“What afterlife you are most drawn to, which you think of as a good place versus a bad place really does come down to your points of view,” Steve Danuser, Lead Narrative Designer on World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
tells me. We’re discussing one of the realms found within the afterlife - Maldraxxus, home to necromancers and abominations.
“When someone looks at Maldraxxus and sees a very aggressive-looking place that has creatures within it that some might call monstrous, it's natural for someone to think, ‘Oh, there's bad stuff going on,’” Steve continues. “But Maldraxxus is not a place of punishment, it's a place that has a very specific purpose in the Shadowlands and that is to act as a defensive force.”
The afterlife as depicted in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is one filled with strife and new challenges facing all of its realms - Bastion, Ardenweald, Revendreth and Maldraxxus. An afterlife that also happens to cover the entirety of all worlds, including Azeroth. Even though the look of Maldraxxus is one on the opposite end of Bastion’s bright shiny pristine glow, there’s a nobility there that will play out during the Shadowlands campaign.
As the defensive force for the Shadowlands, its role is clearly defined.
“When someone looks at Maldraxxus and sees a very aggressive-looking place that has creatures within it that some might call monstrous, it's natural for someone to think, ‘Oh there's bad stuff going on’”
“The way that you prove yourself in Maldraxxus, to become a valuable part of this army, is to work your way up the ranks, and you might do that through might or through guile or treachery,” Steve explains. “There are heroic aspects to Maldraxxus, just as they are some nefarious ones and it really comes down to the individual choices once you get there. Maldraxxus isn't a place that makes you forget your previous mortal life. It's a place that values it because it's the things in that life that got you where you are that made you successful, so Maldraxxus draws in those people who have a natural inclination towards bettering themselves.”
is quick to point out that the darker tone and visually monstrous aspects of Maldraxxus share equal footing with nobility and these themes of honour and redemption.
A Scourge Tale
For those that played Warcraft III
you’ll no doubt remember the Scourge that plagued Azeroth, or more recently the forces seen in the World of Warcraft expansion Wrath of the Lich King
. As the birthplace of necromancy, Maldraxxus might be the most immediately familiar realm in the Shadowlands. Thanks in part to some of its more iconic creatures.
“You see creatures that look like advanced forms of abominations. You see skeletal armies, you see liches, necromancers, massive necropolises that fly through the sky,” Steve says. “These are all things that have familiarity for our fans of Warcraft, and yet in Maldraxxus, you see them taken into extremes, new and different forms of those things that we might be familiar with.”
“The visuals of Maldraxxus and the people within it really allowed us to play with expectations a little bit”
For the team at Blizzard there was an excitement for being able to bring a higher visual fidelity to this familiarity - across creatures, beings, and architecture. To make them look better than ever. More importantly though, it was the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the lore and explore aspects of Maldraxxus many know very little about.
“The visuals of Maldraxxus and the people within it really allowed us to play with expectations a little bit,” Steve admits. “It would have been easy to just tell a story of monsters doing monstrous things, but when you go against that stereotype and you dig below the surface, it lets you do some very interesting things.”
“The undead Scourge that we've seen on Azeroth before, while it is controlled by different entities, it's largely portrayed as this ravenous mindless force that just runs rampant across the landscape and destroys the civilised kingdoms,” Steve continues. “In Maldraxxus, we see a form of that that is structured and that has thought and intelligence behind it. The House of Constructs, for example, is built of these kinds of massive walking siege engines that, again, you might think look similar to some of the abominations that we've seen before in Northrend and places like that, but you'll find that brutally intelligent gladiators inhabit these bodies and that they use powers to create an effect.”
Via exploring, expanding, or even twisting the at-a-glance twisted look of creatures and machinations that have come from Maldraxxus in the past - Blizzard is able to create uncertainty and discovery throughout the realm. Where the afterlife is something of a timeless place - where the past, present, and future converge.
