In the vast, uncountable realms of World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands, there is one realm which stands alone and unique. Ardenweald shows us a side of the cycle of Life that normally goes unseen. While we often celebrate growth and maturity, most of us abhor or fear growing old and dying. Ardenweald might be in the Shadowlands, but it still serves the forces of nature and Life.
Steve Danuser, lead narrative designer, explains Ardenweald’s great purpose in the cosmos. “How could Nature, a force of Life itself, have a home within the Shadowlands? For though it is indeed rooted in the cosmos-shaping force of Death, this realm is the highest expression of the relationship between endings and beginnings. Slumber and awakening. Death… and Life.
“Nature is, after all, a cycle. And if the spring and summer of that cycle is expressed within the Emerald Dream, then its fall and winter is the very core of Ardenweald’s purpose. Just as fields must lie fallow for a time in order for crops to grow again, and as trees stand bereft of leaves before they unfold once more in springtime, so the souls of nature spirits require slumber before they can return to the realm of the living.”
We have met these spirits many times on our adventures through Azeroth and beyond. The Loa, Wild Gods, August Celestials and the Ancients all end up in Ardenweald, where they slumber in massive wildseeds, chrysalis-like pods that are fed anima to restore them to the great cycle. That is, until the great drought hit the Shadowlands.
The Winter Queen
In this place of serenity and rebirth, the Winter Queen rules with careful poise. She tends to the wildseeds with her night fae, who serve as defenders and keepers of this beautiful realm. At first glance, she might appear cold and aloof, thanks to the weight on her shoulders. In the past she took immeasurable joy when a wildseed was brought to the Grove of Awakening, ready to return to the cycle. Ardenweald was a place of great peace, where new residents were allowed to carry on doing what they did in life: tending to or glorifying nature. Now the Winter Queen has the hardest task imaginable. With dwindling anima reserves, she has to pick which of the mighty spirits in her wildseeds will be rejuvenated, and which will fade away forever. Art director Ely Cannon explains more about her design and personality and how she embodies Ardenweald:
“So the winter queen we wanted something that stood above the night fae and felt somewhat different than they were. And of course, she’s similar to other creatures like her that we’ve had in the past. You know, she’s not a Titan, but she’s something kind of right below that. She’s an ultra-powerful creature here and part of this pantheon in a similar way that the Titan Watchers and Keepers we’ve seen in the past were part of the pantheon of law and order. These are the pantheon of death. So, that was sort of a starting point is that she’s a creature above and beyond the night fae themselves. She’s part of a greater order.
“And then past that, we start to think about what kind of characters do we think might represent her? What are the characteristics that we think she should embody? One of them was a sort of an Earthmother kind of character, which I think is a fairly obvious thing for a sort of nature queen but then above and beyond that to start to think about emotionally what she’s going through right now, with watching her realm die around her and watching these very powerful natural spirits that she might feel some kindred to dying as a result of the decisions that she’s forced to make, put her into a space of sorrow maybe unlike any of the other pantheon leaders.
“So we started to really talk about what kind of characters, what kind of references might we bring into play here so we did want to go with somebody that felt elegant and reserved because she’s serious, she has a job to do. She’s caring for so many creatures here. That’s a very serious thing and in that way, she is very much the mother or the grandmother figure – she has the giant orphanage where she’s taking care of all these children. So that was part of her, the sorrow as part of her. And then on top of that, pulling in some of the elements of the creatures that she does watch, you know, perhaps they spawn from her in some way, or she’s influenced their making in some way. So she has antlers, like some of the other creatures she has a cape that sort of resembles moth-like wings. She uses some of the similar materials as the other creatures in the zone for her costuming, but she’s far more regal. She stands apart, even the way she holds her hands, she’s very reserved and very controlled. So all of those characteristics and personality traits as well as zone themes come into play when designing a character like this along with we have to be really conscious of just making her stand out from her fellows, like, she’s got Denathrius and the Margrave and the Archon to stand next to and making sure that they’re all very distinct from each other, but very representative of the place that they belong to. And in her case, I feel like she is an embodiment visually of that zone.”
