As someone sceptical about so many aspects of massively-multiplayer online RPGs, something wholly unique like EVE Online was far more likely to change my mind than a traditional, rooted to the core of its genre like World of Warcraft. Yet, WoW had a specific charm even if it failed to appeal to me on so many fronts. Questioning that charm today, I can think of only one answer: Azeroth itself. Despite having numerous NPC dialogues and quests as “content”, nothing about WoW’s storytelling is as effective as the sprawling and beautiful world rich in lore that it puts you in.
Blizzard created one of the largest virtual worlds of its time with WoW and while the sheer scale of Azeroth contributed to the sense of freedom in making exploration an enjoyable break from the tedious role-playing grind, it also served in creating a sense of place for both the world and the character. Where your character resurrected established your avatar’s sense of place within Azeroth. I personally recall specifically creating a certain kind of character, only so it would spawn me in a specific part of Azeroth. This is helped by the sheer variety of environments and the aesthetic richness that different regions of Azeroth communicates both in an experiential and in a visual sense. Many Warcraft fans complained about the colorful, almost cartoonish color palette for WoW, but it’s also hard to deny the sense of wonder they evoke. Be it the dark forests of Tirisifal Glades or the undead infested Undercity, each area in Azeroth had a sense of place that went far beyond the lore itself.
Content is a strange term in RPGs because it is often equated with the quantity of quests and NPCs you can interact with, rather than the quality and detail to the massive world itself. I personally always saw WoW’s content to be the world itself. The only reason I got the Burning Crusades expansion was for the promise of exploring a new space rather than fighting a boss using a combat system I cared little about. MMORPGs like WoW invest a lot of effort into the sheer amount of text and dialogues to add to that lore, but for me it was always just the little details in the actual world itself which spoke more about those regions than a wall of text. The fallen castle of Lorderon in Tirisifal Glades told a tale of a civilization that used to exist in the past before it collapsed and decayed, permanently absorbed by the surrounding wilderness.
Environmental storytelling is hardly a new thing. Myst already explored similar elements in a very effective manner using its’ static pre-rendered images to largely communicate not just the mood but the subtler aspects of its narrative. But what WoW lacks in detail compared to Myst, it more than makes it up in terms of the sheer scale. No moment in my playthrough exemplified the freedom than when I first got my mount. Just riding through vast spaces at a fast speed gave you a sense of freedom while making it easier for me to access different regions and explore them to know more about the world.
Ultimately, that was what WoW was for me. A storytelling platform that never quite knew where it’s strengths were – always focusing on the verbose, large walls of text in its NPC dialogues, lore and quest lines while largely ignoring the vast, rich world of Azeroth which even a decade later, quietly continues to be the fondest memory of the game itself.