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World of Warcraft finally wrapped up Sylvanas’ story — and it still doesn’t work

World of Warcraft’s most controversial story yet

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - Sylvanas Windrunner, an undead elf with bright red eyes, speaks to a figure off-camera with a hopeful expression. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

It’s finally over. The years-long, twisting, turning story of Sylvanas Windrunner that has dominated World of Warcraft’s narrative has come to an end. The storyline, which began in 2018, is full of the most controversial decisions in Warcraft’s history — all centered around one of the franchise’s most popular characters.

Sylvanas Windrunner has become a kind of narrative black hole. Many of the good aspects of Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands have been overshadowed by her increasingly convoluted and incoherent story. Up until the tale’s conclusion, Blizzard has told fans to “wait and see.” Now, with the release of the Sylvanas novel on March 29 and World of Warcraft’s Patch 9.2, Eternity’s End, we know the whole story start to finish – kind of – and we can finally do a post-mortem on how Sylvanas and her accumulated plans have pulled the Warcraft franchise so far off the beaten path.

How did things get so dang bad?

In 2018, with the launch of the Battle for Azeroth expansion, Horde Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner did something that has forever changed the Warcraft franchise: she committed genocide by burning down the Night Elf capital of Teldrassil, which is full of civilians that the Alliance cannot evacuate.

The game’s narrative said that she did it because of the war between the Alliance and Horde; she was attempting to defend her people with a pre-emptive strike. This kicked off the war, and Sylvanas escalated by doing cartoonishly evil war crimes at every step. Many players on the Horde hated this; why were they suddenly made to be complicit in murdering civilians, torching homes, and raising people into undeath as Manchurian Candidates?

We wouldn’t find out for a while; in 2019, the Horde descended into Civil War and Sylvanas bounced. The most explanation we got was via players on the Horde who chose to stay loyal to her; she explained she had a bigger plan and “nothing lasts.”

But then we got an explanation, kind of. Sylvanas was actually starting the war because, for some reason, everyone who dies is having their soul funneled to the worst possible hell in order to fuel the Jailer. Why? Who’s the Jailer? Why does he need all of these souls? Why are there theological concerns like fragmented souls, double death, and automated Maw delivery?

It took until 2020, after the Shadowlands launch and a campaign update, to get a big picture explanation. And in 2022, with the release of the Sylvanas novel, we’re finally getting all the small questions answered, too. The drip feed of content is suboptimal for any story, but especially for one that feels so flawed; players sat for months with serious questions about the fundamental integrity of the setting and the characters in it.

So who even is Sylvanas at this point, and why are players so devastated at what they perceive as an assassination of her character?

Back to the beginning

Sylvanas first appeared in Warcraft 3, which was released in 2002. That’s an impressive legacy character; she’s been kicking around for two decades. She is a high elf ranger protecting the kingdom of Quel’Thalas, when the death knight and fallen prince Arthas comes to knock on the kingdom’s doors with an army of undead. Sylvanas valiantly fights to save her people, but in the end, it’s all for naught – Arthas kills her, raises her as a banshee, and uses her as a weapon of war against the high elves. It’s an incredibly sympathetic start to the character, and fans immediately connected with her, especially after she is raised into a banshee and a slave.

It’s an indescribable trauma, and it’s one that Sylvanas survives. She reclaims her body, haunts it, and creates her own kingdom out of the undead Forsaken, rotting survivors of Arthas’ wars. The Forsaken are hated and feared, but they are also free. Whether they use that freedom for good, like aiding their newfound allies in the Horde, or evil, like creating a plague that destroys the living and Arthas’s undead armies alike – is up to them.

That was the status quo up until 2008’s World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King, where Arthas served as the main antagonist. Sylvanas never gets to take a swing at Arthas personally; instead, at the midpoint of the expansion, the Horde and Alliance team up for an assault on the Lich King’s Wrathgate. A sect of Forsaken betrays everyone and bombs the entire battle with blight, nearly killing Arthas – but decimating the friendly troops as well. Sylvanas reclaims her city, ousts the traitors, and plays a support role for the rest of the war.

These are where the objective, agreed upon facts of Sylvanas’ history come from. The rest is unclear, either because of fan disagreements or because of continual retcons from Blizzard. Making matters significantly more complicated is that Sylvanas’ writer post-Wrath of the Lich King was Alex Afrasiabi, a developer who was alleged to have been “engage[d] in blatant sexual harassment with little to no repercussions,” according to a statement given to Kotaku. Afrasiabi was fired in the summer of 2020.

Then, things get even messier

Sylvanas is a heroic, empowering champion to many fans. She is a survivor of a genocide against her people. Arthas’ murder of her, and his imprisonment of her body and spirit alike, reads for some as a rape metaphor. And yet, she brings a kingdom of similarly traumatized people together under one banner and makes them strong.