Building with nature
It is impossible to look at a zone like Ardenweald without paying close attention to nature. Where other realms have mighty castle towers or proud statues, Ardenweald is a place of trees, waterfalls, groves and hooves. Cannon explains how the zone was built, and some of the places they went for inspiration, moving away from buildings. “The type of architecture that we did here is pretty similar to what we did for the Arrokoa back in Burning Crusade days, Right? And remember that this is a very difficult place to play in when you’re up in those tree walkways and stuff.
“The gameplay was pretty hard. Navigation was difficult, having to pull, you wanted to not pull everything all at the same time was difficult. So that was definitely something that when we started to think about doing this zone and started to talk about a similar mechanism for architecture, it was definitely something that was forefront on our mind.
“But in making that kind of commitment to not doing architecture, it allowed us to really embrace the forest as the setting and to use natural elements in order to create structures of a sort, but keeping them all very much open air. You know, there’s a bunch of great examples of this in the zone.
“Not only in the small fey villages that occur everywhere but even the open-air theatre that we experience during the questing of the zone. And all of these really embracing very much open air and natural spaces and trying to make the forest the setting and really the palace of the winter queen for lack of a better way of talking about it, it really is like: ‘this is her domain.’
“All of these trees and all the groves really do represent the villages of the night fae. And in that way, we sort of avoided the necessity of buildings and also ended up not really using any real-world reference either, we really lean on our love of folk tale and fairy tales here and really embrace that. You know, that’s something that I think a lot of us have really enjoyed and loved over the years. For me personally, looking back to an artist like Brian Froud who did, you know, lots of work on fairies over the years for a number of different things this is a really great opportunity, embrace that love of folk tale and fairy tale, and bring it into this space and really embrace the open world. Something that really uses the natural elements of the forest as a setting in a way that we just haven’t done before.”
Matt OConnor, senior concept artist, explains how the Ardenweald’s Covenant Hall came into being. “An early concept for the approach to the Winter Queen’s Court, beyond which only her most trusted subjects would gain entrance. At the base of this massive, magical tree, we wanted to suggest architectural features like windows and columns that swirled up into the natural rhythms of the bark and branches.”
Ardenweald’s connection to the Emerald Dream was important to the team, which used every chance to create something similar, but with different colours and shapes to convey the purpose of this realm. Cannon explains how the design team jumped at the opportunity:
“You know, we did do a little portion of the Emerald Dream during Legion but that’s really all we’ve ever done for sort of that side of the natural world. And so, when we got this opportunity to represent an afterlife for nature, effectively, it’s a really fun challenge. And one of the things we immediately identified is that the Emerald Dream really represents a summer and spring version of this place. Whereas Ardenweald is more of a winter fall and by winter fall, we’re really trying to capture this idea of hibernation and rejuvenation and in that, telling the story that wild gods and the ancients and very powerful natural spirits come here to basically hibernate and rejuvenate from whatever they have done in the wilds to be reborn, and to take their rightful place in nature again.
“Instead of doing something light and bright like we had for the Emerald Dream with flowers and all this stuff and, you know, it’s just very spring and summer oriented. Here we wanted something that was sombre and serene and tranquil. And we wanted to capture this feeling of a celestial nursery where things could come and rest and really, start to finish, whether it was colour, the sort of shape language we have a lot of really nice, smooth swirling shapes here, deep blues and purples and things all of these things really adding up to what we hope is a very tranquil, serene environment that represents this celestial nursery and gives you the feeling that yeah, you could come here and hibernate. You could come here and rest and be peaceful.
Under celestial boughs
One of the first things you notice in Ardenweald is the mighty trees of the region. They reach up and tower over everything, like a forest made of World Trees. Gabriel Gonzalez, an environment artist, explains how the iconic canopy is part storytelling, part vista.
