Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Warcraft: Legion of the Underclass

Okay, a break from TV week to discuss the latest World of Warcraft expansion. Specifically, the top level zone Suramar. Suramar is fucking fantastic.

There's nothing more fun than watching videogame strategy guides try to wrestle with explicitly political content.

"Over here is the zoo. And in this area we have the, uh, less fortunate people..."

Sometimes Warcraft is typically ideological ("Oh look, corruption by an evil intruder is turning everyone evil and must be purged to restore harmony" times 47) but some of their plot lines have been really thoughtful politically. The Defias/Westfall plotline, about laborers who built the human capital, were denied pay, turned to banditry, were driven off and killed, only to give rise to a second generation of rebels culminating in Vanessa Van Cleef, was effectively tragic and skeptical about the normal state of affairs in a magic kingdom.

Suramar is a really large zone that just outdoes all this. It's split into two parts: the outland and the city. All the elves in Suramar are addicted to magic, and those who have displeased the rulers have been kicked out of the city, where withdrawl overtakes them and they become subhuman zombies called "withered". The quests in the outlying area are about finding the withered, getting them some magic so they can become coherent again, and then uniting them into a fighting force that can take back their city.

The quests in the city are about the political discontent, the repressive atmosphere, the alienated luxury of the rulers, the collaboration with demons, and how all forms contradictions which tear the city apart. (You go about the city wearing a mask, that if anyone sees through it, everyone becomes hostile to you. This allows you to get much more dense and social zones than WoW can usually have, and also contributes to a paranoiac atmosphere of "you could be found out at any second.") The city has pleasure boats you burn in anger, a buff called "Empathy" you get when you give drugs to homeless people, and a decadent zoo with a dinosaur from Jurassic Park that you can let loose to eat 50 demons. What more could you ask for.

It's the outlying regions that are even more interesting though. For one, most videogames focus on the strength of your particular character, and how one strong and willful person can put all to right in the world again. Some liberal art is about helping one other person find the will to save everyone, as that empowers that individual. But little heroic art is about how an entire populace can take back their lives.

Point the second, most art about anti-oppression embraces a narrative of buried equality, where all the oppressed people are just as good and smart as the oppressors it's just silly things like skin color that is preventing the rulers from seeing that (this goes under the broad category of libertarian ideology.) Sometimes this is a useful corrective to help us see the humanity in other people - but other times it hides the true horror of inequality. If you treat someone as inferior, long enough and thoroughly enough, then they really do become worse at most things. If you starve people, or poison their soil with lead, or deny them proper education, or you beat and injure them, then simply giving them "equal opportunity" later in life will only serve to continue the power structure. This is what performative efficacy is all about.

You know what plot achieves both those points? Zombies.

Every horror movie student knows that zombies are a stand in for the hordes of the underclass that threaten to infect you with their dirty poverty. (And vampires are a stand in for the aristocrats who are beautiful and invulnerable but want to steal your life force, but if you're lucky, they'll make you like them.)

So in Suramar, we are collecting drug addled zombies, finding mana to feed them, and turning them into an army, who will reclaim their liberation. Which is why the repeatable "Withered Training" quest is so powerful. Anyone who has done it feels... protective and proud of their withered. You're no longer working alone, but you're working with friends. When you find another withered in the tunnels, you welcome them to the team! When one of them is killed, you are legitimately pissed at that stealthy elf rogue maniac.

Even the leaders of the revolution are at all points just 24 hours way from becoming a brainless zombie again. And there's no plot point more poignant than when the scientist whose helpful notes you've been reading turns out to be a withered you can not save.

This is all reminding me I should just do a I Am Legend review at some point. So go watch it first.


  1. Do you have any other examples of art that both is about "how an entire populace can take back their lives" and is about "if you starve people, or poison their soil with lead, or deny them proper education, or you beat and injure them, then simply giving them 'equal opportunity' later in life will only serve to continue the power structure"?

    1. So mostly what you're going to get here is in the horror genre, since "hordes of subhuman beings destroying order" is pretty scary. Most zombie movies show the government and high-class & commercial institutions being destroyed by zombies, or research labs being overrun by their creations (a la the Island of Dr Moreau) - which often carry overtones of righteous justice. I'll try to think up others outside that genre.