WoW: The War Within will tell its main story via delves and dungeons 'when it makes sense', giving me hope for an escape from 2 decades of raid-centric storytelling

The central antagonist of World of Warcraft: The War Within, Xal'atath, stands poised in a smug and self-assured way.
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I've always wanted to love the setting of World of Warcraft—but its storytelling, gnarled up in confusing timelines, optional quests, raid cutscenes, and books,has always kept me at arm's length. Despite that, I've always been rooting for it to get better. That's mostly out of nostalgia, sure, but I also have a love for the mechanics of stories, and I like to cheer for an underdog.

Dragonflight, when I've dipped my toes in, hasn't fired on all cylinders in the way I was quietly hoping, although it was definitely an improvement over what came before. But a sore spot remains: Because of how WoW is structured, almost every climactic moment in its story has had to exist in a goddamn raid.

Sure, there are questlines with their real-time cutscenes—but developers have limited resources. Are you ever going to polish a solo quest set piece (which a player typically does once) to the level you might polish a dungeon (which a player does a ton)? Probably not. 

Dungeons are an excellent place to marry story with spectacle. Final Fantasy 14 mastered this trick a while back—and while I have mixed feelings on their corridor-heavy design, I still adore dungeons like The Vault, The Heroes' Gauntlet, and The Dead Ends because of the story moments they're attached to. 

Granted, that game only let you go through its dungeons with NPCs in Shadowbringers—and retroactively added said helpers to older ones in Endwalker—but in FF14, not letting new players watch cutscenes is generally taboo. I mean this with a healthy dose of affection, but I can't imagine that kind of thing flying in WoW's PvE subculture. They're just two fundamentally different games. 

Going to a recent alpha showcase event for The War Within, however, gave me hope for the game's narrative future. I spoke with associate design director Maria Hamilton in a one-on-one interview, as well as game director Ion Hazzikostas during a roundtable—and one point came up multiple times: The WoW team can really do more with its story, now, for good or for ill.

Foreshadowing and the number three

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

WoW's scrapping its episodic expansion structure. While past ones blended into each other a touch, they still felt self-contained. There's no A Realm Reborn to Endwalker 10-year narrative, more a grab-bag of ideas with loose threads woven between them. There's a reason it took Blizzard two entire expansion packs after BFA to come back to the giant sword sticking out of the planet.

"I think there's a real advantage to having a story that spans multiple expansions, because it allows us to do things like foreshadow effectively," Hamilton says, as we sit down to talk a short walk (and a couple of curtains) away from a fleet of computers running the Alpha test.

Hamilton says that the plan to loop all three expansions together started at the drawing board: "Really what happened was we sat down and we said 'what was the story we want to tell?' and it was big. And we went 'okay, that's probably three' … I like it better, to be able to know that we're starting here, we're ending here, we know what we wanna have happen at various points—but," Hamilton adds, "We can adjust, we're not locked in."

Foreshadowing is an interesting topic, because it's often something that'll happen both retroactively and proactively. The Jailer's involvement in everything pre-Shadowlands was an example of purely retroactive foreshadowing, which felt appropriately bad. Good writing is thrifty when it comes to capitalising on happy accidents, but it also brings up story elements with the intention of paying them off—which is harder to do with a more serialised expansion tempo.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Hazzikostas also says as much during the roundtable, admitting that the decision to announce three expansions filled the team with "a mix of excitement and terror. There are a lot of advantages from a development perspective to having our roadmap many years in advance.

"We've always had a rough sense of what our next expansion was going to be at any given time … but here we're thinking about a story that's gonna pay off years down the road." Like Hamilton, Hazzikostas says that the new structure "gives us the opportunity to foreshadow, to be more purposeful in introducing characters, to be able to move with more certainty."

That's not to say it's all upsides. Hazzikostas admits "we lose a little bit of flexibility there. Getting up on stage and announcing three expansions, it commits us to a path, but we wouldn't commit ourselves to it if we weren't genuinely excited about the story we have to tell."

Dungeons and delve-gones

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

The War Within now has two new ways to convey its main story quest lines to players—dungeons and delves.

"We can now have the campaign of a zone send you through that dungeon in a way that we would've hesitated—simply wouldn't have—done in the past," Hazzikostas says, thanks to the game's follower dungeons, a mechanic that lets players set foot in dungeons with a band of NPCs. The upshot being, you can actually pay attention to what's going on without Huntwindshadowwj spamming "gogogo", pulling packs, calling you a mean name, and alt+F4ing.

Dungeons have so often been these epic important places, but we had to consciously segment them off and make them offshoots of the main story.

Ion Hazzikostas, Game Director

"Now [if] you want to go in with your follower NPC companions, this is just a really epic solo quest, in essence … Dungeons have so often been these epic important places, but we had to consciously segment them off and make them offshoots of the main story … Now when it makes sense, we can have the main story go right through those places."

Delves, which are essentially snack-sized dungeons that can be complete with one to three players, will also form a part of this new, spread-out structure. As Hamilton describes to me: "I personally love the ability to use them as questing locations. In the Isle of Dorn, in the main story, we take you to one—but also later in the max-level campaign, we'll take you to another."

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

All this to say—I think The War Within might fix what I'm going to call the raid cinematic effect.

Dragonflight's initial "ending" in patch 10.2, Guardians of the Dream, suffered a bad fan reception thanks to a raid cinematic which, admittedly, wasn't that great. Having played through it myself however, the epilogue quests after that cinematic were actually really charming. They didn't grip me in the same way FF14 has in the past, sure, but it felt like the actual ending to that patch.

But WoW's players have been conditioned to look to raid cinematics as the be-all, end-all climax of a story—and anyone not actively playing through that questline would've experienced said ending through a YouTube video of a single cinematic or, light forbid, a reaction video. If all of your players' expectations rest on an isolated cutscene at the end of a raid tier, something's gotta give.

I hope that this continued effort to spread out the game's central storylines, dotting them through dungeons and questing content, will allow World of Warcraft to start telling its story with a level of craft its fans deserve. We'll have to wait to see whether that'll pay off, when The War Within likely arrives at the tail end of Summer 2024.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.