Gameplay vs. Lore: Faction Conflict in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game steeped in lore, with stroylines spanning thousands of years and major expansion themes playing out the emotional lives of lore characters. Nevertheless, it’s a common refrain that gameplay trumps lore (a few discussions of the idea here, here, and here). There are many examples: player characters can come back from the dead, while NPCs (mostly) can’t; heroes who defeated a godlike manifestation of evil at the end of the last expansion may struggle to kill an overgrown crab at the beginning of the next; leveling up from 1 in the game as it stands now is a dizzying exercise in time travel through fifteen years’ worth of story, all of it still happening “now” in the zones of the various expansions. These breaks from lore fidelity make the game more fun and more playable, so even those players who care about the lore in depth generally accept them. The story is there to create background and flavor and give us a reason for going out, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Whenever the lore threatens to get in the way of the monster-killing, stuff-taking fun, it just steps aside and gets out of our way.

With one big exception: the faction conflict. The conflict between the Alliance and the Horde is the product of lore, not gameplay, but for years it has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay and make players’ experiences worse in a way that no other lore element has.

The faction conflict in WoW is a holdover from the Warcraft real-time strategy games. In the RTS context, a red-vs.-blue battle serves a good gameplay purpose. In the early years of the World of Warcraft massively multiplayer role-playing game, it made sense to carry over the familiar elements of the setting that fans of the RTS franchise would know, but WoW is no longer bound to its RTS roots and it hasn’t been for years. The defining game mode of the Warcraft universe is now an MMORPG. It’s time for the game to reflect that fact.

As a multi-player game, WoW is built around groups of players teaming up to take on difficult challenges. While there is plenty to do in game as a solo player, the endgame content that everything builds towards is all geared toward groups of players banding together. By dividing the player base in half and arbitrarily preventing them from playing together, WoW is working against its own game mechanics.

An argument sometimes made in favor of the faction divide is that, although it is detrimental to the player-vs.-environment aspects of the game, it is essential for the player-vs.-player elements, but this argument is manifestly untrue. One of the accommodations Blizzard has made in recent years to the faction divide is the introduction of “mercenary mode,” which allows players from one faction to temporarily join up with players of the other specifically to play in PvP content. If the faction divide can be wished away in the parts of the game that are specifically designed to pit players against one another, what purpose can it possibly serve in the parts of the game that are supposed to bring players together?

Even as a lore-dictated design element, the faction divide has never contributed much to the game story. How many expansions have we seen start with “Oh no, the Horde and the Alliance are at it again, and this time they mean it!” and end with “We have learned our lesson and must put aside our petty differences to work together against the greater threat”? Even in Battle for Azeroth, which has taken the faction conflict more seriously than any expansion before, the Horde-Alliance war has ended up being no more than a big speed bump on the way to fighting the big threat of N’Zoth. The core of WoW‘s gameplay has never been about the Horde vs. the Alliance; it has always been about killing monsters and taking their stuff. The important stories in WoW are about where the monsters came from and why we need to kill them, not about why we can’t kill them together.

The faction divide seems to survive largely for the benefit of a small base of fans who like having something to argue about on the internet. So far, Blizzard seems to be calculating that keeping that small base of fans happy (or, rather, continuing to give them things to get angry about, which seems to be their version of happy) is worth more than making a better game for everyone else.

Perhaps someday the faction divide will finally be removed and my Tauren and Eppu’s Dwarves can go kill monsters together. Until then, we live with a game whose gameplay is subject to an out of date, unproductive relic of lore.

Image: Screenshot from World of Warcraft

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: Trailer & Thoughts

In two weeks, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears opens! Well, at least with certain values of open: It’s released on February 27, 2020, in Australia. Here’s the trailer:

MISS FISHER & THE CRYPT OF TEARS | Official Trailer | 2020 [HD] by Roadshow Films NZ on YouTube

Looks very much like an upgraded version of the tv series, so it should be fun. (Apart from the bad trigger discipline, but I fully admit I’m very sensitive about that.)

I haven’t yet seen confirmed dates for Europe or North America; one site gave March for U.S. and a tv channel March 23 for their streaming date; no sources have confirmed theatrical release details, though. If anyone has seen firm dates, please let us know!

