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No doubt you wish to find a great dragon or demon and strangle it with your bare hands, but perhaps it would be wise to start on something less... dangerous.
Report to Gornek, he should be able to assign a task better suited to a young class. You will find Gornek in the Den, to the west (Blizzard Entertainment 2004a).
Obviously, the parts name and class are replaced in-game with the name chosen for one’s character, as well as his chosen class. Throughout the game, quests are individualized for each player’s character engaging with them, ensuring that players undergo a personalized experience. Even though all players do the same quests, this system ensures that the quests represent their character’s story. This suggests that quests present an immersive, narrative experience, not just a system of instrumental progress. In terms of narrative progress, quests nevertheless adhere to roughly the same principles. In the same way that quests force players to follow a fixed objective, quests also do not allow players to change their stories. As Aarseth argues, the story as told through quests is only ‘uncovered and observed’ by players, essentially arriving at a situation where we do not have a ‘gamer-as-author, but (at best) gamer-as-archaeologist’ (2005: 9).
In the case of World of Warcraft, quests almost always have only one story outcome, and reaching this outcome is a straightforward affair of searching, killing and collecting.46 By carrying out quests, players piece a series of pre-written texts together into something resembling a personal story for one’s character.
Players may not have much agency over the outcome of the stories within quests, but they are allowed to choose which quests to do, and in what order.
Due to the way the quest system is set up, quests can be done serially, in parallel, mixed together or skipped. Players can also decide how (choosing an instrumental strategy), when (postponing a quest to return to it after a character has grown stronger) and whether to finish a quest (sometimes, quests turn out to be not worth the effort halfway through). Furthermore, many quests require groups, creating shared and overlapping storylines between different players. This means we should not think of gamers-as-archeologist but of gamers-as-bricoleurs as well;
players are in a constant process of cobbling together story elements through deliberate, spontaneous and/or random engagements with quests. Rigid as individual quests’ stories may be, players can thus still create personalized stories for their characters.
part ii controlling the game The way the Horde and Alliance factions are designed to be eternally at war leaves players with fewer options for manipulation. On an instrumental level, the strict faction division provides players with an enemy to defeat through PvP combat. On a fictional level, the faction division makes one of the most impactful simplifications of the “real” Azeroth possible. To understand why, it is best to explain how both factions have been represented over the years in various games and other media.
The war between the Alliance and Horde has been a key element in the fictional world of Azeroth since the release of Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. The following text comes from the introduction of this game and presents the first introduction to
the Warcraft series’ fictional world:
In the Age of Chaos, two factions battled for dominance. The Kingdom of Azeroth was a prosperous one. The humans who dwelled there turned the land into a paradise. The Knights of Stormwind, and the Clerics of Northshire Abbey roamed far and wide, serving the king's people with honour and justice.
The well-trained armies of the King maintained a lasting peace for many generations. Then came the Orcish Hordes.
No-one knew where these creatures came from, and none were prepared for the terror that they spawned. Their warriors wielded axe and spear with deadly proficiency, while others rode Darkwolves as black as the moonless night.
Unimagined were the destructive powers of their evil magicks, derived from the fires of the underworld. With an ingenious arsenal of weaponry and powerful magick, these two forces collide in a contest of cunning, intellect, and brute strength, with the victor claiming dominance over the whole of Azeroth. Welcome to the World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment 1994).
The sharp opposition between the Alliance (described in terms of ‘honour’ and ‘justice’), and the Horde (spreading ‘terror’ and wielding ‘destructive powers’) is closely linked to the conceptualization of fictional worlds that Fine identifies in fantasy culture in general. Fantasy worlds form a ‘battleground between good and evil with no middle ground’, and even if neutral characters and settings would exist, they ‘are to be used by the forces of good or evil to achieve their ends’ (1983: 76-77). Over the years, the sharp bifurcation between good and evil began to disappear in the Warcraft games and related media. Both factions received histories filled with both heroism and villainy, making none of the two more “good” or “evil” than the other. As pointed out by game scholar Esther MacCallum-Stewart, who analyzed the notions of war in World of Warcraft, the Alliance is rather portrayed as a warmongering colonizer, while the Horde can be seen as living in harmony with the lands around them (MacCallum-Stewart 2008: 43). In many of the games and books, the Horde and Alliance are given shared foes like the 76 battlefields of negotiation undead Scourge or the demonic Burning Legion, leading to temporary, uneasy truces and to characters of both factions fighting shoulder to shoulder. According to MacCallum-Stewart, World of Warcraft even ‘questions the discrepancy between good and evil’ and by doing so ties ‘directly into the modern unease with warfare and the question of who, if anyone, is on the right side’ (MacCallum-Stewart 2008: 58-59).
