“Elune be Praised”: The functions and meanings of myth in the World of Warcraft

Tanya Krzywinska (Brunel University)


It is part of the generic features of most role-playing games that they provide a coherent fantasy-based ‘world’ in which to play and interact with others in the guise of heroic adventurers. It can be said that any popular cultural artefact has intertextual features as part of the system of genre as well as intrinsic, more generally, to the generation of a ‘thick text’ (Kaveney, 2005:5). As such, any fantasy-based role-playing game draws on a range of pre-existing texts relevant to the invocation of the fantastic to lend resonances and vibrancy to the game-world on offer. For this reason mythic structures and forms play a significant role in making the World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004-present). Myth is present in a number of different ways in this game: it provides a means of hooking players into the gameworld, it is present in the register of narrative, present at a structural level where it plays a role in shaping the experience of gameplay, and is also present in the registers of style, resonance and rhetoric, contributing to the high-fantasy ambience of the game. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how the game’s mythic structures and elements drive the logic that underpins World of Warcraft’s stylistic milieu and provides the context for and of gameplay. Some aspects of the game’s mythic structures and forms key into what might be termed classical myth; while others are filtered through more recent renditions of mythic forms and structures in the context of high fantasy rhetoric.

Since the publication of Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation (2000), it has been quite fashionable to talk about games in terms of the way they bring aspects of existing genres and forms into the frontier world of digital games, and, in many ways World of Warcraft can be said to remediate the mix of fantasy, myth and heroic quests that characterise the genre of high fantasy into the specific context of the online massively multiplayer role playing game. I have often felt that remediationist analysis often does not quite mange to get grips with the full extent of the way that intertexuality operates in games at a number of different levels and in different registers, as well as how intertextuality informs a style of textual depth ‘reading’ encouraged by fantasy-based texts which Roz Kaveney terms a ‘geek aesthetic’ (244: 6). In order to go some way towards this, the attention of this paper is focus on the remediation of myth in World of Warcraft, taking account of the role of myth in the making of the game-world; the relationship between mythic structures and game-play, and the relationships between myth, fantasy and pleasure.

Fictional worlds are common within genres such as fantasy, horror and science fiction, examples include Lord Dunsany’s world of ‘faery’, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth, H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulu’ mythos, Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the ‘Buffy-verse’. As well as spanning across a range of media forms and texts, each of these fantasy worlds (or perhaps more properly universes or multiverses – where different universes interconnect - in some cases) use structures and forms derived from myth and follow in the world-creating footsteps forged in myth systems such as Celtic, Greek and Nordic. As a form of narrative used to explain or allegorise a state of affairs, myth is, I would argue, intrinsic to the creation of a particular world-view in all these cases, whether that world-view is to be taken as ‘real’ or as a form of make-believe. Playing a core role in the ontology of many myth systems is a particular cosmology that represents in literal terms some of the forces that impact on the sphere of the human; these maybe alien or supernatural, and they play important roles in the particular way the world, the world-view and the state of affairs are configured and made coherent. As well as the presence of cosmological forces, many myths and myth-based texts are characterized by the creation of extended imaginary terrains, which either intersect with the ‘real’ world or bear a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar geographical features. Also important is the fact that these mythical worlds extend beyond a single story, providing the basis for a range of stories.

Despite the fact that many mythological and fictional worlds make use of symbolism that extends beyond narrative (the use of the totemic symbol of the horns of the minotaur in Minoan culture for example), the stories that underpin such symbolism, and by extension world-view, are linear in nature. By contrast, the development of technologies that enable the construction of the illusion of three-dimensional digital space, within which a player can move, shifts into the domain of the non-linear. Unlike stand-alone games, World of Warcraft offers a persistent world in temporal terms that exists whether or not an individual player is playing. In this the gameworld has a material presence beyond the player that resembles, in some respects, the way that a so-called primitive mythologically-based world-view functioned, although in the case of World of Warcraft it is signified modally as a fantasy world which we choose to inhabit; yet despite this modal context we nonetheless do ‘real’ things in that world. While it is still the case that many game-worlds make use of mythic structures, such as the hero quest [1] or myths around the ‘fall’ of a culture, the mode of delivery and therefore the nature of our engagement is altered, and players are, of course, agents in the world. Non-linearity and, importantly, player agency within the context of a gameworld makes, therefore, for a significant material difference to myth-based narratives that are conjured into being in the mind and the imagination.

