After a fair amount of thought, I’ve reached a conclusion on the overall arc of Wrath of the Lich King. And it’s an important thing to consider, because this expansion was Blizzard pushing hard on the story button.
Oh, certainly there were other design goals at work. There was a move from a raiding ladder to a stepstool, so that a character that hit 80 a week before Icecrown Citadel came out could conceivably take part in the raids on Arthas. There was a rebalancing of classes to bring hybrids in line with pure classes, letting both my shaman and paladin swing for broke on damage meters. (Spending quite some time as the guild’s top DPS as an enhancement shaman is a bit of a point of pride for me.) A resurgence of quest design, artistic and flowing zones, and of course the addition of the game’s first new class… there was a lot going in here.
But this is the first expansion where we’ve received more than one in-game cutscene explicitly devoted to story. There are more interactive setpieces, more quests that exist with no real objectives beyond “watch events unfold.” Blizzard was hitting that story button hard, and it takes a while to absorb.
And it’s bad.
It’s really pretty darn bad.
Part of this is because the expansion’s conclusion and its story as a whole came to an end when it was remarkably easy to compare it to Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. That’s not exactly fair comparison. But by any standards you care to list… the whole sequence of events was poorly done. Go ahead and watch the two major in-game cutscenes, the Wrathgate and the Fall of the Lich King. Technically, they’re pretty damn good machina for an aging game. Emotionally, they’re hollow. The scene is identical regardless of faction, and neither scene has the slightest bit to do with your character.
I’d like to restate that, for emphasis: your ultimate victory over the Lich King is followed by a scene in which your character does not even appear.
By contrast, Final Fantasy XI made damn sure that every significant cutscene involved your character. Your deeds, not those of a random NPC, were the ones being lauded and recognized. And if an NPC was involved, they deferred to you as being the part that really made the difference. You were the hero, they were the hangers-on. I understand there are constraints to be observed with voice acting and all that, but come on.
Moreover, there’s no emotional connection to these people. Bolvar’s death feels less like watching a friend die and more like watching a beautiful church crumble. He’s significant as an institution, not a person. And even that was only acquired by virtue of him standing in one place for so long that everyone got used to it. He moves, gets killed, and then shows up one more time as a MacGuffin for the Horrible Cycle that Blizzard threw in at the eleventh hour. Nothing he does or says defines him as a person in any fashion, nor is it possible to build up some sort of relationship with him. Again, compare this to Final Fantasy XI‘s NPCs, where care is taken to make even the most incidental quests feel like there are people behind them.
That Horrible Cycle, by the way? It also negates the entire stated purpose of the expansion. We’re traveling north to kill the Lich King, who is a force of nature in the same way that an atomic bomb is a force of nature, which is to say not very. Natural laws come into play, but whether or not the damn thing goes off is up to humans, and it can be disabled because it’s hardly a fundamental part of the environment.
But no – now there must always be a Lich King, and so we traveled north and killed people and lost lives to put someone slightly less reprehensible on the throne. Never mind that the implication was that it was being the Lich King that was what made Arthas horrible, so nothing has changed in the slightest. It’d be something to feel really bad about if not for the fact that we don’t care about anyone in this story. They aren’t people, they’re suggestions of roles. They don’t smile or make jokes or have interests or act friendly or sad or bored or lonely.
To top everything off, the plot starts making less and less sense the closer you look at it. We’re put at a state of heightened alert because of the Battle for the Undercity – but why? If Wrynn wanted to lead the Alliance to all-out war on the Horde, he could just do so. There were plenty of extant reasons before “not trusting the Forsaken” wound up on the list. For that matter, why would Varimathras lead a coup after his boss completely failed at his big attempt? Why not when the Legion was at its strongest? Why not when any players will have the Legion as a core threat in their mind, cementing their status for everyone?
And again, after those events, nothing is ever mentioned again. The two factions hate each other. Great. But the conflict is kept artificially simmering at a ludicrous level with hand-waving to explain the various neutral cities and outposts. War is declared and yet nothing actually changes in anyone’s demeanor, dialogue, or even fashion choices. Everyone keeps going on like nothing much happened.
Remember those quests that act as setpieces? They’re actually the worst of the lot, because at a time when your character could logically do something, all you do is watch as a group of NPCs stage their little drama in front of you. It boils down to Blizzard’s way of telling you that your character is a mobile bag of monster-killing, not a person, and when it’s time to talk or do anything not directly involving killing, you should sit over there with the city guards and not disturb anything.
A well-designed story makes you feel important to the game world. Integral. Wrath of the Lich King‘s story claimed to be just that, but ultimately it was designed to make your character insignificant.