In Shadowlands, Eternity’s End, World of Warcraft developers Steve Danuser and Morgan Day talk with Game Rant about world building and storytelling.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is gearing up for the release of Eternity’s End, its second and final major update. In order to find Zovaal the Jailer, heroes from both the Alliance and the Horde will journey to Zerith Mortis, a workshop realm used by the mysterious First Ones in the creation of the Shadowlands. Zertih Mortis holds secrets of creation that could bring change and enlightenment just as easily as death.
This article features an interview with World of Warcraft lead narrative designer Steve Danuser and lead game designer Morgan Day. They shared insights on telling a storey in an otherworldly location, and the difficult decisions that went into picking and choosing the stories they wished to tell. World of Warcraft was presented with an opportunity unlike any other in Shadowlands.
In the Realm of Death, Bringing World of Warcraft’s Story to Life
It’s difficult to tell a storey in a place like the Shadowlands. It’s difficult to strike a balance between recognisable and innovative content, and Shadowlands has struggled with this since its inception. World of Warcraft is, first and foremost, a game, but justifying game mechanics like transportation, crafting recipes, and food in this context proved to be a difficult task.
A good example of this are the portals found in Oribos that lead back to Orgrimmar and Stormwind. While the Shadowlands hub city is ostensibly present to provide convenience for players, NPCs such as Lordaeron refugees Emma Felstone and Philia Fintallas, as well as tauren paladin Sunwalker Dezco, who seeks the souls of his deceased wife and child, can be found there. The idea that any old baker could go to the afterlife and sell their wares is enough to make your head spin.
The Warcraft universe is vast, far larger than any single game or book could possibly cover. “There’s so much we want to discover,” Day explained. “Some are asking, ‘Can the bread guy walk through the portal?'” We don’t always get the chance to respond to those questions.” Nonetheless, the development teams have done everything they can to demonstrate “this slice that is most appropriate to the type of game that World of Warcraft is,” as Danuser put it. He stated that World of Warcraft tells its storey by relying on every aspect of the development team – from the main plot to hidden cameos, and even peculiar crafting recipes and foods – and invites players to muse on questions they don’t have the opportunity to answer.
World of Warcraft’s approach has worked well for some. Shadowlands’ veritable zoo of wonders provides plenty to consume, and many are content to take what they find and fill in the blanks. Shadowlands’ storytelling has fallen short for some. These players are dissatisfied with surface-level answers, and are even irritated when those answers raise new questions.
They want to know how those portals affect the bakers of Stormwind, and they believe World of Warcraft has taken on too much with Shadowlands.
Regardless, Shadowlands is coming to an end, and Eternity’s End represents the pinnacle of this storey arc. Whatever happens next will hopefully learn from both the positive and negative aspects of Shadowlands in order to create something even more powerful. With the conclusion of these character arcs and cosmic mysteries, Danuser and the World of Warcraft team will be able to begin something new.
Choosing From the Ensemble Cast of World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft has a plethora of characters to draw from its nearly 30-year history. Worse, an expansion set in the afterlives opens the door even wider, as dead characters are no longer excluded. The most difficult decision World of Warcraft had to make with Shadowlands was deciding which characters to include in the storey.
“We wanted to choose a cast that we felt was pivotal to these events, that would have some unexpected perspectives,” Danuser explained. “There’s only so much time to feature characters, so we had to make some decisions and say, ‘OK, we’ll let some of these other ones wait for now.'” Shadowlands had to pick and choose who to focus on, balancing major existing characters, Shadowlands originals, and expected faces.
In Shadowlands, this approach has resulted in an unprecedented experience. Recognizable characters such as Vashjj, Draka, and Alexandros Mograine have proven to be crowd pleasers, with Shadowlands providing levels of characterization that would be impossible in a standard expansion, as well as new characters such as Renathal, Merelith, and Pelagos who have proven to be fan favourites. However, some living characters with strong ties to the Shadowlands main cast, such as Tyrande’s husband Malfurion Stormrage and Anduin’s mentor Velen, have gone missing. Other deceased characters, such as Battle for Azeroth’s beloved Varok Saurfang or Anduin’s father, former High King Varian Wrynn, could have added to the storey. Many people have been affected by these absences.
While everyone agrees that World of Warcraft only has a limited amount of time to tell a storey, not everyone will be satisfied with which characters are able to play a role. Though Eternity’s End will conclude the main storey of the expansion, Danuser suggests that a few other characters will appear in epilogues and in the build-up to the next expansion.