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Digital Folk Art: Fan Art and Collective Memory in Warcraft

May 29, 2011

We’ve had a lot of conversation here at Flavor Text about how Archaeology allows us to explore the prefabricated history of the Warcraft universe and gain a new, richer layer of understanding about Blizzard’s vision for the stories behind each of Azeroth’s notable races. However, there is little within the game world that illustrates the significant impact that World of Warcraft has had on those who play it, with perhaps the exception of instances such as memorial NPCs like Caylee Dak or Ezra Wheathoof. So, what about us, and our history in Azeroth? How do we choose to remember, if we cannot do so within the game itself? And perhaps most importantly, why do we do it? In this post (and a few more to come), I’ll be providing short analyses on various works of fan art that answer these questions and exemplify emerging digital folk traditions in the Warcraft community.

If my coupling of the phrases “emerging digital folk traditions” and “Warcraft” in the same sentence left you feeling a bit skeptical, bear with me. Anastasia Salter has already postulated in the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures that fan-made remakes of the King’s Quest games act to both preserve the historical record of the classic adventure game genre (due to the original software being unplayable without the assistance of an emulat0r), as well as pass on its stories to new fans. I’m of the opinion that the same is true of the Warcraft fan community’s output–although WoW is not yet in a place where the software itself needs to be salvaged and rebuilt in quite the same way as King’s Quest, the transient nature of WoW’s content means that there is perpetually a danger of loss to the community’s collective memory. In response to this, what Salter would call a “very particular heritage of form and narrative best understood as an evolving digital folk art” has developed to preserve the integrity of the Azerothian mythos, both in terms of Blizzard canon and the community’s collective experience.

As Lani discussed earlier, we as “adventurers” are not directly shaping the narrative of the game; we exist as one group entity, and at the individual level are ultimately nameless and expendable in terms of story. Our participation in Azeroth is largely one-sided and one-directional; after all, Warcraft fans don’t have the luxury of being able to relive the content of a previous expansion in the same way that broadcast or printed media can be repeatedly consumed. Thus, when Blizzard introduces content that significantly impacts our play experience (such as the Cataclysm expansion) we do not have the agency to reflect on it directly ingame, and therefore are required to develop our own avenues for doing so. For a bit of related reading on how (and why) we are driven to do this, I highly recommend Sam Leith’s comparison of WoW to Chartres cathedral in the Guardian a few years back:

[WoW] is rich in decorative detail, but the decorative detail is not the point. Azeroth’s architecture is a glorious space for glorious things to happen in. And, like a cathedral, it is above all a social space, for communal experience. [ . . . ] Art is increasingly consumed in isolation – through earplugs, on the computer, on demand. Yet there’s still a thirst for a communal experience of culture.

Fan art is often unfairly pooh-poohed as being lowbrow and derivative, but in this case, it is absolutely critical in terms of documenting the “communal experience” that Leith describes as being so paramount to Warcraft’s success. So, without any further ado, let’s start taking a look at some examples which excel at achieving this end. Today’s post features two pieces: Baron Soosdon’s 1.12.1/4.0.3/2019 and Jian Guo’s Journey of Faith.

Baron Soosdon, “1.12.1/4.0.3/2019”

Baron Soosdon’s machinima provides an avenue of catharsis for the conflicting emotions many players felt with the introduction of the post-Cataclysm world redesign. It commemorates what was seen as a key event in terms of the game’s “communal experience”; many players had developed attachments to aspects of WoW that had been at best heavily altered and at worst erased entirely with the introduction of the new expansion.  Our home, our “cathedral”, had been shaken and reshaped dramatically, and this was a lot to take on board.

Throughout the machinima, Baron Soosdon uses split-screen techniques to simultaneously juxtapose imagery of two PCs in various pre- and post-Cataclysm scenarios. The male is clad in tier 2, rides a ground mount, and visits an as-yet-unravaged Auberdine; the female wears tier 10, rides a flying mount, and stands atop the remains of Auberdine’s docks. The two characters do not interact with each other at any point — the only time we see them together in the same ‘timeline’ is in a photograph on the female’s desk. .

Following the scene with the photograph, we are confronted with a stripped-down framework of the Nexus whirling against a stark black background. The male paladin is “deleted” before our eyes; we watch the progress bar beneath him creeping towards completion as he is reduced to a wire frame and consequently disintegrates. Both of these scenes are harsh (almost mocking) reminders that we are in fact mourning a game — these characters are no more than pixels at their core, and it is we who give them meaning. Keeping that in mind, it may be unsurprising to find out that Baron Soosdon includes Blade Runner as an influence (and a tag on YouTube) for 1.12.1/4.0.3/2019, and his work leaves us questioning the extent to which we find ourselves blurring the lines between the “real” and the “virtual” by becoming so emotionally invested in the game world.

