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Worldbuilding: Harry Potter and WoW

August 11, 2011

A few weeks ago, I attended a Harry Potter themed party, in which the town square was transformed into Hogwarts with costumes, theme food, music, and Quidditch matches. As I navigated crowds of Death Eaters and Hufflepuffs, my visiting boyfriend made confused remarks about the crowd. His imaginary world favors the Illuminati over Hogwarts wizards, so for a brief moment I thought I’d have to explain the entire series to him. I grew up without a TV or much outside media, so he’s patiently had to explain basic pop-culture concepts to me before.

My description ran like this: there was a popular book series turned into a film, the last film just came out, hence the reason for a party. Takes place at a school for wizards, where kids are divided up into schools, kind of like Alliance and Horde, but end up working together for a greater goal—sometimes.

At this point, he stopped me and said he was simply confused about some of the wrock lyrics. Yes, of course he knew the series, wizards and stuff, too much Quidditch.

Then we found a restaurant and the conversation ended, but I kept mulling over why I made that connection to WoW.

Worldbuilding

The New York Times wrote an article about the 20-something year old fans of Harry Potter; the mood was nostalgic, noting how flasks and cigarettes littered the line for a movie based on a children’s book. The sense was that it’s time to move on: one person interviewed said that she promised to look for a job when the last movie came out.

It’s been over six years since WoW came out—not as long as the period between Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone and the last film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, but longer than the time most consumers spend in high school or college. Come November, WoW will be seven years old; some players will have been playing as long as the protagonists have attended Hogwarts. Former guilds that called college-age players to log on at 3am for green dragons are now filled with those same players who need to stop raiding at 11;30pm for work the next day.

Both WoW and Harry Potter have served as gateway items to their respective mediums, even though the general public’s opinion of book-reading vs video games is much different. Personally, I grew up with reading as the only form of entertainment, so at first I wasn’t interested in Harry Potter. I knew all of the cultural references, and having grown up among teachers, reading more about school wasn’t appealing. But I was very interested in WoW because video-games were forbidden growing up, and this seemed like a fairly accessible game that some of my friends were already playing. Of course, there’s a backlash to gateway products; you’re ignorant, you can’t appreciate quality, you’re the lowest common denominator, you’re an obsessive fan instead of truly moving on and appreciating finer products.

Products that can inspire a sincere reaction among people in an age of irony are valuable though. It moves beyond an issue of quality into examining a social phenomenon.

What both mediums have provided is an immersive universe. The earlier Harry Potter books and vanilla questing experience in WoW weren’t perfect—too repetitive, too digressive–but they laid the foundation for a very engaging world, which in turn hooked a lot of people. We fell in love with the minutiae and then were swept along by an epic conflict. In the review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Mahnola Dargis commented on how even cheesy elements, like a dragon, became likeable with a personality soon after their introduction. People wanted to belong to a slightly similar, yet infinitely more magical and epic world, even if they were a nobody on the sidelines, turning in silk cloth to the AQ war effort. Livejournal communities popped up that mimicked House competitions and the Sorting Hat, in which users got “sorted” into one of the four Harry Potter houses and participated in contests; that seems to be a rudimentary version of an MMO like WoW, where players choose races and classes that determine their later actions and philosophies.

Which brings me back to the snap comment I made about the Alliance and Horde representing Gryffindor and Slytherin in my head. I am pretty sure any Slytherin would protest to being associated with most of the bloodthirsty Horde, but in the context of both universes, both races are seen on the surface as superficially evil. Sylvanas and the plague, Garrosh constantly putting his foot in his mouth, badass SPIKES and PLAGUE and troll CANNABALISM oh my! While the Alliance is at least polite in subtly destroying relations in a civilized manner. You’ve even got the lion and scorpion mounts to drive the dichotomy home. Say that the neutral factions like the Cenarion Circle are Ravenclaw, and our player characters, happily bouncing around unrelated to the plot are Hufflepuff, and you’ve got the four houses covered.

The faction pride that pops up on the official forums seems just as idiotic as the Gryffindor vs Slytherin conflict in the books. In small doses, it can add flavor to the world. In larger doses, it can detract. Maybe there was something behind my throwaway comment after all.

