Today I’m thinking about how a gaming body is constructed. It’s easy enough to say “DUH, it’s your avatar”, but really it is so much more than this. Gameplay affects the construction of the body, dialogue does, the narrative; but also things external to the game, like concept art, manuals, the disc covers, figurines, books or graphic novels. And no, this isn’t really news to anyone, I’m just looking into the various things that work together to create the image. Some scholars seem very focused on gameplay elements only and ignore these extra things that game studios also produce to go alongside the game. Some consider these sort of items to be ephemera, stuff meant to be tossed away. An article I read recently called some of these physical items ‘feelies’, from Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. I prefer instead to adopt the term paratext. A paratext is usually applied to the extra stuff about a novel: the chapter headings, the contents page, the dedications, the blurbs, the covers, marketing materials, author interviews. It’s stuff around the text itself and can actually influence the reading itself. Consider John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars Author’s Note:
“This is not so much an author’s note as an author’s reminder of what was printed in small type a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither Novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.”
I’m going to use the example of the undead or Forsaken in World of Warcraft. In part simply because I freaking love the Forsaken, I love their story, I love Sylvanas (if you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know all this). But also, the Forsaken are the most abjected race, they are reviled, even their allies dislike them. They are walking corpses, an affront to nature itself, and most came about from the plague that used to infect Azeroth, but these days they are resurrected by Val’kyr.
Also this post is way long, due to the loads of pictures and Youtube clips.
The On-Screen Gaming Body
The creation screen for avatars
The first sight of the Forsaken you are likely to get in game is the character creation screen, with a short note about the race and a list of their racial abilities (these generally have a very small part in actual gameplay, unless you are human. It’s often argued about on forums that their racial is too powerful and should be removed or changed). Of course, my favourite is Cannablize – the consuming of corpses to regain health and mana. While this may not be so incredibly useful in gameplay, I always found it amusing that whenever I would do it while playing in a group, my friends would instinctively go YUCK! It is such an iconic post-Romero zombie thing. Draining health from enemies, again having quite minimal effects and is a passive so I don’t notice it, is also very intriguing for the character of the Forsaken race. The resistance to shadow damage also indicates that these are dark beings, possibly aligned with or so familiar with the shadow themselves.
You can see with the options there are varying degrees of rot and augmentation. Personally, I love the iron jaw, or the iron replacement with the black eyes. These are beings decayed and falling apart, needing additional surgery to keep them going.
Introduction to the Forsaken
The following two videos are the original and updated introduction cut-scenes you get when choosing the Forsaken. This gives you the overview of what it means to be Forsaken and your place in the World of Warcraft.
While there are a billion quests I could mention as being relevant to contributing to the concept of the Forsaken, this one always stands out to me, which was added in Cataclysm. If you choose to go that way, the Silverpine Forest storyline (it is not a contested zone, although there is a sub-zone of Gilneas where Alliance worgen start but this is not part of Silverpine proper) offers an interesting look into the life and leadership of the Forsaken and how they are treated by others. Although you would probably find more racial-reactions in something like Dragon Age: Origins (stop calling me a knife-ear!), in WoW reactions are more generalised for every race (such as quest text that will fill in X for whatever your character name/race is).
Tangent: The Death Knights and reactions from NPC’s
Although not a part of the Forsaken, the undead Death Knights have a unique starting experience which covers their basic training and story. After a series of quests, mostly involving murdering humans, the Death Knight is told they are free from the Lich King’s will and able to join their faction proper. The next quest Warchief’s Blessing or Where Kings Walk (depending on whether you created a Horde or Alliance character), NPC’s react to their presence until they reach the Warchief or King to be inducted into the faction. This involves being spat on, abuse hurled at them, rotten fruit thrown, and calls for your character to be hung. The Death Knights are not welcome, they are clearly told they are abominations.
On- and Off- Screen
There are elements which sort of straddle on- and off- screen, so I’ve lumped them here. The city exists both in the physical gamespace, but is also represented by maps, including from the manual and the original World of Warcraft Atlas. Another aspect is their leader, Dark Lady and Banshee Queen Sylvanas. She IS the Forsaken.
No one understands my love of the Undercity (in-game shots, above). Personally, I think Thunder Bluff is more confusing. One of my friends ran around the Ruins of Lordaeron for maybe 20 minutes before asking for help on how to actually get in to the city. You see, it’s not so much a city but a structure under what used to be a functioning city. These are crypts and sewers and dungeons that have been repurposed. The sewer “rivers” run a bright green, as is associated with the plague.
The very concept of living in a sewer adds to what it means to be Forsaken. They are the abject, the refuse of a once human society. They can no longer live as they once did above ground, though there is certainly area available, but perhaps it is almost sacred? The city above stands as a massive grave to their kingdom, their monarchy, their family, their lives. In the entrance to the Undercity, you go through the King’s Hall, and there is still blood on floor from where their king was cruelly murdered. The architecture is grim, skulls and bones are very prominent on dark stone. It is twisted, nothing is straightforward. This place was not originally meant to be lived in, and although beautiful and decorative, a lot of the architecture is dark and foreboding.
