WoW: NPC deaths and helpless heroes

I was shown a snippet of yesterday’s The Queue column on Blizzard Watch; the answer to the second question got me thinking about a problem I’ve had with the storytelling in this expansion: that of frequent and sudden NPC deaths. This post will be spoilerific if you’ve not played the original four levelling zones of the Legion expansion, you have been warned…

Val’sharah, or it’s raining NPC deaths

This zone is what really bothers me about Legion. It should be my favourite zone on paper, it’s the first proper engagement with Night Elf society since Vanilla WoW and has a ton of druidic stuff going on. But for the zone story Blizzard decided to full tilt with the high-drama. It’s emotionally draining, in a bad way, to play through the story if I pay any attention to it.

First we lose Cenarius to the Emerald Dream, without any real chance to try to save him or to do anything about it. Then Ysera is corrupted by Xavius in an instant – no struggle or attempt at resisting this; in one cutscene she goes from motivating force of the plot to yet another victim.

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Finally Malfurion is also captured, and the natural assumption at this point would be that he too will die, at least we eventually get to release him alive. I was pretty angry with the writers by the point we got to the dungeon, Darkhearth Thicket; honestly if they killed Malfurion off as well I might have ragequit the expansion in the first zone!

Stormheim, old habits die hard

I shall not discuss the heinous murder of the wild Moonkin (the Blackfeather tribe) in this zone; suffice it to say it’s yet another sudden and meaningless (mass) NPC death for dramatic effect.

Otherwise the zone is better than Val’sharah. There are, however, some moments where the writers rely on an old Blizzard storytelling device, the “NPC freezes you with a spell so he can rant at you”. Arthas did this throughout the Wrath of the Lich King expansion so that he could berate his henchmen in front of us. This comes back with bells on for start of the Helya/Helheim segment of the zone as we get stunned by some random cultist and ‘slain’ or otherwise forced into the vrykul death plane.

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That really irked me as a plot device, this unknown NPC pops up and hand-waves the party into the afterlife without breaking a sweat! I do really like the design of Helheim though, so at least I enjoy the rest of the segment once that silly bit is over.

Highmountain, this time with meaning

NPCs do die in Highmountain as well, but I feel the writing is better here and there’s more meaning to their deaths. In stark contrast to Val’sharah, in Highmountain we have some time to interact with and get to know the NPCs that die. They’re normal tauren so their deaths are both more believable. The fact that normal tauren are fighting alongside us heroes against a powerful foe with a crazy-powerful artifact makes their sacrifice that much more poignant, I feel.

Poor Oro

Poor Oro

So by the end of Highmountain I was feeling better about the expansion overall.

Azsuna, a nice balance

Azsuna as a zone is more positive in tone I feel. There’s some NPC redemption and some sacrifice but both are developed at a better pace and feel more meaningful to me than the insta-death drama of the other zones.

Don't you dare kill this dragon!

Don’t you dare kill this dragon!

The Prince Farondis arc is a story that ends with the titular noble being redeemed in his people’s eyes. There are a few “freeze the hero and rant at them” moments mind, but at least NPCs aren’t dying needlessly while we watch on.

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That’s rather uplifting and a contrast to the tragic tale of Runas the Shamed. I was very impressed by the writing for that NPC story. He dies in a non-dramatic fashion, it is rather sudden but not unexpected at that point in the arc. But you’ve had him with you as a temporary companion for a while by then so you’ve had a chance to get to know him, and like in Highmountain this is some normal Nightfallen NPC, so his bravery and sacrifice are rather touching. Finally there’s also Senegos, the old blue dragon. This NPCs story arc is also refreshingly positive – it seemed to me on our first playthrough that at several junctures his imminent death for dramatic effect was coming, but thankfully this dragon was spared.

So overall the expansion isn’t too bad, but Val’sharah and parts of Stormheim could have been written better I believe. It’s fine for events to happen that we cannot prevent or solve right away. But the writers themselves show in other zones that there are other ways to evoke empathy or a sense of loss in players other than the heavyhanded culling of legendary figures or hand-waving our presence into meer spectatorship.

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2 Responses to WoW: NPC deaths and helpless heroes

  1. Shintar says:

    I think the new zone is called Azsuna? Azshara is that autumnal place north of Orgrimmar…

    The dead NPC thing is interesting to me because personally I think that since around Cataclysm WoW has had a bit of a problem with what I’d call “story balance”. I’ve frequently accused it of having become too silly, what with whole zones full of pop culture references (new Westfall, new Redridge), but others have claimed the opposite, pointing at the amount of bodies that have been piling up since Cata as a sign of an increasingly dark and dreary World of Warcraft. I suppose both is true, and what’s lacking is the ordinary middle – the stuff that portrays a world that has problems but is otherwise simply a nice and interesting place to spend time in. Things are either supremely silly, or – to emphasise that this story is not silly but serious business – supremely deadly.

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