Steve Danuser interview about World of Warcraft, dying in the Shadowlands and opening doors for the future

World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Shadowlands, launches this month and in the run-up to it, we have been looking at the various zones that players will be questing in, talking to the developers to get insights into the finer points of the cultures of these realms of the afterlife, and how they built zones that are so far removed from what we have experienced to date, while still having some familiarity.

For the last deep dive (Maldraxxus) I got to speak with lead narrative designer Steve Danuser for a while. There were a few questions that didn’t make that deep dive, mostly because they went slightly off of topic. But when you get a chance to ask questions about death and the cosmos and you get a chuckle and something along the lines of “oh, I have been waiting for someone to ask me this”, how can you not? (Thanks to Ezgi Pajecki from Lorekeeper and Slava Ipatov from Cybersport who were in my interview slot and had some amazing questions.)

Death and permanence

After the Maldraxxus afterlives short, many people were left wondering what the fuss was about dying. What happens if you die in an afterlife? Dealing with the afterlife brings many questions in any setting, and I wanted answers about what the stakes are.

What happens when you die in the Shadowlands?

“So the answer to that depends a little bit on what your nature is as a being. So, we’ve seen before, like, in the Legion expansion where if demons came to Azeroth when they died on Azeroth they would go back to the Twisting. Nether. Because that is the realm that they’re from, and that same kind of rule applies to beings that are of death magic.

“So, if a Kyrian for example, was on Azeroth, and was killed, their essence would go back to the Shadowlands and be reformed there. Mortal souls are different. Mortal souls, begin in the mortal plane: Azeroth, other worlds, et cetera and when they die, that soul with all its anima that it’s built up in life crosses over into the Shadowlands. And in the Shadowlands, the threats to your existence is real. If everything goes the way it’s supposed to, you should be able to exist for an eternity and either enjoy or endure whatever afterlife you are a part of but if something happens to your soul there, if something destroys it, that soul is gone. There is no afterlife beyond the Shadowlands.

“So, that’s why these stakes are real in these battles. The threat that the Jailer poses to the Shadowlands and to the realms beyond is very real and it has high stakes.”

Demons dying and returning to the Twisting Nether seemed like a unique quality that they possessed, but it turns out that the beings that belong to the various higher orders, Light, Shadow, Order, Life, Disorder and Death all follow this cosmic rule:

Where do Naaru go when they die?

“So that same rule that we established in Legion for a being of an influence goes back, if it’s killed in the mortal realm, or some other realm, it goes back to its home realm, it’s home plane if you will. That is true of demons and it’s true of other forces as well.

“So if Naaru are fighting in the mortal realm, for example, and a Naaru is struck down its essence would go back to the realm of Light and would be reconstituted there. Now, there are exceptions to that rule in that if a significantly powerful force intervenes it can throw that process off, it can either delay it or subverted in some way. But it takes a significant influence for that to happen. It’s not something that, that casually happens.

“For example, people have talked about Crusader Bridenbrad the hero that died in Northrend, and we saw the Light intervene to save him and pull him away. That’s the case of one of the forces having a direct tie to a character and going out of its way to kind of yank it out of the normal cycle a little bit and do something different with it.

“But again, those cases are the exception, rather than the rule. So if you destroyed a being of the Light, it would go back to the realm of Light and to really destroy you would have to go to the realm of Light and destroy it there.”

The soul

Going to the afterlife also means the topic of the soul comes to the forefront. Normally talk of the soul is something for philosophers and the like, but now that we actually have a chance to go to the afterlife, it feels less academic and more pressing to discuss the soul.

What happens to a soul when someone is raised from the dead?

“Undeath is a force that has definitely touched Azeroth through its history. Obviously, the Scourge and the storylines from Warcraft III with the Lich King and Arthas and all of that is a prime example of Undeath on Azeroth. But really Undeath dates back much farther. If you go back to the books about the Dragon Aspects, you will see Galakrond also had Death magic, necromancy was a part of his power. Death has touched Azeroth in numerous ways over the ages. One of the most pronounced in the modern age of Azeroth is the Forsaken and undead who are animated.

“Now the question might be raised, are the Forsaken’s souls in the Shadowlands? Are their souls in Azeroth? The act of raising someone like a Forsaken, someone who has their intellect, their mind intact, that means their soul is being anchored their body. Now in life for a living being, the soul is anchored to the body through the force of life. It is a living body therefore, life is a force that’s holding the soul to it.

