Stitches, Harrison Jones, and a Theory of World of Warcraft Nostalgia

One of the big recent developments in World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s announced plans to create Classic servers on which players can play “Vanilla” World of Warcraft, that is, the original game as released in 2004. It is something that a fair amount of people want, as demonstrated by the fact that people have been playing homemade versions on pirate servers for years. I first started playing WoW in 2006, shortly before the release of the first expansion. Although I’m not much interested in playing on a Classic server myself, I do feel some nostalgia for the original game as I first experienced it. I’ve been thinking lately about that nostalgia and what it is that makes me remember those early experiences with such fondness.

The Way We Were

Part of my nostalgia for early WoW is separate from the game. I started playing during my last few years of grad school, when I was writing my dissertation. WoW offered a break from the long daily slog of research and writing. I also have fond memories of the tv shows I watched then, the meals that Eppu and I shared, the podcasts I listened to on the commute to and from my adjunct teaching job in the next state over, and other things that distracted me from the work. Also, fairly soon after starting to play, I joined up with a guild (a collection of players who shared an in-game chat channel and played some of the game’s harder content together), and some of my good memories are not so much of the game as of the friends I made through it.

But there is also something about the game itself that stays in my mind. I am nostalgic not just for who I was when I first played WoW but for what WoW was when I first played it, and I’ve been trying to pin down just what it was about the game that made it feel so different from the other games I played then and have played since. The conclusion I’ve come to is: the ideas were good, but the execution was flawed.

2004 was a different time, in gaming terms. While massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) had existed before, in titles like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, the MMORPG genre was still relatively new and unfamiliar to most gamers. The Blizzard team that created WoW didn’t have much to go on in figuring out what an MMORPG should be like. Playing through that original game, you can tell that they weren’t working toward a polished vision but were doing their best to translate experiences drawn from single-player games, pen-and-paper role-playing, novels and comic books to a multi-player online format.

Into the Woods

The game world is divided into numerous regions, called zones, each of which has its own map, terrain, and set of quests for characters to complete. Most zones also have their own theme, aesthetic, and background story. One of the zones that my first character encountered early on was Duskwood.

The way is clear, the light is good, I have no fear, no, no one should…

Duskwood was a creepy, dark forest, halfway between fairy tale and Gothic novel. One lone human village, Darkshire, held out against a menacing forest full of werewolves and a decrepit graveyard that spawned undead monsters. The road to Darkshire was a long, lonely path through the woods. Now and then, on either side, your character might see a distant lantern winking in the darkness, but wolves and giant spiders prowling the forest edge encouraged you to stay on the path. Once you got to Darkshire and started doing quests, you began to discover the horrors of the place bit by bit. One long series of quests took you back and forth between the village and the graveyard, doing favors for a crazy old man who lived out there, but if you paid attention to what he was asking you to do it gradually became clear that he had sinister intentions. At the climax of the zone, the old man unleashed Stitches, a fleshy undead monstrosity that lumbered towards Darkshire to attack the town. In your culminating act of heroism before leaving for the next zone, you helped the townsfolk stop Stitches and defend Darkshire.

The aesthetics of the zone were amazing. Everything from the creepy music to the small points of warm light made by the Darkshire torches against the looming forest contributed to the overall feel of Gothic horror. I still remember the thrill of waiting for Stitches to shamble out of the darkness as the NPCs (non-player characters) in the zone called out warnings from the road. The idea of the zone as a sort of Frankenstein by way of “Little Red Riding Hood” was brilliantly conceived.

