*WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the story of World of Warcraft and its recent expansion Shadowlands.*
I’m a big WoW lore fan. Even the recent expansions where the writers have essentially jumped the shark have had some good moments in them. I like talking about the lore with other WoW fans and I can’t even count the hours spent theorising about the meaning of small paragraphs in quest text.
World of Warcraft is on a similar scale to comic books and Marvel movies in terms of its depth of lore and its massive cast of interesting villains. However, the WoW writing team has had a recent obsession with the biggest of bads in Warcraft’s cosmology known as ‘The Void.’
In the briefest description I can manage, The Void is the influence of ‘Shadow.’ Light and Shadow are the two ultimate opposing forces. That eternal conflict is what allows the multiverse to keep on existing so while we, as players, might vanquish Old God after Old God and eventually a Voidlord or two we will have no way of ever truly winning the war against Shadow because if we did the universe would cease to exist. (As far as we know.)
Every WoW expansion has had some level of void influence on the story or setting. Burning Crusade and Legion’s big bad guys may have been demons and people fighting demons but the soul reason the Burning Crusade exists is to destroy the universe in order to stop the void from tainting it in a similar Thanos kind of way. Drastic action to stop ultimate destruction.
Wrath of the Lich King saw us fighting Yogg-Saron the second most powerful Old God that Azeroth has encountered. Vanilla WoW it was C’Thun and the recent Battle For Azeroth had N’Zoth the weakest old god but also the sneakiest and possibly the most influential. Without N’Zoth we wouldn’t have had the naga, Illidan wouldn’t have been able to summon the Naga to fight Arthas and by proxy save and grant vengeance to the Sin’Dorei. (Blood Elves)
So right now we’re in a pretty Old Godless Azeroth. As far as our current lore knowledge is aware there are no Old Gods imprisoned or hiding on Azeroth. I’ve got to be honest here and say that I was glad when Shadowlands was announced and seemed to be completely Void free. Yet low and behold in the FIRST questing zone of Shadowlands we happen to find out that the void has the ability to influence and attack the parallel dimension where souls go when they die in the physical realm. There’s currently no explanation of how they manage to do this but I’m sure Blizzard will fart something half-arsed out to justify reusing a, frankly, incredibly boring antagonist.
Warcraft has always been flush with dozens of potentially interesting threats to life on Azeroth. Ragnaros the Fire Lord, the living embodiment and god of the element of fire within Azeroth’s elemental plane. Nefarian the lord of the Black Dragons. Kel’Thuzad the second in command of the Scourge, the greatest threat Azeroth had ever faced since the Orcs. Garrosh Hellscream a racist dictator intent on taking the Horde back to its primal roots of murdering anything that wasn’t Orc.
A personal favourite of mine and many WoW fans is Arthas Menethil. A man so driven by the need for vengeance and the safety of his people that he was driven mad and twisted to fit the needs of the very monsters he sought to destroy. Now with Shadowlands out we’re also told to expect a little more information on just what were The Lich King’s plans and the cataclysmic end to Azeroth he sought to prevent.
But why exactly is Arthas so loved by fans? Because he is a good villain. He was first a hero that we slowly had to watch (And participate in) him becoming a callous, uncaring traitor and eventually to the most powerful mortal being to have ever walked Azeroth. Because we were with him through almost all of his life we couldn’t help but root for him even in his mad pursuit for vengeance. Worse still, oftentimes we agreed with him!
The turning point for Arthas came at Stratholme. The city’s populace had already consumed the tainted grain and been infected with the plague of undeath that would see them turned into mindless servants to the scourge. We as the player knew, just like Arthas, that there was no hope for these poor people and that the city had to be purged. Uther and Jaina’s moral compass wouldn’t allow them to slaughter innocent people even if they were doomed and we the player didn’t get to make a choice as to what path we chose in the game, we simply sided with Arthas because he was the hero of that story and worst of all, because he was right.
Features of a good villain
21 times New York Best Selling Author Jerry Jenkins gives us a handy list of features that make a good villain on his blog. And while he says not all of these are mandatory, it doesn’t take long to see similarities between this list and our main man Menithil. The first and foremost being “He’s convinced he’s the good guy.” As Arthas falls to villainhood he never ceases to think he is doing the right thing. That what he is doing is the best thing for his kingdom and its people. He slaughters the innocents of Stratholme because he thinks it’s mercy rather than let them be risen as the undead. He sacrifices the life of one of his own friends to retrieve a weapon that might turn the tide of the battle because the threat is too great.
