“An illusion!? What are you hiding?”
For anyone who’s played World of Warcraft at max level for at least a few days, those words and the exact intonation with which they’re spoken by both male and female Nightborne guards are burned into their memories. Like so many unwitting memes in video games, it captured the kind of furious audience ambivalence that points to a genuinely successful product. This is a bold claim, but I’ll try to explain.
The phrase comes from Suramar, one of the max-level zones on the Broken Isles, where WoW’s Legion expansion takes place. The province is the home of the Nightborne, descendants of the Night Elves who drank deep of arcane energy, transforming themselves in the process. Their vast capital city is the heart of the zone. It’s occupied by the Burning Legion--think, glowy green demon army--who’ve been permitted to march on the city by leaders who felt it was the only way to save the Nightborne from destruction. This fell alliance produces a fascinating questing area.
WoW and many other MMOs have no shortage of occupied, burning cities where you run around and fight the occupiers. Secret World Legends has Tokyo, Star Wars: The Old Republic has Coronet City, and so on.
"Suramar is a...reminder that you can tell a story about tragedy, diminishment, and the brutality of war without appearing wanton or childish."
What sets Suramar apart is that Blizzard actually did a better job of demonstrating what an actual occupation looks like. Life goes on, civilians go about their business, the elite host their soirees--and there are demons patrolling the streets, harassing people and snuffing out any embers of rebellion. You can walk through it all without attracting much attention, doing quests that are not necessarily centered on killing mobs, with the help of… an illusion. A spell, cast on you by the resistance, that makes you appear as one of the willowy Nightborne, allowing you to blend in.
And thus we come to the mechanic that gave us one of WoW’s most immortal phrases. Certain guards can break your spell if you linger near them for more than a couple of seconds. They utter the line (and other, less memorable ones) when you come too close. It’s meant to keep you on your toes and always put you at risk of being descended on by a dozen guards, and it’s also a source of frustration for players who prefer a more direct approach to things.
But it’s also at the heart of what makes Suramar work. As irksome as it can be to deal with the illusion mechanic, Suramar is a much more interesting place when it’s not simply a killing field. While far from perfect, the city reveals its tensions and contradictions to the player when they’re able to wander around without having to fight. The constant risk of combat underscores the danger that lurks beneath Suramar’s surface, while making room for other sensations. Mystery, drama, political tension. This is a city where certain quests see you attend masquerade balls, put up propaganda, or help destitute Nightborne get the mana wine they so desperately need to survive. It’s also a city where you can break into a zoo and ride a gigantic dinosaur into the heart of town to feed her demons. It contains multitudes.
The larger story--in every sense of the term--is quite interesting. Suramar is distinguished by having one of the best story arcs for a single zone in all of WoW, made all the more remarkable by its contrast to the often overwrought injections of cheap pathos that characterize the cutscene-based beats of the expansion’s main story.
Suramar’s story begins when you’re contacted by an emaciated exile from the city, Suramar’s former High Arcanist Thalyssra, who was exiled for leading the initial rebellion against her sovereign's choice to allow the Legion free reign on Suramar’s streets. Together, you found a headquarters for a new resistance, made up of everyone the new regime has alienated, hurt, or left behind: an expanding base of operations with its own sidequests and stories that take you all over the province, discovering no small amount of once-esoteric Warcraft lore in the process.
Eventually, you help build this resistance into a force that can retake the city and liberate it from the Legion. With some fleshing out, Suramar’s story could’ve been its own game. In an age where major studios seem to be moving away from the single-player RPG model, it was a refreshing experience to have something so well structured and story-focused. Though its expansive length grated on some players who were sick to death of skulking around Suramar city, I’d argue it was actually tighter and better paced than the rest of the expansion--and thus more involving and rewarding. There were characters you cared about with clear personalities, rather than the fully-animated ciphers that WoW’s marquee characters often are (the less said about Tyrande Whisperwind and the desolation of her personality, the better). I felt more regret at the death of a secondary Suramar character than at the passing of the umpteenth major storyline figure Blizzard killed off.
This is, after all, an expansion where a principal character spoke the words “I am my scars!” without a hint of irony. Before blowing up a Naaru. That happened. And I can never unsee it. Suramar is a desperately needed antidote to those moments, a reminder that you can tell a story about tragedy, diminishment, and the brutality of war without appearing wanton or childish.
From activating hidden leylines at my own pace, to finding hidden merchants in Suramar City, to a fascinatingly detailed strategic minigame where you lead an army of withered mana zombies through ancient ruins, it all felt like a standalone RPG in the best way. For WoW where story always came second to Kill Ten Rats style questing, it was a welcome sign that the game is still able to weave a magical tale. Rather than wallowing in declension, or faint echoes of past glories, in Suramar WoW reinvents itself while being true to its roots. It’s had to do this in every expansion, of course, but Suramar was a particular triumph for its unique take on an important part of Warcraft’s lore and how deeply it mined that lore for good storytelling and questing.
To look at the WoW forums is to see a study in ambivalence about the zone; some players loved it while others vociferously hated it. Its storyline is far longer than that of any other Broken Isles zone, and it was parcelled out on a weekly basis over the course of Legion. Taken as a whole, it can seem rather overwhelming for something that’s ultimately meant to be a gateway to deeper parts of the endgame.
But I hope that the complaints don’t cause Blizzard to turn away from refining the model they created with Suramar; perhaps not gating the content would be a good start? Giving players the ability to binge or take it slow would probably have led to more overall comfort with Suramar when it was fresh.
But the memes about the zone hint at a level of emotional investment that wouldn’t attend a true failure. There is love to be found in the mockery--which Blizzard itself recognized long ago: the “illusion” line is riffed on countless times later in the expansion, and forms the basis of several jokes made by the newly playable Nightborne. WoW’s always done a good job of making fun of itself, of course, but it rarely does so when facing unalloyed disasters. The love/hate relationship players had with Suramar was the result of a productive tension that can be honed to a sharper point. Blizzard’s ludic portrait of a city under occupation was nothing short of brilliant and memorable.
That we got a few in-jokes out of the deal is just a bonus.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.