Could this be the end of the World (of Warcraft)?

World of Warcraft: Legion logo

Blizzard Entertainment recently announced their (wait, let me count) sixth expansion for World of Warcraft, the most popular MMORPG and the highest-grossing game ever (according to Wikipedia). It’s a game where you keep on playing and keep on paying to play, apparently forever, as the world is always being expanded to give you more to waste your time on. Not only do they extend the story, they give you addictively boring stuff you need to keep doing regularly for eventual rewards when there’s nothing else going on. So it’s no wonder Blizzard keeps making new expansions to keep it going.

This causes some problems, though, at least insofar as the players are to imagine they’re epic heroes in an equally epic fantasy world. Something already felt off with the expansions soon after the first one. The first (The Burning Crusade) was fine in my view: The max-level heroes would find new challenges stopping an invasion of the demons of the Burning Legion, travelling to the shattered world of Draenor. Wrath of the Lich King already seemed dodgy: could we really regard some undead army as a greater threat than the world-destroying demons? (And why was everyone including ordinary citizens and wildlife so much more powerful on the northern continent, compared to even the biggest monsters elsewhere?) Cataclysm seemed a little better in this sense: A god-dragon is destroying the world, okay, sure, that sounds big.

And then came Mists of Pandaria, whose premise was… that there’s some continent with kung-fu pandas on it. That was basically it.

At least by this time we were all used to the idea that levels don’t mean anything any more, so we didn’t bother to wonder why a pleasant meadow in Pandalandia (as I prefer to call it) is so much more dangerous than a hellish dragon-infested wasteland back in the old game. It had already been obvious that Blizzard was just making stuff up to make more expansions, and this ridiculous idea made it all the more obvious — though I have to admit they realised it well and even did something interesting with the plot. The next expansion was Warlords of Draenor, which had a better premise but only comparatively speaking: due to some time travel, we had to go back to Draenor before it was destroyed and tackle with all the old orc characters from the old games again. This seemed like nothing so much as an anniversary reminiscence — it was released ten years after World of Warcraft and twenty after Warcraft I. And in practice it was just more of… something, anything, to keep players paying and payers playing.

So now the sixth expansion has been announced, called Legion.

Well, those are no pandas for sure, but is this much different from other stuff before?

I think it is – and maybe Blizzard doesn’t, but I hope they do, because it should be. This time, they’ve really upped the stakes, and perhaps raised them all the way.

So what’s it all about? The idea is that the Burning Legion has returned, so that’s like a rehash of The Burning Crusade. But though the fact that they’re using the biggest threat in the universe a second time is itself significant (it would be a bad idea to either use it three times or let it be eclipsed), there’s something else. The story starts with Gul’dan — a cool character who was killed back in Warcraft II but brought back in the alternative timeline of Warlords of Draenor — escaping to World of Warcraft’s primary world of Azeroth and not only opening the gate to summon the demonic legions, but also trying to summon Sargeras.

If I was talking to someone who thinks like I do and has the same background knowledge, I wouldn’t really have to say anything more.

The Warcraft universe has a background story or mythology of Tolkienian proportions, detailed in not only the computer games but also novels and tabletop RPG source books and who knows what. I actually know a lot of what I know of it only by reading the wiki and other “secondary sources”. Blizzard is known for making elaborate storylines for their games that most people then only play for their addictively repetitive gameplay. In the case of WoW and the Warcraft series in general, the background mythology spans (or at least implies) worlds and millennia. It gives its own kind of sense of wonder to encounter things that were left behind by, say, the titans who originally ordered the world ages ago. (There’s something similar here to Lovecraftian cosmic horror with its unfathomably ancient and powerful beings next to which humans are powerless and insignificant. In fact, the Warcraft universe also uses such cosmic Lovecraftian monsters, particularly in connection with the Old Gods. Of course, in a game like WoW, you kick their tentacled backsides anyway.)

So, if we go right back to the beginning, we have the titans shaping the various worlds in the universe.

In World of Warcraft, you can find relics of their time in various places, on both the world of Azeroth and that of Draenor, and some almost godlike beings you encounter (and likely fight) are constructed guardians left behind by them. The titans are also the ones responsible for imprisoning the Old Gods on Azeroth before shaping it to their taste.

And then you have Sargeras. He was originally the titan charged with single-handedly fighting the endless hordes of demons infesting the universe. Though he was so powerful it was no problem for him physically, millennia of such battles led to his starting to wonder what was wrong with the universe for such evil to exist in it. In the end, he fell to madness, came to believe that the order the titans were trying to create was itself the problem, and decided to end it all himself. He released the demons he had imprisoned, and formed the Burning Legion, leading them himself to destroy world after world.

Sargeras appeared in the plot of the first Warcraft games as little more than a name, though still a motivating force. At some point, he was upgraded to these cosmic levels. (This seems to happen with old established characters, who gain credibility from being so well known. If you have a fictional world with lots of different vampires, then if you have Dracula, or even, say, the son of Dracula, he’s probably going to be more powerful than anyone even if the vampires are already more powerful than the original Dracula was. And goodness help us if you have Cain from the Bible as the first vampire…)

As the creator and leader of the Burning Legion, Sargeras is indirectly behind about half of what happens in the games. He’s pretty unquestionably the most powerful and important force of evil in the universe — its Satan, except a planet-breaking primordial quasi-god instead of a fallen angel who became a guy with a pitchfork and is hardly mentioned in the Bible anyway. He’s more like Tolkien’s version, Morgoth (Sauron’s boss), except that Morgoth never got past trying to break one lousy world.

So anyhow… the point is not exactly for you to be impressed, but it is that if you have Sargeras in the next expansion, it would be horrible to continue with another Pandalandia or more time-travelling orcs, and you couldn’t pretend you were introducing something bigger and badder, either. You can’t also really promise Sargeras and not deliver. What this would be would be the perfect occasion to have an enormous, epic finale and then finally write that full stop at the end.

Will they do it? All I dare to say is that it’s actually a possibility. From what I’ve heard, they haven’t so much as hinted at that. Also, someone mentioned they said that the avatar of Sargeras might appear. That could provide the best cop-out for this… have an epic fight with a part of Sargeras, but don’t actually destroy him, and then just go on with more bloody expansions.

What I am pretty sure about is that it should end here. Maybe they could squeeze in one more expansion if it continued the same storyline to its end, say on another world, but preferably not even that. We’ve done everything, multiple times. The stories can’t go on pretending they’re epic forever when all the most epic challenges have already been faced. It has to be about something else besides money. Blizzard does seem to care about their stories, and every story needs an ending.

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