The locals are restless

The execution, though, was full of flaws, missteps, and poor choices. From the perspective of modern MMORPG design, it is clear to see what Duskwood did wrong. A large part of the zone is taken up with the road into Darkshire, where nothing happens and there are no quests to do or monsters to fight. Once you’ve taken that first trip to town, it’s just wasted space. Another large chunk of the zone is taken up with a mountainous area where higher-level players could sometimes fight a dragon, but which players at the level of the Duskwood quests had nothing to do with. Numerous quests, including the long Stitches chain, sent players repeatedly back and forth from one end of the zone to the other, so that a large part of players’ time in the zone was spent just traveling. Now, there are two ways in which WoW characters can travel faster: by riding a mount, which increases your movement speed, or by taking a flying “taxi” service from one designated flight point to another. In WoW‘s original design, characters at the Duskwood level did not have access to mounts, and there was only one flight point in each zone (Duskwood’s was in Darkshire). That meant that an awful lot of time wasted just running back and forth rather than fighting monsters, completing quests, exploring new areas, talking to NPCs, or anything else more interesting.

The execution of the Stitches quest chain, the core of the Duskwood experience, was also shaky. Getting the full effect of the slowly creeping horror required paying attention to subtle cues from NPCs, something that was easy to ignore when focusing on collecting the right parts from the right monsters to complete the latest quest. If you didn’t know Stitches was coming, you might not realize to stick around in Darkshire and wait for its onslaught. With multiple players in the zone, the Stitches attack would be triggered whenever any player got to the right stage of the quest chain, even if there were other players still on earlier phases. The result was a regular stream of attacks that could get annoying: Stitches was notorious for slaughtering lower-level players on the road to Darkshire (death in the game is not the end for your character, but getting yourself resurrected and ready to get back to questing costs time and in-game money), and, while waiting for Stitches to arrive, some of the NPCs in Darkshire would go on alert and stop responding to characters who were trying to do quests for them.

Many other zones in Vanilla WoW were similar: there were fascinating aesthetic and narrative ideas and you can see what the design team was trying to create, but they didn’t always know how to execute their vision or realize how their design would play out in practical terms.

Goblins, Why Did It Have to Be Goblins…

In the decade-plus since its release, WoW‘s design team has learned an enormous amount as the wider gaming community has developed more collective experience with what works and what doesn’t in an MMORPG. The functional design of more recent zones is much more polished, but that practical experience hasn’t always been put to use in the service of equally good aesthetic and narrative ideas. One place where the ideas failed to live up to the execution is Uldum.

Meow like an Egyptian

Uldum was one of five zones introduced in the Cataclysm expansion, which came out in 2010. Uldum is a desert zone, a fantasy version of ancient Egypt inhabited by cat people. Compared with old Duskwood, Uldum was polished and smooth: quests were laid out to lead your character in a logical progression around the zone, other players’ actions did not interfere with yours, and crucial story transitions were carefully planned so that the world could change as your character progressed through the story. Half of the zone’s quests revolve around helping the cat people prepare for a civil war. The other half of the zone, though… Well… It’s different.

There’s a character in WoW called Harrison Jones. He’s an Indiana Jones parody. Harrison Jones had existed before Cataclysm but he was only used sparingly, in one-off joke quests. In Cataclysm, Harrison Jones took over. Half of Uldum was devoted to an extended parody of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a Hitleresque goblin antagonist who spoke with an outrageous fake German accent. The questline made extensive use of new technology that allowed the game to render cutscenes—where the game pauses and shows you a short movie—that included your own character in with the NPCs. The execution of this quest chain was flawless, even innovative, but it was still at heart just an over-long Indiana Jones gag.

The Harrison Jones story also thoroughly undercut your character. Rather be the hero of your own story, you became Harrison Jones’s bumbling sidekick. All of the important story moments were up to him, while you were just there to do the grunt work. This storytelling choice did more than make for a boring, aggravating questing experience; it crushed the suspension of disbelief on which the game relies. We play in order to lose ourselves in a fantasy world, to imagine ourselves as heroes whose actions make a difference. Harrison Jones aggressively stomped on that illusion by turning our heroes into unimportant side characters and the game world into one long, tedious joke. The polish of the execution only served to make the hollowness of the idea more obvious. In Duskwood, even though we weren’t any more in control of the story than in Uldum, at least we got to explore it and experience it on our own terms. In Uldum, we’re just along for the ride.

