Warcraft loves itself a plague. Some of the most iconic moments in its history as a piece of online culture are defined by them: the infamous bug that created the Corrupted Blood plague, the nostalgia-driven Wrath of the Lich King pre-patch event that saw players fight to avoid joining the undead scourge. That latter disease returns for the game’s latest event…but something feels off this time.
After a few weeks’ delay, next week World of Warcraft players will enter Shadowlands, the eighth expansion for the venerable MMORPG. After the current expansion (Battle for Azeroth) saw the world’s Alliance and Horde factions at each other’s throats, this one sees them form another tenuous partnership. This is a result of former Horde leader, Sylvanas Windrunner, going rogue and, err…tearing a hole in the fabric of reality between the world (of Warcraft) and the afterlife (of Warcraft?).
It’s a lot. She’s not very nice. But, to celebrate the imminent arrival of Shadowlands, the game is currently hosting a special pre-expansion event, “Death’s Rising.” Part of it involves wrapping up some of the threads left from Battle for Azeroth while setting up what’s to come in Shadowlands.
Sylvanas opened the tear in the world by defeating the Lich King, the controller of the undead legion known as the Scourge (formerly famous Warcraft III star Arthas Menethil, currently Wrath of the Lich King hero Bolvar Fordragon, hoo boy a lot has happened in like, 25 years of RTS-turned-MMO lore). Now, players find themselves on the hunt for her after she’s kidnapped a bunch of faction leaders and whisked them away into the Shadowlands. That starts, mostly, by you flying over to the old haunt of Sylvanas’ second-in-command, noted undead arsehole Nathanos Blightcaller, and confronting him for his actions by her side during the events of Battle for Azeroth. Also because, god, he really just is a real piece of shit.
I killed him for doing a war crime and also being a piece of shit. He gave me a bow. I killed him again just because I felt like it. It was fun.
But that’s only part of Death’s Rising — this week, the second phase of the event began. With the fabric between Life and Afterlife torn asunder in the Lich King’s defeat, the massive hordes of undead monsters that he was keeping at bay have become a mindless invasion force, assaulting the capital cities of the Alliance and Horde alike. It’s a recreation of a similar beloved event that occurred in the run-up to the release of the Scourge-themed Naxxramas raid in vanilla WoW’s Patch 1.11 in 2006, and then again ahead of the release of Wrath of the Lich King, World of Warcraft’s second expansion, in 2008.
Basically, players have to help defend their capitals and other key locations across the world of Azeroth from mindless zombies. If they’re not careful, they too can contract the plague of undeath; without running to a healer or getting another player with the ability to cure disease debuffs in time, they transform into a zombie themselves that can, in turn, infect other players.
It creates all sorts of interesting player scenarios. Do you give in to the horde, and cackle as you turn your fellow players into zombie fodder? Do you fight back, banding with the guards of the besieged cities and the members of the Argent Dawn to stand strong against the scourge, healing the infected and blighting the damned before they have the chance to turn you and your allies?
Or…do you keep your distance from other players and avoid hotspots of big activity — public spaces like auction houses or faction vendors, or the big hubs activity that are main cities like the Alliance’s Stormwind, and the Horde’s Orgrimmar, in general? There’s a tension that’s part of the charm: keep yourself safe, don’t trust the people around you, be prepared for the undead to strike at any moment.
But there was something always lingering in the back of my mind as I played through this event. I wasn’t really playing a lot of World of Warcraft for the first iterations of it, but have heard the legendary tales of players griefing each other, or fighting back as the zombies got harder and harder to beat, the disease more resistant to spells and healing abilities. There’s something about that kind of online, emergent storytelling that makes World of Warcraft such a compelling, community-driven experience in the first place.
Sure, social distancing doesn’t matter in a video game, because you’re a bunch of polygons interacting with other polygons. My Warcraft avatars don’t need to wash their hands, the plague of Undeath is contracted through combat, not coughing on someone or touching an unclean surface — although you can use tokens earned during this version of the event to buy a magic broom that cleans spots of the infection up to avoid them sickening other players. Yet playing my Void Elf Hunter and taking some of the same kind of precautions trying to visit the Stormwind Bank as I would to go out and get groceries in a second-lockdown England is a weirdly real disconnect I don’t need in a game where I’m trying to play as a magical elven twink who shoots arrows real good.
These sorts of feelings aren’t really alien to Warcraft’s history. The aforementioned Corrupted Blood incident was so similar to how diseases spread in the real world, scientists modelled it as a tool for tracking pandemics. A boss ability in an early vanilla raid, Zul’Gurub, was accidentally transferred into the wider game by a glitch, spreading among the general player base and killing unprepared players with reckless abandon. When the covid-19 outbreak for formally confirmed as a pandemic by WHO earlier this year, scientists once again pondered turning to it for parallels.
The Scourge Invasion of 2020 might be more reliant on player combativeness than a typical disease would; in fact, to avoid the griefing of yesteryear, Blizzard has actively made steps for it to be more of a thing you can choose to opt out of, or at least harder for newer players to have it thrust upon them. Yet, as we continue to live through a global pandemic that seems to be getting worse and worse, there’s something oddly jarring about retreating to this fantasy world to find things feeling not as escapist as they should.
At least the masks in World of Warcraft look a bit more fanciful.