Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Persistence of Change

(in the World of Warcraft)

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them -- that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. --- Lao Tzu

   Lao Tzu, author of the Tao de Ching, was certainly a wise man, but the changes he suggests we accept are, of course, those which occur in the real world. "Let reality be reality" may be great advice (if a touch esoteric) for someone experiencing a life-altering transition, but it's difficult to apply it to the non-reality of a virtual world.
   We players of WoW and other massive multiplayer online games have it made. We inhabit a world with definitive rules and systems. Paths to success and achievement are clearly demarcated. Yet, just as some do in the real world, we often feel a sense of entitlement. We want the world of Azeroth to be just the way WE want it to be. And when things change -- and they often do -- we players have a tendency to whine and moan and wax nostalgic and curse and froth and swear up and down that our glasses are not rose-tinted.
   No changes to our pixelated world have caused nearly as much as controversy as those which came with the Cataclysm expansion, which sundered entire zones and left old, familiar places broken, burning, and in ruins. You would think that after having our entire world remade, we would have learned to accept change, to be like Lao Tzu and "let things flow naturally." But, no. Recent events which have left the Vale of Eternal Blossoms tainted and despoiled have once again stirred up the argument of how much change is good.

It's full of cracks...

   When Cataclysm went live, I logged in on various low-level characters to experience the changes firsthand rather than take a flying tour with one of my mains. I was excited that the world was being redone and looked forward to many of the alterations I had read about (though I was apprehensive about some -- I'm looking at you, Azshara!).
   I started off in Darkshore on a Night Elf Mage who was not even level 20 yet. The devastation around the Ruins of Auberdine, where I had been happily questing just a few weeks before, was tragic, and I was immediately immersed in this new storyline. I wished I had actually witnessed the storms that had so ravaged the coastline -- was the Deathwing cinematic meant to be my only transition to this new Azeroth? -- but it didn't matter: I had to save these people and find those who had gone missing in the chaos!

   Still, as I began to make my way over the upheavals of this new landscape, past the raging waters that roiled through the abundant cracks and fissures which marred these once gentle coastlands, the thought that became foremost in my mind was, "Damn, it sure is a lot harder to get around!" Throughout Darkshore, there was no longer an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. You had to go down into a crevice, then hope to find egress, a path to ascend out from this crack in the earth. There were just too many sheer edges. No problem if you're flying over, but no fun for a lowbie on foot.
   A bit frustrated, I stopped questing and decided to just go sightseeing. I set my sights on the giant vortex which was spinning on the horizon, uprooted trees whirling around in its ferocious winds. I had read that Malfurion Stormrage was attempting to contain the storm, and I looked forward to finally meeting such a renowned lore figure. When I first approached the storm, I did let out an audible gasp, but as I scampered up closer, it suddenly seemed very static. I felt unaffected by its presence, when I should have felt overwhelmed. It was like a set piece. And the great Malfurion seemed like no more than a figure in a wax museum.
   "Hi, Malfurion," I wanted to say. "I've read a lot about you. Anything I can do to help out?"
   "Oh, don't worry about me," he seemed to reply, "I've got this thing.
   "In fact, I'll probably have it for the next ten years."

   And that was something that slowly dawned on me, after I continued my travels to Ashenvale. As I listened to some brash fire elemental yelling invective at all nearby, while the mini volcano behind him burbled out lava across a very tiny region, I realized that even though Blizzard had "fixed" the old world by redoing quest lines and updating story elements, they had also "broken" it.
   Now, no matter how many future expansions come out to advance the story, most of Azeroth will forever be stuck in these skirmishes with the Elementals. The Twilight Cult will perpetually be attempting to bring about the end of the world. We will always be at war with Deathwing.
   It all just seemed rather short sighted on Blizzard's part.

   And as I explored other regions -- the Barrens, Badlands, Desolace, Stranglethorn -- the one thing that really struck me was those giant crevasses everywhere. I can't tell you how many times I dropped down into one of those things and couldn't find my way back out.

