The Lost World(s) of Azeroth

My time as a World of Warcraft raider was fairly brief: it lasted about an expansion and a half, before I stopped doing WoW’s raids with organized groups altogether. Getting together ten to twenty-five skilled, max level, kitted out players in the appropriate roles on a regular basis was exhausting, even if you weren’t in charge of organizing it. Of that time, an even smaller portion of it was as a “progression raider”: a raider who worked on tackling the newest raids as they were released, aiming to be one of the first on your server (or even the world) to beat a given fight. It was stressful as hell, but also incredibly rewarding.

There are tons of fights that stick in my mind, boss fights that were particularly testing or satisfying. Mimiron, Heigan the Unclean, Kael’thas, Yogg-Saron. But for me, none match the wonder and mystique that surrounded Algalon the Observer, Herald of the Titans… or as the developers aptly christened him in the days leading up to his release, “Algalon the Raid Destroyer.” Algalon was the secret boss of the raid Ulduar, the dungeon released while I was at the peak of my progression raiding days.

The process of even reaching him was an ordeal: first, you had to defeat one of the bosses on your way into Ulduar with an intentionally bad strategy, then you had to defeat the four Keeper bosses in the raid via their special “Hard Mode.” If you got that far, congratulations! You were allowed to attempt Algalon. Oh, but only for one hour: an hour after you first engage Algalon, he departs, and he won’t come back. For a week. I did a few Hard Modes of the Keepers in my day, but it was only years after his relevance that I finally saw Algalon first hand.

Still, I watched with fascination as other guilds made attempts on Algalon, and ravenously devoured the storytelling that surrounded him. In a game that paraded one villain after another before the playerbase, only to have them killed, Algalon the Observer was a real standout. For one, he wasn’t a villain: he was a servant of the Titans, the world-forgers who created the titular World of Warcraft (Azeroth), and has come to see how the world’s doing. The answer is “badly,” and he quickly comes to the conclusion that Azeroth has been contaminated beyond repair. There’s nothing for it: the Titans will have to unmake the world, and start anew. This is the source of the players’ quarrel with him: the denizens of Azeroth, naturally, aren’t that into the idea of the world being unmade, and so they take him on.

The other interesting thing is that you don’t kill Algalon. As a matter of fact, you don’t even defeat him. Mechanically, you “defeat” him: you reduce his HP to zero, and the fight is over.  But this is a fight against a servant of those who make worlds. Through the course of the fight, the Herald of the Titans transforms the room you’re fighting in into outer space, and then strikes you with sword-like constellations, summons black holes, and throws supernovas. “Beating” him was never really in the cards. However, faced your defiance, Algalon becomes convinced that you might be able to save the planet… and even if you can’t, he has to let you try, because your passion for life and this world is too beautiful to simply snuff out.

Algalon the Observer assured us that our planet would be spared: the “re-origination” he was sent to prepare for wouldn’t come. It wasn’t true. He may have spared us the attentions of the Titans within World of Warcraft, but the titans without had other ideas. A mere four months after they released Algalon and his promise of safety to Azeroth, Blizzard announced a new expansion: Cataclysm. The main feature of Cataclysm was a redesign of the old world- a touchup (or in some cases complete redesign) of the zones that made up the original game. When the expansion dropped, the old version of that world was gone entirely: there was no going back, whether you bought the expansion or not. It changed for everyone.

Like any MMO, WoW went through tons of changes over the years, and it’s hard to say if it was still the same world it began as by that point anyway. After six years, the game was a veritable Ship of Theseus: so many parts had been swapped out or altered, but it had happened gradually, in bits and pieces, so it didn’t feel like things were changing that much. The systems were certainly dramatically different, but the world itself felt like it hadn’t changed, and to the player base, how it felt was all that mattered. When Cataclysm came out, it hit all at once: such an extensive transformation, so many old things gone. It was shocking, and for some, it was too much. They walked away.

