There are heel turns, and then there’s what World of Warcraft’s Sylvanas Windrunner—current leader of the game’s Horde faction—did in a new short released by Blizzard yesterday. She torched the World Tree, a major Alliance landmark, and slaughtered countless innocent night elves in the process. Now Horde players are revolting.
If you don’t really follow WoW, you might be wondering what the big deal is. The Horde is a raucous brood of toothy green murder men, and the Alliance is all knights, elves, and night elves in shining armor, right? Well, as it turns out, the 14 year-old MMO rivalry has—after enough expansion content to fill multiple new games—become a wee bit more complicated than that. The short version is that the Horde has always had a noble streak, and the Alliance has pulled some questionable stunts over the years. Neither side has ever really been “the good guys” or “the bad guys.”
Players have been worried, however, that the Horde was cruising to lose any moral high ground it’s ever laid claim to in new expansion Battle For Azeroth. The lead-up, known as “the War of the Thorns,” has turned the Horde into aggressors in an increasingly bloody conflict. In April, game director Ion Hazzikostas responded to players’ fears that the Horde was turning evil by explaining that evil is “a matter of perspective” and that both Horde and Alliance should be worried about crossing the line. “There’s a lot of story to tell going forward,” he said. “Both sides should be worried about this. Azeroth is a world of gray. It’s never been a world of black and white.”
Then, yesterday, the World Tree reveal happened. Now, Sylvanas has always been pretty warcrime-happy, with the blighting of Gilneas being her greatest hit. In that case, though, you could argue that she was Just Following Orders—not that it really excuses her actions or subsequent over-use of force. Still, many players contend that the World Tree incident is more blatantly nefarious. Originally, Sylvanas just wanted to invade (rather than destroy) the gargantuan tree to prevent the Alliance from gaining more of a powerful mineral called Azerite. But then she had a conversation with a wounded night elf warrior named Delaryn Summermoon, who caused Sylvanas to flash back to her time as a regular high elf, which concluded with her having her soul ripped out by a previous major series villain, Arthas, and ultimately joining the Horde.
“Life is pain,” Sylvanas said to Delaryn in the short. “Hope fails.”
“You’ve made life your enemy,” replied Delaryn, defiant. “That is a war you’ll never win. You can kill us, but you cannot kill hope.”
In response, Sylvanas changed her plans in a rage and callously lit everything on fire, giving WoW fans flashbacks to the time a previous Horde leader, Garrosh Hellscream, ruthlessly destroyed a major human city. Garrosh proceeded to become crueler and crueler until he went full villain and became a raid boss players had to defeat. Players are now worried that WoW is retreading old ground, and a similar, less-than-gray fate awaits Sylvanas. They’ve reacted with everything from jokes and fan art to anger of their own, and even harassment of writers (which other players have called for an end to).