The Lich King and the Light

The following is a post about Wrath of the Lich King, which is the expansion to World of Warcraft that I’ve been playing. It might have some spoilers.

The moral ambiguity so far is incredible. Well, I say ‘moral ambiguity’ but the lack of ethics required to complete a few of the quests is so severe that even the quest givers themselves notice it.

Things I’ve been asked to do so far that aren’t actually new to this storyline:
  • Smash eggs and kill the young of an enemy dragon
  • Use biological weapons on both enemy prisoners and enemy combatants
  • Test biological weapons on innocent wildlife
Things I’ve been asked to do that made me say ‘Holy shit!’ and wonder if I was being observed for a psych experiment:
  • Capture and torture a prisoner at the request of somebody whose ‘code of conduct’ prevents him from doing it himself. The prisoner screams and begs for mercy.
  • Attack, torture and kill an enemy torturer in his own prison.
  • Kill an ally who has been kidnapped and mind-raped, at her own request.
  • Sneak into an enemy camp to murder our own imprisoned allies, when rescuing them would be just as easy.
Things I’ve done where the yuckiness was only visible after the act was done:
  • Kill an enemy soldier who was being coerced by threats to his family into working for the enemy, and who was thus trying to subvert the enemy from within.
  • Be manipulated into murdering an enemy leader who was starting to reconsider her position.
Things I’ve done that have potentially horrifying consequences:
  • Find and have translated a hideous book full of names of traitors– including many people previously unsuspected. Supposed traitors. I mean, the book claims they work for the enemy, and the person I gave the book to talked about all the executions he was going to order as a result.
  • Agree to support the current warleader’s advisor, potentially against the warleader, because the warleader is making dangerous choices.

I’ve wondered repeatedly if the content designers at Blizzard are blind to all the ickiness they’re incorporating into their quests. I mean, you have to do most of these horrible things in order to get the Achievements for each area!

But I’ve seen several conversations between NPCs by now that suggest they’re fully aware of what they’re doing. Each conversation features an old soldier and a young leader. Both roles can legitimately claim to have experience with darkness, although the nature of each character’s fall from and restoration to grace is quite different. The young leader observes that victory rewards those who do what is expedient, that the end justifies the means. The old soldier argues the other side: some means are never justified, or perhaps, the means are the end: what they fight ultimately is the consequence of a means.

Narratively, I don’t know what to expect. It’s because of the medium. If it were a novel, I’d expect a theme to be underscored and supported by the plot and climax, an answer to the conflict mentioned above, either simple or complex. In a single-player rpg, I might expect each theme to recieve its own development and story, based on player choices.

But this is an MMORPG, and I’m both audience and player, and the scope of PC choice is very limited within the boundaries of the social pressures of the MMO. I don’t think I can actually influence the plots, only choose to follow them. And I am an avid audience; I want to follow all the stories. But… I don’t know that I want to be the character enabling those stories.

I suspect this is something Blizzard has struggled with as well. And maybe they’re just going to tell the single story of the novel format, with the young leader dancing with darkness before truly understanding the wisdom of the elder (rather than illustrating a different path for the PC to follow). Maybe even those of us who used the torture rod will be able to be redeemed alongside him. But that would make as many people unhappy as the multiple-stories-to-follow method, I’m sure…