“From the beginning, we pictured Ardenweald as a cosmic space that combined the celestial look of galaxies and the natural canopy of trees. We pictured huge pillar-like trees that held up the firmament and whose canopy became a nebulous mass of magic. With that idea in mind, I wanted to create something that would feel very iconic to Ardenweald, had some movement, and incorporated the symbolism of life and rebirth in nature. I landed on the idea of an enormous tree whose branches twisted in an elegant way to create a celestial net of sorts, which gave a slight nod to things we have seen from the Emerald Dream. I pictured the tree capturing anima from around Ardenweald and serving as a foundational mechanism for the storytelling in Ardenweald.”
Cannon explains that the trees required special work to get that effect in the zone, maintaining the feeling of being in a massive forest. “Typically our trees are one model type and that’s the same model type that we use for props, like crates and barrels and fences and things like this. But in the case of trees this scale we actually have to use a model type, that is what we use for dungeons and raids and it’s because it supports things like a further away level of detail.
“So level of detail, if you know, is effectively when a different variety of the model pop in and each one of those has a higher and higher amount of geometry and texture details.
“For a W Mo, which is what these are, they are world model objects, they support higher levels of detail from further away. And they also support infinite draw, so we can basically mark them so they always draw on screen. And in that way, we can maintain these epic landscapes and epic horizons and vistas that you see throughout the zone that would be impossible with a normal tree.
“Also, the trees are animated in a way we never have, you know, if you notice that the actual canopy is spinning. So that’s a separate element that we’ve placed on top of the trees. That’s not necessarily part of the tree model itself, which meant designers had to go through and very carefully place those things and needed to be marked to draw infinitely so that they’re always showing. So we did a lot of really different things here. We didn’t apply wind skinning to them like we would normally to a tree where our trees are simulated with just a little bit of wind motion and you’ll notice that the trees – specifically the big ones here in Ardenweald – don’t do that.”
Design-wise Cannon has mentioned in a previous interview how he loves the many details of designing ecosystems, from parasites on trees, to the formation of mountains. For Ardenweald, some of that was held near and dear, but they also went a bit fantastical to sell the idea of the zone being magical and different. “When we were very first creating it, we were talking about the ecologies and in this case creatures actually, and the gorm came about because we were talking about sort of the natural cycle of the forest. And of course things grow, but then they fall and die and decompose, and the gorm were a mechanism that we were employing here as a way to decompose this forest they’re a natural part of it and they’ve evolved from that point. Right? So really through our conversations about the ecology and the natural processes before us we actually came up with an entirely new creature that became fairly central to the zone, but also on a very subtle level, reinforces those natural flows of things in nature
“We do that on every level. Like if there’s a waterfall, always try to think about where’s the water coming from? It’s pretty rare that we’ll put water coming just from the top of a tree or something, and falling down into a pond below it. Because where is it coming from? In this zone, we actually did a few of those things, but it’s because specifically it’s magical and we wanted to kind of step out of what’s specifically the natural world and do things that were a little bit more tricky. And a little more enchanting. But typically, yes, all that’s thought out, like, if there’s a river, it’s flowing from someplace. There’s a lake, right? There’s some body of water feeding it. Mountains. We think about: Are they shaped by wind erosion or water erosion or tectonic shifts or are they volcanic in nature? And all of those elements really do inform, not only how they’re placed in the world, but also the form that they take. A volcanic mountain, it’s very different than one that was formed by wind erosion for example.”
Fauna of the forest
A forest is home to many wonderful creatures, and Ardenweald is no different. From playful faeries to proud vorkai, enigmatic Tirnenn to the excising gorm, there is a great breadth of variety here.
Character artist Ariel Fain explains the thinking behind the designs of the fairies. “Faeries were one of the first creatures I designed for this zone. My goal was to pull from classic fantasy depictions of fairies and use the celestial illumination of Ardenweald’s environment to create a unique, otherworldly fairy that fit in the World of Warcraft aesthetic. I looked at a lot of moths when designing the faeries; I drew inspiration from their wings’ shape and their fluffy features. We knew these were going to be playful creatures, so it was important to give them a little bit of a mischievous look.”
