I Was Not Prepared

What Sylvanas as Warchief means to Me

“Molly, you have to play the pre-expansion patch from the Horde side. Just do it.” I was coming off of a long session of trying to tweak a scoring algorithm to be just how I wanted it and had not yet figured out when I would even fit in playing the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Legion, on top of existing work, but we were finally rolling into a weekend. I felt the good kind of tired that comes after solving a problem. After grabbing a late dinner, it was 1:00 AM, and everyone was telling me that I had to play this damn patch.

All of my close friends and industry colleagues had decided they were playing Horde again. As time and my friends changed, I moved to play with them. This game has kept me connected with people in ways social networks cannot. I did not understand why we were transferring back to Horde, but as someone who had not been able to play in the last several months I also understood that I was going to get the short end of the stick. I would do anything for my friends to just get pockets of time to spend with them in something we enjoy together, but was frustrated with the wasteful expense. For over ten years, I have played World of Warcraft and with love, it was a time and money sink that had become impossible to manage on top of work and volunteering. There was a time when I first started my business I was putting so much into the venture, I had to cancel my subscription just to get our general liability insurance because I was self-funding and two of my clients were late on payments. I cut every corner to get that dream off the ground.

For several women in games, when you ask them what games impacted their career, you’ll very often get World of Warcraft as an answer. This story is not that uncommon for a lot of the ladies who work in the games industry or even a lot of the fans who play the game. With its fans, the game has routinely adapted. I boosted a character on the chosen Horde server not wanting to transfer over five characters there and decided I would check out the new Demon Hunter class for an hour before resting my head. I finished the quest series and was waiting for Sylvanas Windrunner, The Banshee Queen, to speak with Vol’jin, Warchief of the Horde and leader of the Darkspear Tribe, as he lay dying in Orgrimmar.

“I have never trusted you,” Vol’jin said with hesitation and looked sternly at Sylvanas. Fully-cloaked in skulls and silver-lined armor that reflected the color of a good Merlot, Sylvanas had stopped a few feet in front of him, “Nor would I have ever imagined in our darkest time that you would be the one to save us.” I woke up.

With raspy breath he continued, “The spirits have granted me clarity, a vision. They whisper a name.” What was happening?

“Many will not understand.” My mouth dropped open. With one statement World of Warcraft broke the fourth wall, though I’m not sure everyone will see it that way. His voice shattered, “But you must step out of the shadows and lead.”

Vol’jin whispered, “You must be warchief.” Sylvanas was stunned. The stale atmosphere captured the troll’s final breath. My face contorted in a stupid and exhausted way that one does where you are trying everything in your power not to tear up at a cinematic with 3D-animated characters because it feels wrong, and it’s one in the morning. I gave in because no one was around and now have the guts to tell the internet, that yes, I cried at the Blizzard cinematic. Then, I celebrated — GG.

I had taken for granted that a woman would ever be the main lead of a World of Warcraft faction enough to be surprised by it when it happened, and that moment was magical for me. In many ways, I had trained myself out of it. The possibility had been erased from my mind so that I could love this game without being disappointed. After all, World of Warcraft has had several strong leading women characters of other individual races and as secondary leads. That is already much more than most games have achieved for representation.

A woman leading the Horde Faction is the World of Warcraft equivalent to electing a woman as the president of the United States. She’s not leading a bunch of NPCs — she’s leading half of all of real world players to victory, and potentially, if the story permits for this expansion as it is setting itself up to do, all players to victory. Perhaps, this is the most fitting year for it to happen. Anduin Wrynn is so fresh to the throne that he may as well be a child King, and Jaina Proudmore, another strong character on the Alliance, is so furious my colleagues keep calling her “Dreadlord Jaina” thinking she’s already possessed by a demon. The Alliance is currently the most unsafe faction to back, and the future of Azeroth is now officially in the hands of the Banshee Queen. While TIME may not talk about it as a critical moment that should have tremendous brand impacts, the women who play WOW and the many fans who love Sylvanas understand this overdue resolution for the character whom so many blame for circumstances that have long been outside of her control and for a leader who has only ever wanted the best for her people.

While she has had some amazing side stories, this means Sylvanas will now get the chance to lead in ways she had not been able to before. She will get the narrative attention she deserves, potentially for the whole of the expansion, and I hope much longer. This moment made me identify with the brand in a way I was not able to previously. While Blizzard has routinely come through whenever I have had trouble, it is one thing to be glad to always have good customer service (and last year their fireside team also supported IGDA Atlanta’s Game Studio Smackdown when we ran Hearthstone) — it is another thing entirely to say, “I hope this IP continues so that I can continue to support them and introduce others to a world that meant so much to me.”

One of the reasons I co-founded Ker-Chunk Games with other women in games is because I did not feel that enough of those brands existed. In early 2014, we felt the ones that did care about women players had betrayed their own audiences. I did not get the sense from many larger studios that evolving the stereotypes of women characters was a key component to their brand identity, that they respected the women who played their games, and that they cared about how their heroines were perceived. We set out to create games, like PrinceNapped, where players could rescue a prince and worked on projects where we changed the way people perceived women players on mobile and social platforms because we had the knowledge, network, and determination to do it even if few believed in the value of the mission.

I know that Blizzard cares about the women who play their games. From the day I created my first character in 2005 until now. I had joined to play with a young man at the time who, despite dating, never quested with me. At level 3, I corpse ran from tigers in Stranglethorn Vale after I wandered onto a zeppelin. And I loved it. I played to the deletion of my first character at level 40 due to another player finding out I was a girl. He got his swarm of friends to create multiple characters just to harass me by spamming inappropriate messages. To my restore and transfer when I discovered how nice their customer service was about these types of issues. Whomever restored my first character, you’re very likely the reason my interest in games did not die that day. I was 17. To ten years, a college education, jobs, a new business, and many characters later when we created a small tournament with the IGDA Atlanta board in 2015 to support the local game developer community as we searched for ways to unite the development communities from the east to the west of the United States. Atlanta developers played Hearthstone because of their supportive fireside team.

Leading a ship is hard. There are going to be so many storms on this journey, but I know that I can put my trust in the brand to do the right thing because they consistently have proven that they want to get it right. Probably the best part about this whole expansion thus far is that in so many areas there is dynamic and diverse representation, and yet it does not feel forced or shallow. It feels right, and this is exactly where all of us want to be.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for Sylvanas, Warchief of the Horde.


The images and cinematic used in this article are from the Legion pre-patch and expansion for World of Warcraft. You can get the game here.