The short story Edge of Night by Dave Kosak, published in 2011, explores Sylvanas’ emotions after Arthas is dead. It also starts her new character arc; now that the Lich King is dead, she needs a new primary motivator.

At first, she doesn’t care what happens to the world or anyone in it. She has her vengeance; she’s achieved her goal. She can now rest. And so, Sylvanas goes to Icecrown Citadel and commits suicide. She initially succeeds, and then she’s brought back from a shocking realm of eternal torment via the ghostly Val’kyr, winged maidens who transport souls and raise the fallen into undeath. She starts her new lease on unlife with two motivating goals: one, stay alive at all costs and avoid the super hell where her soul ended up. Two, protect the Forsaken.

This post-Arthas Sylvanas, a morally dubious character who does bad things for a “good” reason like the defense of her people, continued on until 2018. This was the character fans understood throughout Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, and Legion.

At the start of Legion, Sylvanas is made Warchief after the sudden death of her predecessor. She goes from a shadowy manipulator to a front-facing leader, which doesn’t truly pay off until the end of the events of Legion. The next expansion, Battle for Azeroth, spun that character on its head and took us through a merry four-year dance through the current story.

Things went off the rails quickly. Sylvanas started a war against the Alliance, committed genocide against the Night Elves, had her troops burn down Kul Tiran settlements and murder the inhabitants, imprisoned her political enemies and had them tortured, inspired a civil war, declared the Horde to be “nothing” to her, and then peaced out to the lands of death to complete her real plan. She then proceeded to kidnap the High King of the Alliance and mind-control him to be the Jailer’s slave. (Why this new allegiance to the Jailer? Again, the story took months between cutscenes to really explain.) She became a direct parallel to Arthas in every sense; the story even acknowledges this later on.

Sylvanas eventually realizes that she cannot trust the Jailer. This seemed pretty clear to everyone else from the start, considering all the guy does is say one-liners like “Death comes for the soul of your world,” and “You cannot stop Death!”

Sylvanas eventually betrays him, and he restores a fragment of her soul that was torn out when Frostmourne killed her – her soul being fractured at all was news to fans, let alone it being so integral to her story. After we stopped the Jailer, Sylvanas was faced with the punishment of having to roam the Maw, a realm of eternal torment, saving the souls she committed to its depths. It’s not the worst ending possible, but the path leading up to it was so rocky that it stains the entire character.

Where the final novel leaves us

Sylvanas by Christie Golden, published March 2022, does its best to create a coherent story out of this mess. There are times where it’s genuinely quite enjoyable to read. But it feels less like a story told for its own sake, and more like an attempt to make the events in the game make some kind of coherent sense.

The book starts back when Sylvanas was just a child, and it follows her growth into the Ranger-General of Quel’Thalas. It details her death, the torment she faced at the hands of Arthas, and the long journey she took on the road for revenge. It gives us a lot of good context for Sylvanas, her thoughts, and her relationships with the people closest to her. There are some great scenes, but the entire book shares the same flaw — it’s forced to retroactively change how people viewed Sylvanas and her actions. Her entire life story is now repurposed to explain why she did a whole lot of war crimes and genocide.

When the Jailer shows up in Sylvanas, he speaks more on one page than he has in his entire time onscreen in the game. We learn that he met Sylvanas back during the events of Edge of Night — it just never came up in the short story, at the time, or at any point in the decade since. The Jailer and his Val’kyr show Sylvanas countless afterlives, crafting a narrative that the system of death is cruel and unfair, dividing up families and loved ones. In Shadowlands, we occasionally meet people in life who reunite after death; the Jailer is portrayed as a crafty liar for only showing Sylvanas the afterlives that confirm her worst fears.

We also learn that Sylvanas’ brother, who had been a footnote in the lore, was actually crucial to her character and her current motivations.

During the launch of Shadowlands, Sylvanas kidnapped the High King of the Alliance, Anduin Wrynn, and her sympathy for him is the eventual key that leads her to betray the Jailer. Is it because she and Anduin somehow share a special bond? Well, kind of — really, it’s that Sylvanas sees her brother, whom she failed to save from war and death, in Anduin. It’s a bond that doesn’t feel earned or justified, and instead reads like a deus ex machina the writers needed for the story to function. The novel brought her brother forward as its explanation for why she did all of this.

Sylvanas is the attempt to create a compromise out of the trainwreck of her storyline, and while it somewhat succeeds at points, it never should have been necessary. Her story has spiraled out of control over the last four years, and the convoluted tale has nearly brought the entire narrative down with it. The next expansions in the Warcraft franchise will need to reckon with this damage if there’s any chance of ever undoing it.

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