Plot Arcs

As Harry Potter has gradually moved from describing Quidditch matches to the full-out battle in HP7, a natural crescendo, WoW has provided endless plot loops for players. Such is the nature of the medium—there is only one HP series, without plans for a sequel, but WoW must rely upon new plot hooks and epic clashes each patch. It’s difficult to keep a player’s attention for that long, in a constant state of alert.

Yet occasionally, in spite of goblins and orcs mowing down the Ashenvale forest, everyone joins together in a gesture of solidarity—currently, to save Hyjal and the World Tree. And that’s powerful. For me, it hit home when I zoned into Mount Hyjal, seeing the Alliance and Horde bases fighting waves of enemies, concluding with the wisps destroying Archimonde. For others, it could be seeing the statue of Humans and Orcs pop up in Dalaran after the defeat of the Lich King. When an environment of tension is established and then jostled by solidarity, it’s effective. The obvious parallel is how in the later HP books, it’s less about the petty rivalries and more about everyone fighting for their lives against Voldemort, with surprising sacrifices and plot twists. As the HP posters drive home, on 7.15.11, “it all ends.” Except in WoW, defeating the end boss means “it all ends…” until the next patch.

The blood elves and draenei were given a one-time plot arc in The Burning Crusade and then relegated to the sidelines. Outlands, a sub-zone often praised for having well-paced plots and interesting narratives, remained untouched in Cataclysm’s quest makeover. Players questing in Outlands and the Draenei and Blood Elf starter zones find themselves transported back in time several years, battling Kael’thas and Illidan’s forces. Shattrath city is still a hotbed of tension between the Scryers, Aldors, and war-torn refugees. At the time when this content was current, players praised the flow of Black Temple, in which the Broken under Akama are gradually freed and offer aid to raiders, as well as the ambiguous ending with Maiev, an obsessed warden, admitting defeat even in her final victory. Sunwell, while poorly designed and the death of many raiding guilds, did contain an epic ending with Prophet Velen, Lady Liadrin, Kalecgos, and Anveena present. When the burst of blinding light flooded the screen at the end of the encounter, it symbolically cleaned the plot slate for Wrath of the Lich King. M’uru had been redeemed, the Sunwell was purified, justice was served. (Interestingly enough, the one decision to ‘extend’ the life of a character, reviving Kael’Thas in a weakened state for a 5-player instance, met with criticism.)

The plot of Burning Crusade was concise and effective. But to level 58 players, the thought of having to “go back to Outlands” isn’t a fun one. Here lies the conflict between effective storytelling and the effective shelf-life of content.

When WoW tried something different in tier 9 with Trial of the Crusader, in which the Alliance and Horde forces fought each other to prepare for the Lich King,it tanked. Players thought it made no sense how the factions decided to spill their own blood instead of plotting against the Scourge. Top this off with an end-boss nobody knew much about solely from in-game interactions, Anub’Arak, and the entire tier wasn’t effective. If players had read War of the Spider, they would have known that Anub’Arak was a tragic leader, forced to serve The Lich King against his will after the Nerubians, a sophisticated underground culture, narrowly lost to the Scourge.

To many players, defeating the Lich King was WoW’s Voldemort. Even if you didn’t play a race directly affected by the Scourge, he’d been a major figure for years and his in-game destruction was always apparent. While the Forsaken possess a decidedly unethical streak, the heart-tugging stories of average loyal subjects transformed into Forsaken, not to mention the environmental destruction of Lordaeron, was a daily visceral reminder of the Lich King’s destruction. Fighting in Icecrown Citadel led to the death of figures both minor and major the Alliance and Horde—-Bolvar, Saurfang the Younger, the minor NPCs in Pa’troll. Even with the Gunship scuffle, defeating the bosses in Icecrown Citadel as well as the three new 5-player instances felt like it transcended politics.