“But in the case of a Forsaken in the case of someone who is raised from the dead, it’s a different force because life is present within them. And so that is that force of Necromancy that is anchoring the soul to the body.

“Now, it’s a different process than a living being than someone who is kind of held together through the power of life with a capital L as one of the cosmic forces of the universe.

“And so, that Forsaken person that undead person is held together by the power of death, and that can have an effect on the soul. And we’ve seen that being raised can result in certain different circumstances. One person who’s raised may be very much intact. They may essentially be the same person that they were in life. Others are more aggressive or more hateful or more scornful than they were in life.

“And part of that has to do with the manner in which they’re raised. There are all kinds of factors that go into that. So I would say that being raised that way is something of an imperfect process. It’s something that that isn’t as defined and easily categorised as the living is. And so that’s why there can be different effects there but make no mistake about it.

“Someone who is Forsaken, someone who is an intelligent undead like that; they do have their soul anchored to the mortal realm. Even if for a time it had crossed over into the Shadowlands and was brought back.”

Another question that was bothering me was… what about alternate realities and timelines? We have messed with time in the past of WoW quite drastically, so do we get two Gul’Dans in the Shadowlands?

We’ve done some stuff that’s involved time travel and alternate realities, what happens to the souls of those people?

“How do you deal with things like alternate Draenor? There was a Draka there? What is that Draka? Is she alive? Is she dead is she the Draka that is in Shadowlands that we see or is there another Draka? We know that in Warlords the Velen that was of that universe died, does that mean there’s a Velen in the Shadowlands but what about the Velen that’s on Azeroth?

“All these things are very complicated questions, and the way that I would have you think about it is: think of a rope. If you look at a rope, it is one thing, right? It’s something that you can grab onto, you can hold, you can see it and think of that as, like, a character think of that rope as Draka or Velen. But if you look at that rope, you can see that there are different threads that make up the rope, right? There are different twines that pull together and you can kind of pull off one of those threads if you want. But it’s still a rope, and each of those threads you can think of as one of the realities of the character, one of the streams of time. So, there’s a thread that is the Draka from the Draenor that we visited in Warlords of Draenor. There’s another thread that is Draka on Azeroth and there are many other threads that could be other realities that we never peered into.

“But all of those threads at some time, come together to make that rope and remember also that as you’ll see, there are many characters in the Shadowlands who refer to time. And what they usually say is time is not a construct of Death. Time and Death are not related. Death is about eternity. It’s not about linear time and so the manner in which these threads come together that can take, from mortal perceptions, a very long time.

“Those threads can be separate for a time, but sooner or later, they do combine to make the one rope that is that character. So you can think of it as the threads of that rope all the individual threads are just waiting and over time they will come together sooner or later, but they can exist as separate entities for a time. But that still doesn’t change the fact that they are part of one rope.”

We also wondered if there is any… normalcy to the Shadowlands. Do people get to visit their loved ones? Is there travel? Are people that were deeply in love in life still connected at all?

Can souls feel if their significant other dies or can they see them or visit each other in some common ground? Do they know that they’re both in shadowlands?

“Well, that’s an interesting question, because as players have witnessed, in terms of what Draka has experienced after coming through the shadowlands, she has some different things to care about right now. She’s been put into situations that have forced her to focus on what happened to her original house, how she can work to defend the shadowlands. How she can root out the treachery that’s taking hold in Maldraxxus.All of these things that have kind of taken the focus away from what her mortal life was. Now that doesn’t mean that her mortal concerns are gone.

“But again, think that the beings that in the shadowlands, both these mortal souls, and these beings that are native to the shadowlands, they don’t think of time or perceive it quite the same way that we, as players coming in, do. The players come into the shadowlands still alive they still have their bodies they’ve crossed over into this different realm and they’re all about solving the problem.

“They’re trying to fix the shadowlands, stop the Jailer, save Azeroth from any of his schemes that he’s trying to inflict upon the world. So they have a very immediate sense of time in that we’ve got to get solved. So that we can protect our world, whereas souls and Shadowlands again, they don’t perceive things that way. Draka and Durotan, obviously, some point along the way did get separated. Where did Durotan go?