I did Nazi that coming

In Duskwood, as elsewhere in the Vanilla world, the ideas were good, even if the execution was flawed. As the mechanical design of the game has gotten better, we’ve experienced a different kind of flaw. When WoW goes wrong today, it’s less because bad execution gets in the way of a good idea than because good execution exposes a bad idea.

Sunsets and Car Crashes

The difference between Duskwood and Uldum, I think, helps explain why I have such nostalgia for Vanilla WoW. In Vanilla, we had to struggle through a lot of poor mechanical design, but the reward for that struggle was a narrative and aesthetic experience that was bold, creative, and expansive. The experience was a bit like scrambling up a rocky cliff face and seeing a gorgeous sunset from the top. The climb itself wasn’t always fun and we might not want to do it again, but the effort it took was part of the experience that made the sunset worth seeing. Uldum, by contrast, was like driving a brand new car straight into a tree.

In the years since Vanilla, the mechanics of the game have been improved in numerous ways. The experience of playing is now smoother, more reliable, and cleaner than ever. I’m happy with that. I don’t miss the old design’s flaws and missteps. Despite some serious mistakes, like Uldum, the aesthetic vision of the game has not, on the whole, gotten worse. Most of current WoW‘s zones combine smooth mechanical design with a polished, well-developed narrative and artistic sense.

My nostalgia for the original game is not because there is anything wrong with the current game. I wouldn’t trade the current play experience for Vanilla. But the maturing of WoW‘s mechanical design means we have fewer experiences of laboring against bad mechanics to see good ideas shine through. There was something rewarding about old WoW that really can’t be recovered.

Will I ever play on a Classic server? Who knows? Maybe. I might make a new character and putter around a little bit, visiting old quests and NPCs who aren’t around any more, reminiscing about what it was like the first time I walked down a certain road or killed a tough monster. But that’s the problem with nostalgia: you can’t discover something a second time. My nostalgia for Vanilla WoW is tied up with overcoming problems that I’ve now gotten used to not having to deal with at all. If I go back and play original Duskwood again, my experience won’t be about uncovering the secrets at the heart of the dark forest, it’ll be about cursing the designer who made me walk all the way from one end of the zone to the other again, just to be squished by someone else’s Stitches halfway there. I could only consider seriously playing on a Classic server if the improved mechanics of the modern game were brought into it, but that would defeat the purpose of a Classic server.

Still, there are clearly plenty of people who feel differently, enough of them that Blizzard is making servers just for them. I wonder what it is that appeals to those players. What are they nostalgic for that’s worth going back to? What makes playing through the clunky mechanics of the old game worthwhile from their perspective? If you’re one of them, please share. I’d love to hear about what draws you back to Vanilla.

Images: Screenshots from World of Warcraft

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

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My Silliest WoW Pet Battle Pet Names

As a word nerd, I love puns. Nevertheless, I usually keep my RPG characters’ names pun-free if the setting or play style demand it, because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment.

Likewise, in World of Warcraft, my hunters usually have appropriate names for their tameable companion pets. Since pet battling is so much more meta than anything else, I do go all out naming my pet battle pets. Here are some I find most groan-worthy.

WoW Battle Pet Hello Legs

Legs came as a quest reward during Children’s Week. Mine is called Hello.

WoW Battle Pet Finley Chuck

Chuck is a pet crocolisk and a fishing quest reward. I’ve seen people joke about Chuck Norris, but I haven’t yet had anyone recognize my Burn Notice reference (Chuck Finley is an alias for one of the POV characters, played by the legendary Bruce Campbell).

WoW Battle Pet Bob Ghostly Skull

The floating ghostly skull named Bob is a reference to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books.

