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World of Warcraft's latest cinematic is a narrative disaster and players hate it

There hasn't been a more controversial character in World of Warcraft history than Slyvanas Windrunner. Few in Warcraft's pantheon of warriors and wizards has gotten as much screen time as the Banshee Queen, who has served as the chief antagonist for two expansions after her rise to warchief of the Horde in Legion. And it's easy to see why many players hate her: Sylvanas's motives are so indecipherable that she frequently feels inconsistent and contrived. She says one thing one minute and does the exact opposite the next, all while Blizzard tries to assure skeptical players that it's all according to some master plan. 

But after the release of World of Warcraft's latest major cinematic, it really seems like our worst fears are true: Sylvanas just sucks.

Last week, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands received its first major update since its November launch. Titled Chains of Domination, the patch included a new 10-boss raid that culminated in a final showdown against Sylvanas herself. It was a battle that promised answers for players who have, for years, fought to unravel the Banshee Queen's malignant plans. But instead of catharsis, the cinematic following her fight seems to have mostly just pissed everyone off.

The official YouTube video of the cinematic currently has over 10,000 downvotes compared to 4,000 upvotes, meanwhile the WoW subreddit is full of threads mocking the cinematic and World of Warcraft's obsession with what is widely regarded as one of its worst characters. Posts like this one talk about how Sylvanas is ruining the story, while the main thread for the cinematic has nearly 3,624 comments—most of which say things like, "Now I know why Illidan dipped at the end of Legion... he wanted to be galaxies away from this shit."

You can watch the cutscene above to see why players are so upset. But the gist of it is that Sylvanas just spent the last three years doing unspeakably evil things because she believed you had to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, but then loses all of that conviction at the last possible second for no real reason. The Jailer, the enigmatic archvillain of Shadowlands then foolishly refuses to finish off the only people who can actually stop him even though he has them at his mercy. And even though Sylvanas just shot an arrow at his head, he decides to give her soul back before disappearing through a portal to an unknown location that probably will remain a mystery until the next major update. After so much waiting and hoping that we might finally get some answers, Blizzard once again pulled a Dragon Ball Z and is asking us to tune in next time. It's easy to see why that has pissed off more than a few players.

The problem with Sylvanas 

It's just one riddle after the other, and when you string players along for two expansions, it starts to feel like Blizzard is stalling in the absence of having a story worth telling.

Though she's been a major figure since Warcraft 3, Sylvanas started to become really controversial during the previous Battle for Azeroth expansion. After her ascent to war chief of the Horde, swiftly followed by provoking all-out war with the Alliance, Sylvanas committed a heinous war crime and burned the Night Elf city of Teldrassil to the root, slaughtering countless innocents in the process. 

People, especially Horde players who were now complicit in her war crimes, were mad. It arbitrarily forced them into a situation where they had zero agency since the game has no way to resign or swap factions (without paying money and effectively remaking your character). In a cinematic released before Battle for Azeroth launched, it seemed as if Sylvanas decided to burn the city just to spite one defiant elven defender. The moment felt manufactured to rustle feathers rather than tell a story of actual substance. Sylvanas had never played by the rules, but this felt like it was trying way too hard to be edgy.

What's worse, Blizzard's approach to storytelling in Battle for Azeroth proved haphazard and frayed. Instead of one linear narrative that players could follow, everything was chopped up between spin-off books, out-of-game promotional cinematics, and questlines that could only be experienced if you played both a Horde and Alliance character. Getting the full picture felt impossible without serious effort.

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Critical plot moments also felt undermined by how contrived the writing felt. Long-time players love to joke about instances where in-game bosses shout "Enough!" just before dying in a battle and then making their perfectly timed escape, but Battle for Azeroth also relied heavily on clichés that robbed scenes of any tension. 

During one of the final cinematics for Battle for Azeroth, the combined might of the Alliance (along with some Horde defectors) marched on Orgrimmar to confront Sylvanas and her loyal soldiers. It finally felt like Sylvanas was going to get what was coming in one final, bloody showdown. But during a duel to the death against her traitorous ex-general, Sylvanas gets too worked up and disses the Horde in front of everyone. What a great way to inspire loyalty right before a major battle, dummy.

Realizing she's lost support among the Horde, Sylvanas suddenly disappears, the Horde and the Alliance kiss and make up, and then she shows up later as the chief antagonist in Shadowlands. She's allied herself with Warcraft's version of Satan, the Jailer who is exiled to (and rules over) a nightmarish hellscape called The Maw. Turns out the real reason Sylvanas burned Teldrassil and tried to start an apocalyptic war with the Alliance was to funnel souls into the afterlife where they could be stolen and used to power the Jailer and Sylvanas' grand scheme. Not only has she now murdered millions of people, but she's condemned them to eternal damnation so they can be the gas in her Great Schemes. This all sounds badass, sure, but the way these revelations are drip-fed and delivered to players robs them of their weight.

