Saturday, 26 November 2011

World of Kung Fu Panda

There'll be no political posts right now, in keeping with electoral law guidelines. So, we're taking a detour for now.

In the days of Warcraft 3, the 'pandaren', a race of panda-like people, were created by senior Blizzard Entertainment artist Samwise Didier as an April Fools joke. But by popular demand, they were later incorporated into the game as playable units, only to vanish from the scene in World of Warcraft.

At BlizzCon 2011, Blizzard announced the next World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Months earlier, the name had been officially registered at the US Patent Office as "digital entertainment", cranking the rumour mill up to 11. There were those who found it inconceivable that the next expansion could be all about pandaren, and as such believed it would be a mobile game of some sort, given that the patent explicitly ruled out any non-digital media such as books, comics or card games.

With the official announcement, the Warcraft fan base was immediately polarised. While some welcomed the announcement as a breath of fresh air and a bit of harmless fun, others felt that the inclusion of the pandaren would forever ruin the game, with some going as far as threatening to cancel their subscriptions once it was released. The most common complaint heard about Mists of Pandaria is that it's one big rip-off of Kung Fu Panda, and that it was a sop to the kiddie crowd and 'furry fandom' subculture.

Rumours also resurfaced of Mists being banned for sale in China, due to supposed laws against depicting the killing of pandas in games after negative reaction from Chinese gamers. That's actually an urban myth, as there are plenty of games in China which depict pandas involved in deadly combat. The real reason behind the negative reaction was the pandaren originally being designed to look like Japanese samurai — invoking still-raw memories of General Tojo's wartime atrocities — and were later changed to look more Chinese.

Personally I'm not too hung up about the forthcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion. Yes, there is an element of Kung Fu Panda, but the pandaren were conceived by Didier long before the movie came out. The game mechanics will be further refined for the better. And it seems to offer a bit of light relief after the overall grimness of the last 2 expansions, Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm.

A potentially more serious issue surrounding the Warcraft universe is perceptions of faction bias, whether founded or unfounded. Rumours were leaked a few days after BlizzCon 2011 that in the lead-up to Mists, a major Alliance city would be destroyed by the opposing Horde, triggering a major inter-faction war that would be the main theme of Mists. It provoked an Internet backdraft never seen before in Warcraft circles, prompting defensive responses by Blizzard community managers. Yet it was merely the trigger for an issue that had been brewing for at least a couple of years. Daniel Whitcomb of WoW Insider and The Renaissance Man of the Children of Wrath blog have already explained the issues in depth.

My take on the matter is that the bias is not necessarily intentional, but in comparison to its Horde-side counterpart, Alliance-side quests and lore — especially in Cataclysm — have been rushed through to meet release schedules, and as a result have come across as somewhat flat and one-dimensional. As pointed out by Renaissance Man above, such flaws are a lot more pronounced in interactive media like computer games, than they are in books or films.

If Blizzard gets it right, there'll be some much needed depth to the storyline. Get it wrong, and World of Warcraft could fatally lose a sizeable chunk of its player base, and may even provoke jingoistic fervour that could spill over into real-world violence, as happened with the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. For the most part Blizzard has never put out a bad game, and the next Warcraft expansion could put that to the test.

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