Archive for the Lore Category

Games of yore #2: War of the Tribes

Posted in Lore, Random Thoughts on September 30, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Technically, this isn’t a game. It’s a StarCraft custom campaign – and anyone who played those and spent time on StarCraft Legacy in the day should remember it as one of the highest-quality works of StarCraft fan fiction ever realized as a custom campaign. I’ll let its page on Campaign Creations do the talking.

With Legacy of the Void now on the way, its premise of uniting the Protoss tribes got me thinking back to WotT and the exciting possibilities that stood for, in an era when StarCraft II was nothing more than idle conjecture and hilarious hoaxes. (Speaking of hoaxes, I wonder if anybody else remembers the ‘playable Xel’Naga race’ one, or the one about the hybrids being called the ‘Vanix’ – and playable too? Good times.)

Spoilers after the jump.

War of the Tribes was notable (in my eyes anyway) for working primarily with canon figures and lore, downplaying original elements. It continued Brood War‘s main story, building off the then-rampant speculation regarding Samir Duran’s true identity – and went a step further by casting him as only one of two ‘sleeper agents’ of the evil we now know as Amon.

The identity of the second might have made a nice surprise, had it not been revealed in the first few minutes. As I recall, you controlled Zeratul for the majority of the story, doing pretty much the same thing we’ll be doing in LotV – uniting the tribes and preventing a second Aeon of Strife. (The lore event, not the MOBA map, for all you pagans.) This continued up to a point near the end where, faced with the truth of what he really was, he accepted his fate and surrendered to Duran to spare his companions – leaving Artanis to take up the torch and lead the unified Protoss to a final, epic battle at the Xel’Naga temple on Aiur.

It’s a well-told tale, worthy of anything Blizzard has ever done – and the air of familiarity throughout, engendered by the creator’s deft repurposing of characters, locales, and plot elements already seen in the official campaigns, heightens rather than cheapens the gravitas.

I for one won’t be damned if LotV runs along similar lines. Making Artanis the protagonist, instead of Zeratul as was originally rumored, brings to mind WotT’s memorable epilogue, where he became a messianic figure called the ‘Gray Templar’, possessing the powers of both the Khalis and Uraj crystals. The Protoss are the one race in the StarCraft universe suited for the conventional savior role – and the switch to Artanis’s POV was no doubt (at least partly) for continuity’s sake, given that he was retconned into the Protoss player character in the original StarCraft. I would not be surprised if Blizzard gave the Hierarch the Jesus/Neo/J.C Denton treatment here.

StarCraft Lego

It’s good because it’s a proven approach, and gives the fans closure. It may not be good because it misses out on opportunities for fresh and possibly better angles – not to mention that said fans have done similar things before, to objectively high standards at that. Blizzard has become known of late for toying with their established canon, so we can only hold our breath with a certain ambivalence.

Many might say: what’s the big deal? WotT was just another piece of fan fiction, and that means nothing in the big picture. But the thing about these custom campaigns, these labors of love, is that they represent more than creative output. They are timestamps – snapshots of a media franchise as seen in its golden age by its most talented and dedicated fans. And for me, that is enough to give them a spot in said franchise’s history. Because games are ultimately more than the pixels and the devs.

Even without its production values (including its much-lauded intro movie, which was indeed a worthy effort back in 1999), War of the Tribes would still stand out for the scope of its storytelling and ambition. I did not hesitate to name it the unofficial sequel to Brood War – indeed, with further polish, it might even have made a strong contender for StarCraft II.

(I seem to remember I was in touch with its creator, Gabriel Sorrel, at one point, attempting in all my youthful enthusiasm to pick his brain on the creative process – Gabriel, if you’re reading this, happy to pick up where we left off. Microsoft ate all our old emails, though.)