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Myths and Marketing

A lot of people have made comparisons between the pop-culture heroes of today like Marvel’s superheroes or the characters of Star Wars and the heroes of ancient Greek myth. (I’ve done it myself, here and here.) There’s a lot to be said for these comparisons in terms of narrative, but there are also interesting similarities in the way these characters are portrayed visually and sold to an admiring public.

Ancient Greek art went through an extraordinary transformation over a few centuries from the early archaic age (mid-700s BCE) to the high classical age (mid-400s BCE). One of the most telling signs of this transformation was the change in how mythic characters were represented.

Geometric krater, photograph by Metropolitan Museum of Art (found Attica, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 750-730 BCE; pottery; attributed to the Hirschfeld workshop)

Here is a scene from a Greek vase painted around 750. The human figures are highly abstracted with no individual identifying characteristics. We can make out some of what is happening in the scenes. In the upper register, a single figure lies horizontally on a table or bed surrounded by standing figures with their hands on their heads. This scene is generally interpreted as a funeral, with wailing mourners surrounding the deceased. On the lower register, warriors with shields ride in chariots. Still, for as much as we can make guesses about what is going on in these images, the details elude us. Are these generic images or are they meant to tell a story? Are the two registers even related to one another? One possibility is that this image represents the funeral for Patroclus, from the Iliad, with the funeral pyre on the upper register and the games in honor of the dead on the lower, but we have no way of knowing for sure whether that was what the artist intended or not.

Polyphemus amphora, photograph by Sarah C. Murray via Wikimedia (currently Archaeological Museum of Eleusis; c. 650 BCE; pottery; Polyphemus painter)

This image comes from a vase painted a hundred years later, around 650 BCE. Now we have a definite story. A group of men come from the left carrying a long spear to stab the eye of a larger, seated figure on the right holding a drinking cup. Putting all these elements together, it is clear that this scene represents the blinding of Polyphemus, the giant cyclops whom Odysseus and his men got drunk before stabbing his one eye out. The scene is clear enough if you know the story, but reading the image depends on knowing the whole story and seeing the whole picture. The figures within it are not distinctive. If you took any one of the figures out and looked at it on its own, you would have no way of identifying it or guessing what story it came from.

Black figure olpe, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (currently Louvre; c. 540 BCE; pottery; Amasis)

Another century later, the ways of depicting mythic figures had developed into something new. In this vase painting, from about 540, we see figures with distinctive characteristics. On the left a robed and bearded man holds a trident: unmistakably Poseidon, god of the sea. Hermes, the messenger god, approaches him, recognizable from his broad-brimmed hat, his snake-twined herald’s staff, and the wings on his sandals. Athena comes next, indicated by her helmet and spear and the shield she carries bearing her symbol, the owl. Behind her comes Heracles, not so visible in this image but still recognizable from the bow he carries and the lion skin he wears. Even though nothing much is happening in the image—it’s just a line of people—with this combination of characters, we can tell that it is representing the story of Heracles’ ascension to join the gods on Mount Olympus. Each character, though, is distinct. You could take any one of them out of the scene, and you would still know who you were looking at.

Ancient Greek art developed a rich but understandable visual language for identifying important figures from mythology. To understand why this development mattered, we have to think about the Greeks’ place in the larger Mediterranean.

Despite the importance the modern West has accorded to ancient Greek culture, ancient Greece itself was not a powerhouse of the Mediterranean. Greece was a poor, fractious backwater compared with the great centers of wealth and culture like Egypt, Persia, and Carthage. Trade was crucial to the Greeks’ survival, which meant they had to have something to offer that other people wanted. Wine and olive oil were the major commodities the Greek traded overseas, but over time they increasingly began to export their cultural products as well. Greek artisans, poets, musicians, and actors found work throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The changes in how Greeks depicted myths in their art went along with their expansion into the Mediterranean’s trade networks.

Exporting culture only works if your culture can offer something the market wants. The most valuable cultural property the Greeks had was their mythology. Greek mythology was not a complete and canonical body of work to be exported whole (as I discuss here), but a flexible, malleable set of stories and characters ready to be reimagined and recombined in new and unique ways. This flexibility allowed individual Greek artists and merchants to offer their patrons and trading partners versions of myths that suited the tastes of the local market. Heracles, for instance, went over well in Etruria, and before long Etruscans were creating their own stories about the character (calling him “Herkle”) that no Greek would have imagined. The Amazons similarly found their way into Egyptian literature. Underlying it all was a set of characters (gods, heroes, monsters) with basic identifying characteristics, personalities, and stories. A Persian or Carthaginian picking up a new Greek vase in the market might not know all the myths depicted on it, but it was easy to recognize Athena’s owl or Heracles’ lion skin and begin to put together the story from there.