Again, the lack of specificity here is maddening. It's been almost eight months since Shadowlands released and we still don't know what's really happening or why. All Sylvanas has given us in the few cutscenes she's appeared in are cryptic clues like her and the Jailer wanting to break the cycle of life and death because they both see it as a prison. From Sylvanas's perspective, no mortal has any say in anything that happens to them. They live, are probably killed, and then go to the afterlife where the equivalent of Harry Potter's Sorting Hat condemns them to an eternity in one of several micro-afterlives that range from pretty chill to horrifying. Sylvanas and The Jailer see that as unfair and want to stop it.

But how? And what will they replace it with? Shadowlands has a serious problem with not giving players enough information to actually care about events as they unfold. It's just one cliffhanger after the other, and when you string players along for two expansions, it starts to feel like Blizzard is stalling in the absence of having a story worth telling.

Was Blizzard going to try and redeem Sylvanas and have her switch sides at a crucial moment? Of course it was.

During Shadowland's main campaign, Sylvanas and The Jailer capture the other big heroes from Azeroth and try to enslave them to do their bidding. Only one attempt is ultimately successful, and the human king Anduin is turned into a mindless thrall that The Jailer uses to start collecting what basically amounts to Marvel's Infinity Stones. During a cutscene where Sylvanas and Anduin talk about her plans, it's clear she feels a little bad about enslaving Anduin against his will. After all, back in Warcraft 3 the Lich King killed and enslaved Sylvanas and turned her into the undead Banshee she is now. Fun fact about that, by the way, it turns out that The Jailer is the one who created the artifacts that corrupted the Lich King in the first place—the same artifacts he then used to kill Sylvanas. She also knows this and doesn't seem troubled by it, for some inexplicable reason.

At the same time, it feels a little weird that all of a sudden she's starting to develop a conscience. Like, you committed genocide and started a continent-spanning war that nearly killed the planet but making pretty-boy Anduin do your chores is what's giving you second thoughts? You can start to see why players were growing anxious over where the story was heading. Was Blizzard going to try and redeem Sylvanas and have her switch sides at a crucial moment? Of course they were.

The fate of Sylvanas 

When players finally beat the Sanctum of Domination raid earlier this week, they got to watch a cinematic wherein the Jailer's plans are finally realized. Due to a series of very bone-headed moves, players basically hand him the final Infinity Stones he needs to take the next step towards unmaking everything. Now transformed into a very scary skeleton monster, The Jailer binds major characters like Thrall, Jaina, and Bolvar (who are present for the fight) in chains that also enslave their minds much like Anduin. At this moment, he's basically unstoppable.

This is where some of Blizzard's worst writing all comes together in a rapid-fire combo. The Jailer, just short of total victory, can't resist gloating and rambling about how he's going to remake all of reality to serve him. Sylvanas looks at Anduin and has her predictable change of heart—but of course after the Jailer has already turned into an all-powerful god. She evidently realizes that maybe genocide and helping Satan weren't such a hot idea, so she knocks a flimsy arrow and shoots it at the Jailer's head and says "I will never serve."

Except that's exactly what she's been doing. This entire time. Is she really that stupid?

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I'm quickly reaching the point where I no longer care about this universe or the people who inhabit it.

That arrow Sylvanas fires does nothing. The Jailer is basically god now, and Sylvanas is in the back of the class hawking a spitball at him and we're supposed to clap. So now should be the part where everyone dies, right? Nope. The Jailer randomly decides to be nice to Slyvanas and restores her soul—effectively turning her back into a living creature—and then steps through a portal while everyone is left alive and unharmed so we can kick his ass in six months when the next patch releases. I'm willing to bet that when we do, he'll also act all surprised because he never considered us a threat anyway. Even though, at this point, I've killed dragon gods, intergalactic demon generals, and a Cthulhu monster. And now it seems like Sylvanas, humanity restored, is due for her redemption arc—something players have been bemoaning the possibility of for years.

Unless you've been closely following WoW's story over the past few expansions, it's hard to fully express just how disappointing this whole 'twist' is. It makes me feel like none of these characters are actual reasoning people, but just empty vessels for dispensing cool one-liners while the plot marches inexplicably forward toward the next macguffin. And heaven forbid we ever get any answers or closure to the dozens of plotlines that are left dangling with each new cutscene. 

Ever since Battle for Azeroth, World of Warcraft has slipped into a maddening trend of drip-feeding its overly-manufactured story through short cinematics that never feel like they stitch together into anything meaningful. I'm quickly reaching the point where I no longer care about this universe or the people who inhabit it—and that consequently makes me wonder why I'm even still playing. And judging by the negative response to its latest cinematic across WoW's different online communities, I don't think I'm the only one.

Steven Messner
Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.