WoW Battle Pet A Void Dance Lesser Voidcaller

The lesser voidcaller has a chance to drop from High Astromancer Solarian in The Eye. Mine is named for a muddled-up pun on the word avoidance and the fact that it’s a voidcaller. Not perhaps my best, but good enough of a name to keep.

WoW Battle Pet Iraknok Mirror Strider

Mirror striders can be found just hanging around in The Jade Forest in Pandaria. The name for mine is a bit esoteric: in the Finnish translation of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s nickname Strider is translated Konkari; Konkari spelled backwards is, you guessed it, Iraknok.

WoW Battle Pet Wonka Willy

Willy is another Children’s Week quest reward. Appropriately, as a reference to another child-related work (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), I named mine Wonka.

WoW Battle Pet Never Lupus Worg Pup

I can’t remember how I got my worg pup. I named mine Never Lupus, because whenever House encounters a case that defies his diagnostic abilities in the eponymous series, he always says “It’s never lupus.” We must’ve been just watching it.

WoW Battle Pet Dammed Bound Stream

My bound stream is called Dammed. Because that’s how you describe one. This one reminds me of a crossword puzzle clue, but AFAIK isn’t.

Any good pet names—of any kind—you want to share? Please do!

Images: screencaps from the MMORPG World of Warcraft

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

Transmog: The Wearing of the Green

Spring is almost upon us and its time to break out the green. We’ve put on our best spring transmogs just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Erik here.

Here’s my Tauren warrior in what I call her Boreal Defender set.

And here’s my Dwarven hunter wearing her Luck o’ the Dwarvish set.

Eppu here.

Despite her resplendent golden, white, and turquoise dress, my fire mage also rocks green.

WoW StPats Mog Fire Mage

And my rogue decided to dual-wield golden hammers with green stone accents.

WoW StPats Mog Rogue

Here is her full set.

Do you typically do a special mog for spring?

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

Transmog: Love Is in the Air

WoWable has a fun new thing going on: a transmog contest! This edition’s theme is the Love Is in the Air, an in-game version of Valentine’s Day.

I had a tough time with this until I was doodling around in Suramar on my arcane mage. I’ve long loved the star-filled under-canopies that some of the trees have in Suramar City, but for some reason I hadn’t noticed before that the stars slowly rotate. (Manna from the heavens, almost literally. They rotate! It’s a WoW planetarium! Or plant-etarium…?)

The stars in the under-canopies alone made me love the City. And as if that’s not enough, Suramar City has so much more to offer: interesting buildings and streets, parks, intricate textiles, little squares, shops and residences, plus canals and gondolas. It’s an intriguing place to wander around, but the rotating (did I say already that they rotate?!) starfield canopies made the City go to the top of my romantic places list.

WoW Love Is in the Air Transmog Singing Telegram Mage

My screencap is from a small area in the outer rim of the City in the south west. (I haven’t noticed whether it has a name. It’s an outer edge of the Lunastre Estate.) It’s not a park or garden or anything fancy, just a widening of the promenade. However, it happened to have the right combination of elements that appeal to me: the gorgeous Suramar paving stones, lots of flowerbeds and bushes, those plants that look like ornate lanterns, hovering planters, the trees with the rotating star canopies, and a sunset (as it happened) in the background, as well as palanquins that look just right for two people to have a ride in. Just perfect for a mage moonlighting as a singing telegram for the holiday to stop and rest in between delivering messages and flowers.

(I’m having trouble with Wowhead’s Dressing Room, but as soon as it behaves, I’ll add the link to the set. Ok: here, finally, is the singing telegram set in the Dressing Room.)

Check out the rules and how-to at WoWable.

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

Transmog: Darkmoon Days

WoWable has a fun new thing going on: a transmog contest! Check it out here.

This edition’s theme is the Darkmoon Faire, a monthly off-kilter carnival that brings players together for fun mini-games and profession quests. The transmog challenge is: “If your character lived/worked on the Darkmoon Faire, what would be his/her occupation?”

