Dragonflight Story Development Interview with Nobbel and Narrative Director Steve Danuser
Nobbel recently interviewed World of Warcraft Narrative Director Steve Danuser, who oversees the overarching story, planning, and plotlines of each expansion, talking about story development going forward in Dragonflight. It's a pretty lengthy interview, so we've summarized some of the key talking points into our highlights below, but there's a lot of good back and forth between the two, so we highly recommend watching the interview in full as well!
Experiencing the complete World of Warcraft storyline has become more difficult, as new content has not only been added, but also removed or revamped over the years. This is something the team spent a lot of time thinking about, and was the reason for systems like Chromie Time to preserve standalone expansion storylines.
Taking content out of the game is never their preference, and they'd like to find a way to make it persist. Steve wasn't around for the Cataclysm changeover, though these days they're trying harder to keep older content accessible.
The team wants to tell stories that best fit the medium they are in, play to its strengths. The game has a lot of cinematics and dialogue, but is ultimately about gameplay and so they want the story to come through actions, places, and interactions, punctuated by moments of action and emotional cinematics.
Comics and novels are better for getting inside the mind of a character, showing their specific perspective, which is more difficult in game unless you're just sitting and listening to the character monologue. Some people like that, but the team wants the game to be more visceral and gameplay focused.
Along with that, they don't want to use books for major events that won't be seen in game, like repeating defining moments such as Cairne's death or the Trial of Garrosh. They'd prefer that books reveal extra information about the world and its past - in the case of Sylvanas' novel, it did a great job of showing historical insights that would have been difficult to put into the game.
They could have done a better job of showing some of Sylvanas' motivations in game though, and it's a lesson they'll keep in mind going forward in terms of storytelling. It's always a learning process, and they're always trying to improve their craft.
Regarding Dragonflight, they didn't want to do a novel set between the two expansion sthat had a lot of backstory or knowledge that players needed to know in order to go into the new expansion, though they do have a
short story coming in the near future
which will add more flavor to a specific moment in time - whether you read it or not shouldn't impact your experience with Dragonflight.
The Jailer and the influence of death is seeded throughout Warcraft's history, and you can still play through that previous content and take them for what they are at face value. You can still play WC3 or Wrath Classic and the story stands up with or without the Jailer's machinations in mind. In Shadowlands, they tried to show that Death is a cosmic influence that has touched Azeroth in ways similar to that of Order or the Void - showing that it's a force that wants things. All of these cosmic forces vie to become the dominant force in the universe, and the Jailer's goal in Sepulcher was about doing just that for Death.
While we thwarted the Jailer in Sepulcher, the implications of that story will affect how we look at those cosmic powers and their role in the universe going forward. In that regard, it gives them a lot of fuel for future storylines and hopefully gives fans something interesting to think about.
The Jailer was locked away in the Maw, but had allies in the same way that Denathrius and other allies had agents of their won. His being absent from the screen during WC3 or previous WoW expansions doesn't change the things done by the Legion or the plans Kil'Jaeden put into motion, it just shows that there were other forces who nudged those events along. They purposefully didn't change what happened in previous storylines, instead choosing to weave in additional motivation and machinations behind the scenes.
The books found in the revamped Uldaman dungeon add more texture, but none of it says the Jailer or forces of Death manipulated the Titans, they are still separate storylines.
The First Ones predate and sit above the cosmic forces we've known so far, like the Titans and the Void Lords. The Titans are very ordered, they represent belief in one path and one structure; the Void is the opposite and chaotically represent all things possible. The First Ones have elements of both those things, and although the path we (mortals) have taken wasn't completely predetermined, the First Ones left some things behind that we might be able to use because they had the insight to foresee that mortal would become increasingly important on a cosmic scale.
Perspective and belief was a important, but perhaps easily overlooked, element of the Shadowlands. The attendants of Oribos/Korthia and Enlightened Brokers all have different beliefs in various prophecies and doctrines that they've waited a very long time to see fulfilled, and when you wait that long for something you start to look for ways to make it come true. We see that in the real world all the time when people want a pattern or theory to be true.
Whether these prophecies are exactly true or just a point of view is something players can think about and debate, but in no way has the fate of mortals been prewritten - they're not walking through a script. The magical/cosmic beings are driven by the influence of whatever pantheon they're a part of, to promote, propagate, and make it the most dominant force in the cosmos. That's their fate, but free will is unique to mortal souls, even in the Shadowlands they decide what they're going to do, which powers they're going to embrace. That's why players are able to use so many different powers, they have that choice.
Dragonflight is rooted in terrestrial Azeroth, the stories of the dragons and their connection to the Titans is a big storyline, but it's not directly connected to the cosmic powers or the First Ones. It's more about legacy. Cosmic themes are out there, and they're certainly form future plotlines, but Dragonflight is about what's going on with the Aspects in Azeroth.
As for whether the Old Gods are still a threat to Azeroth, the influence of the Void as embodied by the Old Gods hasn't gone away. While we defeated some of the Old Gods, we beat them on the mortal plane - they're not beings of the mortal plane though, and so if you can extrapolate some of the cosmic rules from previous entities, that should give you an answer or at least something to think about.
Gilneas is not a story that has been forgotten about.
Centaur are native to Azeroth and have been around a long time (since there was a single super continent). The Maruuk tribe of the Dragon Isles are a bit more enlightened than the ones we've dealt with before, choosing not to fight each other to extinction the way those of Kalimdor have done. The storyline of Zaetar with Theradras reintroduced the Centaur to Kalimdor, but those tribes were separate from the Maruuk.
It's not a secret at this point to say that Ysera is involved in the storyline, but her role will need to change. She was awakened through the direct intervention of the Winter Queen, so Ysera wasn't reborn through the normal cycle of Ardenweald. If she had been, maybe she would have returned to Azeroth as she was, but instead she's become bound to the power of life and death - that will all be a part of her storyline in Dragonflight, one that Merithra will also be involved in.
There will be a lot of a Titan stuff playing out in this expansion, because the history of Titans and Dragons are so closely tied together. One of the first plotlines is Alexstrasza trying to re-empower the aspects to face an enemy they only defeated before at full power, but Tyr and the other Titans aren't around anymore. Instead, they're going to examine the Oathstones that were the symbol of the titans bond. Whether or not that works, or if something else will need to be done remains to be seen, but that relationship between the dragons and the Titans are part and parcel of this storyline.
Some of the best villains, both in Warcraft and other media, start with understandable motivations. The Incarnates such as Raszageth... they have a valid point. Their entire philosophy is rooted in the idea that dragons shouldn't be touched by outside influences, that they should be free beings, and that disagreement led to war between them. What makes someone a villain is not necessarily the ideology they have, but the actions they take in service of the ideology. The Incarnates started with an understandable point of view, but ended up in a place where the aspects had to fight against them, not only to preserve their own kingdom, but Azeroth as a whole.
After giving up their powers to defeat Deathwing, the Aspects had a major downturn and have been adrift for awhile, uncertain of their future. What they're doing in Dragonflight, and really what the entire expansion is about, is making them awesome again - helping them find the greatness they once had and to explore their future.
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