Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 13 May 2013

Game Saved: World of Warcraft

The World of Warcraft. Talk about your digital crack.

No, let’s not talk about digital crack. If WoW were digital crack I’d have lapsed by now. I’d have broken, screaming through jitters, jonesing for more, and after downloading the client buried my face in a great snowy pile of it. Smoke it, toke it, huff it, snort it. Tie off a vein and smack my bitch up. Class A games, uncontrolled; as addictive and dangerous as every Fox News editorial has always claimed.

I played for two months, coasting on in-box credit. Paid pennies for base game and Burning Crusade and got my money’s worth. Two months of grinding and questing and hiding from Alliance scum as they happened past. Two months of red names and nonsense text as they taunted me, too near to my hiding place, going thicket to thicket searching for an easy kill.

WoW has a reputation that’s entirely undeserved. Between all the stories about mothers abandoning children to raid Zul’Aman nobody thinks to mention that WoW is only a game, and a good one at that. Entering for the first time, The Valley of Trials was filled with leaping initiates clothed in rags, careening about the zone like a swarm in search of honey. They camped at spawn points offing scorpions by the hundred and crowded caves in confused knots, the drops they were looking for stolen from under their noses. At their back, unable to see over the myriad bald green heads I became part of a recursive queue. Players joined behind me, and more players behind them, and somehow the line looped around so we paraded in a conga circle through the cave system with no one player knowing what was going on.

It was confusing. Quest givers and tutorial tips told me how to play but there was more to WoW than inventories and fetch quests. When approaching the steely doors of Orgrimmar advanced players duelled like gods on the road which led to the city. I stepped around them, me, a lowly messenger, wanting to watch but too afraid to do so. A troll shaman planted a totem and my screen filled with mystic symbols. A warrior wearing a mine’s worth of bejewelled and jagged armour swung a sword the approximate size of a double decker bus. Meanwhile, sunning itself on a rock nearby, watching the whole affair, a big cat swayed back and forth, snapping its claws to a rhythm only it could hear.

Orgrimmar was a tank filled with tropical fish. Gaudy-armoured players ran errands, gossiped in groups, broke out MC Hammer moves on postboxes, sat cross-legged around a Tauren asking questions on gaming trivia. An orc fell from the sky; he’d run across roofs I hadn’t dared tread on in case whoever lived inside complained. There was clearly some kind of caste system at work--level 10s bowed and scraped whenever level 60s strode by--but it was one I couldn’t fathom, not least because I found it hard to distinguish between players and NPC shopkeepers, who bartered spider-silk for cloth the same way AI bots advertised illicit gold exchanges.

That was day one; or possibly day two. Days passed in-game with the turning of our real life globe. When I stayed up through the night--as I did all too often, spurred in hope of completing one more quest or reaching the next level--I welcomed dawnlight like a hippy straddling Stonehenge. The moon and newly risen sun offered the most cinematic angles on the gameworld, those big-sky screenshot opportunities that litter WoW fansites. Riding a bat below unfamiliar stars, the sky lightene. Far beneath Azeroth blurred by, and white ruins like bones erupted from the sands of a beach held in place by tides, by programming, by in-game history. I sought fossils there, and when three low-level Alliance players dared to track their stench across the crabgrass I offered them a friendly wave.

They huddled, clearly debating whether or not the three of them could take this lone Hordesman before deciding no, they could not, and waved back. They went about their business at the other end of the beach and when an enraged mob several levels too high charged their party I killed it with an off-hand spell. In words rendered incomprehensible by WoW’s translation subroutine they thanked me.

At least, I assume they did.

If not living, if not breathing, the World of Warcraft at least bears the semblance of life. Like a Frankensteinian golem it shambles on, the push and pull of interminable warfare raising breath in its lungs. The Barrens Crossroads are lost and retaken. High-level Alliance lay waste to Grom’Gol, then, bored, venture away from the Stranglethorn Coast in search of greater prey. In PVP battlezones where insects build palaces and plagues jaundice the sky factions contend with little impetus, grinding rep, then moving on. There’s little satisfaction striking down enemies in designated warzones; far better to lead an assault on an outpost or city or capital.

Our war lasted two hours on a Sunday evening. We were summoned by message board and then by word of mouth, to a massive PVP event on the Hillsbrad bridge. Factions massed on both sides, glaring across the river, fidgeting with excitement. When the clock struck, we’d surge like Biblical seas and meet battle, buffed and ready to bleed. Totems, druidic enhancements, a dozen sorceries, icons flickering on screen. I’d never felt so powerful.

And I’d never been a team player, never braved instances, never grouped. My one companion in the World of Warcraft was a middle-aged Greek man who whispered to me whenever he needed help with a quest. He’d talk about his son, who’d hit level cap and urged his father to do the same. He couldn’t join his guild, he said, until he had the right armour.

Mine was falling apart. I was clad in hand-me-downs and whatever greaves I could find in the bellies of the few mobs I could dismember. I was a charity case, taken pity upon by a guild who fought the Warmaul champion in Nagrand in order to win me new threads. Still, according to the WoW armourysite I had the worst equipment on the entire server. I had no place in war.