Erik:

Here’s my dwarven hunter. If she worked at the Faire, she would be the in-house veterinarian because she loves all creatures great and small—but especially the great! A giant elekk is just a big puppy to her. Now, when you’re caring for weird giant animals from all over the world and beyond, that means dressing appropriately for the possibility of getting poked, bitten, and just maybe breathed fire on, so this is the sort of practical gear she would wear around the menagerie.

(Here’s the vet set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room.)

Eppu:

My dwarven windwalker monk would be a fire juggler at the Faire. I don’t really role-play her, but I think of her as a shamanesque monk, interested in the various elements. And as a windwalker, in my headcanon she’d be able to propel the torches in very showy ways.

WoW Darkmoon Faire Fire Juggler Transmog Windwalker Monk

(And here’s the fire juggler set.)

This was fun. We look forward to the next challenge!

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

World of Warcraft: New Transmog to Match Hidden Artifact Appearance

I shared my WoW: Legion hidden artifact appearance last month and mentioned that I might be re-doing my fire mage’s transmog to match it. Well, here she is in her new, golden, white, and turquoise hues:

WoW Legion Fire Mage Artifact New Mog Sm

This may be my favorite transmog to date. I’ll try and get a better screencap later; this one doesn’t really show some of the details. I’m also making good progress on completing 200 world quests in order to unlock another color variant for The Stars’ Design appearance, so, yay! 🙂

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

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

My World of Warcraft: Legion First Hidden Artifact Appearance

Somehow I’ve completely missed the fact that the World of Warcraft: Legion expansion includes so-called hidden appearances for artifacts. I confess I haven’t been terribly excited about the appearances to begin with; I tend to transmog my artifacts to look like some of the older weapons in game.

This past weekend, however, I got an exciting random drop on my fire mage: an item that triggers a hidden artifact appearance. It’s called The Stars’ Design, and using the item opens the appearance directly (without any quests or other tricks). And it’s quite beautiful—I managed to get a screencap!

WoW Legion Fire Mage Hidden Art Appearance Stars Design Sm

Once you’ve gotten your first hidden appearance, apparently there are additional color variations you can open by running 20 Legion dungeons, doing 200 world quests, or killing 100(?) enemy players. I don’t do pvp, and I’m still dungeoned out (from *cough cough mumble mumble* when we were running them in a row to gear up for raiding). But: I’ve had less much time for playing this year than before, so when I do get a chance I tend to grind hours on end, so perhaps 200 world quests would be doable… 🙂

Image: screenshot from World of Warcraft

This post has been edited for formatting.

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

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Blood Death Knight and Demonology Warlock

I’ve talked before about how some of the Legion artifacts just don’t work for my characters, but sometimes the issues go even deeper.

With Legion, Blizzard declared that they were pushing the idea of “class fantasy:” your druid should feel like a druid and your mage should feel like a mage, not just interchangeable combinations of game mechanics. In many ways, they’ve done an excellent job of bringing flavor and distinctiveness back into the classes we play. But what if Blizzard’s idea of what your class is all about doesn’t fit with your idea, either about the class as a whole or your individual character themselves? That’s what’s happened with a couple of my characters this expansion: my blood death knight and my demonology warlock.

Now, death knights and warlocks have always been “dark” classes. In the game’s story, death knights are the corpses of fallen fighters reanimated by the nefarious Lich King, who then reclaimed their individual will by force. Warlocks are spellcasters who summon demons to do their bidding and dabble in forbidden magic. It’s easy to play both of them as edgy, angst-ridden characters, but before Legion there were other ways you could approach the classes.

Though not an active role-player, I generally have some vague sense of backstory and personality for my characters. My death knight chose to stand strong in the face of the darkness and reclaim her past identity as a righteous defender of the innocent. My warlock was a sort of magical naturalist who viewed her demon minions as interesting specimens to be studied and put to good use, but carefully managed and controlled.