Fain also discusses the design approach for the vorkai: “The vorkai were interesting to design. We have a lot of creatures with similar centaur anatomy in the game already, so establishing a fresh look for the vorkai was a fun challenge. Early in the design phase, we knew we wanted a lot of the creatures in Ardenweald to have a wild feel to them. It was important to distinguish them from what we did in the past, so we leaned into more animalistic features. A huge inspiration for this design was the ibex; they have these interesting horn shapes that almost encompass their entire bodies. Adding the large horns to the design broke up the silhouette and added a sense of power.”
Cannon mentions how the team was given freedom to explore shapes to create the best creatures, be it vorkai or runestag or elsewhere.
“This, being a natural zone, we see reference to all sorts of different animals. Especially when we get into the soul shapes for the ability here. We’ve talked about just a few, but, I mean, there’re probably twenty different shapes ultimately, that you can take on that represent a variety of different animals. And when we talk about antler or horn shapes specifically, in regard to the vorkai, really we’re looking for the best silhouette. And so, is it elk, is it deer? It really comes down to what is gonna be the coolest looking thing that’s going to be the most awesome for players to have. That’s really where we come from instead of being really hung up on it has to be exactly a deer or exactly an elk, it’s like, take some parts of all those things and put together some forms and shapes that are really just cool.”
Character artist Natacha Nielsen explains how the runestag is a culmination of that approach, as well as combining elements of Ardenweald material construction processes to make sure the armour was just right for these mighty mounts.
“Ardenweald is a gorgeous zone, and it was a lot of fun to design and model this creature for it. We wanted a creature that would instantly read as a stag, but it needed to feel different from anything we have seen on Azeroth so far. The runestag needed to feel both elegant and powerful. I incorporated leaves into the coat and tail, as well as glowing organic anima shapes along the body to show that this creature is truly a part of the forest. I also made three distinct antler variations so there would be a lot of variety among the stags throughout the zone.
“This creature also needed to serve as a mount with two tiers of armour. To echo the overall look and theme of Ardenweald, I used leaf-like shapes and organic designs in the armour. The materials needed to match what the other denizens of Ardenweald use, so this mount’s armour would feel like it was crafted by the night fae for the player. To be consistent with the covenant, I stuck with leather as my main material and then used sap glass, leaves, and a very small amount of metal as accents. I had so much fun making this creature and its mount versions—I’m so excited for players to see them in Shadowlands.”
Character artist Jay Nam details the rather grisly purpose of the gorm, who help the process of decomposition and decay in Ardenweald. “Designing a creature whose purpose is decomposition may seem simple on the surface, but a lot of thought went into how to approach it. The gorm in Ardenweald have to give off real and familiar vibes, but at the same time feel mystical and new—that’s the Ardenweald of my imagination. So I decided to combine parts from different real bugs to create something that felt new. For example, the gorm’s antennae are derived from moths, while the horn is from a deer bug. I chose dreamy colours so that people can infer what they eat and how they grow. I enjoyed the process of exploring just how dynamic and diverse the creatures of Ardenweald can be.”
A sense of calm
Many of the quotes about Ardenweald mention serenity. This Shadowland realm is one where new residents aren’t immediately put to a greater task, such as purifying their soul or making up for past transgressions. Creating a sense of serenity takes a lot of work across multiple disciplines, from sound to artists to designers. Cannon discusses how it is kept as a central theme. “We were creating an afterlife for the natural world of World of Warcraft and so nature was central. Of course, one of the big things we did want to do here was differentiating it from the Emerald Dream. And one of the core ways that we did that was the colour palette in the way that we used it as well as the representation of the feeling of this zone, the feeling of serenity and calm was very, very important. And the blue tone palettes, a cool palette that we ended up using was a very good way to reinforce that because it is immediately reminding you of night time. Some of the images we used early on as reference for sort of the sky colour were these very, very deep blues and deep purples that I believe were taken possibly in northern England where they have this very deep, saturated blue sky. So, certainly, when we were early on talking about this, we landed fairly early on this colour palette and knew immediately that it was something we wanted to use specifically to differentiate it from other forests that we’ve done and in particular, the Emerald Dream.”
