Chris Metzen on Mists of Pandaria's story, and why the players are the real villains

Mists of Pandaria Chen Stormstout

The floodgates on Mists of Pandaria have opened. Abilities, spoilers, and questlines are pouring out from the beta testing of WoW's next expansion pack, and it's easy to get lost in the details. We sat down with Vice President of Creative Development and master of all things story at Blizzard, Chris Metzen, to get back into the big picture by talking about the big themes in the expansion's story and what these crazy little pandas have to teach us.

PC Gamer: So you dropped the big bomb last week, the siege of Orgrimmar and de-throning of Garrosh Hellscream . That's huge, but it sounds like the launch content for Mists of Pandaria is going to be pretty peaceful, maybe even serene.

Chris Metzen, Vice President of Creative Development: I wouldn't call it serene at all. I'd just say it's not as doom-laden as recent chapters have been. There's definitely high-octane content: war is evident constantly, it's just a different kind of war. I think it was [Game Designer David] Kosak who kinda illustrated that it begins as a proxy war.

The big hook to Pandaria is that as we roll up on the beach, all the hate and violence we bring as Alliance and Horde really kind of begins to make the Sha bubble up. And the Sha is something that's been contained for ten thousand years. It has been a very serene place, and of course our shenanigans break it, heavily.

So there's definitely some drama and high-octane hero time type stuff, but there's this underpinning of hope buried beneath it, breathing up through it, which is definitely a different tone. Cataclysm was relatively bleak. Lich King felt like it had a little more tragedy inherent in it—we knew Arthas, we knew about his fall from grace. We were wondering if he could be redeemed, if we could save him at the end. So Pandaria has a different tone playing against the heaviness. This one, by way of contrast, has a lighter tone, but it's still pretty high-octane.

PCG: It almost seems like we, as the players, are the villain in this expansion. We're going to this peaceful island as a corrupting force. We're causing the problem.

CM: I love that spin, I love that. After all these years, you think about building expansion sets and moving this thing forward... What's really cool about WoW, I don't know much about other studios, but to some great degree, most of the guys on this team are pretty old-school. Some of the designers left to go to the new [MMO] we're working on, but it's still a very vital team.

All these years on, you push yourself to figure out, "What's the next step? How does this franchise play out over time? How do we keep it vital?" The weird psychology of players bringing the problem with them to a relatively untouched land was an interesting spin. You always hope these things, as experimental as they are, play well. I don't mean necessarily in terms of design, but that people get it, and run with it, and it feels engaging after all these years. It's a real danger, right? Running this long, you constantly have to look at how it feels. Is it fresh, is it cool, does it feel like it's moving forward in a satisfying way?

PCG: When you're looking at how to do that, is it just a matter of looking at where Warcraft has been, and then thinking of where to go? Or are you looking at what other media and other games are doing, what's going on out in the world?

CM: I think it's a little bit of everything. I'd love to tell you we just have these hooks in advance. There's plenty of hooks in advance, don't get me wrong—we've got ideas. But so often... I had a big grinding hook for an expansion set, before the greenlight on Pandaria got going, because Pandaria's something we've talked about forever. Before that greenlight went, we were thinking we would need to go another way on this big grinding idea, all sorts of weird hooks, what happens after Cataclysm. In a way, the greenlight for Pandaria trashed all those plans, but there's still some bits of those plans that are useful moving forward. Many of those plans found a better voice through the lens of Pandaria. I know that's all very vague, but you never know. The right idea could take many forms. With this thing being real time and moving all at once with the community, creative decisions are informed by any number of things. People wanted to see certain characters come back, or see certain characters get their due. The Alliance feeling like we've sold them out the last couple years, like, "Alright, guys, we hear you. We can see how you'd make the argument. I don't think it's true, but I can see the argument..." So let's hedge the bet, let's give those guys some stuff to do.

PCG: Having Orgrimmar be the next big part, that's gotta just fuel the fire, right?

CM: I have to think that the Alliance is going to feel good about that. And there's interesting ways to do that. There's very different reasons, by the end of this storyline, for both Horde and Alliance to want this done. Garrosh will be an increasing bastard. And there's an interesting story there too.

I'm totally fascinated by how people will respond to this, because what we've been hearing lately is... When we created Garrosh, and we put him in the foreground with the novel The Shattering, we installed him as the current Warchief, people were incensed. Horde players were just pulling their hair out. "We can't believe you would do this, are you guys even paying attention at all?" And the messaging was, "Look, it's a long-term storyline, this is all going to play out in what we hope is a very satisfying way. Please understand that it's not arbitrary. We have a plan here." So it's funny now: just since yesterday, talking to some people in the hall from the previous press thing, people are saying, "You can't take Garrosh out! What the hell? Horde's cool again!" It's amazing how everything flips.

