WoW's released a short cinematic ahead of the War Within's pre-patch—and I'm just happy these characters are talking like actual people, now

Alleria Windrunner has an animated conversation with Khadgar in the pre-patch for World of Warcraft: The War Within.
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

World of Warcraft's next three expansions are a bold gambit from Blizzard. They'll be a story told in three parts, and—judging by the trailer for The War Within—they'll focus on character development and emotional storytelling over big dudes in armour calling you a pitiful mortal while revealing the next step of their master plan. It's also about to receive, arguably, its first actual in-game story cinematics, and Blizzard's given us a preview in advance.

For context, this isn't actually a cinematic from the expansion itself—but it is from the expansion's pre-patch The Dark Heart, which'll be arriving early next week. It's going to set a precedent for the game's storytelling going forward. Watching it, I couldn't shake the thought from my mind: Holy crap, they're actually talking like people

Full disclosure—I've been playing WoW on and off since vanilla, but I've never been a big lore buff. My understanding of its worldbuilding has remained surface-level, due in part to most of that stuff being relegated to novels, secondary media, and quest text. I have, however, always been fascinated by the way WoW has tried to tell its story in-game for the past two decades.

As I mentioned back when Ion Hazzikostas announced the team's plans to tie together its scattered narrative, Dragonflight's story wasn't mind blowing or even exceptional, but it was a step in the right direction—especially when compared to the nonsense of Shadowlands. I wasn't weeping over it like I have FF14's epic multi-expansion narrative, or anything, but there were some beats that genuinely landed. Emberthal's conversation with Ebyssian in the Forgotten Reach, for example.

There were also, invariably, some stinkers. While I greatly enjoyed the epilogue after the raid on Amirdrassil, the preceding cinematic (which is mostly what players judged as "the ending of Dragonflight") didn't, uh, really work.

It's an example of WoW's worst storytelling habit writ large: An obsession with slow, dramatic, grandiose reads that attempt to imply weight and significance to the script—leading to dialogue that feels stilted, plodding, and forced. As a lot of fans observed, if you set the YouTube playback to 1.25x speed, the scene scans considerably better.

The cinematics from Dragonflight that worked for me bucked this trend. In fact, one of the most moving moments comes from another post-Amirdrassill quest where Tyrande sprints towards Malfurion and just, like… kisses him. I only know the broad strokes of their story, but I immediately gained a better understanding of how important their relationship was. I thought it was cool that this hifalutin faction leader immediately dropped her stoic mask and became a high school sweetheart when her love returned—it was a rudimentary example of the old writing mantra "show, not tell", but sometimes simple things do work.

Back to The Dark Heart convo—it's clearly leaning away from those bad habits, and there's no loud proclaiming about the importance of family. Instead, it references Dragonflight's better character work: Emberthal and Ebyssian, Kalecgos' journey in the Azure Span, Tyrande and Malfurion reuniting.

Sentences are allowed to trail off, character dynamics are told through expression and delivery rather than just direct exposition (there's some big plot stuff that gets directly told to the viewer but hey, what can you do), and there's even a naturalistic lip-smack! Look, it's not gonna win an Emmy or anything, but it's all looking promising even in these early days.

That's not to say that all of this has come out of nowhere. Blizzard's clearly been trying to step up its story game for a while now—Overwatch hasn't always had the most cogent narrative, for example, but it's definitely a step above its predecessors Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3. Battle for Azeroth as well, despite stumbling in a lot of areas, had some genuinely good stuff going on between Anduin and Saurfang.

All of this to say—and god, I could be wrong, here—World of Warcraft's messy, convoluted, clunky and wayward story has a real shot at actually being good again. At the very least, it can be a messy plot that's told well, and inside the game you're actually playing to boot—especially since, as I found out at a recent preview event, WoW will be telling a lot more of its story in-game as well.

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.