Where other cultures might be metalworkers of great renown, or stonemasons and artisans, the night fae grow with nature, using elements of their surroundings and leaving very little to waste. Character artist Sukjoo Choi mentions a move away from metal for the designs of the Covenant armour sets. “Although we’ve created lots of cool forest zones in the past like Val’sharah, Ashenvale, and Hyjal, Ardenweald is higher concept, more unreal world than we’ve explored so far. I tried to keep that in mind and meld this idea into the Night Fae Covenant’s armour set design. Part of that was to rule out metallic material in any of the armour pieces. It was a very challenging decision, considering how often we used metal on the armour we’ve created in the past, even for cloth sets. That’s how we came up with a plate set covered with wood that was reinforced and hardened with anima power. It was a great opportunity to give our players a unique armour set appearance, and I’m very happy how it turned out.”
Cannon also talks about the difficulties of designing without metal, and how the first mail set was tossed out. “Yeah, it was hard. We had challenges with these armour sets and specifically the mail set was one that really stood out. But the Ardenweald sets were very, very hard because of that.
“But thankfully, we had a lot of really awesome themes to use from the zone. And this is a case where we really did lean on not only the ecology of the zone, but also the materials that we found here, for example, the plate armour set being made out of the husks of the trees. We know that the Tirnenn actually use that to create barriers and things in the zone. So there’s the sort of jumping-off point of that is already a very hard substance. So, they’re like, okay, well, that could probably work as a metal substance for player armour.
“So, we had initially designed the mail set using the chitin of the gorm creatures, the insects that are devouring portions of this zone and that didn’t really come across as mail. It actually came across more like a plate. So, it would have been probably a decent plate set, but ultimately, when we started to look at it, like, you know, what we should probably do is really pull it back into a scale mail place and that’s where we decided to use a leaf and, you know, a hardened leaf is just as good as an armour piece as anything else, in this case. We still did have some metal in here, but it’s very minute, it’s just chases of ornamentation on things. And if you look closely at, like, the winter queen and other places, you can see, just hints of that.”
Nielsen discusses the philosophy behind the night fae back attachments for Covenant members. “Designing the back attachments for Ardenweald was a blast. I love organic designs, and the entire zone has so many cool creatures and great environments to pull inspiration from. For these back attachments, I wanted each one to be unique. The wings are heavily inspired by the wood and floral lattice all around Ardenweald, and I wanted the glowing wispy parts on the wings to be reminiscent of the “eyes” you might see on moth wings. For the second back attachment, I thought it would be fun to have a lantern on the player’s back with moths from the zone sitting on it. Occasionally the wings would open and create a look of the player having moth wings from the front view. For the final attachment, I wanted to create a bag I think you could have if you were an herbalist collecting and studying all the fascinating new plants in this zone.”
All around the zone you can find anima branch latticework, and large tree roots that are shaped together to form archways. The night fae have mastered growing the trees to suit their purpose, rather than chopping them down like most woodworkers and carpenters. Gonzalez discusses taking inspiration from jewellery to create intricate lattices. “I really wanted to establish the idea of a branch-like lattice as a defining shape for Ardenweald. I thought a good way of doing this was by exploring a free-standing anima lattice. We wanted them to have some heft, but also wanted to capture the elegant way in which they grew, to convey the magical way in which the inhabitants of Ardenweald transformed the environment around them. These explorations were inspired by Art Nouveau jewellery and The Dark Crystal.”
A lot of the crafting work is done by the tirnenn, who wander around mostly silent and hard working. Cannon discusses their role and mystique. “They are very much a secretive group. They’re pacifists. I would almost think of them as a backbone of the place less the main frontline players, right? I think if you look at the sylvar, or the vorkai, or the fairy, these are the players that will really see actively involved in the ongoings of the zone, and actively working alongside the wild hunt and all of the other things that are going on. Whereas the tirnenn they are actually in the background, right? They’re the engineers of the place. They’re the ones that are creating the structures that are sort of doing the maintenance, you know? And in that way, they kinda keep to themselves and they are shrouded and they are mysterious and it’s intentional and it really works for them.”