Leith has already pointed out that WoW’s popularity and longevity is due to largely in part to its ability to provide a vehicle to form meaningful emotional connections in a world that increasingly isolates us from one another–those who are familiar with Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? will recall that the so-called “empathy boxes” existed in an attempt to fill a similar need. (After all, no one watches Mercer Warcraft; that’s the whole point.) 1.12.1/4.0.3/2019 succeeds in terms of “communal experience” not only because of its function as a requiem for pre-Cataclysm Azeroth, but also because of its strength as a critique on the phenomenon of our attachment to it. It forces the viewer to acknowledge the implications behind their need for the catharsis they so desperately seek, and does not provide any easy answers.

Jian Guo, “Journey of Faith”

We’ve all been confronted with the dreaded situation where a friend decides to take a well-meaning interest in our beloved internet dragons and asks us the innocent question,”So, what’s the game all about?” The Warcraft universe is a densely knit web of plots so complex that not even its creators can keep all of it straight–and so, a typical reponse is to try and sum up a major story arc or two (all the while hoping you’ve chosen the “right” or “most interesting” one), link some key Wowpedia articles, and pray something sticks. Despite our best intentions, this haphazard approach does little justice to the intricacy of Warcraft itself, and in practice is rarely an effective way of encouraging someone who is unfamiliar with the story to engage with it a deeper level. The strength of Warcraft’s storyline lies in the broad appeal of its themes: order vs. chaos, ideological conflict, power plays, corruption, redemption. We want to share our memories of Azeroth with others and include them in our “communal experience”, but ironically we run the risk of alienating them because we can no longer see the forest for the trees.

Jian Guo, featured under the pseudonym breathing2004 on Blizzard’s official fan art gallery, manages to create paintings that emphasize these themes in a way that is accessible even to “fresh” viewers without oversimplifying and cheapening the stories themselves to the point where they become trite. Guo does this by distilling several of Warcraft’s best-known stories into vibrant visual synopses–and frankly, he does it so well that I want to have copies of them all on hand as visual aids for the next time an unsuspecting friend takes an interest in my beloved hobby. To most of Flavor Text’s readers, the subject matter of pieces such Journey of Faith (depicted below) is immediately recognizable–in this case, the painting depicts the history of the Draenei and their arrival in Azeroth. (Similar pieces in Guo’s portfolio include Blood Sunset, Ancient Wars,  and Crash of Empire; each is well worth looking at.)

Jian Guo, "Journey of Faith"

However, how would Journey of Faith appear to a viewer who is not familiar with the narrative? Suspending our own familiarity with the story momentarily, let’s examine Journey of Faith with fresh eyes. We can determine that the central figure occupies a position of importance in the story due to its central positioning and the reverent poses of the two figures flanking it. Additionally, the figure on the left hand side bears a strong resemblance to representations of demons in art, suggesting that he is the story’s main antagonist. The two figures in his palm indicate their subservience to him by genuflecting in his palm, and the fact that these kneeling figures are similar in appearance to that of the central figures suggests split allegiances among the people whose story is being depicted here. We may not be able to determine the topic of conversation between the figures meeting in the bottom and top right sections, but we can guess that this is a race who is largely averse to conflict with others by the fact that they are only seen brandishing their weapons against a creature who appears to be calling down lightning bolts on them.

While this is a largely skeletal and uninformed understanding of Draenei history, it is not an inaccurate one. Guo’s work bears an Azerothian veneer, but in terms of composition and iconography, Journey of Faith is deeply indebted to established visual devices (such as dramatic gestures) often seen in art forms specifically intended to act as a vehicle for storytelling. Several of Guo’s paintings are stylistically reminiscent of stained glass, and these “stained glass” paintings all utilize a sectional composition similar to that found on friezes such as this one  by Gislebertus on the tympanum of St Lazare Cathedral, Autun.

These characteristics are what lend Guo’s work its immediately “readable” quality; after all, both stained glass windows and sculptural friezes were used during the medieval period to communicate biblical stories to a largely illiterate population. Thus, someone who is “illiterate” in terms of the Warcraft canon can still find a piece like Journey of Faith accessible and participate in Leith’s “communal experience”. This inclusivity in Guo’s work is its strength-and, I imagine, why Blizzard chose to feature him in their gallery. Journey of Faith is very detailed, but that level of detail does not detract from the overall image. Guo rewards the viewer by progressively revealing its layers to the viewer as his or her involvement with WoW becomes more nuanced, but allows the viewer to do so in their own time. In doing so, the viewer is continually developing a “friendship”* not just with the painting, but with the story and thus the experience of being part of the Warcraft community.