With Legion, it’s gotten harder to maintain those distinct perspectives under the weight of Blizzard’s “class fantasy” push. For both classes, Blizzard has been ramping up the dark, grim, angsty aspects of these classes, and that comes through in the artifact weapons. I’ve used my transmog to push back and reassert how I see my characters and how I want to play them.

For my death knight, I’ve shunned the dark, spiky, skull-heavy style that Blizzard seems to love and put her in glorious golden armor with touches of blue and purple. The artifact axe that blood death knights get does not suit the look at all, so I’ve transmogged over the axe with a gleaming silver and blue mace that feels much better for her.

(Here’s what the weapon looks like un-mogged. Bleah.)

My warlock has been more of a problem. The demonology artifact is a floating skull that follows you around. (Someone at Blizzard is really in love with skulls.) The trouble is that the demonology artifact, unlike all the rest, cannot be transmogrified. It’s either walk around followed by a hideous floating skull or just not use the artifact. (I could, of course, change her spec, but she has always been a demonologist and she always will be, no matter how ugly Blizzard tries to make the spec.)

So, she has simply not used the artifact this expansion. I know that makes her very underpowered and means she misses out on most of the character advancement in this expansion, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay to make her look the way I want. She carries a staff which I have transmogged to one of the most beautiful and extraordinary appearances in my collection. She’s not a character I try to do challenging or group content with, so it’s good enough for me.

How are you feeling about Blizzard’s attempt at class fantasy? It it working for you? Are you rebelling against it? Share your thoughts (and your transmogs!).

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

Human Mistweaver Monk Transmog

My approach to transmogging is decidedly free-form: I typically dislike Blizzard’s ready-made sets and prefer to make my own, usually completely from scratch. The approach has both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, my mix-and-match style is limited by the design changes Blizzard has implemented over the 13 years (gosh!) of World of Warcraft. They show both in the quality of the graphics and in the style and color of the gear designs. On the other, I don’t need to hunt down every single piece in a pre-made set in order to build a transmog.

So far, the approach has worked pretty well for me; I like both the challenge and the freedom. Every now and then, however, I run into a conundrum.

Transmogging my mistweaver monk is problematic because I don’t have a clear idea of what I’d like to do with her. Well, except for one thing: I tend not to like the look of the Legion artifacts (see Erik’s quick primer here), so I pretty much always mog them.

I’ve tried several different looks for her, only to grow unhappy with them. The only constant between them has been color—the sets have been based on yellow or golden brown tones to go with my toon’s blonde hair. The most recent iteration is also color-driven, but this time I tweaked the golden browns into a clearly browner direction and added turquoise details.

WoW Transmog Human Mistw Monk Turq Golden Brown

Often when I don’t have a clear idea or a concept for a transmog, I browse through my wardrobe looking for interesting pieces of armor and try building a set around them. That was also the case with this current brown-turquoise set.

I first noticed the distinctive-looking shoulder armor. Once I found a belt and gloves that matched the shades almost perfectly, I knew I had a working solution. I deliberately picked more non-descript pants and boots, plus a simple staff for the artifact, to draw attention to the colorful armor pieces.

The final touch came from the combination of a chest armor that leaves my monk’s upper arms bare with a turquoise short-sleeved shirt underneath it, so that the shirt covers the bare arms and provides an additional pop of color.

If interested, you can have a look at the set in Wowhead’s Dressing Room. (Oddly, the pants don’t show in full. Hm.)

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

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Retribution Paladin and Arms Warrior

In my last post about transmogrifying with artifact weapons, I mentioned how, with my elemental shaman and arcane mage, I got lucky and the base artifact appearance fit very well with the looks I had already created for the characters. In other cases, the base appearance doesn’t suit my existing look, but one of the unlockable color variants does.

Here, for instance, is my retribution paladin. I had her in a blue and gold set that the red base weapon didn’t match, but the blue alternative suits perfectly.

My arms warrior, on the other hand, wanted the red alternative color to match his red and purple set.

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