I don’t know how the StarCraft custom campaign scene looks like now, 16 years on, but I reckon it’s going to be quite the task surpassing something like this – especially when you consider how times and expectations have changed. WotT hails from an era when the proverbial blank spaces on the map were, well, blank. Blizzard has filled those in – and in so doing, slain the dragons with all their mystique. Pretending they’re still alive, like children conjuring magic and mystery out of the everyday, is not quite the same as pretending they were never vanquished at all.

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Game idea: the Brotherhood of the Horse in Warlords of Draenor

Posted in Lore, Random Thoughts on July 8, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Fittingly, I discovered my last post while writing this one. So this could be considered inspired by that – plus my all-time favorite Warcraft line: Admiral Proudmoore’s last stand on Theramore.

So Patch 6.2 is coming. Well, WoW may be a long-closed chapter of my gaming past, but I still keep up with the lore of each new expansion. And when Warlords of Draenor first took the stage, trucking more nostalgia than Instagram’s entire history of #throwbackthursdays, I was stoked to no end.

It also blew on the embers of an old idea I had – to bring a certain group from Warcraft’s misty past back to life and into the limelight.

The Brotherhood of the Horse: a great lore element, and a great missed opportunity.

Preamble

From all I’ve seen at this point, the time-travel angle is not unknown to those from the main timeline. Surely, even among the modern, progressive Alliance, there must be some who see in this an opportunity for vengeance – vengeance for crimes not yet committed.

And who better to embody this tragic, blinkered militancy than the ones who suffered the most by those crimes?

The Brotherhood of the Horse has been, so far, a footnote in Warcraft lore: relegated, I fear, to the bin where Blizzard dumps ideas deemed unworthy or no longer relevant. Theirs was a terrible lot. They lost their lives, they lost their kingdom – and then they lost even the simple right to rest in peace when Gul’dan raised the first Death Knights from their remains.

Were the order to be reconstituted, and probably officered by descendants of Lothar’s original knights, it would be a prime candidate for a (carefully concealed) hotbed of hardliner sentiment.

Friends to foes

I picture the Alliance welcoming them back into the fold at first, and directing their prowess and resources against the Iron Horde. The interesting part comes when their extremism becomes evident – and disruptive to the war effort.

Perhaps they begin massacring Iron Horde prisoners, and their Armsman publicly runs through a high-ranking Alliance official who protests. Or perhaps they break ranks to pursue one of Grommash’s warlords in a pivotal battle, riding down Draenei troops in their way and costing the Alliance the field. This prompts a concerned King Varian to order them to stand down.

A charged confrontation ensues, full of chronological debate and hate-fueled rhetoric, at the end of which the Armsman denounces Varian as a traitor to the House of Wrynn, his father’s memory, and all of humanity. Thus the Brotherhood is revealed as a rogue faction, hell-bent on exacting blind justice upon the orc leaders of the First War – after which, they will turn on the ‘traitorous’ Alliance and Vol’jin’s Horde as well.

Bad news for everybody. And so the race to stop the renegade knights begins.

In-game presence

By this time, the Scarlet Crusade/Onslaught parallels will have become too strong to ignore. Harking back to those guys a moment, they got a fine helping of airtime, didn’t they? Quest lines both low and high in level, a whole multi-winged instance, even a central role in what is arguably vanilla WoW’s single most well-written story.

The Brotherhood deserves no less. I expect they’d begin featuring in Alliance quests from the word go, to fill players in on the order’s backstory and heritage. They’d come off as this bunch of unstoppable badasses, each knight practically a raid boss. Players should want to join these guys; be swept along by their righteous fury.

Until the time comes to face that fury head-on in their own fastness. I have no thoughts on where on AU Draenor the order should have its base – there’s nothing that shouts out at me from its lore. No, it’s back on Azeroth that we should expect to find the Brotherhood’s seat of power.

The final raid

Karazhan. It was theirs before it was Medivh’s, anyway (some say that’s fanon, but I like the idea).