“Well, we don’t know as of yet. Does Draka know? No, she doesn’t really know, but I think that again, like, those thinking of these strands of rope that think of those as strands of fate and different souls that have crossed over or intersected one another through life. I think that there is probably something that draws them that keeps some tether between them even in the afterlife.

“So the way the Shadowlands is set up (when things were working the way that they were supposed to and anima was plentiful and all this machinery of death was functioning) there was an opportunity for souls sometimes to travel to have completed one obligation and be able to move around whether that was to travel to Oribos and encounter someone there, or maybe to travel to other some of these infinite afterlives that are out there in the realms of death.

“So don’t give up hope that Draka and Durotan might be reunited someday but right now she has a job to do. And that is what is front and centre in her mind, in terms of what she needs to do in order to perhaps earn the respite that she’s due and be able to visit the mortals that she cared about so much in life.”

Throughout the deep dives, Danuser often references the Shadowlands and their splendour before the anima drought. A lot of thought has gone into the rules of this place, somewhere completely fresh and new for Warcraft.

It feels pretty rough that you work hard, you retire, you die and get drafted again in the afterlife. Where is the peaceful respite?

“Well, it is true that the realms that we’re visiting that are core to the functioning of how the shadowlands works as a cosmic force in the universe, there is a responsibility there.

“Much is asked of the souls that go to Bastion. We wanted to play with that notion of visually looking at it and seeing this kind of idyllic paradise, but they have a huge responsibility placed on their shoulders.

“Maldraxxus has a huge responsibility, Revendreth is all about taking these souls that have potential to either do something great or to be lost to darkness and trying to save them and Ardenweald takes care of these very important nature spirits that need to go back into the cycle and preserve that.

“So all of these realms have very important duties that they have to accomplish in order for the shadowlands, and the realms beyond to function. But we have said that the, as a place of infinite afterlives, and I certainly picture that there are places where that are free of obligation places that could just be an ideal paradise for someone or a place of just on unending punishment and torment. Because they were just that bad, or just needed to endure something. To pay them back for what happened in life. So any of those possibilities that you can imagine exists somewhere in the shadowlands So, that’s why, when we talk about certain characters, and you try to pick which afterlife, they would go to, keep in mind that there are limited, limitless other places that they might end up within the shadowlands. And maybe we’ll get peeks into some of those and maybe we won’t, but any of those characters that, you know, and care about can exist somewhere in this in this realm.

“And when it’s someone that you like and care about, you hope that they’re in a happy place and that they’re somewhere they can be happy. You know, someone like Durotan. If everything went great for him, he’s probably in this endless hunting ground where he can have his wolves around him, and he can just go out there. And he doesn’t have to worry about any dark forces wrecking his world. He can just enjoy that forever. And, and you know what, maybe, Draka can someday fulfil her obligations and join him there. Who knows? We’ll see.”

There were also questions about Spirit magic and anima, and any potential overlap there.

We know there are six elements and one of them is Spirit. Does Spirit have any connection with Anima at all?

“When you, when you look at the cosmology chart, which is an interpretation of these forces, it’s one way to structure them and visually kind of understand them.

“I think you’ll certainly see parallels between some of the elemental magics and some of the higher forms of magic. I think of the elemental magics as being kind of primal magics.

“And then those big forces of order, disorder, life, death, light and void, those are structured and kind of high magics.

“And a lot of the storyline that we’ve seen play out across Azeroth and some of the other worlds is how those more primal forces intersect with the more structured or high magic forces.

“So, I certainly think that that there are echoes of spirits and how anima is, but again anima is something that is tied to mortals that’s something that is unique to them. And when you think of mortals and the mortal realm, when you look at that cosmology chart, it’s the mortal realm that’s in the middle of all of it.

“So one could interpret that all of those other forces have echoes that kind of resonate out and touch the mortal realm in ways. So you could say that there are some things about spirit and its function as an elemental force that exists at this cosmic level.

“And there were echoes of how, and what it means to a mortal soul and how that feels the shadowlands. And what goes on there, so certainly thematic echoes, but they are different things.”

