Blog Archives

A Good Bad War

The final part of the War of Thorns pre-release event was released on Tuesday. Other than Elsa Jaina coming to the rescue on her father’s ghost ship, it was yet another exercise of Alliance impotence in the face of the only faction clearly capable of any strategic planning. But, whatever. Sylvanas needs a foil for her antics, and Anduin’s character is about as flimsy as aluminum foil already, so let’s all just buckle in for the inevitable “Sylvanas never prepared to face the power of LOVE!” arc.

What I wanted to talk about today though, was everything leading up to this point.

First, if you have a few minutes, I highly recommend reading A Good War. This is a short story that came with the collector’s edition of Battle for Azeroth, but was recently released for free. I’m going to “spoil” most of the biggest plot points below, but it is essentially “the rest of the story” in terms of the War of Thorns pre-expansion content already on Live servers.

One of the many, many poorly explained (in-game) motivations surrounding the actions of Sylvanas was why we were going to war in the first place. Yes, Azerite is bright and shiny and supposedly useful, but other than vague eye-brightening, is did not seem to have many effects. This is supposedly explained in the Before the Storm book, which I do not have access to, but we do have some quotes and a summary from Wowhead. The main takeaway is that when Sylvanas touched it…

She was no longer a Dark Lady or even a queen. She was a goddess of destruction and creation, and she was stunned that she had never understood how deeply the two were intertwined. Armies, cities, entire cultures – she could raise them.

And fell them. Stormwind would be among the first, yielding its people to swell the numbers of her own.

She could deal death on a scale that —

In short, Sylvanas wants to destroy Stormwind, murder its people, and revive them as Forsaken. She wants to do that because, as explained in A Good War:

[…] “I believe that there will be no permanent peace with the Alliance—not unless we win it on the battlefield on our terms. And believing that, answer this, Saurfang: what use is delaying the inevitable?”

[…]

“She pointed at the map. There was a large marking in Silithus, the place where the Dark Titan’s blade had pierced the world. “No matter what I do, that will change the balance of power. Azerite sightings are coming in from across the world, Saurfang. We still do not know its full potential, nor does the Alliance. We only know that it will create a new generation of warfare. What will war look like in twenty years? In a hundred?”

Saurfang’s voice had dropped to a low growl. “A hundred years of peace is a worthy goal.” But as soon as the words left his mouth, he wanted to take them back. He knew what Sylvanas would say.

And he would agree with it.

The warchief did not disappoint. “If a hundred years of peace ends with a war that annihilates both sides, it was not a worthy goal. It was a coward’s bargain, trading the future for temporary comfort. The Horde’s children, and their children’s children, will curse our memories as they burn.”

This is the first major disconnect I see with people offering opinions concerning the start of the war. Sylvanas is starting a preemptive war, a war of opportunity, one in which the express goal is to completely destroy the Alliance forever, and to chain the people of Stormwind as slaves in undeath. Saurfang doesn’t necessarily know that last bit, but he knows the ultimate goal is the destruction of Stormwind. And he’s fine with that.

Until our navies are rebuilt, the high seas are wild again.

That would take years to change. And once that happened, yes, that stalemate would return, and war would become too costly to pursue.

And by all the spirits, Sylvanas was right, no matter how strongly Saurfang tried to deny it. War would come again one day, and if both factions were strong, that war would raze entire nations. How many different peoples on Azeroth would become extinct in that fight?

But before then, both sides have vulnerabilities and a limited time to exploit them. For a price, we can survive.

Just so we’re all crystal clear on this point: Saurfang and Sylvanas believe there can be no permanent peace between the Alliance and the Horde, that any attempt at peace is a “coward’s bargain,” and that they are actually doing everyone a favor in getting the war “out of the way” now, rather than later. And there are people crawling all over Reddit and elsewhere who suggest that this notion of war “makes sense” and is otherwise perfectly justifiable.

To which I say: I agree. The Alliance should have murdered the orcs as a race when they had the chance, rather than putting them in internment camps. That’s what we’re saying, right? There can be no permanent peace between the Alliance and the Horde because the Horde is a brutal faction of war-mongering monsters with no redeeming qualities. Well, maybe Taurens, but thus far they are simply a gelded race who lashed their ropes to a warchief that has zero respect for them.

In fairness, it’s possible Saurfang did not know about Sylvanas’ ultimate goal of torching Stormwind.