And then Cataclysm hit with all renovated zones, even more environmental destruction, and more pronounced petty conflicts between the Alliance and the Horde. And the cycle begins again. This time, the questing emphasizes the player as hero, even though, as Ilaniel wrote in her player-character series, Blizzard believes in the quasi-existance of player-characters. Many aspects of the destroyed zones were subtly referenced in avenues like archaeology, but between all the upheaval and glorified one-track questing, is the world still that immersive? Cynwise recently wrote a post on the Forsaken–while they’re interesting from a philosophical standpoint, it’s uncomfortable to roll a new one and be forced into a very narrow plot parameter, one that’s alienating if you haven’t heard the tragic stories of the first-generation Forsaken. Some of which, like the story of Jeremiah Payson, the cockroach vendor, are now forever lost.

Perhaps it’s time for some of us to graduate, nearing our seven years at Hogwarts, if each patch is like a theme-park rollercoaster instead of an engaging narrative. The element of repetition couldn’t be further emphasize in this patch, with Ragnaros, the earliest end-game boss, making a repeat appearance at the end of Firelands.

Cataclysm: The Fanfic Expansion

Some readers were bothered by the addition of an epilogue to HP7; they preferred to leave the series open-ended, coming to their own conclusions as to who ended up with who, the fate of Hogwarts, and even if the houses existed in the future after furthering so many stereotypes. (And hey, the Sorting Hat is pretty biased—Gryffindor gets the best description out of the deal.) The epilogue was a damper to some readers, but it motivated many fans to finally voice their AU thoughts; in a similar way, the movie’s ‘definitive’ image inspired fans to further creativity, instead of dampening their efforts. Time Magazine recently covered the phenomenon of Harry Potter fanfiction in “The Boy Who Lived Forever”, chronicling how fanfiction allows fans to react to popular culture on their own terms. If you’ve participated in HP fanfic, you know how deep the rabbit hole goes, and if you’re a newcomer, let’s just say that the rising popularity of the series at a time of increasing internet accessibility among youth led to a massive writing explosion.

And that’s I think what’s kept me sane in Cataclysm so far. Taken on their own, the quest changes in Cataclysm present a diluted and one-track heroic path for the player to take instead of presenting an engaging universe the player can gradually settle into. It doesn’t leave much room for imagination and if I began playing in Cataclysm, I’m not sure I’d be that interested in continuing. In Cataclysm, I wrote down a lot of stories that were milling around in my head from earlier patches, some in locations that are now lost. What interests me, in weaving these stories, is a desire to record what is meaningful—in-game friendships, the personality quirks of other players, accomplishments I’ve been proud of, open-ended stories that deserve elaboration.

Perc, being my first character, is a bit complicated. She’s a study in ancient bitterness, a rogue that’s survived events more ethical elves did not. Typical bad seed, violet-haired and violently-tempered, if the rumors are fiercer than the actual person, so much the better. She’s been a spy for many years under Shandris, attempted to become a demon hunter but withdrew for several reasons, and has a love/hate relationship with pre-Sundering aristocracy. She’s very good at controlling situations, but a knife isn’t always the best solution. You can get a sense of her ethics in action in Doomsday; and learn more about her aborted demon-hunter training in Reclaiming Karabor. Her gentleman-friend, for lack of a better word, that always wants to remain happily reclusive with his poisons and bombs, is loosely based on my boyfriend’s original character, now on one of my accounts. His character’s name doesn’t really fit my fic universe, but I haven’t found a name that really clicks, so he’s got a different name in every story. C’est la vie.

My priest was a mage, not from the highest caste, who retreated to Eldre’Thelas instead of risking societal disapproval and further hurting her opportunities. Along the way, she was corrupted by Immo’thar and turned into a shadow priest, similar to how Princess Natalia was corrupted by C’thun. It’s a chance for her, in Cataclysm, to leave Dire Maul and interact with a world she left on angry and scared terms. My mage, an architect who fled Suramar after early riots, lived in a hermetic state for years in Desolace, hiding her past from any visitors. She’s also a rift on Arpazia, from Tanith Lee’s White as Snow, a retelling of Snow White. She’s back in Cataclysm, jostled out of her pleasant denial by her partner swallowed up in the Emerald Dream, and she’s now learning how not to be a snob and perfectionist. My DK embodies the disconnect many players felt in Wrath, about being the ‘wrong’ race and sidelined in the Arthas conflict. She’s a night elf, trapped as a ghost with her Sentinel division in Silithus, who was raised with the necromantic attacks across Azeroth. She’s now a workaholic for the Sentinels again, creating battle tactics and new ways to inflict pain at all hours. All three of them show up in The Greater Mysteries, a story about rebuilding after Cata, and the mage, priest, and Perc figure heavily in Tragedy in Three Acts, a prequel on ailing pre-Sundering culture in the style of Roman histories. (I debated placing my characters in HP houses for a light-hearted analysis, but that fell short when Perc is effectively a squib. But these stories deserve further analysis, in a future article.)

