In these days of cinematic universes and endless sequels, stories that used to be simple are becoming increasingly complex, loaded with backstory and lore that practically requires a degree to wrap your head around. But this phenomenon? It's hardly new.
Since at least the days of Tolkien, fantasy-rich tales like Lord of the Rings have relied on cohesive systems of lore, history and universe-building to attract audiences.
Starting life in 1994, but reaching critical mass with 2004's World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft universe is one of the best examples of a long-running, multimedia narrative. Five core video games, five tabletop card games, over 30 novels, 10 comics, six manga and a film adaptation have all been released in the space of the last 26 years.
How the hell does everyone keep the story straight?
We spoke to Steve Danuser, lead narrative designer for World of Warcraft, to find out how one gigantic multiplatform universe can cohesively function across so many different forms of media.
"A big part of my job is to focus on the game and make sure that our team is telling great stories within the world, but another big part of it is also interfacing with all the other departments at Blizzard," Danuser said.
More often than not, it comes down to three C's: consistency, context and credible growth. As the story grows, it needs to do so for constructive reasons -- not just for the sake of it.
Crafting a signature story
World of Warcraft lies at the heart of the Warcraft universe's continued success. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game has consistently attracted millions of players over its 16-year history.
Danuser's role is to create the story at the heart of this massive universe, from coming up with plotlines and dialogue through to corralling a huge team of writers, designers and other creatives.
To keep the narrative in line with supplementary novels, comics, manga and more, the most critical element is the capacity for intense communication. Establishing the cadence of these supplementary media forms is paramount in evaluating how they fit into the story.
"When it comes to books, for example, we have long-term strategy meetings where I tell them what's going on in the game and then we talk about ideas for books that can arise out of that," Danuser said.
But this relies heavily on the development of a central narrative, capable of spanning pages upon pages of content, planned months -- sometimes years -- in advance. It's something Tom van Laer, a professor of narratology at the University of Sydney, Australia, refers to as a "signature story."
"A signature story has a couple of features," explains van Laer. "It's perceived as authentic, while at the same time is incredibly involving. There's a lot going on. They tend to be quite epic -- big searches for cradles of knowledge, for example."
It's this narrative thread that links across platforms to tell a linear story, even when the individual elements might span different timelines or worlds.
"My brain is always living in multiple points in time," said Danuser. "I have to be able to dial in on the story at any given point in time and be able to speak about it separately from all the other parts, so it's definitely a challenge."
But it's physically impossible for one human to retain all that information inside her or his head. Blizzard is well known for having a team of in-house historians, employed as archivists who can summon up obscure pieces of information and lore at the blink of an eye.
I can't stress this enough: Their entire full-time job is to know every inch of the Warcraft universe -- primarily a game universe -- as if it were based in reality and fact. It's a dream gig for any superfan.
"We have a lot of tools at our disposal," said Danuser. "The historians are a great go-to for a 'Hey, what are the facts about this event that happened in the past or what do we know about this weapon or this kingdom?' All that sort of stuff. And then we also use wikis and so forth to keep buckets of information that are most relevant for whatever patch or update we're working on at a given time."
Fictional historians might sound oxymoronic, but there's precedence for the approach. Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin employs two people to check his own writing for mistakes.
Because even when it's your own work, there's still scope for human error. For Warcraft, fans at BlizzCon are notorious for pointing out continuity errors (the "Red Shirt Guy" is a legend among the community for disrupting BlizzCon panels with obscure questions and corrections). When the scope of a project is that large, these things are almost unavoidable.
To keep the narrative straight for himself, Danuser even had a corkboard with ideas and string to piece them together. In a world of historians and fact-checkers, this Pepe Silvia style of red yarn mapping might seem chaotic from an outsider's perspective, but every little bit counts when building a multiplatform narrative with legions of superfans who are primed to respond at the first sign of a problem.
The path isn't always easy
Over the course of 26 years, even the most organized narratives will occasionally wander off track. Despite its commercial success, some players criticized WoW's recent Battle for Azeroth expansion for its lack of perceived continuity and credible character arcs.
Audiences have spent decades investing in the characters and storylines, so by the time new content rolls around they feel as though they're owed a certain amount of input. If the story doesn't go in a way that satisfies them? Woe betide the creators.
Van Laer has studied this phenomenon for years, both in the gaming community and the LARPing community (that's LARP for live-action role-playing game).
"You get huge fans who start to protect that universe," he said. "They reinterpret, and there's a lot of examples where they get in conflict with the original writers of the stories, where they say, 'No that's wrong; this is the way it's supposed to be.'"
The problem is, for a signature story to function correctly, it needs to have a certain amount of leeway.
It's paradoxical, said van Laer: "On the one hand you need this strong set of rules and something that is really its own, but it should be flexible enough that people can start adding to it."
Frank Kowalkowski, the technical director for Shadowlands, said feedback and input come from staff and colleagues alike, not just from fans.
"I can guarantee you, some of the harshest critics, if you will -- or some of the most passionate feedback, I should say -- actually comes from the people in the team," said Kowalkowski.
This sense of ownership can make it hard for narrative designers and authors to tread the line between smart creative choices and perceived pandering. When a partially developed storyline incites uproar, not all fans will have the patience to see it through to the satisfying conclusion.
For Danuser, it makes being online difficult when he sees a reaction to something that hasn't been fully revealed yet.
"It's certainly very tempting [to jump in], especially when, you know, I might be reading a tweet or a thread on Reddit that expresses dismay over not knowing something or, like, speculating about what's going to happen," Danuser said.
But the balance of ownership and patience can be struck in a way that satisfies both story and audience. It's the responsibility of players to understand that their role in the creative process is primarily to be consumers, not always contributors.
"It's about finding the superfans that have that respect," said van Laer. "The fans that want to push the envelope but have that respect for the original core -- if you identify them as an owner, you're able to work with them."
Seemingly, the latest expansion has revitalized the core Warcraft community, and a significant part of that comes down to the way the designers have listened to fans and expanded the universe's lore, instead of changing existing frameworks.
Venturing into the Shadowlands
On Nov. 24, Blizzard released Shadowlands, the latest expansion in the World of Warcraft series. It immediately set records for the biggest launch day of any PC game and opened up an entirely new narrative playground to explore. Unlike previous expansions that built on the existing world, Shadowlands expands the universe to encompass the realm of death.
Narratively speaking, this allows the signature story of WoW to grow without actively affecting core lore -- taking existing elements of the game and developing them to provide deeper context. A key example? Since the days of "vanilla" WoW in 2004, players who die are sent to 'spirit healers' who can resurrect them at a cost. In Shadowlands, we delve deeper into the backstory of these spirit healers to unravel the game's four-part equivalent of heaven and hell.
"One of the things that's really excited me about Shadowlands as an expansion is the opportunity to really build upon the cosmology of Warcraft and to delve into this place that we'd only mentioned kind of offhandedly," said Danuser.
This week Castle Nathria, the first raid for Shadowlands, was unlocked, introducing more narrative elements and gameplay opportunities for players to explore. As the first official addition to the expansion, a lot of pressure rides on continuing to deliver a world-class experience.
Will it satisfy narrative expectations? That's for the players to decide.