“And that is how you defeat Stormwind.” Saurfang was in awe. It was brilliant. Destroying the Alliance wouldn’t take a thousand victories. It would take one. With a single strategic push, the pressure on the Alliance would cripple them for years, just as long as they could not conjure any miracles on the battlefield. “You destroy the Alliance from within. Their military might counts for nothing if their members stand alone. Then we strike peace with the individual nations and carve them away from the Alliance, piece by piece.”

“If you want your enemy to bleed to death, you inflict a wound that cannot heal. That is why I need you to make the plan, High Overlord,” Sylvanas said. “The moment our strike begins, there will be no turning back. We can divide the Alliance only if the war to conquer Darnassus does not unite them against us. That only happens if the Horde wins an honorable victory, and I am not blind—the Horde does not trust me to wage war that way.”

Saurfang does not ponder on what it would mean to be a citizen of the Divided Alliance. I find it difficult to believe it would be pleasant, regardless of the Horde “striking peace with the individual nations.” It seems especially foolish considering how Saurfang already agreed with Sylvanas that peace was impossible anyway, given the atrocities committed by both factions up to this point. I have to imagine the point is that these nations would sue for peace because they were otherwise forever incapable of creating war. Peace for some, the torch for others.

In any case, we can see Teldrassil was intended to be taken as a means to shatter the Alliance with infighting. Crucially, the plan also hinged on being able to kill Malfurion and/or Tyrande. Taking out these faction leaders was not going to be a bonus, but a requirement. This was not explicitly called out in-game or even in the books, until later. When Saurfang hesitates in finishing off Malfurion, and allows him and Tyrande to escape, he Sylvanas reflects:

This battle was not about a piece of land. Even Saurfang knew that. Taking the World Tree was a way to inflict a wound that could never heal. Losing their homes and their leaders would have ended the kaldorei as a nation, if not a people. Even the loss of one leader would have been enough to create a tide of despair. The wounds of this battle would have bled, festered, decayed, and rotted the Alliance from the inside out. Anduin Wrynn would have lashed out in a final, desperate war, looking for a miracle, because only a miracle would save them.

But a miracle already had. A miracle granted by the honorable hand of a foolish old orc.

Incidentally, the constant referring to Saurfang as “honorable” is downright comical. Huge sections of A Good War talk about rogues sneaking about, assassinating targets with poison, and so on. Tossing an axe into the back of Malfurion is about as dishonorable as, you know, all of the actions that led to that moment in the first place. I dunno, maybe there is room in the definition of honor for waging preemptive war and “ending the kaldorei as a people.”

Anyway, when Saurfang comes back empty-handed, Sylvanas conceals her rage:

This conquest of Darnassus would rattle the kaldorei people. They would grieve for their lost, fear for their imprisoned, and tremble at the thought of the Horde ransacking their homes. But they would not fall to despair. Not anymore. Malfurion’s impossible survival would give them hope. Their wound would heal.

Even in this dark hour, they would say, Elune still watches over us.

And that was almost certainly true, wasn’t it? Elune had intervened. Perhaps she had even stayed Saurfang’s killing blow. And she wouldn’t be the only force beyond the Alliance to oppose Sylvanas’s true objective.

Sylvanas’s anger grew cold.

She had known this would happen. It had simply come sooner than expected. That was all.

“Sylvanas’s true objective.” A bit ominous, no? I am still assuming this to be “torching Stormwind and raising all of its people as undead,” but it could be foreshadowing of another sort. Possibly one with tentacles.

The book leaves out the conversation between Sylvanas and Delaryn depicted in the Warbringer video, but it expands on what happens immediately afterwards, when Sylvanas burns the World Tree. It is worth posting it in full:

He struggled to form words. Finally, pure hatred made him spit out a condemnation. “You have damned the Horde for a thousand generations. All of us. And for what? For what?”

Her expression didn’t waver. “This was your battle. Your strategy. And your failure. Darnassus was never the prize. It was a wedge that would split the Alliance apart. It was the weapon that would destroy hope. And you, my master strategist, gave that up to spare an enemy you defeated. I have taken it back.

When they come for us, they will do so in pain, not in glory. That may be our only chance at victory now.”

He wanted to kill her. He wanted to declare mak’gora and spill her blood in front of Horde and Alliance alike.

But she was right.

A wound that can never heal. That had always been the plan. And Saurfang had failed to inflict it. The story of Malfurion’s miraculous survival would have spread among the armies of the Alliance as proof that they were blessed in their cause.

