of the Jinyu and Hozen.  This culminated in the tragedy that happened the Jade Valley, destroying the jade statue 100 years in the making and manifesting a fully formed sha.  Even after this obvious display of the factions' inability to handle the situation, the White Tiger agreed to let us enter the Vale of Eternal Blossom.  And the question is, why?

The answer lies in the meaning of the tests that Xuen set for us in the great audience chamber of his temple.  The first was to see if we could master ourselves. It was the test of Violence.  "Let us see how this stranger deals with turmoil of the soul," Xuen advised Zhu.  The White Tiger declared, "We can agree that it is noble to fight for a righteous cause." The first trial showed that we were a war-like people and that not all violence is evil.

The second was the test of Anger.  As Zhi the Harmonious offered, "to live without anger is not to live at all."  This was exactly the life that the Pandaren had come to know over the past 10,000 years.  Not all anger is evil.

Finally, we were faced with the Sha of Hatred, and as Xuen commented, our hatred has a face - that of Garrosh Hellscream.  Our anger wasn't unreasoned and universal (like the hozen), but focused against a specific aggressor.

When we defeat them, Xuen says, "This one has indeed proven mastery over anger.  Between the young cub's words and the actions of this hero, I think I understand.  Those from beyond the mists are hardened by battle.  They are scarred, yes, but they have learned much."  Now the subtle implication here is that the Pandaren may have not learned as much.

As Taren Zhu predicted, that went all wrong in the end. but Zhu's initial reaction was one of fear.  Here was a group of adventurers who didn't understand the delicate balance that he had had to maintain all his life.  They were reckless and would "leave misery in their wake."

Ultimately, however, it was by throwing away the careful balance that Pandaria could actually move forward again.  And the pandarens themselves weren't able to make this choice.  As Lorewalker Cho explains on several occasions, it was only through the agency of the Outsiders that the beautiful Vale of Eternal Blossom could be ripped open and the corrupted Heart removed.  And it was only the Outsiders who had the strength to defeat the Heart, once it surfaced.  This was the real meaning of Xuen's test.  He was looking to see if we were strong enough to finish what we began.

I have to say that after taking part in this story, I truly feel like I was part of its development; not passively watching it unfold, but taking an active part to bring it about.  I felt like a hero in an epic saga, a participant in the great story of a people coming to fruition.

And I haven't even begun to talk about the more personal interactions with Jaina, Anduin, and Varian from the Shieldwall storyline, or the unmistakable feeling that somone is toying with your soul every time you talk to Wrathion.

Which brings me back to those initial misgivings about Pandaria and our experience there.  Whatever doubts we had were more than erased by the actual experience.  I fully expect the same thing to be true for Warlords of Draenor.  Experience has shown us that Blizzard is capable of putting on a great show, and telling tales woven with nuance and contradiction.  To me, Mists set a high standard for future expansions to live up to, and while I will be examining Warlords with a critical eye, I have to admit that I'll be mixing that with a note of optimism as well.  I think the new expansion will be great, and I'm going to give it every opportunity to live up to my expectations.

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