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The clash with expectations and established fictional tradition (spaceships in a fantasy setting?!) caused an uproar in certain parts of the player community, triggering a response from Blizzard. As Blizzard’s head of creative development
responsible for the changes, Metzen personally addressed the issues on the official message board, admitting he might have made some mistakes:
Right... To be totally up-front with you guys, it’s my bad, straight up. The obvious lore contradiction with Sargeras and his encounter with the eredar was clearly documented in the Warcraft III manual. I wrote those bits about four years ago, and to be totally honest, I simply forgot. Genius, right? [...] I can assure you, no one’s more crushed about this mistake than I am. I’ve spent the last few days kicking my own ass over this one. Sucks to fail. It may not always be evident, but we take this story stuff really seriously at Blizzard (posted by “Tseric” on the official forums, 5 May 2006).
Without going into detail about who Sargeras is and how his encounter with the eradar would matter, it is interesting to see that Blizzard felt it needed to respond to continuity problems with something that was printed in the manual to a game released several years prior to World of Warcraft. As Jenkins points out, ‘within the realm of popular culture, fans are the true experts’, with trivia like these being the main source for this expertise (1992: 86-87). It grants players cultural authority, ‘claiming moral right to complain about producer actions challenging their own interests’ (ibid. 87). In this case, the complaints were met with a conciliatory reaction and what could be considered a formal apology from World of Warcraft’s main story creator and keeper.
While Metzen did excuse himself to the community for his “faults”, in the end no changes were made to the origins of the dreanei; the spaceship-like vessels and other controversial additions to Warcraft’s fictional universe remained. It would simply be too expensive to change all the designs around the time a game is launching, so instead, the history was just rewritten to fit it in. These re-written bits and pieces of fiction have become part of Warcraft’s “retcons” – a term coming from “retroactive continuity”, which originated in the culture of serialized comics. In comics, retcons describe the liberties that comic writers and artist sometimes take to reinvent superheroes with a longstanding narrative tradition, 146 battlefields of negotiation like Batman or Superman, just to keep them fresh or introduce them to new audiences.92 While in this case the retcon might not have been entirely deliberate, it does reinvent the fictional universe, and the degree of its impact varies depending on which player you talk to. Most players will not even have noticed the changes, while for some, retcons can ruin “their” game.
Applying retcons to World of Warcraft is a practice that is not solely limited to Blizzard alone. Players also like to write and rewrite their favourite (or less favourite) parts of Warcraft to make it better, or just to play around with retcon possibilities. While such retcons might not have much formal weight – only content designed by Blizzard’s creative team is considered canonical by most players – they can form and become popular extensions and alternations of the acknowledged fictional universe. In the same way that fictional trivia plays a part in criticizing the established fiction, we should also consider them as forming the ‘basis for critical reworkings of textual materials’ (Jenkins 1992: 87). The machinima film Tales of the Past III actively uses and reworks fictional trivia from Warcraft’s fiction to create a story dealing directly with some of Warcraft’s biggest story lines.
Since its release in December 2007, the third and most popular part of the Tales of the Past machinima series has been downloaded more than a million times from its main hosting site, warcraftmovies.com, with an average of almost 3,500 downloads a day.93 Tales of the Past III is an eighty-nine minute film, produced in the European Dunemaul realm by an all-player cast and crew; it has become one of the most widely seen World of Warcraft machinima.94 The creator of Tales of the
Past III, Martin Falch, introduces its story as follows:
Since the death of Yimo and the shattering of the Orb of Visions, the Horde and the Alliance have accepted an unstable peace agreement. However, old hatreds stand in the way of cooperation and at the same time, chaos erupts as the Lich King finally takes action.
In the meanwhile, Blazer travels to Northrend to hunt down Mograine, the Death Knight, and retrieve the legendary blade that may decide the fate of Azeroth – The Ashbringer... (2007b).
This short introduction in itself is enough to show that this machinima honours and at the same time changes Warcraft’s canonical fiction. The looming danger of the Lich King, the Death Knight Mograine and the legendary Ashbringer blade are all fictional stalwarts of the Warcraft series. They are beloved, even sometimes revered, icons of Warcraft’s fiction and are “poached” for the purpose of creating the narrative of this machinima. The other characters mentioned, Blazer and Yimo, are not part of the official Warcraft canon, nor is the Orb of Visions. These additions, which turn Tales of the Past’s version of Azeroth into an alternate fictional universe, originate not just from the imagination of its director/writer but part iv claiming the game from an entire guild of players. The Tales of the Past series began with a self-promotion video by a guild named Eden Aurorea (Falch 2005). From there, it evolved into a series focusing more on Warcraft’s fiction, including the canonical icons mentioned above, but still rooted in the Eden Aurorea guild with its members as the main actors.
The player-created characters of Tales of the Past III, which for a large part constitute the retconning we find in the film, are therefore not purely fictional; they exist inside the game as actual player characters, with very real players behind them who in many cases had been playing these characters for a long time. In an interview with the film’s creator Martin Falch, it became clear that this element of Tales of the Past’s gestation was a big draw for participation: ‘a lot of people wanted to join in, get their character famous etc, while the actors already in the movie had a lot of fun being recognized – I guess when we were recording you could say they were "actors", but for outside recordings they were walking around in the game with the gear they used in the movies and the names of their own characters’ (chat interview, 18 November 2008).
Falch and his crew’s blending of new with existing fiction signals not only a shift from consumer to prosumer as discussed in the first chapter but also what machinima specialist Henry Lowood considers a ‘metamorphosis of the player into a performer’ (2007: 64). This in turn allows for performance-based adaptation, where players are able to adapt their own personal and shared Warcraft stories into film form through the performance of play. As I have shown in chapter three, World of Warcraft does not allow players to change much in the fictional world in any persistent manner – even killing famous characters has no lasting consequences, as they will just reappear later to be killed again by other players.