In order to explore the connection of gameplay and agency to myth it is important to understand what makes for the creation of ‘worldness’. Within the context of fantasy fiction, a world is constituted of a set of imaginary landscapes that are connected in spatial terms. Most fantasy-genre worlds can therefore be ‘mapped’ and indeed many fictions of this type include maps to demonstrate graphically the relationships between spaces (maps are provided for example as a kind of preface to The Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time novels). The spatial aspect of fictional worlds lends itself extremely well to the creation of multiplayer environments. It keys into the journeying component of the hero quest that forms the basis of games like World of Warcraft, as well as to the media-specific context of three-dimensional space provided by such games through which the player is able to move in a non-linear fashion. A variety of game scholars have argued that digital games should be regarded as spatial narratives. This is not just inherent to the media-specific nature of the majority of games, but also in a wider sense to the nature of the fantasy genre. As George R.R. Martin notes,

J.R.R. Tolkein was the first to create a full realized secondary universe, an entire world with its own geography and histories and legends, wholly unconnected to our own, yet somehow just as real. “Frodo lives,” the buttons might have said back in the sixties, but it was not a picture of Frodo that Tolkein’s readers taped to the walls of their dorm rooms, it was a map. A map of a place that never was. (Martin, 2001: 3)

The nature of World of Warcraft’s quest system forces players to be nomadic, travelling widely in the world to undertake the tasks required to progress. There is therefore a strong sense of a journey structure in game, working on the lines of the archetypal hero quest form found in The Odyssey. The various maps available in the game aid travel and effective play. They are part of the game’s functional realism [2], used in much the same way that one would use a map in the real world. The availability of in-game maps and paper-based atlases also promotes a sense for the player that they are free to travel the realm, either to see the sights and/or undertake tasks, and contribute to the sense of the game as world by locating the player spatially. But as becomes clear quite quickly in World of Warcraft not all places shown on maps are hospitable because they are populated by guards from the opposing faction. The maps available are purely geographical and do not show the effect of the state of affairs on territory, which determine where and where not a player can roam without incurring unlooked for trouble (although for more experienced players the given names of areas might be read so, however). Worlds are therefore more than simply spaces, World of Warcraft included. Without the presence of conflicts between competing factions, which entails both history and differences in world-view, there would only be dead and undramatic – if possibly pretty – space. Such conflicts are core to gameplay.

One of the primary ways that worldness can be defined, and has been by academics, writers and game designers alike, is that the world should have a unifying consistency; this applies not only to spatial coordinates, style and physics but also to the past events that constitute the current state of affairs within the world and to which the player-character is subject to. This means that the world has to have a history, and in the case of World of Warcraft this is realised in mythological terms. In accordance with this, the world’s putative history, along with differences in the world-view of different groups and factions, are organised around certain core principles that work in concert to lend the world its integrity, vivacity and dramatic game-play possibilities. Mythic structures, forms and rhetorics frequently provide informative sources for the creation of the world and its concomitant history.