“He’s clever and accomplished enough that people must lend him begrudging respect.” Even once Arthas has fallen and risen as The Lich King it is undeniable his skill in not only combat but warfare. He manages to turn a ravenous swarm of hungering undead into a precise and devastating army that very nearly brought the kingdoms of Azeroth to ruin. So much so that he actually expected the heroes of Azeroth to reach his throne. He intended to kill them and raise them as the most powerful champions of the scourge that would be turned against their former allies. It was all his plan. But unfortunately for him, no king rules forever.
I mentioned Thanos earlier on in the article and Thanos, or at least movie Thanos, is a great example of a good villain. (Comic Thanos less so because he killed billions simply to impress a woman.) My fiancée described him perfectly as an eco-terrorist to the max.
Thanos saw the dark road the galaxy was taking. He saw that overpopulation was threatening all life and that we were quickly running out of time to enact solutions that were more morally good. The time for action was now and Thanos knew what needed to be done. The galaxy was already doomed and the only solution was to purge half of the living creatures in the entire galaxy with the power of the infinity stones. No matter how you shake it, Thanos is right. That is the quickest and best solution to the problem. But it isn’t morally right. That’s what makes him a good villain, the fact that even for just a millisecond you might think “But he’s right.”
A similar villain in video games is Saren Arterius from Mass Effect 1. He is so scared of the threat the Reapers pose. He has lost all faith in the galaxy’s ability to defend against such a powerful threat that he resorts to the only thing he can think of. Joining the enemy. If Saren can prove that at least a few biological creatures can be useful to this machine god race then maybe, just maybe some of us can survive. Saren sees the situation in black and white. Either join them and maybe some of us will survive or fight them and die together. Once again, Saren isn’t wrong in the way he is thinking but he’s sacrificing so much for so little.
What The Void lacks
Moving back to World of Warcraft, the problem with The Void is there’s nothing to agree or sympathise with. The Void wants to control/destroy the universe simply because they can and they don’t want the Light to have it. Yes the void may have agents and subjects that do have a purpose to their attacks but ultimately the void seeks only destruction and an end to life. What’s exciting about that?
Sure the Void is threatening and make a good morally uncomplicated enemy for players to get behind but the void isn’t going to get anyone to think about their actions. The Void isn’t going to get you to question if fighting them is worth it. Queen Azshara is a similar character to Saren in her portrayal. She gives up her people to the void so that they might live rather than die and be forgotten. However, she is doing it for the selfish reason that she wants to be powerful and doted upon forever where Saren genuinely was trying to save as many people as he could.
The power of good writing
The biggest problem for WoW’s writing team is escalation. At this point, the players have beaten a Titan birthed from the remains of the planet known as Argus and Titans are supposedly the most powerful beings in the physical universe. So moving on from that to fight just a dude with a big army might feel a little lacklustre in some people’s eyes.
To that, however, I say nay! If the writing is good, the power level of the villain does not matter. Blizzard seems to (maybe) be doing this with Sylvannas but again she is doing what she’s doing purely for selfish reasons. She wants to live forever. Her origins and reasoning behind these things may be sad and sympathetic but it doesn’t change the fact that she set fire to a giant tree-killing thousands, if not, millions of night elves simply to maybe change the cycle of life and death.
Chris Robinson said in a Polygon interview back in 2016 that they are continuing to plan for “lots of baddies that we need to build up over time.” This was in relation to the Legion expansion and their plans after that, however the following two expansions have featured either the same old villains or a brand new one.
Battle for Azeroth had the old gods (again) and Shadowlands has The Jailer. While some might retort saying that we also have Sylvanas but “built up over time.” doesn’t really fit Sylvanas’ arch. With an almost complete 180 on her views on not only the Horde but her own people within the same expansion that’s not really taking the time to develop a character. In fact in Before The Storm, the prequel book to Battle for Azeroth literally has Sylvanas contemplating how to better serve her people. So we’re supposed to accept that in just over 1 year she went from wanting to do anything for her people to not caring about any of them?
I’m not going to pretend to have all the solutions but all I will say is that World of Warcraft has some amazing lore and some amazing writers at its disposal. Not everything has to be related to the void in some way. If everything is related to the void eventually people are just going to think “Well why bother killing this agent of the void? They’re just going to fart out an even more powerful one next expansion.”
We need a break from The Void. A real one. I would honestly love to see Blizzard challenge themselves and go an entire expansion without mention of either A) The Void or B) The Burning Legion. Just one. Because I guarantee that by the time that expansion is over with we will have a myriad of new and exciting avenues to explore that don’t end in us fighting another Cthulhu rip off.
World of Warcraft is one of the few games to have the shear amount of lore and depth that it has and right now we’re seeing it ignored in favour of randomly killing off core characters and easy one-dimensional villains and it breaks my heart to see it happen.