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The bane of badassery

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Arguably the biggest news at this year’s BlizzCon was the official announcement of the 4th expansion to Blizzard’s super-ultra-successful MMORPG, World of WarCraft.

“I don’t play online PC games,” you say. “Old game, old news,” you mutter. “Inevitable,” you groan. Well, this blog post isn’t so much about what the new expansion includes (you can read all about that in Darryn’s post here). Rather, it’s to do with the gaming community’s response to the announcement. You see, the 5th WOW game is entitled World of WarCraft: Mists of Pandaria, boasts a stunning Oriental setting and introduces a new playable race… of martial arts pandas.

Now before you gripe about Kung Fu Panda cashing-in, the neutral-aligned Pandaren have been around in the WarCraft universe since a 2002 April Fool’s Joke, prior to the release of WarCraft III. In fact, the panda people made an appearance in Warcraft III expansion The Frozen Throne. And they can sometimes even be spotted lurking in the background of series artwork.

Anyway, the issue here is how mixed online reaction has been to the Mists of Pandaria news. At the time of writing this post, response to the trailer on YouTube included a relatively even 17 700 likes and 16 100 dislikes. The high number of anonymous online haters have dismissed the expansion as everything from lame kids’ stuff and a bad joke, to a sign that the WOW franchise has finally “jumped the shark”.

This is where my rage kicks in. I’m tired of consumers’ insistence that all fantasy has to be dark, and epic, and badass. “The Ewoks ruined Return of the Jedi!” “What’s all this gay Hobbit shit?” “Superman’s a painful goodie goodie; he needs to be darker and more intense, like Batman.” “OMG, Blizzard has totally sold out! Diablo III is too colourful and cartoony.”

When this kind of thinking is implemented, it typically sucks all distinct personality from the project in question. Perhaps I’m in the minority here (and perhaps there is a gender thing going on), but frankly I’m sick and tired of fantasy being twisted ad nauseum to fit the “grim, grimacing heroes battling Great Evil” mould. Even The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie saw its plot warped to become a “Save the World from Darkness” yawnfest when the book was nothing like that.

Why is this happening? As far as I see it, this gritty generic-ising of fantasy creations, which film and video game studios are largely responsible for, stems from a belief that adolescent boys are the most important consumers. Movies and games are bloody expensive to make, of course, and producers are protecting their investment by going for the “safe” option when it comes to satisfying teenage males. And that involves inserting as much darkness, intensity and slick badassery as possible… because, well, teenage boys – super-charged with testosterone – are hyper-sensitive about masculinity and making sure that their entertainment tastes reflect “adult” manliness. Which leaves no room for Ewoks… and Pandaren.

Of course, when you’re a woman – or a guy who has developed confidence in his own, convention-clashing opinions – and your interests align with those of teenage boys, then you continually face the frustration of having light-hearted fluff and fluffiness dismissed and ridiculed in favour of the brooding and badass.

And I would like to categorically state that there is definitely a place, and function, for the light-hearted in fantasy entertainment. Not only does it draw “younglings” into geekdom, but the tonal shifts are necessary to create a product that more fully satisfies. And I think Blizzard understands this very well, given the way they continually pepper their work with amusing little easter eggs.

For the record, concerns that the Pandaren are cutesy and goofy are ill-founded. Sure they are rotund creatures who love food and beer (especially beer!), but according to series lore, the Pandaren are also noble, contemplative beings intent on life-balance. And they will act decisively in the name of peace and justice. That’s not silly. The suggested tranquillity of Pandaria makes a pleasant change from the high-stakes End of the World stuff that is continually dumped on Azeroth.

Frankly, Mists of Pandaria is the first World of WarCraft expansion I’m really looking forward to, because the trailer suggests the game designers want players to slow down for a second, tone down their aggression and embrace a sense of wonder while exploring, and appreciating, the new continent’s beauty. Not that WOW has ever been short of personality – particularly if the goblins are involved – but the trailer promises character and warmth in abundance. And that’s a breath of fresh air.

I am a bit disappointed that Blizzard is currently on some kind of press offensive, defending the “seriousness” of their work when they should have quiet confidence in what they’re doing. However, I still congratulate them. Kudos, Blizzard for not panda-ring to the angry, posturing brats, whose big mouths are helping to leech all light-hearted fun and gentleness from fantasy entertainment. Some of us still appreciate it.

Last Updated: October 27, 2011

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