Telling a bigger story

World of Warcraft has spent a long time in the Warcraft game’s shadow. Many of the big movers and players are from those games and the stories are still about them in some way. New threats haven’t appeared in WoW that weren’t threats way back in Warcraft at some point. Going to the Shadowlands opens up fresh story avenues as we deal with a different cosmic force, a new enemy (even if we saw a shadow of it in the Scourge). After fighting the Burning Legion and the Old Gods for so long, it feels good to go up against something that isn’t related to either of them. Danuser and his team have been thinking about this a lot, working out the history of the area around Azeroth to tell new stories. This crops up in the following two questions.

Has the army of The Primus ever intervened on behalf of Azeroth?

“As you saw in Maldraxxus Afterlives short, you see Maldraxxus forces, spying on the Legion, which raises lots of questions. Remember that while the history of Azeroth is one part of our storyline, the universe that Azeroth inhabits is much much much older and places like the Shadowlands, or other realms that are on that cosmology chart, date back to the very beginnings of this universe, and as you can imagine from reading the Chronicles book, that tells you some of the story that went on before the mortal races were really taking control of Azeroth and their kingdoms were rising and all that stuff.

“So you can assume, then that there was even more history that you don’t know about, that you haven’t heard about, and part of that involves conflicts between these cosmic forces. When you think of the cosmology chart, there are many interpretations of it. One way that you can think of it is that it’s almost like a balance, like a scale where it’s keeping these different forces in balance and maybe that’s the nature of the universe or at least one way of looking at it.

“And if these forces are always striving to gain power, and kind of oppose one another, or take power from another, you can imagine that these different forces throughout time have waxed and waned in influence.

“And we’ve only seen little bits and pieces of that. But there’s certainly the potential for great wars between some of these forces to have occurred different team-ups, maybe between these forces, where some of them joined forces to oppose another force that had gotten too powerful.

“The universe, this cosmology is simultaneously trying to stay in balance while also, each individual force is trying to rise up and gain power. So, it’s that balancing act that occurs all around the universe with Azeroth and the mortal plane kinda right at the centre of at the very heart of that conflict.”

Are there any shadowland realms that you wish we could go visit?

“Well, I think if you ask any storyteller or designer or artist on the WoW team and if you asked them, like, did you ever wish you could do more of those things? Every one of us will say, oh, yes, man, we had so many great ideas that we explored and we went a different way for whatever reason.

S”o the answer is yes, like, there was always other things that we could explore and some of those will be realized in some of the updates to shadowlands that you’ll see, come out over time and things like that.

“And others, you know, maybe down the road, we will find a way to introduce those. Whenever we bring a toy. Think of each expansion is giving us new toys to play with new places that we can go places that we can revisit down the line. I think certainly in the future, even after we’ve got expansions coming after shadowlands is kind of been told and the story is complete.

“There was still the opportunities to return to the shadowlands and maybe see some of those other realms come to life. I like to think of this expansion as opening a lot of doors for us, or at least creating lots of doorways that we could go through in the future. And that’s one of the most fun things about it and that it really sets up the universe of Warcraft to have even more alleys to explore and avenues in the future and that’ll be really exciting.”

Of course, the team is aware that it needs to keep things familiar and having some of those bigger characters around will keep things feeling like Warcraft and keep players interested in new places. On top of this, they want to challenge players a little bit with a few deceptive appearances on zones to make us question beyond what we initially see in a zone.

“If you’re just looking purely from a visual standpoint, at all the different zones in the Shadowlands, the ones that you see, at least, you know, it’s very easy to look at a place like Bastion and think oh, it must be good guys and then you look at Ardenweald and say oh, everything’s pretty.

“It must be perfect there, must be a paradise and then you look at someplace, like Maldraxxus and go oh, it must be terrible. And people must be suffering, and we really wanted to play with all of those expectations.

“Those visual cues are meant to kind of lead you in and make assumptions. And then we want to play with those assumptions and show you that there’s much more going on than first meets the eye.

“So, a place like Maldraxxus does have all these very familiar elements of Undeath, Scourge-looking stuff. There are necropolises all over the place. The plague pools. There are all these monstrous-looking beings, but when you delve into the story and yes, there is some treachery and deceit going on. But when you look at what it is really about it does have this noble purpose. So it was very fun and rewarding to tell the story of this place that on its surface seems monstrous and frightening but really does have a, a much larger role in what’s going on in the Shadowlands.