So it's fun that way. We find things in the characters, as storytellers or whatever, where this is the logical path for the character and we're going to do this or that. But people respond to things in such varying ways that it forces you to see things in characters that you didn't necessarily see before. You see that there's equity in directions for characters that you didn't necessarily think would be there. Garrosh is one of those characters where I can't believe that people love him all of a sudden. But it's fun, right?

We're all going to make it together through this storyline. And it may not be the end of his story. But it's gonna be a glorious moment. Again, all I'm saying is, the Alliance and Horde definitely have different motivations for this endgame scenario. There's so much fiction that spins out of that. It's been really fun to conceptualize. I think Pandaria... How strange is it, that it'll wind up being one of the most satisfying story chapters in Warcraft, in many, many years? Hopefully at least as good as Lich King, which was in many ways a sequel to The Frozen Throne.

But I think in some ways even more, because it's not necessarily standing on games previous—it's not necessarily standing on legends from the past. It's just really dynamic in and of itself, and that's very exciting, especially after all these years, to still find these pools of energy. Still finding these areas for dynamism within the fiction. I think this thing could run indefinitely, as a game and as a fictional undertaking. I don't think anyone's ever going to run out of ideas. But I think that's something that WoW has kind of uniquely these days. Not necessarily in games in general, but in the MMORPG space. So many players have come up with these NPCs and these characters like Thrall or Arthas or whatever. We can move these characters around the board and create a lot of emotionality and create a lot of engagement with people who know these characters. Even if you're not a hardcore story person, or into the lore or whatever, you live in this virtual space, you know who these people are, you've done quests for them and such. That's an amazing place to be, to be able to pull these levers and dials after all these years and have it count.

PCG: At this point, you're almost drawing from the community knowledge that's been built over the game. You don't have to build the lore and say, "Here's a new character, here's who he is, here's why you should care." There are characters people have been playing with that they're already invested in.

CM: Both are happening at once. Now we're talking about Garrosh, right? Deposing him as this horrible tyrant. But like I was saying, a couple of years ago, there was an audience that had no idea who he was, and there was an audience that had a clue and didn't like him at all. So, we recognized that we needed to begin to go out of our way to really create a lot of characters to get some investment in down the road. I remember early on, we made Illidan the boss of the Black Temple. We brought down Arthas at the end of Frozen Throne. We killed Deathwing. We got a lot of guff on the net relative to, "You're burning all your characters! Who's left to fight? Warcraft is done! We don't care, there's no equity left, there's no interesting characters left." You know what? That's just utter bullshit. But to hedge the bet, here's some more. Here's Garrosh, right?

So it's fun, now, to see characters like him getting a lot of equity, a lot of airtime. Tired old characters like Thrall or whatever still have plenty of mileage in them. Even Varian, the human king—again, a character that we introduced that has existed in continuity before, but we conspicuously left him out of the shipping game. We did our comic series and really attempted to build his character into something that would have many miles in him. With Pandaria, we have this mega questline that involves him, and him really becoming this great king, where all the Alliance races say unreservedly, "I will follow this guy into the gates of hell." And they will. Or Orgrimmar.

It's really fun to be able to see these themes taking shape after all these years. They're not necessarily standing on top of Warcraft games past. Although I think there's still a lot of rich potential in Warcraft games past, I do love things coming full circle.

PCG: Are there new characters coming out of the Pandaren side too? Are the Pandaren leaving the island to become some of those new main characters too?

CM: Totally. There's a number of characters. We focused a lot of pepper on the Chen Stormstout character, who had existed in previous Warcraft lore. But there wasn't a whole lot to him, to be honest with you, in the Frozen Throne campaign. It was really more of a fun one-dimensional character. So there are a number of new ones [like Aysa Cloudsinger and Ji Firepaw]. There's a number of cool Pandaren characters that step up. I think Chen, most notably, has a strong arc throughout the course of the expansion.

Pandaria, as much as the Pandarens are evidenced all the way through, it's so much richer than just them. Looking back at something like Outland, the Mag'har orcs, you had the Draenai obviously... In a lot of ways—I don't know if this is a true statement—but Pandaria isn't all that much about the Pandaren. They're a really cool new element, but they're just an element. There's so much more going on in that land and with this mythology coming full circle. It's something I guess I rail against: people having the impression that it's just about Pandaren, and we're just going to be holding hands and skipping with them through five long levels. It's not true. They definitely pepper throughout and have a cool storyline, but there's so much more going on there than just them and their concerns.

PCG: They're just one small group, but the expansions's more about the larger themes, this evil and balance?

CM: It's interesting... Take that psychological spin earlier of, we're the ones that bring the problem. The expansion set is almost as much about us; what we brought and our character arc... How far [the Alliance and Horde] go here, what they learn here, how close to the brink we all get—that's really the soul of the expansion set. The pandaren just help facilitate that contrast and that soul-searching. Like, "Why doesn't everybody just relax? You're riling everything up." In and of themselves, the Pandaren don't really have an arc, as a culture. They're the steady-eddy middle ground kind of people.