Our organiser grouped us in a gargantuan raiding party. Prompts flashed on screen, red print accompanied by the dread chimes of computer crashing. On his word both parties jumped, ran and flew into battle. Screams split the air, magical effects fell like fireworks as buff and de-buff met and cancelled one another out. The battle crept forward; we held our ground and pushed, killing low level, high level, every level, forcing back the hated Alliance. They dug in their heels and sent pets and familiars baying, laying traps where we trampled, planting totems like pinwheels.

But we pushed, and we won, and after carving enemy lines both sides reset positions and prepared to fight again.

We warred in bouts, both sides exuberant, both sides breaching battlelines before word was given. Beyond the World of Warcraft, the Alliance complained we were attacking before they were ready; inside, gathered at the end of the bridge and muttering over raid chat, we said the exact same thing of them.

Their numbers thinned. Their army became ragged. Alliance scum logged off, bemoaning the state of the game, and our organiser scolded us like a teacher: “If you don’t behave and play by the rules this’ll be the last time we have a PvP event.”

The fourth bout of the night was to be our last. We’d spent an hour or more milling about, playing tug of war with an increasingly brittle Alliance army. One more push and we’d all go home.

Cobbles under our feet, we pushed. Enemies at our throats, we pushed. Bodies falling, spell-shimmer, cries of defeat, we pushed, we pushed.

We pushed enemies from the bridge, an unstoppable bulldozer sweeping them back, following their defeat onto road and on grass, on mud, on land, pushing harder, barking wildly as they turned tail and, no longer pushing back, fled.

This was unfamiliar territory: the enemy’s lands glimpsed only on stealthy midnight sorties. I’d hastened through snow, past farms, steering wide berths round NPCs patrolling by torchlight. I’d explored under cover of dark when few Alliance were awake, running quests that took me through lands where the Horde was emphatically unwelcome.

Now we were brazen. We snaked single-file up crooked paths, ignoring low-level players who gawped as we drove on. We fanned out, swallowing guards and spitting out remains. We were a terror, a plague engulfing the land. I’d been caught in daring raids on Thunder Bluff, where Alliance had captured elevators and people leapt, risking sudden death on Mulgorean grass rather than fall to their blades. I’d seen Cairne Bloodhoof roused from his tent, sending humans and night elfs flying to restore peace once more.

But nothing like this. No daredevil attempt on the capital city had ever driven so far. We hewed down gatesmen and as alarms sounded their champions fell beneath our onslaught. We stampeded through streets, and drove up through the tundra, rampaging across Dun Moragh to brand our mark on Ironforge.

How far distant was the nearest spawn point? How could we reclaim our bodies amid the thunderous shuffle of combat? To fall now would be to leave the assault, so we fought on, numbers falling as all of Ironforge answered the call to arms. We hid in alcoves to recuperate, then sprang back into the fray. Their champions massed against ours while their low level comrades skirted battle, killed carelessly by level 70s who knocked them unnoticed to the ground. Coming from every corner of Khaz Modan, every enemy was a target.

An army against his warhammer, qe reached the throne room to face King Magni Bronzebeard, With every attack our numbers thinned. We bled from hundreds to scores, then dozens, then tens, and only our fading buffs gave us any chance to succeed.

I kept out of range and still my health was whittled. We all had seconds left; only the strongest and most craven remained. I fought like a coward, attacking from the shadows, attacking, eager to witness what would happen next.

And Bronzebeard, best of all the Alliance could, was not insurmountable. Chipped in miniscule fragments his health bar ran low. His magics and special attacks ramped up in their ferocity; he clung to life, with only code to guide him. Our numbers sank, but his vitality fell faster. Surely he realised he had come to an end.

If the World of Warcraft hadn’t been a game, on that night we would have claimed its throne. Let an Orc sit upon it, a Tauren or a troll. Let a Blood Elf wear the crown and decide the fate of Ironforge. For though Bronzebeard fell with so few of us left to gloat, in defeat he left his throne empty, and undeniably ours.

Alas, WoW is just a game and those within it merely players. Bronzebeard remained dead a matter of minutes. We jumped and danced and many big cats snapped claws in jubilation. Moments later he returned to his still-war throne and struck down those few brave Horde still dancing. I never saw his warhammer coming; he smote and then I was a ghost, suffering resurrection sickness rather than reclaim my body from where it lay at his feet.

The final tatters of the Horde army ran to safety across the bridge. Some Alliance followed, but for the most part they stayed close to Dun Moragh, in case we returned to conquer once more.

Azeroth. A living, breathing world, and a game unlike any other, where war rises and falls with the swelling of the seas, and epic battles are a staple every Sunday, after tea.

And while I only spent two months there, by which point I’d more than had my fill, sometimes I feel its call. If even the lowliest, weakest orc on the server can feel powerful its easy to see why for some the World of Warcraft is more than just a game.

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