The above pictures are from the original World of Warcraft gaming manual and original World of Warcraft Atlas. This is a list of vendors, merchants and characters that serve as mostly function for players. They aren’t notable NPC’s or have their names listed, or a story to tell. However, what makes it curious is the differences from other cities. There are many Flight Masters, for example, all over Azeroth, Outlands, Pandaria, Draenor. However, Forsaken towns in particular use bats, mostly throughout northern Eastern Kingdoms and in Howling Fjord in Northrend. Major cities also have non-combat pet vendors, snakes for the Trolls or moths for the Draenai, but the Forsaken have cockroaches. Cockroaches!! Although other races can purchase the cockroaches (now made easier by account-bound pet collections), it still says something about the Forsaken. Bats, associated with night, and external to the game in Western culture, also associated with vampires, and cockroaches, associated with filthy surroundings, being pests – these, too, make a contribution to how we think about and construct what it means to be Forsaken. They aren’t clean, for one thing!
There are also so many vendors across the game sell food (to replenish health points post-combat), and while it is not unique to the Forsaken, their chosen item of food is a Fungus seller. It used to be that pets consumed certain types of foods that the Hunter class would have to carry around, so there are other races that sell them across both factions, but from a glance at WoWWiki, most of those vendors are Forsaken. But that’s great, I love mushrooms.
Something not on this list, but in-game, is the random NPC’s that wander the city and make it feel more lived in. They may serve a small function, like handing in a quest, or might just be there for the atmosphere. For example, there is a living human that wanders the War Quarter called Theresa, who has a blindfold over her eyes, with the title <Gerard’s Mindslave>. By overhearing others, you learn that she has been tortured and experimented upon by a Forsaken called Gerard, whereby the person he talks to agrees that the results are impressive.
Playable Forsaken are only the human undead, while some elves were resurrected they were not in as significant a number as the human population. Elvish Forsaken are usually dark rangers, often serving as generals for Forsaken armies, or banshees. Sylvanas had been a high elf, but had a unique resurrection story from the other Forsaken. Physically, she has had some model changes. Originally, on the left, she resembled a night elf. This upset some members of the community as she wasn’t a night elf, she had been a HIGH elf prior to her death, and had reclaimed her body. Blizzard upgraded her model in the second expansion, as she was going to have lore moments in the game. The centre shows her initial redesign, with the final model on the right being uniquely created for her.
Sylvanas is also present in a few of the Warcraft books, particularly in War Crimes. She is described here:
“A slender, graceful figure had entered the Temple of the White Tiger. She looked at first glance like an elven archer, but there was a sickly blue-gray tint to her skin, and her eyes blazed red, as if they were the only outlets for an unquenchable fire.” – Chapter One
Her backstory is also relevant as she has always been the leader of the Forsaken. I’ve written about Sylvanas before, but here’s another small TL;DR from in-game (after the sequence I posted earlier) about her backstory. Players who had played the RTS Warcraft 3 will already be familiar with this story line.
The manual provides more information about her, and two other notable characters from the lore.
The Off-Screen Gaming Body
ArtA lovely rendering of a Forsaken on the original WoW cd cover. It’s curious how she isn’t actually as gross and rotting away as some of the feature options for in-game, but this is also a piece of marketing. There have been problems in some markets for WoW where the showing of bones is especially taboo, but on this one you can see a little bit. That bright almost neon green glow on her hand is especially a colour marker of the Forsaken, given both the plague that made them undead, the representations of plague or plagued creatures, and also their main city/hubs are also usually marked by this colour.
As well as the cute Sylvanas, there are also quite a few undead action figures of the Forsaken (and some of Sylvanas too). This is the one I own, a Forsaken Priestess, Confessor Dhalia. I love the darkness of her clothing, you can tell she isn’t the healing type of priestess (in-game, priests can play as either two healing specs or one pure damage spec, called shadow). The Forsaken priest in-game is a bit controversial, as the Light used by priests and paladins really hurts the undead. Thus in lore, the few who use the Light need immense strength of will to put up with the extreme pain. Shadow magic, as with the racials, are much more undeadish. Lore-wise, Forsaken priests are mostly shadowpriests, but for the sake of game mechanics, Forsaken priests have the same abilities as other priests.
A final potential addition to all this is the role of fandom. There are some brilliantly talented people out there who create fan art and fan fiction. There is also the Warcraft table top RPG, however this is not canon. Creating a game body is, of course, very relevant to role players. Since I’m more a nerd rather than a proper role player, here is a video that details how to roleplay a Forsaken.