PCG: Their role is to show us how extreme we are.

CM: Exactly. Because Pandaren don't get super hot, they don't get super cold. They're not emo, they're super sane. They don't get violent. They'll fight and they'll fight well, they'll fight to win. But it takes a lot to make them angry. I don't imagine they fight in a state of anger; they fight in a state of need, thoughtfully, and with gusto. But rarely out of anger. It's been an interesting culture to write.

Remember the Wrath Gate cinematic, from Lich King? We have a few of those embedded throughout the expansion set, where big quest lines are going down. We had a number of scenes with Pandaren characters that are yelling at each other, but they're yelling at each other just like humans would. And I thought, "Guys, we gotta take a step back and really think about these people and how they would handle a situation." It was fascinating to get into, because I don't know that we... In building a world like WoW, it's not like a linear storyline, where you can really get into the head of your characters. So often in WoW, characters really facilitate plot and questing and things like that, so it's just fascinating to look at how these people would handle high-stress situations. The deeper we got into it, it took on a fascinating personality that's ultimately unlike any of the factional races we have, which all range from serene to whacked out of their minds. It's just an interesting experience working with Pandaren.

PCG: Is the Pandaren's thoughtful mentality going to change the Horde and Alliance? Are the Horde and Alliance just going to go there, corrupt it, and then go back to what they were doing before?

CM: I guess the way I would answer that is... Ultimately, for my part, I always come back to this one theme in Warcraft. I think the core of Warcraft's animus is cyclic. Because you can only push racial hatred through so many products without it feeling like the same old thing, and thus end. But the pillars of the franchise are orcs and humans; it really is the Alliance and Horde by extension, and it really is those two groups beating the brains out of each other for an extended period of time. That's always gotta be what Warcraft is about.

But when they do it for too long, you need to shake it up every once in a while. Which was evident in Warcraft III, the Reign of Chaos campaign, where they unite at least for a time against the Burning Legion. It's nice to change it up every once in a while, and have these moments where they recognize that the Russians love their children too. Y'know, ultimately we're all in it together. Everything that affects one affects the other, everyone has kids to raise and societies to build. In a franchise that's based on war it's nice to bring it back into reality sometimes. Not our reality, but the truth that constant war and violence doesn't beget a lot of societal growth. It doesn't beget a lot of personal growth. You need to check that every once in a while.

Pandaria, the root theme of this expansion set, whether it's the boxed product or even better through the patches, which I almost want to brand as a separate game event—this theme is critical to what Pandaria is. We've spent so long fighting alien demons and broken planets in Burning Crusade, the lord of death in Lich King, and the world literally falls out under our feet. The Alliance and Horde have just been banging against events and reacting to all these mega-level chapters. With this one, they find themselves like, "Oh, yeah, I hate you. We had to deal with all that stuff, but I hate you!" And that coming around again felt like the right beat for this time in the franchise's history, or ongoing storyline.

It's essential to that recognition of this societal hate, or racial hate. Those moments where you get right up to the brink of absolutely losing it, devolving into a conflict that will never end, and seeing that there's something of yourself in your enemy. Pausing to think about how you fight, why you fight. That sometimes war is not always just, sometimes our conduct in war, even if it's a just war, may be out of control. Remembering that you lose as much of yourself in conquering your enemy with no restraint, you risk losing what you fought to protect in the first place.

PCG: What you just described doesn't seem like a mental process that Garrosh is capable of. And that's why he's gotta go. Is it the Alliance and Horde teaming up together? You mentioned, they hate each other, but are they teaming up to take down Garrosh? Or they both attack individually?

CM: I wouldn't say that, I certainly wouldn't say that today. The raid will likely be bifurcated: there's an Alliance version of it and a Horde version of it. Now, whether certain Alliance and Horde people will kinda... From across the battlefield, they'll be like, "This is on, right?" They're going to need each other's help in some ways. I don't want to spoil any of the cool beats we have planned, but ultimately, both sides will recognize that this is a necessary action and a just action. There might be little help-outs here and there.

And the siege of Orgrimmar is preceded by a chain of events that gets worse and worse and worse, that affects both sides. There are probably points of interaction throughout the patches. I wouldn't classify it remotely as something like Warcraft III, where they're literally shoulder to shoulder. Those are very special kinds of moments, and this is not one of those moments. It's definitely a moment after the smoke clears, after this event concludes, after the whole fiction of Mists of Pandaria is concluded, that both sides will go, "Whew, wow, we got close to it that time, we lost a lot of lives, but we were on the verge of this thing just kicking into fifth gear. That could end the world." So there's definitely a lot of points of interaction, but the Orgrimmar raid is red or blue, and they both have very good reasons for wanting to see that done.