I also asked Cannon about the archway roots looking slightly like grasping hands. “I don’t think we necessarily thought of them as hands, but when we thought about how the tirnenn would grow things, it’s almost like, they would stick their rooted arms into the ground. And then they would almost grow and force roots to grow up out of the ground. And so if you think of it, that way, it is almost like that, that those things are coming together and intertwining and creating the architecture.”
When asked about the inspirations for the flowers of the zone, Cannon says the team was allowed to create their own ideas of the perfect flowers. “So we did a lot of photo reference and I think one thing that we all absolutely agree and believe is that the natural world is extremely fantastic, right? There are things that happen in nature that we could never possibly conceive of. And so we always definitely go for a reference and look for those things that are natural elements of beauty that exist in our world and often take multiple flowers or multiple plants and put them together in really interesting ways and evolve them even further.
“And so, the plants here, while inspired by real-world plants, certainly are definitely evolutions or creations of our artists from their imagination from things that when they’re thinking about what would be a really beautiful or enchanting fairy tale plant and these are things that they come up with and I’m always impressed and surprised at the creativity.”
The soundscape of Ardenweald is quite varied, working to bring multiple feelings and thoughts to mind. This once verdant realm has suffered greatly in the anima drought, with some parts lying dessicated and fallow. Walking through the forest has the sounds of wind and creaking trees, moving water mingling with the sounds of the wisp-like critters moving around. David Rovin, a sound supervisor, discusses how colour choices and lore are woven into the sound design for the magic. “The tone and colour palette of Ardenweald makes an immediate impression. The zone’s lore speaks of rebirth, nature, and gentleness. The magic of the zone is pure, cool, and tempered. And when that magic is absent, the land turns dry and brittle. When developing the sound of the zone, I gravitated to the word astral. Astral contains within it the notions of contemplativeness, coolness, and stillness—but also of spirituality. This is the land of the druid. The shepherdess of the zone herself, the Winter Queen, embodies these qualities in her manner and even in her speech.
“I started from organic source material: birds, chimes, and wind. These sorts of sounds have an innate tonality that match the zone, but also help to create contrast by their absence in areas that lack anima. Those dead zones are populated with more earthy timbres: dirt, dry winds, twigs, and branches. This allowed us to tell the story of the zone—life, death, and rebirth—in sound.”
The music of the zone is a haunting song. With no words, it plucks at our instincts and emotions for response, before using logic to reason out the meaning. Principal composer Glenn Stafford explains how the music embodies rebirth and oblivion, and the complexity of thought that goes into the composition. “In Ardenweald, we see how the anima drought has forced choices that may see the rebirth of nature spirits or resign them to wasting away into oblivion. These concepts of rebirth and oblivion are reflected through the music.
“Rebirth is presented more as a lullaby; the simplest and least sophisticated form of the theme, but containing the basic “DNA” instructions for all the more developed versions. It is childlike and innocent thematically, and in 3/4 time signature, although with the unique and unexpected chords and changes it’s unlike a traditional lullaby. It is meant to speak of simple beauty while hinting at the underlying complexity and structure of this magical and natural area.
“The middle ground between rebirth and oblivion is a more developed and full statement of theme, with greater expression in the performance. Its primary emphasis is still simple natural beauty, but the bigger arrangement spans more of the range between lighter and darker aspects, including the tempo speeding and slowing throughout, much the same way nature pushes and pulls as the seasons unfold.
“Oblivion uses the same starting ideas but stated in a much more dire and dim way. The source of life and power has faded here. Even the air feels emptier. Time plods along slowly, steadily, a long dry winter without respite. The original opening melody appears only as an afterthought, hinting of light and beauty—but as a distant memory.”