Okay, there's clearly a path right there, into and out of the crevasse, but try telling that to a noob.

Change is good (if it's good change).

   Overall, I don't mind change, especially not in something as trivial as a video game. I like that the Vale of Eternal Blossoms has become the Vale of Eternal Sorrows. I especially like that it happened somewhat organically as the story developed over several patches. If some people never saw the original Vale because they didn't start playing till now, that's tough cookies. Some people never saw the original Azeroth either.
   The changes to the Vale are good changes. We need to accept them.

   Unfortunately, and I really hate to persist in my berating of Cataclysm, but it needs to be said, most of the Cata changes were BAD changes. And, since they occurred in the least important zones (1-60), it's highly unlikely they'll ever be changed again.
   Azshara has become an eyesore. Terra-forming it into a giant Horde symbol was just stupid. Azshara used to be a beautiful and relaxing zone, a gentle autumn afternoon. Now, it is gaudy and ludicrous and won't stop playing that annoying goblin song.
   I actually looked forward to the flooding of Thousand Needles. It was never one of my favorite zones, and I'm a sucker for anything that involves underwater adventuring. I took my Warlock there almost immediately after Cata dropped (Unending Breath FTW!) and soon discovered that there is absolutely nothing to do under all that water. Almost the entire zone is now useless, wasted space. I later did some of the quests with one of my low-level Alliance toons, and God! they were horri-bad! Scooting around on that godawful personal tug boat, wearing some ridiculous apparatus the whole time, going from shoreline to shoreline while ignoring everything beneath the surface. What a missed opportunity.

   I know it's a lot to hope for, since Blizzard's priorities are far from redoing zones they've already redone, but I do so solemnly hope and pray that at some point they smooth out the flaws of Cataclysm, from the overly linear questlines to the profusion of vehicle quests. Perhaps they could do just a tiny bit at a time, fix one or two zones every expansion, maybe through scenarios that involve endgame players in the rebuilding of the landscape or the redirecting of the story, something like the Barrens quests of 5.3 that brought people back into the old world, if only for a short time.

The Mechanics of Change

In my World of Warcraft, the statue of the Jade Serpent is still pristine!
   Overall, I think Mists of Pandaria has been an excellent expansion. I believe that Blizzard has achieved a suitable balance with many of the gameplay elements they have been experimenting with over the past decade. Okay, they did overload it with the daily quests in the beginning. And maybe some people have not been as invested in this sidebar of a storyline. But the way in which the story has been delivered far exceeds most of what has come before.

   Most notably, there has been a proper balance between linearity and non-linearity of questing as well as a much more judicious use of phasing. In Wrath, phasing was often a nightmare -- an interesting mechanic and a cool new toy that the developers had too much fun with, often leaving players stranded in alternate realities even though their mini maps said they were standing right next to each other. It was practically impossible to do Icecrown with a friend unless you were on exactly the same stage of the quest. And in Cataclysm, the linearity of questing was... Well, let's not get started on Cata again, shall we? Suffice to say: horri-bad.

   But in Mists, I can skip important questlines like the destruction of the Jade Serpent statue and still enjoy a large part of the zone. Plus, though it's possible I haven't grouped up for questing as much as I used to do, I haven't had a single issue with phasing during MoP.
   Throughout, the manner in which changes have occurred in Pandaria and the way in which they have worked so seamlessly with the storyline has been a mark of excellence on Blizzard's part. I look forward to seeing how the developers will continue to refine World of Warcraft as we head into the game's second decade.


  1. Totally agree about the vast majority of the Cataclysm zones. I'd argue that the only good changes were those in Silverpine Forest really.

  2. Thanks for the comment!
    RE: Silverpine Forest - Does it seem like someone turned the lights up in there. In my memory, it used to be a much darker place, illumination-wise.
    I'm not a big fan of the Wrath-based upgrades to Forsaken and Orc architecture either, though I understand it makes sense from a story perspective.