Seven years ago a story began in the world of computer gaming. A classic RTS series began to branch off into attempting to tell a story via strategic gameplay, a story that would capture the minds of a generation of gamers, and introduce more people to the world of Azeroth.
The fate of Prince Arthas Menethil is not a unique one in the canon of storytelling. The trope of the tragic, fallen hero is as the earliest known oral histories. From Lucifer to Sauron to Darth Vader, our mythos are replete with the story of the hero whose very pathological failings, whose hubris, leads him or her to the path of darkness. Gamers watched, helpless behind the fourth wall, as Arthas slipped from the tightwire of righteous vengeance into anger, hatred, madness, and finally, desolation.
Since November of last year, the entire game world of World of Warcraft has been focused on a single theme: the Lich King, that malign entity that has absorbed the identity of Arthas Menethil. The story begun in Warcraft III has finally come to its apex: the gates of the Lich King’s stronghold are open, and the path to the Frozen Throne has begun to clear.
The game itself, however, is what has evolved the most. When World of Warcraft started its run five years ago, the MMO genre was a particularized, specialized genre more familiar to those that had played early social gaming experiments like MUDs and MUSHes. The allure of the social world is that traditional gameplay and structure can be sacrificed for what is called “emergent gameplay,” or inventive or interesting ways to play traditional games.
World of Warcraft changed this by opening up gameplay to those who were not willing or able to sink massive amounts of time into the game… slowly. The myth of the “hardcore” gamer is slow to die, or the idea that raiding requires a significant investment of time, persist even in the much-more casual friendly world of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. To that end, the WoW developers have undertaken a mighty endeavor: make the endgame content accessible to all players, regardless of “dedication,” while retaining enough high-difficulty rewards to fascinate more intense players that desire more of a challenge.
The third (and presumably final, cough Sunwell cough only a setback cough) patch of Wrath of the Lich King is Patch 3.3.x, “Fall of the Lich King.” The introductory cinematic is simple, yet tremendously emotionally effective: Terenas Menethil appears in ghostly form to speak to what is left of his son and heir within the Lich King. He warns him that justice is coming. Arthas’ soulless eyes of blue fire crackle with intensity, contempt, and… fear? Worry? His plots have been foiled at every turn, from the Nexus War to the Wrathgate to Light’s Hope Chapel. His lieutenants Kel’Thuzad and Anub’Arak are vanquished. Even the driving force behind the creation of the Lich King, Yogg-Saron, rots in a pool of his own vileness in the Titan vault of Ulduar. These are strange aeons indeed.
The patch itself brings a major overhaul not just in the story of the World of Azeroth, a story which has remained somewhat static since the end of The Frozen Throne over half a decade ago. Players are now encouraged to run dungeons more and more often, able to link with players from all across their battlegroup via the new Dungeon Finder interface. Tanks and healers (understandably) have an easier time finding random group: waits of over a minute are uncommon, and waits over over ten seconds (!) are rare for well-geared players. Getting the gear necessary to play at the highest levels of PVE and PVP play has never been easier: with unlimited dungeon runs rewarding literally handfuls of in-game gear currency (Emblems of Triumph and Frost) at a time, outfitting a newly-leveled character to Icecrown-ready gear levels is a matter of hours and days rather than months. Accessibility of the endgame has been increased.
This has generated no small amount of ire among those who feel entitled to unique or special status for being an “endgame-minded” player. On the other hand, there is a greater “investment,” emotionally, in the conclusion of the Lich King’s story arc than there was for the original World of Warcraft endgame, or even the slightly-retconned Outlands storyline, and for that, giving up some hardcore exclusivity at the highest levels for including more people in that story is not just good business… it is good storytelling. And that is the most impressive thing about the “Fall of the Lich King” patch: the presence of a satisfying conclusory arc to a story that has enthralled us for a long, long time.