“Similarly, just because Bastion is a place of lights and service and duty doesn’t mean that everybody who has a noble heart inherently goes there. There are countless afterlives and in Maldraxxus there are definitely been people who have noble spirits, noble hearts like Draka who still embody that kind of striving and wanting to be better. Varian Wrynn is an interesting case where you can make arguments for him, going to a lot of different places that we’ve seen in the Shadowlands and probably places that we haven’t seen as well since the shadowlands is this realm of infinite afterlives.

“But if you, if you’ve engaged with the Shadowlands story, so far, there has been no sign of Varian Wrynn. Certainly, he is a figure that looms large in the history of Warcraft and he’s not part of this storyline But who knows what the future might hold. He’s certainly, you know, through his son Anduin, Varian’s presence is always there.

“So, we feel like we’ve told that story pretty touchingly and well in Legion and it wasn’t something that we felt we needed to address again.”

What what was the most difficult part about creating Maldraxxus?

Well, I think it, it certainly was a challenge to take all of these themes that were visually familiar to players and to amplify them. But also to give new context to them. Context is always what’s really important in terms of telling a story.

There’s what your eyes tell you, and then there’s the other layers that you experience as you play through storylines and what you pick up on what you perceive. And the characters that are in this world are very important to helping us tell that story.

So, I think certainly there is that challenge of once you’ve decided to express Maldraxxus as this place, that is very aggressive, looking contentious with toxic pools and lots of bones and flesh and all of that sort of thing that does present you with with challenges in terms of telling a more complex and nuanced story.

You ask yourself well, Will the players be able to pick up on this? If they’re playing through this realm, that looks very aggressive. Can they care about these characters? Can they still have those same emotional investments in their wellbeing that is the hallmark of classic Warcraft storytelling and we had many debates as we were making the expansion of how far can we go with some of these things? Are we gonna be able to tell that kind of classic Warcraft story in these very different feeling places?

And that’s why it was so gratifying, even in the beginnings of our alpha playtests once we were getting people from the outside, and they were running through these zones all of those questions for us, kind of melted away because they were just playing Wow the way that everybody always plays WoW where they’re running through these gorgeous zones, they’re interacting with cool characters. They’re fighting bosses, they’re getting loot. They’re doing all those things that make World of Warcraft what it is, and that was immensely gratifying for us as storytellers because then we knew we had that burden kind of lifted from our shoulders and just focus on telling really cool powerful stories because we had no doubt that the audience would be able to to get it to understand it and pick up on the same kinds of storylines that we’ve told on other expansions that were arguably more visually instantly relatable places.

So that even in Maldraxxus in this place of contention, and its very chaotic nature. At times there are still these classic heroes journey stories that play out through characters that you care about and get invested in and you want to help as a hero of this world of as rough that you come from, even in this magical faraway realm of the shadowlands.

To tell this bigger story, the Shadowlands questing experience is back to following a specific order of zones (at least for the first playthrough of the content).

How does it feel going back to a story that’s going to weave through zones in is a single pathway after going through a ‘pick where you’re gonna do your adventure next’ approach?

“It feels really good. That was something that we wanted to embrace this time around was go back to some of that linear narrative that leads you through an expansion. We just didn’t want the onus of forcing players to go through every bit of the zone at a time before working their way through the story. I think that what we’ve we’ve gone for this time out really encompasses the best of both worlds because we do get to tell a linear narrative that builds up and has points of tension and rises and falls in certain ways that you can’t get if you let the choice go to the player. So we get that opportunity to tell that kind of story while still giving players a big sense of choice. Choice is a huge theme in this expansion both the presence of it and the in terms of how the afterlives see it, the things that they’re imposing upon the souls that come to those afterlives. So choice and consequences is a huge theme.

“And so we wanted to also give players the choice to pick a covenant and use that as the lens through which to see the big parts of the story through. And having those choices have different meanings having different consequences and giving you opportunities to make different choices on other characters as you may have just seen on our most recent beta update, we’ve changed some of how when you play through the storyline on one character, you can elect to skip that storyline on a subsequent alt, if you want to and just engage with the world in the way that you see fit and kind of going through and just playing world quests, dungeons, playing through side quests. However, you want to engage with the world, giving you that sense of choice how you, as a player want to go through this.

“So, I like to think of it as us getting the best of both worlds of us having all the benefits of a linear storyline while still giving a ton of agency for players to engage with that story in whatever manner they see fit.”

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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