In a similar way, symbolic attributes have become an important part of how we identify our modern heroes. From Captain America’s shield to Luke Skywalker’s light saber, from the Doctor’s TARDIS to the house crests of Westeros, having a set of easily recognizable symbols helps us identify our favorite characters and stories at a glance. They are also great fodder for marketing merchandise—which is exactly what our ancient Greek counterparts were doing with their mythology, too. Besides being the common cultural property of a far-flung people, Greek myths and their visual representations were a brilliant marketing device that got lots of Etruscans, Romans, Egyptians, Scythians, and others to buy Greek goods.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Castle, Season 1

We enjoyed the mystery/comedy Castle, despite some problems, and it makes a good comfort rewatch when we’re in the mood for something light. Here’s our take on season 1.

  1. “Flowers for Your Grave” – 10
  2. “Nanny McDead” – 6
  3. “Hell Hath no Fury” – 7
  4. “Hedge Fund Homeboys” – 6
  5. “A Chill Goes through Her Veins” – 7.5
  6. “Always Buy Retail” – 7
  7. “Home is Where the Heart Stops” – 9.5
  8. “Ghosts” – 6
  9. “Little Girl Lost” – 5
  10. “A Death in the Family” – 5.5

The short first season is excellent, with a lot of strong episodes from the beginning. At an average rating of 7, it’s one of the best seasons of any series we have. It starts right form the beginning with “Flowers for Your Grave,” at a full 10, the best of the season, which delivers a perfect combination of the mystery and comedy we expect from Castle with well-realized characters. Even the lowest-rated episode this season is a perfectly decent 5, for “Little Girl Lost.”

A big part of what makes Castle work so well is the characters. There’s Richard Castle, mystery writer and overgrown child, who foists himself on hard-nosed detective Kate Beckett in the name of “research,” but mostly just to pull her pigtails. There’s Espo and Ryan, the secondary-character buddy cops. There’s Castle’s flamboyant actress mother Martha and his teenage daughter Alexis, who seems to have gotten all the maturity that missed her father and grandmother. Any of these characters could easily have fallen into annoying caricature, but between smart writing and strong acting, they remain alive and enjoyable. Nathan Fillion’s sweet goofiness keeps Castle from being overbearing, while Stana Katic gives Beckett a depth and canniness that makes her more than a match for Castle’s antics. Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever, as Espo and Ryan, have a brotherly bond that only grows over the seasons. Susan Sullivan makes Martha infuriating and endearing in equal measure, while Molly Quinn makes Alexis both a rock of level-headedness in the madness of the Castle household and an awkward teenager growing into self-confidence step by stumbling step. The show may be named for one character, but it is the brilliantly balanced ensemble that makes it work.

Another part of the strength of Castle is how well it balances the mystery and the comedy. The cases that the team tackles are sometimes wacky, but they revolve around real and powerful human emotions, as all good mysteries do. Castle’s off-the-wall leaps of logic are often important in solving cases, but so is the solid investigative work that Beckett and the boys do. The characters often play off each other in funny ways, but they also have real and growing emotional connections. Castle is as much a show about family, in all its weird and wonderful permutations, as it is about solving crimes.

Any other Castle fans out there? Let us know what your favorite episodes of season 1 were!

Image: Castle and Beckett at work from “A Death in the Family” via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Living Vicariously through Social Media: Firefall at Yosemite

Each February, if conditions allow the seasonal Horsetail waterfall in Yosemite National Park in California to flow, the waterfall appears to be set ablaze by the setting sun. This event is known as the firefall (apparently as homage to Yosemite Firefall).

Flickr Jay Huang Firefall Yosemite National Park

Just stunning! Why hasn’t anyone put this kind of an effect into a story yet—or have I just missed it? Anyone know???

