The other day I was plugged into my music as I was commuting home… you know, the usual. Then suddenly the World of Warcraft soundtrack came on and I heard the music for Stranglethorn Vale. And suddenly, I found myself reminiscing of my experiences in Stranglethorn Vale when I used to play World of Warcraft all those years ago.
No big deal, right? Nothing special to write about… except that my memories were more akin to that of a real place. In my head I wasn’t really remembering Stranglethorn Vale as a level in a videogame, but as an actual place where I wandered around… the same way I remember walking to the surf camp in Bali or the crowded streets of Hong Kong. For Stranglethorn Vale, I remembered the vines, the dirt tracks on the ground, the paranoid feeling that some alliance asshole was just waiting around the corner to gank me, and even the humidity. You can’t feel humidity in a videogame, but I remembered it.
You see, when I hear music from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, I also think back about the game but I think of it as a game, and levels in a game. I picture the levels and environments exactly the same was I see them on a TV screen. It’s a very external view. But with World of Warcraft, I think back of the environments as actual places. It’s strange like that.
Maybe it’s because of the different nature of an MMO. Games like Sonic have levels that are specially designed set pieces. You have a goal to achieve, and the levels are entirely designed around that. Even in a RPG like Mass Effect, the environments are still just levels to me: a large level like the Omega space station is still just an enclosed location designed to house certain characters and missions.
With MMOs like World of Warcraft, the environments aren’t “levels”, so to speak. They’re places, and like places in real life you can choose to do whatever you want in them. In the Stranglethorn Vale example, you could be there performing quests, but you could also just be there to meet a friend at Booty Bay, or commuting past on your way to other places like Duskwood. Or like a lot of assholes, you could just like to hang out there to attack lower-leveled players to compensate for your remarkably small penis in real life.
Likewise, many other environments in World of Warcraft feel like places rather than levels. I always remember walking through the great gates of Ogrimmar and strolling to the bank and auction house, and the magnificent view from atop Thunder Bluff. Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily associate these places with a task – I’m just there.
I think the music plays a great part to this “real place” feeling too. The excellent soundtrack is more atmospheric and ambient, yet has enough character to give each location its own feel. With games like Halo, certain memorable locations are always linked with the same action (eg an epic battle with a Scarab tank), and the music is tailored to fit that particular scenario only. But if you listen to the music for Thunder Bluff, it just sets the tone for the majestic nature of the city, without driving your memory to any specific task/action.
It’s not just fight music, or sneaky stealth mission music… it’s Thunder Bluff. That’s all it is, and that’s what makes it more like a real place in my head.
That said, I have to quickly squeeze in something about the environmental design of World of Warcraft. It’s amazing. Every place feels different and has its own character. Even though the graphics engine was not the greatest, the design and color was so strong that even blocky low-poly objects looked great. I’ve played a couple of other MMOs, and quite honestly most of their environments are pretty generic with no uniqueness about them in terms of design, music, or in-game history. Gawd I miss this game!
In case you’re wondering, I’m not actually crazy, you know? I know that Azeroth and all the places in the World of Warcraft aren’t real. I’m just saying I remember these environments and places differently than the way I remember levels in other games. Maybe it’s because I played World of Warcraft it for years, and I have probably invested more time in this game than any other game. I dunno… but hey, fond memories are fond memories, right?
Anyway, here’s the city theme of another place that I loved – Orgrimmar!
For more pictures of Azeroth and a trip down memory lane, check out Azeroth Remembered – a photoblog that captures the World of Warcraft before the Cataclysm changed everything.
UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot to include this awesome song from Pure Pwnage.