Telling History through Memory: Deathwing
Our past isn’t the only one. Most of the virtual worlds that exist through video games have histories of their own. Some are long and detailed and only individuals truly dedicated to the lore can possibly know the entire history of their world today, be it Azeroth, Ferelden, or Norrath. Despite the fact that this lore is created by people and not a record of actual events, one recent episode reminded us though that history, even of a virtual world, is a work of memory. A player at the last Blizzcon stood up and corrected one of the developers about a character’s lore. The player was right, the developer was corrected, and the player went down in fame as the Red-Shirt Guy and has a non-player character representation of himself now officially stationed in Ironforge. Even the very creator of history failed to remember how things had actually happened.
History as memory. For some reason, kids in school today think of history as a list of facts, most of them composed of dates. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. History is actually a lot more complicated than that as my Ancient History students come to learn. Last time, I spoke about how Civilization V can help us think about our own views of history and perhaps challenge them (and those of our students). Games can help us see that history is actually a work of memory and narrative, even a game as mainstream as World of Warcraft.
In December, Blizzard released the latest expansion for World of Warcraft in which a dragon named Deathwing comes to the land of Azeroth and shakes its foundations. The world is completely changed – there are chasms where there were mountains before, lava where there was grass, grass where there was lava, and also just changes that have happened over the five years we’ve been inhabiting the land. Azshara has been taken by the Horde and hosts the Vegas-style pleasure center of the Goblin billionaire. Westfall has seen a massive build-up of Stromwind troops and although Van Cleef is dead, his daughter is now lurking about and pulling the strings. Hillsbrad Foothills has been ransacked by the Forsaken and completely unsafe for anyone of the Alliance.
For the players, these changes happened overnight. Literally. One night it was Azeroth of the past, then the next morning it was Azeroth of the present. The player never actually saw the changes while they were taking place. He only sees the result. So what actually happened the day Deathwing came while the player was comfortably asleep in his bed (or nervously drinking Red Bulls in anticipation)?
Blizzard tells the history of that day through their quest storytelling. In much of Azeroth, a player is taken through the story of the aftermath quest-by-quest and they watch the landscape around them change to reflect their progress through the story. But these quests still start after the day Deathwing came, “D-Day” if you will. What happened on that day?
The only way to find out is to listen to characters who were there and hear their memory of the events. One particularly quest in the Badlands is entitled “The Day Deathwing Came” and gives the player three different memories of that day. The quest allows the player to somewhat enter the memory of each character and see Deathwing as he attacks the Badlands. Each character has a different story to tell. One speaks of how he chased him across the zone to go punch him in the face. One claims to have beaten Deathwing in a knife fight. One remembers shrinking the world so he could reach the sun and grab the dragon. All of their tales are fantastical, but they are how they remember D-Day, or maybe, how they want to remember D-Day and how they want you to as well. As the historians we can find in our libraries, these characters tell history through their own lens.
Other quests in the game now will show flashbacks to the world before Deathwing or have text that talks about the trauma that resulted from his attack, but none of them make such a formal attempt to impress upon the player the events of that day. No players finish this quest believing the stories they have just heard, but they are still greatly impacted by the way Deathwing and the characters are portrayed. Through this fantastical telling of one historical day, the players and the characters are both empowered and the villain is reduced to something manageable. In these histories, D-Day becomes not a moment of terror and helplessness, but an opportunity for action and heroism.
Which was it? Were these three characters really so brave as they say or were they shaking in their boots like the rest of Azeroth? We will never know. Never. The past is lost to us except in the narratives told by those who were there – not only Azeroth’s past is lost, but our own as well. Every history we read has been filtered through someone’s memory, has been interpreted and adjusted for context. Students either forget or don’t realize that it’s more complicated to tell the past than just to say what happened. This quest gives us a lovely exercise in looking at bias and the tendency of narrative to go beyond facts and tell history as a story.