I’m not sure how it stands lore-wise as of now, but if it is still the haunted ruin I remember, perhaps the order could mount an offensive to evict the Violet Eye occupiers and reclaim it. To avoid rehashing the Kara instance itself, and to deal with the problem of the locked door (aren’t the player characters the only one with the key?), the Brotherhood raid could be set in their camp outside the tower’s walls.

Of course, the bosses and other NPCs would spout different lines to different factions. Where Alliance raiders might hear “Ride the traitors down!”, Horde ones might hear some rendition of Admiral Proudmoore’s epic “Death to the blackbloods!”.

And for the climax, I’m picturing something like this (warning: Game of Thrones Season 5 material!): an open-field defensive action against waves of mounted, highly mobile knights. With their Armsman’s death, the Brotherhood of the Horse meets its second, ignoble end, and the leaders of both Alliance and Horde are left to contemplate the cracks torn open by its reckless hatred.

But this is just my dream. The Iron Horde’s leadership has already been decimated. Blackhand the Destroyer – the great enemy of the first Warcraft game – lies dead. And the focus is back on the Burning Legion as the bad guys.

This ship has long since sailed. But that’s what roleplay and roleplaying guilds are for, right?

Karazhan and the Brotherhood of the Horse

Posted in Lore on July 7, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of hard drives? I did when I came across this old article on mine – written for Loregy back in Dec 2012. As it never saw the light of day, and Loregy seems to be defunct, I’m putting it up here with minor edits.

Much of the conjecturing here is obsolete, of course, but it’s a nice look back at a time when WoW yet held some mystery for me.

The Brotherhood of the Horse, also the Knights of Stormwind or the – my personal favorite – Knights of Azeroth (ah, the days when that was not a planet but a mere kingdom!), though now but a footnote in the extensive annals of contemporary Warcraft lore, has long been one of my favorite elements of the game universe. There’s a certain romance about the concept of a valiant, doomed knighthood that also happens to be the first we ever saw within the world of Warcraft.

The Tides of Darkness game manual states that they were wiped out during the First War and that Gul’dan raised their rotting corpses into Teron Gorefiend and his ilk. A fine story, even though my inner fan of all things knightly never liked this ending.

Then came Burning Crusade, and Karazhan, and the lore surrounding it led me to an immediate connection – which I’m reminded of now with the long overdue Dark Riders graphic novel less than half a year away.

To recap some of the prevalent beliefs regarding the Ivory Tower and the true nature of the alleged ‘Nazgûl ripoffs’:

1. The Dark Riders of Deadwind Pass are 1G death knights who somehow survived or were not involved in the Second War.

Given the origins of the said death knights, this theory alone is a strong link to the Brotherhood.

2. Attumen the Huntsman shares his model with the Ghostriders of Karabor, who (according to Gorefiend himself) are also 1G death knights; ergo, he is one of their number.

Ergo, his presence in the tower is another Brotherhood link. Except that we don’t know for certain what the Ghostriders really are since Gorefiend was exposed as a liar at the Altar of Shadows.

But, going by the old adage that all lies contain a grain of truth, the possibility exists that he was at least partly honest about their origins – or it could be that Blizzard was just rehashing models here and there is no link at all.

3. The horse motifs in the tower, as well as the presence of a stable, indicate that the Brotherhood once occupied Karazhan.

My initial stance that the idea of the realm’s greatest wizard letting an order of knights use his mystic tower as a base didn’t really fly. Nor could the motifs and stable have been added after Medivh’s death, as Stormwind was losing the First War by that time.

Until I made a leap of logic which I will go into below.

Let’s look at point three. Supposedly, Metzen cooked up the horse motifs during a design meeting in just a few minutes. (Since he also talked about them progressing up the tower to eagle heads and then lion heads, could we see a Brotherhood of the Eagle and a Brotherhood of the Lion – divisions of King Llane’s knightly retinue – retconned into existence in future Warcraft lore?)

The reason for this snap decision: Lothar belonged to a group named for horses.

Why the mention of Lothar? Why the connection between the greatest knight in human history and a wizard’s tower?  