War would still have come. That had been certain the moment Saurfang had led the Horde into Ashenvale. And it would have been what he had feared most: the meat grinder, spending so many lives to achieve so little, ending with a whimper, and thus dooming future generations to a war nobody could win. Once again, Sylvanas had seen it before he had.

And so . . .

She had sent a message. This was not a war that would end in a stalemate. Not now. The Alliance and the Horde would both understand that the only choices were victory or death. Lok‐tar ogar.

If World of Warcraft were not an MMO, I might have been excited at this turn of events. This feels like the penultimate chapter, the crest of a wave. Things will be sorted out once and for all.

But it won’t.

There will be an expansion after this one, and another after that. There will still be the Horde faction, and Forsaken running around in it, blighting things with Tauren chewing their cuds in the background. While I am convinced Sylvanas will no longer be warchief by the end of Battle for Azeroth, I can’t be certain whether it will be due to some impossibly sparkly “redemption” arc or because she went into hiding.

What I am certain of is that the Alliance will continue to be the bumbling white hats forever extending their hands in love and friendship and peace, only to get shit on by the Horde time and again. That is in spite of the fact that there should be no redemption for the Horde this time. And I don’t mean because Sylvanas burned the World Tree with all the civilians inside. I mean because the most honorable orc in all the Horde agreed that peace with the Alliance is impossible, and thus started a preemptive war in an attempt to destroy the faction permanently.

Like, I don’t think I can stress this enough. Even “preemptive war” makes it sound like the Horde were simply striking before the Alliance can move their war machines into position. To be clear, there were no Alliance war machines. The Alliance did not even really have access to Azerite. Sylvanas had ZERO Casus belli, and Saurfang the Honorable Orc drafted the battle strategy with minimum fuss. In fact, he was happy to do so, because he thought it would save Horde lives down the road. Which is all “justifiable” until you allow the Alliance the same courtesy.

By all rights, this expansion should end with the genocide of all orcs and Forsaken.

I suppose we’ll begin to see how it plays out in less than a week. If the Horde skates without Jaina or Malfurion torching the Barrens though, I will be very… not surprised at all.

Consequences for crimes is so 2015.

Main Story Sidequest

Against all odds, I remain playing FF14. Some days. For about an hour or two at a time.

Had I stuck with the Pugilist, I would have unsubscribed a month ago. Instead, I decided to try out the Archer and… I’m actually having fun. Usually. The mobility of instant-casts makes up for a lot of what I can only describe as the “jankiness” of FF14’s combat system. No attacks seem to have any weight to them – they are all high-pitched squeals and brightly flashing lights.

There is also an extremely noticeable delay in state-based attacks. For example, the Archer has a Kill Shot/Execute ability that’s off the global cooldown which triggers at 20% HP. Which is fine… except that it always lights up almost a full second after the target is below 20%. Combined with the default 2.5 second GCD, and enemy attack animations not being synced with their damage, the game feels like you’re playing with 250ms lag all the time.

I continue to slog through things though, because everyone talks about the fantastic story.

Know what I did on Monday? I /danced with some Sylphs to earn their trust. Then did some fetch quests for said Sylphs. Then helped out a bar owner, which involved talking to half a dozen people around the world to find out where a particular NPC went so I could return an earring. Then I helped the NPC make some liquor as a gift. Then went on a side quest to catch a traitor in the woods, ostensibly as something to do to pass the time. Finally, I found the the missing Sylph elder hiding (spoilers!) in another mandatory dungeon.

Best. Writing. Ever.

It really isn’t. I’m too committed to seeing this experiment to its conclusion, to see for myself if there is any redeeming value in playing FF14 for its story, to quit now. But I really, really want to. I have to imagine that SWTOR would be a better use of my time at this point.

Still, I shall overcome. With active, conscious effort.

What is Dragon Age Even About?

I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”

Except that is not really true.

I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.

I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.

For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?

But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.

If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?

I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.

Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…

That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.

Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.

Bioshock Infinite DLC Cometh

I am not entirely sure how I feel about the news that Bioshock Infinite will be getting three DLC packs in the near future. Actually, I do: a distinct lack of fucks given.

Almost the definition of fan service.

Can this be considered fan service?

The first DLC is a story-less horde mode that will subject you to more of the banal combat system. The second and third are portions of a presumably expanded narrative, although who can really tell what is going on in a time-traveling alternate-dimension throw-everything-at-the-wall plot? But, hey! We’re going to see a pre-destruction Rapture! You know, a throwback to the games that were actually good.

