In defense of World of Warcraft's worst area

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This feature was originally published in PC Gamer magazine. Subscribe here to get our fantastic magazine delivered to your door each month at a big discount.

Few games contain true rites of passage—watershed moments you can share with other players, which elicit excitable, relatable anecdotes. Beating Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls is an obvious one. Your first romance in Mass Effect is another. But for me, nothing defines an era in gaming quite like the meandering, broken, oddly brilliant experience of The Barrens in vanilla World of Warcraft. And whereas the first two examples endure because of martial prowess or emotional resonance, the experience of The Barrens galvanised those who survived it precisely because it was a bit shit. An example:

[1. General] [Doombull]: where is makriks wife
[1. General] [Ahanu]: in bed with chuck norris lol
[1. General] [Revara]: Chuck Norris doesn’t sleep. He waits.
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack! 

If you never played WoW, this will be gibberish—like the codes dentists call out before they drill your teeth. But for anyone who wasted weeks and months grinding for XP in WoW’s Horde faction, it’s a window to the past. Barrens chat was a stream of requests, insults, and Chuck Norris jokes—like the ur-YouTube comments, long before Pepe avatars or Logan Paul—and it was a constant, reassuring presence during the lonely slog of levels 10-25. 

To understand why The Barrens, and by extension its chat window, elicits such nostalgia, we need to examine the area’s construction. It was a vast, unavoidable corridor, through which most Horde players would inexorably be funnelled. If you rolled a troll, orc, or tauren, The Barrens was the place you’d come when you hit level 10. Even undead players, isolated on WoW’s other continent, would take the trip to join their Horde brethren rather than brave Silverpine Forest alone. It represented a player’s first steps into a larger world, as you moved out of the starting areas into zones that had high-level players, and enemy Alliance combatants.

The grind

So the stabilisers came off, you’d start to pedal furiously… and you’d keep pedaling for the next 15 levels. Because back in vanilla WoW, nothing happened quickly. This was a time before Dungeon Finder, when you couldn’t earn XP from careers like Herbalism or Alchemy. Horde players trying to level up back in 2006 would have to find a group and spend three hours in the Wailing Caverns – not the most efficient use of time—or grind and do quests in The Barrens. There were a few problems with this. Firstly, The Barrens was huge—an area so big that when the Cataclysm expansion came, it was split into two separate zones. There were also only three flightpaths—one to the goblin settlement of Ratchet, one to Camp Taurajo, and one to the legendary town of The Crossroads—which meant lots of travelling between outposts. And, at the risk of sounding like an old man grunting at a cloud, we didn’t get mounts until level 40. You were lucky if you could turn into a ghost wolf and move 30% faster. So if you wanted to get anywhere in The Barrens, you were going to have to walk. Or, more accurately, autorun while reading awful Chuck Norris jokes. 

And then there were the missions. Endless, doddering quests which had you collecting zhevra hooves with an absurdly low droprate and enough quilboar murder to start your own pork farm. But the hunt for Mankrik’s wife is perhaps the most memorable quest of all – partly because it was so ridiculously obtuse, and partly because barely a day went by without some Barrens chat innocent asking for directions, only to be met with a slurry of in-jokes and insults. It sounds wretched when I write it down, but like a hygienicallychallenged relative in a slapstick buddy movie, we learned to love it.

Gank squad

Perhaps we were bound by adversity. Another idiosyncrasy in The Barrens’ design was that it was incredibly easy for high-level Alliance players to hop on the boat to Ratchet, take the short walk to The Crossroads, and kill all the flight masters and quest givers. The area was always under attack, becoming a hotspot for world PvP as high-level Horde players returned to clear out the cackling gnome Warlocks. Whether through design or accident, constant Alliance attacks made the Horde players feel like a persecuted faction. The first place I visited after The Barrens was Duskwood: not to quest or level up, but to spend two months killing Alliance players as a means of catharsis. 

When I go back to The Barrens now, it’s changed. It’s been refined, bisected and—if we’re being honest—vastly improved. There are so many ways to level in WoW that most players skip it, giving the area the same vibe as an abandoned factory—the products once made here have been superseded, the staff are long dead. But I’m glad I got to play it when I did. Hearing that music stirs memories of months spent butchering plainstriders under starry skies, of random conversations with strangers sat around flickering digital campfires. I’d wake up early to go fishing at Lushwater Oasis in the hope of catching lucrative deviate fish to sell in the auction house. I’d stare in envy at the top-level players stomping past on mounts I’d never afford. And while World of Warcraft Classic will give me the chance to go back, it’s madness to think it’ll be the same. But for those of you lucky enough to experience it for the first time, who are lost looking for Mankrik’s wife, I say this: 

Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.