World of Warcraft uses a range of mythic structures to lend coherency and stylistic character to the game’s design. The primary mythic structure that informs the game is the epic hero quest format, wherein various forces work to help and hinder the hero-player on route to achieving particular goals. According to Otto Rank’s Introduction to In the Quest for the Hero, this format originates within early civilisations – Greek, Teutonic, Babylonian, Hebraic, Hindu, Egyptian - in stories and poetry aimed to glorify their princes and warriors and filtered through the terms of their own cosmological traditions. The hero quest format has also become a staple of popular culture, partly through the widespread influence of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces on Hollywood scriptwriters. With ancient precedents and popular articulations, the hero quest is something that figures strongly in the collective consciousness and thereby provides a short-hand way of creating expectations and a tested mode of creating identification for audiences (being a hero affords a vicarious yet pleasurable sense of agency, the sphere of which is extended and exploited by many games). There are also a range of other mythic structures in play in the creation of the game-space of World of Warcraft as a coherent world. Like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the worldness of World of Warcraft comes from an assemblage of different – fictional - races and cultures, each have their own ficto-historical background (within which a variety of secondary myths and legends are found). As with the real world, particular myths inform the different world-views of inhabitants and they arise out of the putative historical experiences of each ‘race’, which has a profound effect on gameplay and the interpellation of the player into the world [3]. While putative histories inform the tensions and alliances between races, which have a significant impact on gameplay, the myths assigned to each race also helps to thicken the sense of the world by lending cultural diversity and drama. There are many indicators of each race’s culture that relate to myth, which also inform the stylistic designs of the game-world’s spaces. Each race and the places that are designated as their territories are informed visually by various symbols. The Night Elves, for example, worship the goddess Elune and sickle moons, the totem of Elune, are carved on the walls of many of their buildings. Night Elf non-player characters greet players with variations on the phrase ‘Elune be Praised’, and it is only in those races aligned with a nature-based world view, such as the night elves, that the druid class exists. The Night Elves are aligned with real world symbolism relating to the moon and the use of nature-based magic, assigning the race its cosmological world-view and activating a mythological frame of reference (as I argue in ‘Being a Determined Agent in [the] World of Warcraft: Textual Practice, Play and Identity’, the mythologies, cosmological world-view and concomitant iconographies that underpin the Night Elf race may well be designed to appeal to players attracted by so-called new age and pagan culture).

The game’s numerous quests tie into mythic form through the rhetorical style in which they are spoken or written, their structure and content. Let’s take one optional quest as an example: ‘The Prophecy of Mosh’aru’. It is delivered to players of around level 40 by a factionally ‘neutral’ non-player character troll who is located in Steamwheedle Port in the domain of Tanaris. It reads:

The ancient prophecy of Mosh’aru speaks of a way to contain the god Hakkar’s essence. It was written on two tablets and taken to the troll city of Zul’farrak, west of Gadgetzan. Bring me the Mosh’aru tablets. The first tablet is held by the long dead troll Theka the Martyr. It is said his persecutors were cursed into scarabs and now scuttle from his shrine. The second is held by the hydromancer Velratha, near the sacred pool of Gahz’rilla. When you have the tablets bring them to me.

While this is clearly a call to action, and a means of narrativising game-play events, the language used is mythological in nature (filtered through the type of language often used in fantasy fiction): the use of prophecy evokes the magical world of mythology and the names of the places are related to the race that populate that terrain – trolls in the case of Zul’farrak, gnome engineers in the case of Gadgetzan. In practical terms the quest encourages players to visit the ‘instance’ or dungeon of Zul’farrak. The meanings of the quest’s text makes use what players already know of the world, the narrative fragment deepens our understanding of the game-world’s state of affairs, and, in terms of the ‘geek aesthetic’, evokes the types of scenarios that we may be familiar with in our engagement with other fantasy-based texts. In addition, the mythological narrative ‘casing’ of the quest (of which this is one of many) helps to disguise the game’s technologically-based mechanics, a point raised and explored by Eddo Stern (2002). The presence of forms derived from myth and fantasy fiction provides a means of cloaking and making consonant with the high-fantasy milieu of the world the way players are channelled by the infrastructure of the game into certain activities. This extends beyond the realm of individual quests. Quests are automatically deleted once completed as the player’s quest log can only show twenty quests at any one time, for example. This ‘rule’ demands that players make choices about their actions forced by the game’s infrastructure; it is an arbitrary rule, but operates, along with many other features, to foreground choice and management as an articulation of agency. As well as imparting fragments of information about the game-world’s fictional history, cosmology and current affairs, instructions on how to undertake a quest must be read carefully as they contain sometimes less than obvious clues, thereby encouraging players to engage with back-story and helping to dress up and contextualise in narrative terms the ‘grind’ (a process that constitutes much of gameplay involving killing enemies and collecting loot needed to level-up characters, Doug Thomas has raised some interesting issues about the ‘grind’ in such games).

