I have a new dad named Bob. He works as a bartender in a video game called Hearthstone. I visit him dozens of times a day in his charming tavern, where he sells me mercenaries that I send out to be mown down in battle. The new Battlegrounds mode might seem like colourful fun, but it's clearly intended as a powerful meditation on the randomness and horror of actual war.
Despite my many catastrophic defeats, Bob is always happy to see me. He knows that my genius is just about to shine through. "You got this!" he chimes, with the confidence of a man who's been sampling his own supply, as I head out again to get my teeth kicked in by some dude who's managed to stack a bazillion buffs on a Pogo-Hopper.
Losing in Hearthstone has always been a dispiriting experience. No game is better at making you feel like an irredeemable idiot. The base game mechanics are baby simple—it's Magic: The Gathering reduced to primary colors—and despite that, here I am, taunting the wrong minion after all these years.
Battlegrounds, Hearthstone's auto-chess variant which is currently in open beta, is even more deceptively elementary. You don't even choose the minion trades! That's all randomized by the AI! And yet I remain staunchly resistant to learning the basics of positioning my units so as to maximise my Junkbot not getting bodied in the first seconds of any fight. And yet Bob still believes in me.
Bob was introduced in Hearthstone's solo adventures earlier this year—his function being to enable players to buy and sell minions, thereby rejiggering their decks mid-run. The character was immediately a hit—after all, if you don't like tinkering, why are you playing Hearthstone in the first place? For Battlegrounds, Blizzard gave Bob an expanded role as the merchant for the auto-chess shopping phase which, in other games, is often handled by a menu and not much else. In that sense, Bob's surging cult status makes total sense.
Against a backdrop of brutal bad luck and moments of such profound duncehood that ordinarily you would uninstall out of shame, Bob provides a friendly face whose confidence never wavers. To stare into Bob's kind eyes is to know what it must feel like to be coached by Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights.
"That contrast is what makes him stand out so much," says Dave Kosak, Lead Missions Designer at Hearthstone, and the man who created Bob. "Seven other players are trying their best to destroy you, but at least one person is always in your corner. It’s a challenging mode, but as designers we can offset that a little by having a friendly face around. Bob’s comforting presence helps make the 'shopping' moment feel distinct. And finally, it’s a moment for some of the brief comic relief that gives Hearthstone its charm."
I'll go even further. I've been playing Hearthstone for five years now. In that time, this game has left countless traumas on my psyche. I lived through Jade Druid, Shamanstone, Undertaker Hunter, and this current Evolve clown fiesta—these are the memories that will nibble at the corners of my sanity until my twilight years are spent in the gamer wing of the local psychiatric ward.
My father is a 60-year old immigrant from London. I can come to him with crises of love, faith, and destiny, but he simply will not be able to relate with how a video game is insulting my self-worth. Bartender Bob, on the other hand, is the perfect digital father figure; fluent in all of Hearthstone's cruel wrinkles, telling us that we'll get 'em next time slugger after another painful loss.
2019 is a time of failson scions with no discernible skills ascending upwards both politically and economically thanks to a very rich and loving dad. Finally, Hearthstone empowers that exact same fantasy.
As Kosak notes, we don't know a lot about Bob yet. "[His] past is bit of an enigma. Has he always been a bartender? What was he doing in Dalaran? Has he gone full mercenary now that he’s running the Battlegrounds? He’s selling minions for three gold and buying them back for one – that’s a deal even a goblin would love! What’s he doing with all that gold!?," says Kosak, who is clearly on a roll here. "I guess that’s up to fans to speculate."
Sure, there is potential for Blizzard to pull the rug out from under us, revealing Bob as the true master of all the darkness and chaos in the Warcraft universe. (The big-bads of Azeroth, the Void Lords, have yet to be officially named in the canon. Is it Bob? I bet it's Bob.) I don't know how I'd deal with that kind of subversion, though it does seem extremely prescient for a patriarch with a lot of gold to represent some sort of lurking animus. Until then, we'll keep returning to his tavern hoping to earn a kiss from daddy.
He’ll be around," finishes Kosak, "With your favorite drink, a selection of potential new friends, and a friendly smile on his face." Don't worry Bob, this time I've definitely got this.