As I reflected on in an earlier post, I am a person who plays games. I don’t know if I would categorise myself as a ‘gamer’ per se; I like games, I spend a lot of time playing them but I don’t share the cultural values that have accrued around gaming as a hobby. Still, I am certainly an enthusiast. I am also (currently? Still?) an unemployed person which means a wearying amount of free-time.
Just recently, Activision-Blizzard have released a new expansion to their incredibly successful World of Warcraft franchise/brand. To borrow an Americanism that I have become fond of, it is very ‘Inside Baseball. ’Warlords of Draenor takes you from the present setting of Azeroth to an alternate-past of the original homeworld of the Orcs and the Draenai. This is the result of time-travelling plot involving a former Warchief of the Horde, Garrosh Helmscream, to get an army of uncorrupted Orcs and show everyone!
I have been playing World of Warcraft (henceforth WoW) for nearly ten years; a distressing amount of time when you think about it. My earliest memories are mostly of playing a hunter (think Legolas, but an orc) and riding around on a wolf. I have been in guilds and, for a brief time in Wrath of the Lich King, I was even a leader for some small raids. Nothing fancy, but lots of free time. Four years ago I left the game for three years. I came back to see the previous expansion and have come back for this one. It’s pretty much the same game, but polished to a brilliant finish. Warcraft is something that I seem to gravitate towards when I am otherwise spinning my wheels; if I had the option to do other things, I’d do those, but WoW offers a variety of distractions to tide you over.
Part of this latest release is an update for the graphics of the player character avatars. It is surprising how much of a big deal this becomes. It’s not so much that my orc is now pretty – he remains a comically muscular, greyish-green chap with a serious underbite – but how expressive he has become. He smiles. He grimaces. He laughs and he cries and the textures of his face move. Sometimes it is nice to spin the camera around and check out his face, almost to check on what he is thinking.
I play almost exclusively on Roleplay servers, which probably seems at odds with the previous statement about not really having a character. When I was younger, I made stories up for these avatars in a fictive universe but time and the realities of a shared game world wear that down. I believe my last engagement with this was to decide my elf wasn’t a prince, but a former toy-maker and volunteer for military service. In a world of gods and overwrought ‘destiny’, acknowledging that your guy is just… your guy can have an allure all its own.
The gameplay is very polished and there is now something in World of Warcraft that can almost make a piece of the world yours. Now you get a castle, and followers, and you do missions. It’s sort of half-arsed; everyone’s garrison is in the same place, and you can’t just find it. The followers you send out in to the world never turn up in the world. Except Dagg. Whoever came up with that ogre rogue deserves recognition or a bonus. Spotting him popping up has been a joy. It’s window dressing in a game already replete with it but it is a lot of fun, and a minigame at times more appealing than the rest of the game.
The phenomenon of Massive Online games is such that the best part of it is also the worst: the people. Blizzard have put a great deal of work in to making the game accessible, even as they can say the most horrible things about their customer body. Sometimes you encounter rare gems of people but, as with the internet at large, it can be hard to see them for the morass of shit-talkers. It is amazing that I can click a button to connect with forty strangers and regret it in almost the same moment. Group content with its odd mix of stilted camaraderie and fence maintaining elitism remains the major draw for WoW; sometimes I meet people who are great, a lot of them are as silent as the computer controlled NPCs, and some make you switch off your computer in disgust.
As I mentioned above, WoD is very much the progression of a closed world, unsurprising given how long the franchise has now persisted. It is littered with self-referential plot-lines, cameos and prompts; a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is incredible how much fun it is to have cameos of alternate universe versions of characters you know, and the black humour that can emerge from knowing their fate. As with all things Blizzard, it isn’t at all innovative. It is easy to say it is polished to all get out but the launch bugs kind of take away from that. However, I am not a technical person, nor do those things play much in to my analysis. WoW has always been in an embrace with the conservative side of fantasy: great kings and wise elves, overwrought destinies and magic without attachment to any magical tradition.
Writing is the neglected annex of computer gaming, the adjunct to the technical stuff, and no more is this true than WoW. WoD represents something of a high mark for the writing, with story-lines that mostly make sense even if the aren’t particularly ground-breaking. WoW is funny but remains determinedly retrograde. There’s a wonderful tension that emerges between the proposed narrative and the one that emerges from the gameplay; we’re here to fight evil, in defiance of the wholesale and casual slaughter of an unresponsive world. A more honest appraisal, given briefly by a strange tree-creature that ends up joining your side, is that you are parasites here to leech the resources of a more vital world than your own. The conflict that reignites between the two factions in Ashran, is perhaps just as apposite: the Horde and Alliance are nominally at peace, but the two commanders here ‘didn’t get the memo’ and intend to finish a war no-one else is supposed to be fighting, for sole dominion of nothing.
I play it a lot, and do enjoy it, but there’s a definite element of putting up with problematic stuff. I reflect on this as I wheel around my Blood Elf, having dressed him up in Troll armour. There was the promise, there, of something new: the ‘good’ elves joining in with the ‘evil’ Horde; to not question the binaries (a game with two sides encourages a binary) but to at least attempt reinscribe them, the elves becoming more like their new friends; creating a distinctive culture with a hybrid identity, but that’s beyond the scope of a game that is click, loot, repeat.