While the lack of truly “good” and “bad” sides might sound like a far less rigid approach to the sharply defined classical oppositions in fantasy culture, suggesting far more cooperation and other faction-bridging activities, in the reality of World of Warcraft’s simulation of Azeroth, the opposite is true. As explained earlier, Blizzard Entertainment has implemented the player factions in such a way that strife between them is almost unavoidable, especially in PvP realms.47 The way the factions are played out against each other through design, however, extends to communication between players within the different factions. While characters in other Warcraft media forms (like the books or, weirdly enough, World of Warcraft’s own promotional videos) do not have many problems understanding each other, in the game itself players playing with characters from different factions cannot communicate with each other in-game than with gestured. While for some races sharing a common language across the faction-divide makes sense historically (like the Alliance’s Night Elf and the Horde’s Blood Elf races), within World of Warcraft’s version of Azeroth communication between factions is limited to gestures only. Even though it makes no sense on a fictional level, Blizzard simplified the faction divide into a very strict “us” and “them” scenario, making cooperation nearly impossible. In the “real” Azeroth, the factions have grown to become increasingly equal – though ‘equal in being wrong’ in terms of militarism and warmongering (MacCallum-Stewart: 58-59). In World of Warcraft’s simulation of Azeroth, members of the opposing faction are positioned as different, dangerous and hostile. This situation does not mean that players do not have ways to interact peacefully with members of the opposing factions (through representational role-playing, or on forums outside of the fictional world). It does emphasize that the game is designed for inter-faction struggle, not socializing. As I will show next, the same can be said about the spatial experience of World of Warcraft’s Azeroth.
The space of play In a discussion on World of Warcraft as a spatial practice, Aarseth argues that ‘compared to a fictional world, the ultimate example of which is Tolkien’s Middleearth in The Lord of the Rings, Azeroth is small and compartmental’ (2008: 118). He goes on to literally compare the two in terms of geographical size. According to the map Tolkien included in his work, he explains, there are hundreds of miles traversed by the main characters to get from one city to another, while the calcupart ii controlling the game lated length of an entire continent in World of Warcraft’s Azeroth is less than ten miles (2008: 116-118). He misses the point, however, that when comparing Tolkien’s Middle-earth with the game’s version of Azeroth instead of the “real” Azeroth as it exists on a meta-level across a wide variety of media, he is comparing apples with pears. In the “real” Azeroth, cities are also hundreds of miles apart.48 His argument is, however, that World of Warcraft’s Azeroth is small and compartmental, making it functional as a gameworld, which shows that simplification as a result of transferring a fictional world into a game has an impact on a spatial level (2008: 118-119).
I am not as interested in the differences in size between different versions of various fictional worlds; instead, I aim to show how the simplification of space to create a functional game influences the way the fictional space is traversed.
According to Aarseth, World of Warcraft’s Azeroth is more akin to a theme park than to a fictional world, a ‘conglomerate or parkland quilt of connected playgrounds built around a common theme’ (2008: 121). It is a somewhat exaggerated way to say that as a space, World of Warcraft’s Azeroth in many ways is designed for play only, not to live a virtual life in.
In contrast to most other digital games, movement through the fictional world is continuous, suggesting that it is a whole rather than a series of dislocated levels. World of Warcraft’s Azeroth is nevertheless sectioned into zones, each with its own name, theme and difficulty level. These zones, roughly based on the different fictional lands in the “real” Azeroth, are designed to guide players through the game. The Valley of Trials example, the first area encountered when creating a troll, is part of a dusty, mountainous zone called Durotar on the continent Kalimdor. There is nothing preventing a character from walking through the gates that form the exit from the valley, but, by design, your character cannot climb the mountainous hills that enclose the rest of the valley. They are “natural” barriers limiting spatial movement. Many zones in Azeroth are surrounded with such barriers, with only a few mountain passes, tunnels or gates allowing egress and exit.
These barriers keep players within and in some cases outside a zone as desired by the design team, allowing the game to unfold as intended.49 Additionally, the level system ensures that you are where you are supposed to be according to the game’s design. Each zone’s hostile mobs (wildlife, monsters, NPCs of the opposing factions, etc.) have specific level ranges; walking a low-level character into higher-level zones is dangerous: mobs are programmed to attack weaker player characters, usually resulting in a quick death. This means that when you begin playing World of Warcraft, only a few zones are accessible to your character: you need to level up to visit the other zones.
Unscalable barriers and level differences result in the distribution of players over the game’s world into zones where the relation between effort and reward is optimal for their character’s level. Following the quest system guides players through the different zones, for instance by directing them to NPCs in other 78 battlefields of negotiation zones who offer new quests, which slowly expands the players’ spatial experience of the game. This process of “unlocking” Azeroth zone-by-zone is visualized within the map system in the UI. Zones and areas within zones that your character has not visited yet remain unrendered on maps. Whether these limitations make sense or not on a fictional level is arguable; in terms of game design they control player movement and discovery in such a way that if you want to visit all of World of Warcraft, prolonged play (and thus subscription fees) is required.
Even after reaching the highest level for your character, the fictional world is not freely traversable. As a result of the faction division, you can only use the transportation system and visit the cities that belong to your character’s faction.
While there are some faction-neutral towns and transportation means, the Horde and Alliance have their own strict network of cities and transportation routes.50 Navigation and thus the experience of space by both factions is strongly disconnected. If you want to see how members of the other faction experience the game in terms of spatial configuration of the game world, the only option is to initiate a character on the other side of the faction divide. Taking into account the amount of time needed to create a new character, and keeping in mind that most players like to keep playing with the friends they have made within the game, this results in a fictional world which, for most players, is only experienced from the viewpoint of one faction and seldom both.
While the shape of the “real” Azeroth can be as large as the players’ imagination allows it to be, the shrunken, simplified and sectioned nature of World of Warcraft’s version of Azeroth is very much limited and controlled by design. World of Warcraft’s Azeroth does, however, change over time. Through expansion packs and patches, Blizzard regularly adds new land and even whole continents to the game world or changes its existing geography. As I will show next, players themselves have less lasting influence on the world over time. As World of Warcraft features a persistent world, this lack of options to have a lasting influence on the world creates, I will argue, situations that seriously affect fictional coherency.