The answer is simple. Karazhan was always a Brotherhood base.

We still don’t know who built it. When we first see it, it was already a wizard’s tower, in the Orcs & Humans mission to slay Medivh. But the above makes it quite plausible that this episode of its history does exist, albeit overlooked or forgotten in-universe: the Brotherhood of the Horse were tenants of Karazhan in the time before Medivh awakened from his twenty-year coma.

Perhaps they were evicted by royal edict to allow him to take up residence there as Guardian of Tirisfal. That would explain the motifs and stable (added during the knights’ tenure as the Ivory Tower’s occupants), which Medivh mightn’t have bothered removing when he moved in.

Now to point one.

If the Riders are indeed remnants of the original Horde DKs, it is oddly appropriate to have them – orc warlocks’ spirits though they may be – congregate where their borrowed mortal coils once did. To take this a step further, the fact that the site of Karazhan is known as a ley line nexus of great arcane power lends credence to another speculation concerning a possible association between them and the Legion.

Do they serve Prince Malchezaar, whose possession of Gorehowl in his loot table leads to the surmise that he is using them to hunt down artifacts of power like it and the Scythe of Elune?

The warlocks of the Shadow Council were beholden to the Legion. The corpses their spirits inhabited were those of Brotherhood knights, based out of Karazhan. Hence, if the Dark Riders are really Gorefiend’s first-gen colleagues, it would make a poetic sort of sense to have them serve a demon prince who has seized control of the tower.

Parallel to this, there is another line of thought, a disturbing one, that bugs me.

If the motifs and stable were there before Medivh, could the Brotherhood actually have been Karazhan’s very builders (or in some way involved in its original construction)? If so, why that particular site? Did they know of the weakened fabric of reality there, and seek to exploit it somehow?

What of David Wayne, the former Sons of Lothar blacksmith turned hermit, who exhibits knowledge of demonic spells when he crafts you an Illidari-Bane blade? Not the sort of thing a smith, even one as evidently talented as he, would be expected to know. We know now he’s not the second Mograine son, or the one to reforge the Ashbringer. So what is he?

An ex-Brotherhood member who was taught said knowledge within Karazhan, and then, surviving the First War and coming to Outland, forsook what he saw as deep-buried corruption in the ranks of the Alliance’s elite so as to become part of ‘something larger’?

And what if those few Brotherhood knights who, along with their last Armsman, had survived the fall of Stormwind, had been integrated into the Lordaeron knighthood? What might they have brought with them from the depths of Karazhan into the realm of King Terenas?

Anyone who has read conspiracy theories concerning the real-world Knights Templar will be familiar with the conjectures of them surviving as a secret society into modern times, but I dare not hope that the Knights of Azeroth will ever return similarly as a force of good. It seems more in line with Blizzard’s style to resurrect them from the moldy pages of the old game manuals as the exact opposite.

If the Brotherhood of the Horse was indeed involved in matters of arcane or even demonic import during their occupation of the Ivory Tower, we should not be surprised to see the Dark Riders expanded in the lore to connect these two groups in the future.

And I looked, and behold, a pale horse.

How Skyrim let its lineage down

Posted in Lore, Opinions, Roleplay on May 27, 2015 by The Iron Dagger

This is a retooled version of a piece I wrote after playing through The Elder Scrolls V: Dragonborn, a couple years back. Meant for readers familiar with the Elder Scrolls series and its lore.

Newcomers to the Elder Scrolls franchise can probably be forgiven for thinking it starts with Skyrim. Thanks to savvy marketing, great visuals, and arrow-to-knee memes, TESV still basks in the afterglow of a success its predecessors never quite matched in their heyday.

I find that curious since, objectively, just about all of those predecessors are held above Skyrim where the things that make TES TES are concerned.

Take the two seen in the preceding decade: Morrowind and Oblivion. Neither’s perfect: an overly restrictive plot in one, and an overly derivative conworld across the board, are just the tip of the iceberg. Yet the spell both have woven on players endures yet across the years, in a way Skyrim can only dream of – without mods coming into the picture. So where did the TES magic go?

