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On July 3, Blizzard Entertainment released the videogame Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Blizzard shipped over four million units of the game and has sold over a million copies in less than a month to Warcraft devotees. It was one of the largest initial shipments ever for a computer game.
My brother introduced me to the Warcraft series in late 1995 with Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. I quickly became hooked on this incredible game set in the fantasy world of Azeroth. For years I waited for the next installment of the Warcraft saga. I rushed to the store the day Reign of Chaos was released, plunked down my money and went home to the computer - and was sorely disappointed.
Part of Warcraft II's appeal was its dual narrative of the ongoing war between the armies of Orcs (musclebound green-skinned warriors invading Azeroth through a dimensional rift) and the Human inhabitants of the land. A player had the option at the game's start to choose sides: either the stalwart Human armies and their allies or the marauding hordes of Orcs. The world of Azeroth was a Manichaean one: choose good, or choose evil. There were no hermeneutical shades of gray in the metaphysics of this fantasy world. Upon the completion of the campaign, the User witnessed an animated cinematic of either the culmination of Orcish imperialism or victory by the Humans. This bifurcation in the destiny of the land of Azeroth continued into the expansion set for Warcraft II, the mission sets of which again concluded with a different denouement for each faction.
Like its predecessors, the visuals, music and play of Warcraft III are an amazing achievement. The price of the game was money well spent simply for its astounding 3-D graphics. Its gameplay is close enough to the prior games of the series to be familiar, but has sufficient changes to intrigue old fans. Blizzard has certainly outdone itself on these aspects of the game and fully deserves the millions it is reaping.
The different narratives are now gone, replaced by a single storyline in the game. Now no choice is offered: the User must play a campaign controlling the Human armies and a campaign controlling the Orcs. A new race - the Night Elves - has been added, giving the User control over a campaign involving an army of purple-skinned women in armored bikinis.
The game reveals that hat the Orcs were not so evil after all. They had been corrupted by the Burning Legion, a demonic army that had attempted to destroy Azeroth during Human prehistory only to suffer defeat by the magic of the Night Elves. The Orc chieftan Thrall has rejected the allures offered by the demons and has re-introduced his noble savages to their ancient shamanistic culture. Meanwhile, the Burning Legion has again attempted to destroy Azeroth, this time using an Undead army which has attracted the Marilyn Manson contingent of the land. The Undead are altogether creepy, a computer rendered successor to the nightmares of reanimated flesh of Night of the Living Dead and Frankenstein. It is established early in the game that the Undead are the true villains.
The User controls the Human forces in the game's initial campaign, which concludes with a patricide/regicide committed by the human Prince Arthas after his possession by a soul-stealing sword straight out of Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer series. Later missions involve the maturation of Thrall into a leader and the mobilization of sentient trees by the Night Elves. Soon the three races learn from Medivh - the human wizard whose lusts for power opened the dimensional rift to Azeroth, thus starting the whole mess - that they must unite in order to stop the Undead.
This Hegelian union of the three factions - the cultures of the Orcs, Humans, and Night Elves synthesizing into an army that alone has the powers to defeat the Burning Legion and the Undead - is the crescendo of the developing narrative of the game. The game concludes with the somewhat trite observation by Medivh that all three races had to put aside their ancient hatreds in order to defeat their implacable common foe. Hours of gameplay conclude with a clichéd lecture by a raven-metamorphosing sorcerer who grasps for the status of a tragic figure.
I would like to admit that I learned this from completing the game. Unfortunately, I never completed all the missions and instead used the "cheat" codes to view the wonderfully animated cut-scenes and cinematic sequences that detail the narrative. Why would a die-hard Warcraft fan resort to such measures?
Because to solve the game, you must play a campaign as the Undead. And that is the root of my problem with Warcraft III.
One can certainly play videogames in the role of Erwin Rommel or Georgy Zukov without approving the regimes they defended. Likewise, one can overlook the previous barbarity of the Orcish hordes by focusing on Thrall's valor, his cunning, his loyalty. One might note that the Orcish armor is similar to that worn by the Mongol hordes, a sadistic lot who nonetheless strike a chord in the heart of every male who ever dreamt of picking up a sword. And the P.C. crowd would absolutely love the shamanistic culture of the Orcs and their status as the "Other" in the land of Azeroth. Seems these immigrants through the dimensional rift could garner the admiration of both Ted Nugent and Edward Said.
But the Undead are an entirely different lot. The most ardent moral relativist would be hard pressed to explain away the awfulness of their society. The Undead sacrifice the Humans to their evil masters. They violate graveyards and build monsters out of dismembered corpses. They are misogynists who slaughter the comely Night Elves. They pollute and fester the environment of Azeroth. They marginalized the shamanistic culture of the Orcs. They worship and serve powerful demons who completely lack the literary panache of Milton's Satan and who steal Arthas's soul without the offer of a Faustian bargain. In the faux-Zoroastrian cosmology of Azeroth, the powerful demons striving to rule the world are opposed not by powerful angels, but only the remnants of three armies.
Imagine purchasing a videogame based upon the War on Terror that requires you to assume the role of Mohammed Atta or the thugs who jumped Johnny Spann. The Undead and bin Laden’s ilk occupy the same bottom rung in the moral order of the universe, with the sole difference that Osama might not be a rank corpse quite yet.
What had initially appeared to be a Hegelian union of the Humans, Orcs and Night Elves instead becomes a nihilistic saga where the User must assume the role of the vile Undead in order to complete the game. The User is thrust into a universe where no moral choice is offered and the sole imperative is to "just win, baby," to fulfill Al Davis's command by leading the vermin of Azeroth in a campaign in order to complete the game. This End, in and of itself, is all that matters: to beat your opponent, no matter who it may be; to prove you're a superior tactical mind, despite who you might command; to step beyond the good and evil of the metaphysics of Azeroth for the sole purpose of bragging rights regarding a high score and who solved the game first. The aptly titled Reign of Chaos is just that: the maelstrom which has descended on Azeroth claims far too many heroes, reveals dark and sinister hidden powers conspiring the destruction of the land, and ends in a climax marred by the fact that the player was complicit in summoning the arch-demon who is finally destroyed by the combined armies.
The next installment in the series, Worlds of Warcraft, will pick up where Warcraft III ends and is to be a massive multiplayer online game. I know I'll buy it, and I only hope that the chronological progression of the philosophies of Azeroth does not follow that of Earth, else two years from now I'll be describing the postmodern spin on the nature of Azerothian reality.
Of course, unless you take the movie Tron literally, maybe sometimes
a videogame is just a videogame.
Send email to Jeff Racho - [email protected]