To be fair, Bioshock Infinite did do some things right. The visuals were gorgeous, Elizabeth made the game feel more human, Columbia had brilliant imagery, the music was fantastic, and so on. It is just that Kotaku’s recent interview with Ken Levine boiled my residual bile concerning the plot back up into white-hot incandescent rage. I was fine all the way up until the final paragraph:

“I walked away from BioShock Infinite actually very, very satisfied mostly because of the debate that people were having, not just about what happens in the game, but about what the meaning of it was. That we gave something for people to argue about. We trusted the gamers enough to say, ‘You know what? There’s some room here for you.’ If people walk away frustrated that we didn’t explain everything to them, it probably wasn’t a game for them.”

That noise you just heard is the sound of an aneurysm.

Spoiler-Alert-Red

No, Levine, you do not get to fucking say that. As I pointed out months ago, the plot of Infinite is complete garbage. The “room” left for gamers is for them to refuse to apply critical reasoning to their experience, thereby passively constructing a better ending which doesn’t exist inside the actual game.

I can get behind a narrative that explores the descent of a man’s soul to the point that he believes unmaking his existence would be better for everyone involved. We can all probably emphasize with that, regretting having done things or failing to do so. That was not Bioshock Infinite’s plot. The real plot was this:

Finally, let me kind of wrap all these various ingredients up into one complete shit sandwich. What exactly is the message being conveyed here in Bioshock Infinite? What is the theme, the moral of the story?

At the beginning, I almost felt like Booker was trying to make up for his sins, to seek forgiveness and redemption, to put things right. But what is Booker’s actual crime that he is repenting? To stop a person he never turned out to be from entrapping the person he is into a crime a third version must now stop? Booker choosing to be drowned seems a noble sacrifice until you realize what exactly he is undoing: choices he never made. Or, even worse, stopping a man (Comstock) he had no choice into becoming. There is never any “good Comstock” because apparently being bad is a constant. Fate. Predestination.

What is the message here about personal responsibility, free will, and choice? You have none because Constants and Variables. And suddenly, infinite universes means you are implicitly responsible to consequences [of actions] that you never chose and never happened in your own universe. Do you remember when you donated to charity instead of setting a baby on fire? Well, you should feel real bad anyway because the not-you baby-arsonist is running amok and it’s up to you to stop yourself like you already did by not setting the baby on fire in the first place. GUYZ, DEEPEST PLOT EVAR.

There is no route from Infinite’s plot to a good story. None. The “grand redemption” is paying for mistakes you explicitly did not commit in this universe. Even in my most charitable reading of the game – that Booker acknowledges the potential darkness in his soul – leads to the same asinine moral conclusions. Because Booker can choose evil, and did so in an alternate universe, it’s better to kill all possible versions of himself before he can make that potential choice. O… kay? All of us have darkness inside; quite literally who we are is determined by how we manage that darkness. Simply choosing to have it never happen in the first place is an easy, childish fantasy.

And don’t get me started on how moral responsibility can possibly exist in a deterministic universe.

Remember to feel guilty for killing them in an alternate universe you weren't a part of.

Remember to feel guilty for killing them in an alternate universe you weren’t a part of.

But you know what? This is not even about Infinite anymore. This is about the hubris of an artist to paint his/her deficiencies as strengths, thereby negating any difference between good or bad works. It is me telling you that if you do not find this argument convincing, it is your fault. “If you don’t like this thing I made, it must not have been for you, and thus you’re an idiot for having bought it.” That’s not how this shit works! And besides, Levine, you already told us everything relevant in the game proper: namely, that you’re the next M. Night Shamalanananon. A couple of great works, followed by a more crappy one, and all of a sudden (spoiler alert) the trees are killing everyone.

The tragedy in all this is that we already know who ultimately wins the historical narrative. It has been four months since the debacle started, and all the comment sections in the DLC posts are filled with those gushing over the “deep” ending. And why not? Those who were disgusted as I am have long since stopped caring, or are embarrassed to silence that they still do, leaving the uncouth Philistines to drown in their Confirmation Bias echo chambers. And that is how this whole thing will play out: a great game with a good plot that sold millions of copies. Just like 50 Shades of Grey, Diablo 3, and EA’s Sim City.

Constant and variables, amirite? Christ, how depressing.