Cataclysm made World of Warcraft a better game. The team at Blizzard wasn’t wrong: if they wanted the game to keep moving forward, they couldn’t ignore what a mess those old zones were compared to the work they were doing after years of practice. The new versions are tighter, cleaner, and generally better in almost every way compared to their old counterparts. It wasn’t about better, though. It was about a broken promise; it was about what Algalon told us after weeks of beating our heads against a savagely difficult fight to save our fictional world. He told us we won, he told us we’d be okay. And Blizzard, through him, told us that this broken world, this mess, was worth loving and protecting.

At this point, that betrayal is ancient history. These days, I pop in every six months or so to wander Azeroth, and it’s always a positive experience. The New Old World is a pleasure to explore, and there’s always regions they’ve added since my last visit that are yet unexplored and full of mystery for me. Still, a bit of my heart twinges when I wander through Duskshore, or walk the roads of the Northern Barrens. “The Barrens used to be one zone,” I recall to myself, “with no South or North. Just one long, endless, empty field.” Now, it’s two war-torn regions divided by a burning chasm, with a rich jungle oasis and several battlefields. Better, but… different. It’s a strange feeling. When I really want to feel nostalgic, I head to the Outlands, or to Northrend: areas just old enough to be from my glory days, but untouched by the Great Rework.

These old feelings flare up again when I think about the vanilla servers that Blizzard have promised. After multiple (questionably legal) private attempts to resurrect vanilla WoW through servers like Nighthaven and Nostalrius, Blizzard committed to running servers themselves that contained the original WoW experience, undoctored by the expansions that have come since, and certainly untouched by Cataclysm’s Great Rework. It’s great that they want to cater to that audience, and I wonder if they finally learned the lesson that we once taught Algalon: that even a broken world is worth loving, and holding onto. A lesson they wrote themselves without its ramifications sinking in.

But I worry that fans are setting themselves up for a fall. It’s such a dangerous thing to chase after older versions of games. What does “vanilla WoW” mean, and when did it cease to be “vanilla?” Are we talking launch World of Warcraft: version 1.1.0? I’m sure someone’s “real” WoW was 1.9.0 and the Ruins of Ahn’Qiraj. And of course some people will want the last release: 1.12.0, right before the first expansion came out. Whatever Blizzard decides on, some people will be unhappy.

That’s just the base game, however. For lots of people, Burning Crusade was where WoW came into its own. If you ask me, Wrath of the Lich King were the best days of that game’s life. There are those who loved the game right up until Mists of Pandaria came out, because adding panda people was just too ridiculous. It’s not hyperbolic to say people could pin it down to a specific version number. I sure as hell can: give me 3.1.1a, during the height of the Ulduar craze, but before they started nerfing Priests. That was WoW at its best, to me.

Chasing nostalgia is a dangerous game. Even if you can nail down a version that most people would be happy with, it’s like a deep sea fish: to remove it from its context is to destroy it. Just as the pressures deep underwater are what give that fish its shape, the systems and content of old WoW builds are a reflection of a moment in time. Pull them into the present, and they become distorted and ugly. So, do you make accommodations? Do you slip some modern systems into old WoW- just enough to make it palatable? Can you even do that without people who want the “authentic” experience rioting? It truly feels like an impossible task.

It’s August 31st, 2016. Seven years after my progression raiding days, I walk into the Violet Citadel in Azeroth’s magical floating city, Dalaran. I walk up to the NPC waiting there, and turn in my quest. It’s the quest Algalon gives you after you beat him: after all this time, I’m finally completing it. As the quest completes, a scripted event plays, and I witness in person what I’ve already seen in video a dozen times. The mage Rhonin announces this to the world, in a loud and clear voice:

“Citizens of Dalaran! Lift your eyes to the skies and observe! Today our world’s destruction has been averted in defiance of our very makers! Algalon the Observer, herald of the titans, has been defeated by our brave comrades in the depths of the titan city of Ulduar. Algalon was sent here to judge the fate of our world. He found a planet whose races had deviated from the titans’ blueprints. A planet where not everything had gone according to plan. Cold logic deemed our world not worth saving. Cold logic, however, does not account for the power of free will. It’s up to each of us to prove this is a world worth saving. That our lives… our lives are worth living.”

I can’t argue with Rhonin. I love Azeroth: I love the World of Warcraft. It is absolutely worth saving. The only question is: which version do we save?