Now none of these character types are catgirl vampires that are children of Jaina and Arthas. But they also don’t fit in perfectly with the airtight lore presented in Cataclysm. It’s something I’ve needed to do though, lest WoW turns into “too much Quidditch” and not enough world-building for me. I’m very interested in presenting multiple perspectives on history, elaborate plot structures, characters with historical allusions, and above all, characters that go against the grain of traditional expectations in WoW. In the prologue to one fic, I play around with the in-game story behind some Night Elf artifacts, and in another, I touch upon a blue poster’s concerns that Desolace is too cheery in Cataclysm. Most fics flesh out minor NPCs and as for the original characters, I enjoy showcasing both their talents and insecurities.

Here’s one last fic I’ve done, for Catulla’s birthday. In it, I’ve incorporated her in-game character, a NPC she’s written about before, my own characters, and some real-life jokes we share. It was great fun to write and captured the social atmosphere that keeps us both playing.

There’s a bit of a stigma about sharing stories. They’re mostly presented in a self-deprecating light, that they’re not worth sharing due to lore oversights or original characters nobody cares about or non-epic stories of daily life. Relating to your characters, whether it’s via a fic or a MLP generator or always using a special title, is one core reason so many people find the game enjoyable.

Conclusion

With epic quests like the Fallen Hero of the Horde replaced by the NPCs humorously blown up with snarky flavor text on their body parts and Veteran of the Shifting Sands an achievement of the past, we have to scratch at the surface, or else the world is too facile. I view the current questlines as featured stories, popular fanfic. I’m not sure Blizzard is overjoyed I view it as such, but it works to keep me hooked. The influences behind my fic styles–Margaret Atwood, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter–are not related to Blizzard’s universe, but it keeps it personal for me.

Many players have complained that the Molten Front dailies burn them out. Others have complained about reused content—Ragnaros, Zul’Aman, Zul’Gurub. If WoW was a book, the series would have ended with the death of Illidan or Arthas. Cataclysm would be a dystopic “after the storm” fanfic, read by players who were quite familiar with WoW’s universe. Except Cataclysm is an expansion consumed by millions of players, in which very narrow paths are presented after widespread world upheaval. Between the repetitive content and one-track quests, characters are stuck in endless loops.

The legacy of Harry Potter is the universe and customs that remained constant across the series—in spite of the bloodshed and war, the basic framework remains which continues to keep related communities going. It came to a graceful end after the completed plot arc–new sites like Pottermore only serve to elaborate on the past manuscripts. WoW, being a different medium, cannot simply close the curtain after the death of a major lore figure. It needs to keep going, as well as adding fresh components, but it’s certainly a challenge when narrative conventions aren’t the solution.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Prfct permalink
    August 12, 2011 10:09 am

    Great reading!

  2. August 12, 2011 3:58 pm

    Pretty much amazing. <3

  3. September 28, 2011 2:46 am

    A great read as I am coming to know. I loved the social cross references to how we have grown up on WoW for seven years through three major expansions, tons of new storylines to walk out, and how having aged ourselves that impact that might have on sticking around for the next chapter.

    The post begs a thoughtful question. Has the game we once loved so dearly become nothing more then a recalled period of nostalgia, or is there still more story to be told and for us to get lost in?

    I have to agree the overall story arc has at times seemed to deadend following the epic demises of Illidan and Arthas. And now with the soon to be Deathwing chapter closing, it leaves the community wondering where will we go from here. Honestly I pray and hope that the next expansion will play off the rich untold possiblities of the Emerald Dream to both rebuild the world and offer a little bit of peace while serving up the Nightmare for another confrontation.

    We will just have to see, and perhaps Blizzard will tap into all the creative minds from the player base to continue to create enticing stories to be told and walked out.

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