In my next post, I’ll be examining the community more directly as I discuss character portraits, patronage and our search for identity. Until then, enjoy the long weekend!

(For more information on the relationship between art and its viewer, check out this page on the five stages of aesthetic development. Thanks again to Perc for pointing out this link–and Baron Soosdon’s vid–to me!)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. perculia permalink*
    May 30, 2011 6:13 am

    I love the selections you’ve chosen; I think it requires a certain type of courage to create art in response to WoW that deviates from the popular styles. An ‘epic’ action-style piece of art might be more recognizable/acceptable, but less personal, to some players. There’s also the pitfalls of fear/alienation that come with putting a personal response out there; I’m reminded of the convo snack and I had a few days back about creating intricate worlds in fanfic but concerned that our personal visions would be hard for outside readers to relate to (also problems with the internet as a medium for longish walls of text).

    I wish there were more outlets for the artists to relate their artwork to the larger issues for new/unfamiliar visitors (I love artist statements!) and I think stuff like your series and the WI fic-interviews are precisely what is needed. I don’t think WI can cover all of the videos in that vein because some include ‘adult’ material like Never Stay Tuned, so if you wanted to feature more here, that’s awesome 😉 Also, comedy responses to WoW might be a neat angle, considering the gravitas of the in-game world (interspersed with poop quests).

    As for the art itself– I’ve always been a fan of Baron (and for the more humorous side of things, Olibith). They do amazing effects in their videos, but I was most drawn to the little things like the custom posters and decorations, RL/WoW fusion elements like Azeroth TV, tributes to other artists. In the sillier stuff, the viewer gets a sense that Azeroth is a livable place instead of a clanking epic world, and in the serious stuff the black-and-white storylines are quite muddied. I brought up Unlimited Escapism V 0 on twitter yesterday as an influence in my fic; stuff like the dark atmosphere and gnome rogue/tattooed nelf are part of ut, but also how there are SO many references to friends/artists included–it’s really a personalized view of Azeroth.

    I wasn’t aware until you started this article that the artist had done Draenei, Troll, and Blood Elf stained glass windows. I love how the style is consistent, but with aesthetic tweaks to better suit each race. It’s probably a coincidence, but it’s fun comparing it to Disco Priest’s recent stained glass series for each class and how that medium is effective for WoW fanart. I could even take the parallel further and talk about how things like our banner art or our twitter background seem to capture WoW perfectly for us, even though it’s not the official-style fanart.

    Anyway it looks like the STAM email turned into a comment here 😉

  2. adornofangirl permalink
    May 30, 2011 8:47 am

    Absolutely gorgeous post!

  3. May 30, 2011 9:23 am

    It’s interesting that you raise the point of fanfic, Perc — that’s something I’m also planning to look at later on in the series; someone can theoretically write a story that in terms of lore is completely canon-friendly, and yet as you say an outside reader may find it hard to relate to (I’m hoping to touch on this tangentially in my upcoming character portrait post, too).

    And personally? I’d LOVE to see a curated gallery or show of Warcraft-related art. There’s an exhibit at the British Library going on right now about scifi ( which is getting a lot of attention, and I think it would be awesome to see someplace like the National Media Museum do something similar along these lines (they house the National Videogame Archive:

    I’m loving the WI interviews too; it’s been great to see what the winners’ process was and note the common ground among them all. Heh, maybe we should have this art feature be a regular thing like WI does; we can be the Cannes of WoW machinima. 😉

    And yeah, I love the RL/Azeroth mashup aspect you mention – it’s silly but clever; I like Daily Blink for pretty much the same reason.

  4. May 31, 2011 7:18 am

    I’d never seen Baron’s video, or Guo’s stained glass piece (though I had heard how fantastic it is), so first of all, huge thanks for sharing those! Even despite the point the video is getting across, it still conveys so much emotion, and the music used is so poignant that I found myself reading the rest of the post with that song running through my head and it was perfect.

    One of my favourite pre-Shattering videos was this one: Sadly, that was all he did 😦

  5. May 31, 2011 7:36 am

    I had not seen that video by the Baron before. It’s really well done, much like this post.

    I live near a museum of early American folk art, and it’s interesting to see how folk art develops. It’s in unexpected formats, sometimes crude, sometimes elegant, often surprising, and has an appeal all its own.

    Love the themes in this post, looking forward to where it goes!

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