The Narrative of the Player Character: Introduction
This post went through a number of iterations and rewrites before I ultimately concluded it was a topic too big for a single article and needed to be presented in parts. I hope this intro proves enticing!
A major component of any story is character. In a typical book or film we experience the narrative through the eyes of a specific character, or group of characters, but the RPG takes a different approach. As players, we must create and manage our own characters, and take the experience of the world into our own hands. The narrative is then seen through the eyes of a player character.
Player characters primarily experience narrative in WoW via quests. Quests drive the story in a big way; they give you insight into a situation and they give you a method for dealing with it. Quests are, by nature, player-centric, even with the occasional addition of an NPC guide or ally. Because of this, in many ways, a player is the main character of the World of Warcraft story. This arrangement is fantastic in terms of immersion, however, there are ways in which this approach breaks down, as well.
The first inconsistency is the fact that every player is completing the same quests. There are differences based on faction separation, low-level starting zones, and (once upon a time) class-specific quests as well, but for the most part, you are capable of completing every quest available to your faction. At high levels, many quest hubs are neutral and identical for both Horde and Alliance players. In other words, we are all the main characters.
The second inconsistency is the fact that, even though the gameplay is written with our player characters at its center, Blizzard can only obliquely acknowledge us in the story. Once Blizzard officially names a character, it is no longer a player character, it is a non-player character. Thus we become “the heroes” or “the adventurers,” but we are never specific and we are never individuals, which is somewhat inconsistent with the whole idea of a hero. We remain an indeterminate group of people behind the scenes. This reality stands in direct conflict to the conclusion of the previous paragraph that we are all the main characters.
So, where do our player characters stand? Last week, Selkatnet asked that very same question on the general forums. As I was writing, my original thesis was that player characters effectively do not exist in WoW, period. We just aren’t there. As luck would have it, about a day before I was planning to publish my post, this blue response went up on the general forums that directly undermined my argument. As it turns out, to Blizzard, we do, in fact, exist. But how do we exist, and to what extent?
Originally, my main arguments against the existence of player characters were: 1) it doesn’t make much sense for player characters to exist from a lore perspective and 2) Blizzard has written player characters out of a narrative in the past. The reason it doesn’t make sense for player characters to exist is because it inevitably ties the narrators’ hands. It’s extremely hard to write a story in which you can’t name a main character or give them any defining traits, such as heritage or personality. Furthermore, WoW already has plenty of main characters: Jaina Proudmoore, Thrall, Tirion Fordring, Tyrande Whisperwind, Lady Vashj, Brann Bronzebeard, Magatha Grimtotem…you get the point. Logically, story-wise, player characters seem more like flies on a wall—we get to run around in Azeroth and experience the world, but the story in fact exists outside us. This ties into my argument #2. Player characters defeated Onyxia in WoW’s original release, however, in the official narrative, it’s Varian and a group of other, named NPCs who do the job. There was actually a fair amount of uproar in certain fan communities when this became the case, because players were upset that their contributions to Azeroth had been erased. To me, the fact that Blizzard was willing to write PCs out of the narrative only cemented my former stance that we don’t exist.
But it turns out that’s not the case. So, what follows is the question of “How do we fit in?” or “What is our place in Azeroth?” As stated before, player characters are great heroes, however if I quit the game tomorrow and never logged in again, Azeroth would in no way be affected and the story would continue just fine without my character, so she is also inconsequential. Yet, if everybody quit the game tomorrow the story of WoW would grind to a halt and evaporate. The paradox of the collective is that, while no one individual has any substantial worth, the group as a whole is indispensable.
One way to examine how player characters fit into the narrative is to look at how Blizzard tells the stories that don’t directly involve any player characters at all. The extended universe products are fairly traditional-style media; books and comics that are structured and executed like any other book or comic. The omission of player character-related story lines allows those products fill in gaps that player characters can’t experience (though there are exceptions) such as Jaina’s personal interactions with Anduin Wrynn (as told in The Shattering) or Khadgar’s time spent training under Medivh (The Last Guardian). The one major exception to this that I can think of is a big chunk of Varian’s story as told in the comic, which culminates in the slaying of Onyxia, as previously discussed. Much of that arc’s narrative comes straight out of player-available (or formerly player-available) material from the game, such as the quest to free Marshall Windsor and a big part of “The Missing Diplomat” quest chain, as well.
The intersection of Varian’s narrative with the players’ stands out precisely because it’s so rare. So-called major lore figures tend to be the focus of the books and comics, and their stories remain almost entirely separate from those of the player characters in-game. Ultimately, there is a fundamental division of story throughout Azeroth. There is the story that centers player characters, and there is the story that centers Blizzard’s NPCs. Of course, there are multiple sub-plots throughout each, but that is the basic narrative split. I don’t think this divide is unique to Azeroth, in fact, it occurs to me that the push and pull of the narrators versus the players is an aspect of any interactive story, and that is something I hope to examine further in my next post!