Cues as to the state of affairs of World of Warcraft are also inscribed in the landscapes encountered in the game. In the case of the Night Elf homelands, for example, the woods and shores are littered with the ruins of once splendid temples and the various creatures that roam these lands have become ‘corrupt’, made aggressive by a supernatural force released by the unwise and decadent use of dangerous magics (a common theme found in high fantasy and myth). The Night Elf homelands speak of the history of the race, as is also the case with those of other races. Night Elves are characterised along Tolkeinean lines: they are an ancient race with an affinity with nature and regard themselves as superior to others, even though their civilisation has been reduced by war and home-grown degeneration. As Walter Benjamin says of the cultural use of ruins, they cast an aura of mystery and nostalgia, acting within the game (as in real-life) to evoke myth and legend - in memoriam signifiers of passed glory, representing in romanticised terms a lost object of desire (in this case the loss of a balanced and nature-friendly use of knowledge). All these ‘ruins’ work with the ‘lost object’ conditions that govern desire investments that are operative in both our engagement with myth and by extension with the high-fantasy genre. The presence of ruined temples to lost gods is one of the ways that World of Warcraft makes use of myth to connect to the real world. In this case drawing on ‘magical revivalism’ through ‘new age’ culture’s promotion of knowledges and beliefs that fall outside rationalism and Christianity/monotheism, within which myth is often valued as a ‘lost’ way of seeing the world. Things of importance lost through war, greed, corruption or degeneration play a defining role in the histories of other races, as well as underpinning the core thematic logic of gameplay. And, for many the ability to play as a mythological hero in a world filled with myths and magics, apparently lost to us in real life, is one of the major attractions of this game world.

To sum up: the presence of signifiers and narratives of a pre-historical and historical past, framed as it is within the rhetorics of high fantasy and myth, is one of the primary ways that World of Warcraft creates the illusion of a coherent world in cultural, stylistic, spatial and temporal terms, and, in addition, provides a rationale for the way that the player-character is assigned a particular, predetermined, morally and emotionally loaded history and identity. As with the real world, the player-character is born into this symbolic/mythological order and its concomitant ‘subject’ positions. The game invites us to read it as ‘myth’ through a web of intertextual and intra-textual signifiers, and like myth it can be read in both allegorical and material terms. While the mythological and magical effaces the technological underpinnings of the game, it also gives a symbolic language for ‘geeky’ players, like myself, to ‘think about and through’ (Kaveney, 2005: 6). The ‘mythological’ mode of creating a world and its meanings enables us to live virtually in ‘once upon a time’ and has a significant impact on types of play, and particularly, role-play encouraged by the game. Having a material presence in this fictional world, alongside other players with whom we interact, raises all kinds of questions of a philosophical nature about the relationship between imagination and reality, but that’s a quest for another day……

Tanya Krzywinska
Brunel University

Notes [ back ]

1. See King and Krzywinska, 2006 pp 49-51 for more on the use of the quest format in videogames.

2. For extended discussion of 'functional realism' in videogames see King and Krzywinska (2006).

3. Discussed in greater detail in Tanya Krzywinska 'Being a determined agent in (the) World of Warcraft: Textual Practice, Play and Identity' in Atkins and Krzywinska (forthcoming).

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