Familiar Faces and Fallen Heroes
By shifting the setting to the afterlife with Shadowlands, Blizzard is able to pore over 15 years of World of Warcraft storytelling and look at key moments and characters and how that might intertwine with the current story being told. Epic would be a quick and simple way to summarise what has come so far, with each new expansion presenting a larger than life tale full of conflict and character moments. And, with Shadowlands the immediate gut reaction adds the question of who. Who will we get to see? Fallen heroes, characters met in passing, iconic faces that have become a key part of Warcraft lore. Will they be different? The same?
“As we were developing into the Shadowlands story, we obviously had many, many characters to choose from in terms of ones that had died on Azeroth and had crossed over into the afterlife,” Steve confirms. “In some cases we chose characters that felt like a natural fit to the afterlife that they were connected to. For example, Uther the Lightbringer going to Bastion, that was a very immediate and understandable connection, someone who was a paladin in life, who had devoted his entire existence to service is exactly the type of character that would be brought to Bastion and given a different way of serving.”
“As we were developing into the Shadowlands story, we obviously had many, many characters to choose from in terms of ones that had died on Azeroth and had crossed over into the afterlife”
“In the case of Maldraxxus, we decided to go with some maybe less likely choices,” Steve continues. “In some ways, it's interesting to take characters that people may know a little bit about or might know by reputation, and then through the course of the Shadowlands story, let you get to know them in a new and unexpected way.”
One of these characters, Draka, is known to a lot of Warcraft vets but her story has mostly been seen in expanded material. Former Frostwolf clan warrior, mother to Thrall, in the afterlife she rose through the ranks in Maldraxxus to become a protector of the realm.
“She was someone who was born weaker and built herself up to be stronger,” Steve tells me. “That kind of fighting spirit is exactly what has value inside Maldraxxus. This was a great opportunity to take characters like Draka and to really build them up and tell interesting stories with them. Such that by the time you get through the Maldraxxus story and the Covenant campaign, you really will understand Draka and feel a connection to her.”
“And you'll root for her in the same way that you root for other characters that you've met throughout the years in the Warcraft franchise,” Steve says. “The conflicts that play out have a deeper layer below them, there is a sense of betrayal that's gone on here that has turned the different houses against one another and that gets to be a deep story that goes beyond the surface level.”
Four Covenants to Choose From
As part of the journey through the Shadowlands, players will visit and discover how the four Covenants are connected to the underlying crisis. But, at some point they’ll have to pick a side. For those with an affinity for Maldraxxus and Draka’s tale of redemption, Necrolord Covenant campaign might make the most narrative sense for your own character’s journey. But, World of Warcraft is as much about mechanics, builds, and your character’s visual identity as it is anything else.
“We really wanted your choice of Covenant to fulfill a very meaningful role for you, that really spoke to you in terms of what they looked like, what they cared about, how they went about solving problems”
“We really wanted your choice of Covenant to fulfill a very meaningful role for you, that really spoke to you in terms of what they looked like, what they cared about, how they went about solving problems,” Steve explains. “But really, those visual rewards that you unlock helped fulfill your journey, feeling like you’ve become a part of this Covenant, whether it's the armour sets that you acquire or the mounts that you unlock.”
“Immersing yourself in that role through the visuals that you acquire and the course of helping them just really goes a long way towards tying you into the sanctum that you get to explore,” Steve continues. “The adventures that you carry out with them, and the quests that you do alongside these awesome heroic characters.”
It’s a journey shared by the World of Warcraft team, who has found time and again throughout development that exploring the afterlife and its deeper elements have led to new ideas and elements and classic Warcraft storytelling that might not have been on the table when those initial design meetings took place.
“It really is the process of just getting together in a room, designers, storytellers, artists, all together, all working towards the same goals and just sharing ideas and trying some things that don't work and then finding things that do,” Steve concludes. “That's what made Maldraxxus evolve the way that it did, talking about a place that took that classic Warcraft undead aesthetic and elevating it to a new level that told a much more detailed story. It took us into new places that we didn't expect when we first started working on the project. And that's the joy of having a story like this, discovering it as you're building it and finding things that bring you that level of excitement that you get to bring to players.”