Reinventing the wheel

It might help to first examine the one thing all three titles share: their conworld.

For all its painstaking depth and lore, Tamriel is still built upon a hearty dose of real-world ripoffs. From the patently Ancient Roman getup of your welcoming committee in Seyda Neen to the land of Vikings, horned helmets, and mead halls nine years on, the Elder Scrolls series has, like most conworlds, never shied from wearing its historical inspirations on its sleeve.

Bethesda certainly won’t be the last worldbuilder to play this card, because it works. Morrowind’s undisguised Roman Legion imagery, for instance, must have been a cake to sword & toga fans, topped with the thick, sweet icing of said Legion being joinable. I wonder how many first-timers on Vvardenfell rolled as a Maximus or a Julius Caesar, swore the sacramentum, and gunned for Knight of the Imperial Dragon.

But such brazen derivation is exactly where problems with immersion arise. Yes, tapping real-world influences makes a conworld instantly accessible to anyone with a modicum of cultural knowledge, and lets players – at least, those that care about such things – flavor their gameplay experience with preconceived notions and archetypes. However, infusing credibility into such a world takes considerably more work, which offsets the fact that such an approach makes the worldbuilding easier in the first place.

And here’s where Skyrim finally dropped the proverbial ball.

The problem of where you are

An outstanding mix of art direction and storytelling kept Morrowind and Oblivion feeling fresh despite real-world references left, right, and center. But unlike those predecessors, Skyrim simply shoehorned a thinly veiled copy of Norse culture into a tradition of propping Tamriel up without leaning too much on Earth or Middle-earth influences.

Bethesda tried, as they have always done, to balance this derivation gone overboard with cosmopolitanism – a must in any game with a menagerie of playable races. Cue the ‘racial hotspots’ peppered around Skyrim:

  • The Orc strongholds.
  • The Forsworn (Breton) insurgency in the Reach.
  • The Argonian dock worker community in Riften.
  • The Dunmer refugee ghetto in Windhelm.

But what was the effect of all these? Did they dilute the cultural homogeneity, and temper the overwhelming THIS! IS! NORDLAND! feel throughout Skyrim?

Not quite, to me at least. However, cosmopolitanism was not the culprit. Cyrodiil did boast a few racially themed cities. (Bruma, Cheydinhal…) And Vvardenfell needed no ‘racial hotspots’, with just about all non-Dunmer the player met having gone native. No, I blame Bethesda’s vision for Skyrim.

That vision fell flat against Morrowind’s stupendously realized alienness and the masterfully woven Western medieval of Oblivion. Vvardenfell’s ashlands succeeded in taking me (and many others) far, far away from any country on Earth. And the seemingly generic townships and villages of Cyrodiil housed little worlds with personalities and idiosyncrasies of their own. By contrast, in the holds of Skyrim, I felt merely a tourist in a superficially fictionalized Scandinavia.

It might be argued that Ye Olde Middle Ages tropes have been so spammed in games over the years, that a sprinkling of castles and counts in one more fantasy RPG is accepted as a matter of course, whereas the rarity of longhouses and jarls contributes to the jar (no pun intended) of their appearance. But either way, such a laser focus on the Nord culture led only to one end: Skyrim pandering to a single character archetype.

The one on the box.

The problem of who you are

Aesthetics and culture aside, main quests are another bone of contention.

Oblivion did fantastically here by casting the player as vaguely as possible: an everyman who helps save an empire. Lower on the scale is Morrowind, where the player discovered they are a reincarnated folk hero with a destiny to fulfill – pigeonholing them into a role they may not fit comfortably by virtue of what their character was born as.

