World of Warcraft

A look back at Battle for Azeroth’s broken narrative. Why did this expansion’s story feel so underwhelming?

wow5 - A look back at Battle for Azeroth's broken narrative. Why did this expansion's story feel so underwhelming?
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After what has felt like a long eighteen months for some, BfA has played out to its conclusion. Mythic Ny'alotha has come and gone, bringing with it no extra seasoning for the underwhelming conclusion to the Visions of N'Zoth and the expansion as a whole. With 8.3.5 cancelled and a long wait until Shadowlands looming I'm sure there will be a lot of picking over the corpse of BfA as we all try and make sense of the many mistakes of the expansion (and yet still somehow find it fun). Entire posts can and will be written on the failings of Azerite (essentially a scuffed version of Legion's artifacts), class design and BfA's bespoke content, but the focus of this post is going to be narrative, and how Blizzard have in my opinion (mis)handled their most important resource – Warcraft's lore.

I've never seen a WoW storyline as utterly fragmented and disjointed as BfA's. It is like playing through multiple expansion's worth of character arcs and plotlines in the space of mere months. The most obvious example of this is patch 8.2, an event where upon it's release my initial reaction was "wait, what?". I found myself unceremoniously dropped into a cinematic and then at the bottom of a hole in the ocean with Lor'themar. What did this feel like? An opening of an entirely new expansion, because, to all intents and purposes, that was exactly what it was. Forget the war, forget Talanji and the Zandalari, now it's Azshara and N'Zoth. Except not half an hour into fighting this new threat we're back through a portal doing war campaign stuff saving Baine, and then Magni pops up screeching about woons and has us chasing down essences.

What a mess.

And It begs the question – What is Battle for Azeroth actually about?

Duh, it's the faction war expansion! The cover art has an orc and human facing off and there's a big war! Well, no, because we spend a total of one out of four major patches focused on that and the final boss of the expansion is N'zoth, an old god who both factions have to fight. So it's an old god expansion then? Again not really. You could call it an old god half expansion at best. Ah but they used clever wording, it's a Battle FOR Azeroth, you're saving the planet! This is probably the closest to being true, but we spend so much time sidetracked that Magni feels like a sideshow for most of the expansion until the very end, and even then the initial problem we are confronted with at the beginning – that Azeroth is dying due to the humongous sword sticking out of it, is never dealt with.

And so we see the core issue. Three major plotlines, inadequately connected:

1 – Magni and wounded Azeroth

2 – The Faction War, War Campaign and Sylvanas

3 – The Old Gods (Azshara and N'zoth)

We're the Champion of Azeroth, fighting to fix the planet one minute and the Champion of the Horde/Alliance the next, fighting in the war or commanding troops. Because the war is wholly Sylvanas' scheme and has very little to do with the the old gods OR Magni this whole element – the fucking box art no less – feels totally removed from everything else that's going on. N'Zoth, when he shows up, becomes the focus of the "save the planet" plotline, but up until then has not been established as the threat to Azeroth. If the moment when your character lasers the Ballsack God feels cold to you, that is why – you aren't resolving any properly established conflict, merely a tacked on afterthought. Contrast other well received expansions:

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Legion – it's about the Burning Legion. Begins with their invasion, ends with their defeat.

MoP – it's about the faction war. Begins with fighting over new land, ends with Garrosh's defeat.

WoTLK – it's about the Lich King. Begins with the Scourge launching attacks and an offensive against them, ends with Arthas' defeat.

BfA's overall plot structure is, rather tellingly, most comparable to that of WoD, but while the story there has the excuse of being cut short with the original plan of fighting Grommash never happening, BfA has no such excuse. It is simply a mess of random events from start to finish.

Then we get to characters, who are similarly disconnected. We have this lovingly crafted story arc for Saurfang complete with multiple excellent videos, only for him to be the main character of what ends up being a subplot. We have Jaina, we have Talanji, Baine and Thrall etc. Where the hell are they in 8.3? There is more interaction with Lorewalker Cho during the climactic events of the expansion than with Jaina, one of the supposed central players of it all. And then there's the actual character who needed to be front and centre from the very start – Wrathion, who only shows up right at the tail end to get punched by Anduin and show off his max level tailoring. There is a strong character arc in there for him about overcoming the corruption that overtook his father, explored in a perfunctory manner.

It is sad to see what I believe to be a lot of effort on the part of Blizzard in crafting story elements being undermined by an undiagnosed fundamental problem. But because each story element in BfA was not properly connected to the others, all of it is devalued. This is especially a shame when it comes to Azshara and N'Zoth, likely the two most anticipated major lore villains Blizzard had in reserve, each bopped in a single patch, their spotlight drained by the war campaign which ultimately was more concerned with setting up the plot of Shadowlands than with telling BfA's own story. It is also a shame for the war campaign itself. I groaned when 8.3 was announced to be N'Zoth, not at all because I didn't like the Old Gods, but because I wanted, very badly, for the end of BfA to be actually thematically appropriate for what it billed itself as. I was hoping for a Siege of Stormwind as the last raid with N'Zoth kept in reserve for later, when justice could properly have been done to his story.

With hindsight it's all so easy to fix. The war could have been established to be the result of N'Zoth's manipulations. The wounds in the world could have been established to be a problem precisely because they opened Azeroth up to N'Zoth (perhaps it could be shown that Sargeras achieved what N'Zoth was hoping to do when he caused the Cataclysm). Wrathion should have been brought in at the expansion's beginning, perhaps even corrupted at first and helping to fan the flames of the war until he is able to overcome it midway through and assist in taking down N'Zoth from that point on. As it is, BfA will be remembered primarily as a titanic waste of some of the most valuable lore in Blizzard's arsenal.

TLDR: BfA has three effectively separate plotlines and no central conflict tying them together. Events feel random and the conclusion of each plot is devalued because they all steal time from each other and didn't allow for proper setup.

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