The role of the fictional world, however, changes when viewed through the virtual
lens of the machinima filmmaker. As literary scholar Marie-Laure Ryan puts it:
‘the original game world becomes a quarry of visual materials, a matrix out of which players generate other worlds’ and, as I would add, create retcons in existing worlds (Ryan 2008). ‘Lost in the process’, Ryan continues, ‘is the interactive character of the source world’ (ibid.). Machinima may record and document the performance of play, but the end result has the same non-interactive qualities as regular film. In machinima such as Tales of the Past III, however, narrative agency shifts towards the players, as their play performances can suddenly take new meanings through machinima filmmaking. When seen by hundreds of thousands of players, these meanings can transform players (or at least their player characters) into community celebrities or, to keep it within Warcraft’s fictional universe, heroes who can become famous like their canonical counterparts.
While Tales of the Past III is a good example of textual poaching in the way that it modifies and expands the core text through the active appropriation by players, we should be cautious not to confuse these forms of appropriation with resistance. Jenkins borrows the notion of poaching from De Certeau who considers 148 battlefields of negotiation appropriation as an important tactic to resist and challenge constraints set by a text’s formal producers (De Certeau quoted in Jenkins 1992: 23-27). While I would argue that the production process of Tales of the Past III involves the film’s creators actively negotiating what is possible within World of Warcraft‘s design and fiction, conflict in terms of fictional appropriation was in this case carefully avoided. In the process of creating a machinima like Tales of the Past III, Blizzard and the film’s creative team are not the only other stakeholders involved. The player community also plays a major part, expressing strong opinions of what can and cannot be done with Warcraft’s fictional universe. As Jenkins points out, fan fiction creators might consider themselves individualistic and nonconformist in the way they approach the source text, they are ‘nevertheless responsive to the somewhat more subtle demands placed upon them as members of fandom – expectations about what narratives are “appropriate” for fannish interest, what interpretations are “legitimate”, and so forth ’ (1992: 88).
As one would expect, there are infamous examples of machinima filmmakers purposefully resisting the established norms and expectations. Lowood points to a sexually explicit machinima (as far as such a thing is possible due to limitations of the game’s design) called Not Just Another Love Story (Pope 2005), which was published on warcraftmovies.com. After the film was picked up by the community and started to cause flame wars on the official forums due to its adult content, Blizzard removed all forum links to its location and locked any threads discussing the machinima (Lowood 2008: 190). Even though it was censored on the official forums, the film itself has remained untouched on its hosting site. In another particularly controversial World of Warcraft machinima, a raid guild filmed itself while crashing and destroying a funeral ceremony staged within the fictional world which was honouring a player who died in the real world. In the credits, the responsible guild simply says ‘Yes, we know we are assholes :D’ (Serenity Now 2006). While it is debatable whether this particular production is a machinima film or simply a (highly subjective) documentation of an in-game event, the outcry over this particular video was even felt outside of World of Warcraft’s community (Combs 2006). Regardless, fan fiction usually does ‘respond to the perceived tastes of their desired audience’, devious productions like the one mentioned above being more the exception than the rule (Jenkins 1992: 88).
The negotiation process between stakeholders before and during the actual appropriation (ie. filmmaking) process is as much a part of the negotiation process as the end result. As Falch pointed out in my interview with him, preparation is key: ‘to get the upper hand in the potential lore discussions [...] I made sure to read up on any material related to some of the lore I included, such as WoWwiki.com and I also read through 3 different canon books’ (chat interview, 18 November 2008). When recreating famous characters, Falch tried to fuse existing canonical fiction with audience expectations of how such characters should
part iv claiming the game For instance, in order to portray Thrall in a plausible way, I was inspired by his appearance and actions in Lord of the Clans [a World of Warcraft book] and in the games, coupled that with some of the "fan speculation" such as the subtle romantic hints between him and Jaina Proudmoore [another famous character] and added my own interpretation of him and what he'd do (chat interview).
According to an interview Falch did with a World of Warcraft fan site, he nevertheless had to reel in his own ambitions with this character: ‘Thrall was originally going to die alongside Blazer in the sacrifice towards the end. However, I sort of decided to not do it [...]. I felt it would be dangerous to change too much of the lore since it seems to be a rather dangerous area to move in’ (Toumia 2008). This dangerous area of course hints at pontential conflict with the perceived audience within the player community.
With machinima such as Tales of the Past III, authority over the fictional universe of World of Warcraft thus no longer lies solely in the hands of the formal design team, nor does it entirely rest in the hands of the player(s) adapting it to machinima film format. Instead, textual authority becomes negotiated, shared and staked. Like any other fan-created text, machinima like Tales of the Past III are ‘shaped through the social norms, aesthetic conventions, interpretative protocols, technological resources, and technical competence of the larger fan community’ (Jenkins 1992: 49). If acceptance from the community is desired, machinima filmmakers are required to find the perfect balance between new content, retconned content and the canonical. Some actively defy acceptance by refusing to conform to accepted fictional or behavioural liberties, but most filmmakers try to expand their audience, not limit (or anger) it.
Next, I will show that the negotiations surrounding machinima filmmaking are not limited to the level of game design. Not the adaptation and appropriation of the fictional universe for fan fiction but the tools needed to produce machinima films boost these forms of filmmaking to the level of game contract. The ensuing battlefields of negotiation put players in an awkward position vis-à-vis Blizzard.