World of Warcraft’s hugely anticipated Shadowlands expansion hits later this year, and will bring with it a new visibility for LGBTQ+-friendly quests, storylines and even character options.
One of the major story arcs in the Shadows Rising book, which leads up to the expansion, includes the budding romance between lighthearted Kul Tiran sailor Flynn Fairwind and the dry, sarcastic Stormwind spymaster Mathias Shaw, for example.
The two worked together in a previous in-game quest line through the treasury in the golden city of Dazar’alor as part of the events that led up to the Battle of Dazar’alor raid instance, and their chemistry was obvious. Fans immediately began “shipping” the two, writing stories about a potential relationship, and Blizzard internally thought along the same lines.
“We just really liked the chemistry of these characters. It kind of spoke to us,” said Steve Danuser, lead narrative designer of Warcraft for Blizzard Entertainment. “We could have had them just be friends if we wanted, but we felt like man, they have a much deeper connection, and it’s something that could feel like a really genuine relationship. It just felt really right for these characters.”
Developers mentioned the pair to Madeleine Roux, the New York Times-bestselling author of the book. She enthusiastically picked up that thread, and the result is a (very PG-rated) flirtation between the two men as part of its storylines.
“Matthias had never observed the other man from this distance. He hadn’t noticed that Flynn smelled as strongly of salt and soap as he did of whiskey, and the combination was intoxicating. His leather coat was warm to the touch, holding lingering sunlight and body heat.”
“World of Warcraft is not known for its romances. A lot of the weddings we’ve seen have had tragic endings,” Danuser said. “It’s not like we’re changing the game to be about romance. But there’s a place for it, where it feels like it enhances the story or the characters.
“I think that Flynn and Shaw just made this really natural combination that was fun to see through questing in game, in Shadows Rising and in some other written material that we’ve got coming. I think you’ll just see that chemistry blossom even more. They’re fun characters to write for.”
Shadowlands’ afterlife is all about choices
In the afterlife-themed Shadowlands, players will spend about a quarter of their leveling time in the zone of Bastion. The angelic zone trains those spirits who will aid the worthy in their transition from death to the afterlife, and one of the first characters players meet is Pelagos, who is training to ascend to those ranks.
Pelagos lived his mortal life as a woman, and appears as a male form in the afterlife. It doesn’t play a major role in the quests that players experience; if they’re not paying attention, they may not notice the story element at all. But a series of dialog options, starting with “Do you remember your past life?,” offer players who want to know more the chance to explore.
“I had a female form in life,” Pelagos says. “I don't recall my former name, or even my race, but I...never felt like my physical form represented who I was inside. It never felt as clear to me then as it does now. I struggled with that identity for my entire life... But when I arrived in Bastion I became an aspirant that looked like, well… This! A male form! I felt...comfortable! Excited! Like who I was inside matched what others saw for the first time! All of those feelings in my life finally made sense.”
Pelagos’ pronouns in game actually changed during the development process, which prompted Blizzard to post a clarifying message in the game’s forums.
“The team had originally written him to use they/them pronouns, but received feedback that he/him would be more respectful of the character’s wishes to be identified as a man,” the post read in part. “This change is simply the result of us listening and responding to that feedback.”
That feedback came from both the player community and from Blizzard staff members internally, as Pelagos’ storyline was developed and the first voice lines were recorded.
“We got similar feedback across the board, that no, it feels like the way you’ve written this character that he would prefer he/him pronouns instead of they/them,” said Johnny Cash, senior game designer and LGBTQ+ Advisory Council member at Blizzard. “And hey, is this something we can change? And of course we can. And so we made the change.”
The post’s response in player discussions on the forums, Reddit and popular Warcraft site Wowhead was surprisingly civil, with common themes including a discussion of whether the character would truly prefer he/him, and why it was a big enough deal to post about.
The all-powerful barber: character creation options multiply
In an in-game change, players in Shadowlands can also now change the gender of their character in any barbershop for gold. Previously, that was a paid service. It’s part of a huge number of options that broaden out character creation and customization to be more reflective of the real world, including a previously-unavailable variety of skin tones, eye shapes, tattoos and jewelry.
“That was one of those things that was born out of discussions on the team itself. We were thinking about what we were building, and reflecting upon it,” Danuser said. “I think it’s natural to assume that business decisions get made off in a tower somewhere, and they get beamed down to us, and we have to follow these guidelines. But it’s not really like that. The team has a lot of say about these kinds of things.”
“We were looking at these options that were coming in, we were introducing characters like Pelagos and saying, this can be your experience too. You can make some of these decisions and decide how you want to be seen in the world.”
“It’s not a huge part of the storyline -- it’s just something that they are”
There are other examples of LGBTQ+-friendly storylines in Shadowlands, and that trend is likely to continue in Warcraft.
“Ardenweald [zone] has a questline where you’re trying to figure out some of the aspects of Tirande’s transformation when she took on the Night Warrior power, and what that power is doing to her, what it means and what the potential cost is,” Danuser said. “You encounter a couple, where one of them was a Night Warrior on a different world in the mortal plane. You discover they are a same-sex couple. It’s not a huge part of the storyline – it’s just something that they are.”
In Shadows Rising, one passing scene shows the marriage of two women assisted by a decision from Zandalari troll queen Talanji. The ruling is a financial one; the existence of same-sex marriage in the country is assumed.
This isn’t the first time LGBTQ+ characters have appeared in Warcraft. In Legion, Danuser wrote quests for an Enchanting storyline that included a same-sex couple -- but those themes are not hiding in the, er, shadows in Shadowlands.
There are a number of reasons for the higher visibility.
“One major thing that was really on the team's mind throughout development was this notion of choice and as an extrapolation of that, the notion of self expression,” Cash said.
That plays out in the huge expansion of character customization and the theme of choice in life and the afterlife, the developers said. It also felt like the right time for broader representation of people in Warcraft, given world events, the changing nature of society and the increasing diversification of Blizzard’s own staff.
“We have a team that has a lot of different people with different viewpoints and backgrounds, so it’s important to us to tell stories that we care about, that reflect our concerns, and also make Azeroth a place that is representative of lots of different points of view, and very welcoming,” Danuser said. “Whatever your background is, there’s a place for you in this world.”
“We've seen no shortage of feedback from the community about even more cool stuff they'd like to see, and within the team, it's the same story,” Cash said.
“This is a beginning for us. It’s not well, we did that, and now we’re all done,” Danuser said. “We always think of more quests, more stories, more art to make and more systems to build. We’ll absolutely be thinking and looking for more ways to allow further representation in the future.”