Coming without preamble for fanfare, Blizzard has unleashed something they haven’t really provided in quite awhile across their many franchises: a short story. After the cross-media blitzkrieg of material for the release of Legion, in addition to the many digital offerings coming out of the Overwatch team, it’s actually pretty refreshing to go back to words on a page for a story.
This story, “Dark Mirror“, answers a question that folks started asking over a year ago, when Nathanos Marris, otherwise known as the Blightcaller and the Champion of the Forsaken, received a dramatic model update in the Legion beta. This update gave him an appearance that’s closer to a living human than his traditional Forsaken appearance, which had otherwise stayed pretty consistent since the game’s inception. Without going into spoiler territory, the story explains not only what this transformation consists of, but also why it’s taking place. (As an aside, recall that Sylvanas went through a similar evolution in her appearance after the blood elf model was introduced.)
All in all, it’s a solid story that lends new insight into Nathanos (a character most people probably know but haven’t had to consider important until now) and Sylvanas (a character everyone knows and is very much either beloved or hated, depending on who you ask). If all you want to know is whether or not it’s an entertaining read, then it certainly is, but if you want some analysis into why this is taking place, read on.
But first, you should probably read the story on the official site.
Something else that’s noticeable about this story is who wrote it: Steve “Moorgard” Danuser, one of the senior designers on the WoW team. While it’s not unheard of for someone on the design team to put on the writer hat (Dave Kosak, former Lead Content Designer and Story Designer on various WoW expansions, who has since moved to the Hearthstone team, wrote the Sylvanas leader short story that informs this piece), Danuser seems very at home with it, which should not surprise you: he was the creative director behind Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, where the story centered on a hero who had been brought back from the dead to engage in heroics once more. This followed a long career doing community management and later game design on Sony’s Everquest II.
The story itself is a darker piece, which is perfectly appropriate given that it is about two of the chief characters of the Forsaken. While the focus is from Nathanos’ perspective and tells us more about him than we’ve ever really had the chance to learn before, it offers an unvarnished perspective of Sylvanas that is useful for appreciating her history. This feels right at home alongside Kosak’s short story, but also feels like it harmonizes well with Christie Golden’s take on Sylvanas during her side-plot in War Crimes.
Something that Danuser flexes here very effectively is the notion that even in life, Sylvanas’ allure came not from being forthright and upstanding (qualities that are more associated with her sister Alleria) but from being coy and a bit underhanded. The story does a great job of demonstrating that Sylvanas as the Banshee Queen is a darker reflection of Sylvanas as she was in life, but not all of that darkness came after her death. Meanwhile, Nathanos is characterized as being constant in his dedication to Sylvanas, who is at once his lover, his commander, and to a certain extent, his goddess. For the Blightcaller, the dark reflection is less about his living life versus his undeath, and more about his lingering humanity versus the ruthlessness that undeath has made him comfortable with.
Time for some narrative theorycraft:
This gets to something very important about this story: for the first time in a very, very long time, it establishes a prominent character in a leadership position within the Forsaken who isn’t Sylvanas (and who isn’t Putress, who became a miniboss). And what that sets up is the possibility that Sylvanas, who has had a long career of flirting with the line between anti-hero and villain, might finally evolve past the point of being the Forsaken faction leader.
This is obviously a much bigger discussion than I can properly capture here, but there’s long been a sense that Sylvanas is on a path to becoming an antagonist for the Horde and Alliance, much as Garrosh became over time. People on the other side of that argument have maintained that without someone else to potentially take up the reins as leader of the Forsaken in the event of Sylvanas’ absence, there’s no way to remove Sylvanas. This goes double for someone who, unlike many of her contemporaries in other player races, features prominently in the spoken voicelines used by many Forsaken NPCs.
What is it about this story that starts to subvert that, though? It’s not just the part where we’ve got a justification for why Nathanos has got a new appearance and (spoilers!) might have attained something closer to Sylv’s immortality; it’s also the part where there are multiple references to Sylvanas as a goddess. That could easily just be Nathanos and his affection for Sylvanas expressing itself, but it also presents a possible narrative pathway forward:
- Sylvanas becomes an antagonist for the player races and is defeated.
- Sylvanas is elevated to a god-like status by the Forsaken post-defeat, which would allow her to be maintained as an object of affection for the NPCs (and let’s be real, the players too).
- Nathanos functionally replaces her as faction leader, which would put a Forsaken hero at the head of the Forsaken faction, and one that already has a notable (antagonistic) relationship with another faction leader in Lor’themar Theron.
I admit that it’s a long shot, and there’s no guarantee it would happen or that it should, but Sylvanas has long been able to run around doing VERY villainous things that then get handwaved away when people ask how the Horde is a heroic faction with her on the team. That’s highlighted in Legion to a grand extent, when Sylvanas is very overtly portrayed as the villain in the Stormheim storyline, up to and including her attempt to subjugate Eyir and seize control of the Val’kyr. So if I seem eager to see the Forsaken under new leadership, it’s particularly because I think someone who isn’t as self-serving as Sylvanas would go a long way to making the Forsaken more heroic.
Tell us what you thought of the story (or of this theory about what the story might presage for the future) in the comments.