And then came Skyrim. Which had the player, in the Nordic fatherland, discovering they possessed a legendary power that was also uniquely Nordic. Yes, uniquely Nordic. From Miraak through to Talos, the franchise mentions no past Dovahkiin who weren’t Nords. (And that’s Dovahkiin, not Dragonborn as in the Dragonborn Emperors – per Mike Kirkbride, St. Alessia and the Septim line were not soul-stealing dragon-slayers.) Without even considering how pyrotechnic superhuman powahs distract from the player character’s own journey of discovery, this is pigeonholing of a pretty high order.

Taken together, the blatant Nord bent of Skyrim’s Skyrim and the plot of the Dovahkiin’s quest produced a game experience where all but one or two races were mere window dressing; fine fodder for cinematic epicness, but not all that musical for immersion and replayability. True, Morrowind and Oblivion were both about the natives. But the devil is in how the other races of Tamriel fit in.

From the perspective of wanting to play an organic role in the world-shaping proceedings, is there really a reason to roll as a race other than the one said proceedings fixate on?

In Oblivion, yes. Because there was no fixation. You were nobody. You were anybody. There was no compelling reason to be an Imperial just because you were in the Imperial heartland. The game’s environment saw to it that no cut-and-dried, set-in-stone hero heritage was foisted on players.

With Skyrim, and regrettably, even Morrowind too, no. Because there, you were somebody. “Holy hell, I’m that legendary figure”, and all that. Becoming the Nerevarine and the Dovahkiin as anything other than a Dunmer and Nord, respectively, was less Luke Skywalker and more of being pushed along on cultural rails. The problem with being a folk figure turned out to be the ‘folk’.

This, I feel, constrains the fundamental Elder Scrolls premise of a freeform RPG experience where you are who you choose to be.

Bethesda’s counterweight

Morrowind tried, at least, to address cognitive dissonance on the player’s ‘hero mantle’ being clearly and unavoidably tailored for a Dunmer:

  • Players are slapped with ubiquitous Dunmer xenophobia from the get-go.
  • Locals persistently express disbelief that an ‘outlander’ could be the Nerevarine.
  • All the ‘Failed Incarnates’ were local Dunmer in life.

These helped. They established the notion of a foreigner becoming the people’s savior as only slightly more believable than a Chinaman kickstarting the American Revolution. A big Chekhov’s gun, meant to elicit a powerful irony when finally fired (or, in this case, turned on its racist little head). And, on top of all that, the plot mixed in a “what, the national hero is reborn as an alien, hence the real enemy is the enemy within” spin on prophecy – a credible enough justification for Nerevar reincarnating as a non-Dunmer.

What did Skyrim do here? It threw in a book – a piece of completely optional, and easily overlooked, content. A single, deliberately vague treatise which, in essence, says, “being Dragonborn, or Dovahkiin, however you slice it, is a matter of being chosen by the elder god and not of race, and even that is uncertain since, you know, gods work in mysterious ways”.

Hardly a firm, or satisfying, pretext to be receiving dragon Quickenings and wielding the most powerful vocal chords outside of draconic throats. It answers nothing. What exactly does being Dragonborn mean (besides a destiny of dragon-slaying), and why does the player character have this Shang Tsung thing going on that Dragonborn of legend don’t? That book might have stood finely on its own before Skyrim, but not now that the Dovahkiin is out of the bag.

What next?

The Elder Scrolls verse has always been rather protean, what with all those brilliantly conceived explanations of inconsistencies between games. But what TESV did with the ‘Dragonborn’ concept, and the ensuing popularity, raises my concerns on how far future titles will stretch the believability factor. Will we start seeing renditions of Warcraft’s ludicrous Draenei retcon, next?

Despite Skyrim’s broad appeal and pop culture status, I cannot see it for anything more than a mainstream, fan-serving knockoff of horned helms and drakkars. A gallant but unworthy successor to a lineage of some of the most spellbinding RPGs ever made.

It did not fail on the level of Diablo III, to be sure. THAT is a feat I’m sure no game developer is eager to equal. But it failed an altogether different, nobler pedigree.