Image by Jay Huang via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

A Note to Future Historians

I’ve just been going through my expenses for the past month, comparing receipts and my notes with my bank statements and that sort of thing. Among my other expenses are a number of cases where I have lumped together a few separate expenses in my notes, or I’ve added tips left in cash to the figures I record having paid with a card, or subtracted rebates, or other inconsistencies like that. The experience has made me think of all the furious academic debates that have been sparked because of small inconsistencies in our written sources, and I feel bad for any future historian who comes across my financial records and tries to make sense of them.

Future historians, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. I know my spreadsheets are incomprehensible, but I wrote them for myself, not for you, and they make sense to me. Anyway, I’m sure you have more important and interesting sources to read for 2020, like Twitter and British tabloids.

Good luck!

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Mulan in Live Action: Second Trailer

It’s about two months till the release of the live-action adaptation of Mulan.

Disney’s Mulan | Official Trailer by Walt Disney Studios on YouTube

The visuals continue to be as gorgeous as in the first trailer. (Suprise, surprise.) If I ever were to see this, it’d be mostly for the eye candy; the story hasn’t really drawn me in, at least in its earlier iterations, and as far as these two trailers go, they’ve not changed the situation. Well, there is Rosalind Chao, who is thoroughly awesome.

We’ll probably see it on disc eventually: giving our local library some circ stats isn’t a bad thing.

Mulan is expected to release March 27, 2020.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Sigiriya

In the hills of central northern Sri Lanka are the remains of a palace built over a thousand years ago on top of an extraordinary natural rock formation. The place is known as Sigiriya. At the base of the rock, intricately organized gardens incorporating sophisticated irrigation and water retention structures stretch out along the hillsides. On top of the rock was originally a fortress, later converted into a Buddhist monastery.


A view of Sigiriya from a nearby hilltop, photograph by Azharkhanam via Wikimedia

According to Sri Lankan literature, the site was built in the late 400s CE by the king Kashyapa. Sources describe colorful frescoes covering the sides of the rock and a great gate in the shape of a lion, both of which are now only to been seen in fragmentary form. After Kashyapa’s death, Sigiriya ceased to be a royal site and for the next thousand years was inhabited by monks and visited by pilgrims, many of whom left inscriptions on the frescoed faces of the rock. Today, it continues to attract many visitors, although writing on the walls is no longer allowed.

The remains of the lion gate at the base of the citadel, photograph by Cherubino via Wikimedia
Surviving fragments of fresco, photograph by Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia (Sigiriya; late 5th c. CE; fresco)

The next time you’re imagining where the royals of your world might live for a story, artwork, or game, think of Sigiriya and remember that a palace doesn’t have to look like Neuschwanstein or Versailles.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Slavic Pagan Fusion Photoshoot Is Out of This World

This photo project is an older one, but due to the buzz generated by The Witcher screen adaptation it might be of interest.

(FYI: I can’t find a webpage dedicated solely to the project, so what I know mainly comes from an article at Design You Trust.)

Polish photographer and graphic designer Marcin Nagraba collaborated with designer Agnieszka Osipa to create a photoshoot entitled Pagan Poetry. Stylistically it can be described as Slavic fusion meets myth, fantasy, or Baroque. Osipa’s outfits certainly are out of this world—just check out the three examples below!

FB Marcin Nagraba See No Evil

FB Marcin Nagraba White and Red

FB Marcin Nagraba Alberta Ushakova

Nagraba’s personal Facebook page states he’s a “Former Photographer at Marcin Nagraba – Photography & Art”, so it sounds like he will not be continuing this project. Osipa is active, however, and she’s posting new work on Instagram and Facebook.

Found via Design You Trust. Check out the article and Nagraba’s Facebook page for more photos!

Images by Marcin Nagraba via Facebook: See No Evil, red and white, Alberta Ushakova.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Quotes: When You Keep Harping on about It

You are pretty, Fabulla (we know!), and young (true enough!),

and rich (no one could say otherwise!).

But when you keep harping on about it,

you don’t seem pretty, or young, or rich.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.64

(My own translation)

This bit of grousing comes from the Roman poet Martial, who wrote in the first century CE, but it seems apt for today’s “influencer” culture, too. Some things never do change. Whether the lesson you take from that is “Rich young women will always be vain about themselves” or “Crabby old men will always complain about how young women present themselves” is up to you.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.