Of Gods and Men
What feels like eons ago, my brother and I used to huddle around the house computer and pretend to be leaders of vast forces of orcs and men, battling over the future of a world called Azeroth. By the time we were guiding Arthas through his dark path to becoming the Lich King in Warcraft III: Frozen Throne, we were absolutely invested in the world, characters, and tales that Blizzard had provided for us. It is no surprise, then, that when Blizzard allowed players to enter the World of Warcraft with their 2004 release, I was primed with hype. It was glorious as I came into being as a novice level 1 human priest of the Light in Northshire Abby, and learned the world as I strode through quest chains where I helped those in need after the Third War. Adventure was readily available and outside of the basic fetch quests, I felt a connection between my character and the world.
Years passed, expansions came and went, and the game changed in many critical ways. New races, classes, abilities, geography (seriously, it must be tough to be a cartographer on Azeroth), and mechanics came to the game, and I was completely fine with all of it. Then, something core to my experience changed, and the game no longer expected me to be a simple adventurer. Now I had to be “The Hero”tm. From a narrative standpoint, I understand the necessity for escalation. The writing team for Warcraft is not in an enviable position, always feeling the need to top the extravagance and stakes of the last expansion. So it is that players have found themselves going from bandaging the boo-boos of refugees from Westfall to fighting a dragon that cracked the planet in half, to felling a literal god whose weapon is still scraping the upper stratosphere in Silithis. I personally have not experienced any of these story beats in a raid when they were current, as I never played the game that way. Believe it or not, I do not play to get the best gear, chase ever-growing stat numbers, or best others in PvP. Not that there is anything wrong with those who play that game, it's just that I prefer the chains of intrigue that allow my characters to impact the world around them on a more grounded scale. I play WoW like a mid-level D&D campaign.
At character creation, by the time I have clicked "Enter World", my mind has already crafted the backstory for "Duran Shatterfang, Veteran of the Second War. So named because his eye and a tusk were taken by an Alliance Paladin's warhammer in battle". He has green skin from Gul'dan's broken promises and the color of his hair has been taken by the years. He has chosen to roam the world and aid those of the Horde in his twilight age. So upon his arrival in any major city, he is immediately told to go talk to <Insert current Warchief here> and is greeted with reverence as “The Hero of All Creation”. Major characters trip over each other to prostrate themselves before my item level 4 boots. Thrall, son of Durotan and Master Shaman, is my BFF. Baine Bloodhoof, son of Cairne and leader of the Tauren, hangs on my every word. This is all happening while "Theraxxor the Invincible" is next to me wearing pauldrons made from the living flesh of an eldritch god while astride a dragon made of stars. It’s all a bit incongruent, is what I’m saying.
The lore of the world moving ever forward can be a good thing. The world feels alive and stagnation in a story can’t last forever. I’m looking at you Warhammer 40k. Indeed, while someone had to bring Arthas to his knees, knock Deathwing out of the skies, help the Titans withstand Sargeras, and slay the embodiment of death itself, it wasn’t any of my guys. My characters are adventurers, not legends, and they live within the grand and interesting worlds of Warcraft. They are the heroes of smaller stories with lower stakes, and that’s okay. The Transmog system aids in this fantasy greatly. No longer are the players lined up in their theme park lines all wearing identical war gear like they just left the Blackrock Giftshop. My max-level Paladin doesn't have to look like he's a giant magnet that stumbled through a Spencers, and my mid-level Mage doesn't have to look like she dressed from what was available in a forest clearing. I get to tell my characters' stories visually and it aids the immersion.
World of Warcraft allows you to be the champion of the multiverse, but it’s also taking steps to allow you to be who you want to be. And it’s this current trend that’s actually gotten me back into the game recently. For those of us who do not have the time to keep the second job that is a meta-chasing-raid-guild, it’s nice to have access to all the content that we want in the middle, somewhere between killing 10 boars and crushing entire dimensions. All of “my guys” are heroes in their own right because at the end of the day they provide me with the type of fun I want.