'WarCraft 3: The Story of King Arthas'
King Arthur meets Anakin Skywalker
So I recently replayed WarCraft 3 just for kicks, and damn, the campaign is excellent. Especially the first Human campaign, The Scourge of Lordaeron. This is the story of Arthas' fall from grace.
This arc is great for a lot of reasons. The main one being that it's a really great character story. So let's get into it. The Human campaign focuses on Prince Arthas, who is a paladin and heir to the throne of Lordaeron. He's the golden boy, trained to do good and destined to be great. But, when his people are threatened by a new enemy, the undead Scourge, Arthas is pushed to make harder and harder choices that lead him down a dark path. He has a really distinct character arc that occurs gradually over the course of the campaign. It's really great because his motivations stay basically the same the whole time, but his methods change, until he ends the story in a totally different place than he started. His motivations are really noble and sympathetic too, which is what makes him a compelling character.
The Undead are threatening the Humans, specifically the citizens of Lordaeron, and so everything that Arthas does, to a point, he does to protect the people which he serves. The Undead are a brand new threat here, and the humans have never encountered anything like them before, so they are legitimately scared of this force that they don't understand. The Humans are used to fighting Orcs, but the Undead can raise their enemies from the grave to fight for them. It's terrifying for the Humans, and we get multiple instances of Arthas reacting in fear to the Undead's forces.
You fight some cultists and then discover that a plague is infecting villagers and turning them into Undead. This leads to the first major step towards Arthas' decent. When the plague spreads to the town of Stratholme, Arthas knows that the villagers are already infected and so he orders a purging of the town. You're no longer fighting undead that have already turned, you are now killing civilians that have yet to turn. The interesting thing is, that Arthas kind of has a point. If they do nothing, the villagers will still turn into undead, and increase the enemy's forces. But if they destroy them all now, at least they can stop the plague from spreading.
Arthas chases Mal'Ganis, the demon behind the attack at Stratholme to the icy mountains of Northrend. This is where Arthas' motivation starts to shift from protecting his people to getting revenge. I really like this section of the story thematically, as Arthas travels to colder regions of the world as his actions become more cold hearted. This is also where we meet Muradin, this really fun Dwarf character who has been fighting the undead and teams up with Arthas. What I like about Muradin is how they use him to compliment Arthas' arc. In the first chunk of the campaign, when you are in Lordaeron, the other supporting characters that interact with Arthas are his mentor Uther, and his love interest Jaina. They basically serve as his conscience, and are like, "I don't know about this Arthas," when he decides to purge Stratholme. Contrast with Muradin who is like, "Yeah, let's get revenge on the undead. Fuck 'em!"
But again, this helps to illustrate Arthas' progression. Eventually, Arthas' forces are ordered to return home. But Arthas isn't giving up that easy, so he hires some mercenaries to burn the Human's ships so that they can't leave. Arthas then turns on the mercenaries, blaming them for the destruction of their ships, and orders his forces to kill them. This is the point where even vengeance loving Muradin is like, "Dude, not cool."
Soon Arthas learns of the legendary blade Frostmourne, and sets out to harness its power. When he finds it, Muradin warns that the blade is cursed, but Arthas no longer cares, revenge is his only concern. Simply pulling the blade from its frozen sheath lets out some kind of dark magic that kills Muradin. Arthas has now become an agent of evil, and we get this great moment where Arthas gets his revenge and kills the demon Mal'Ganis. It's a lot like Count Dooku's death in Revenge of the Sith, where the emperor is like, "Do it," and Dooku just looks at him with pure shock.
At last, we are treated to one of the coolest cutscenes in gaming, that looks incredible for the time, where Arthas finally returns home. The composition is gorgeous, with beautiful shots of bells ringing, celebrating Arthas' return as he ominously enters the throne room. Arthas grabs his father, the king, and points Frostmourne at his chest. The king asks him what he is doing, and Arthas simply replies, "Succeeding you, father," and impales him with the blade. This moment still gives me chills upon rewatch. And just like that, Arthas has completed his arc.
Arthas' story is a compelling twist on a very classic story. A hero falls, and becomes the villain. It's what Lucas tried to do with Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, except that it actually pulls it off in the execution. There's even a couple moments that are extremely similar, like the final cinematic which is very reminiscent of Anakin's attack on the Jedi temple, or the before mentioned death of Mal'Ganis paralleling the death of Dooku.
This becomes quite obvious in hindsight, but Arthas' story works as a King Arthur analogy. The name "Arthas" obviously sounds like "Arthur." Even his mentor is named Uther, the name of Kind Arthur's father. Arthas also seeks a magic sword that allows him to become king. But it flips the troupe on its head, doing something different with the archetype by having Arthas turn evil. He still gets a magic sword, but is cursed and it drives him mad. He still becomes king, but by murdering his own father.
All of this is cool and interesting, but what makes the story work the most is that Arthas has an extremely distinct character arc. Every chapter pushes Arthas further and further into villainy until by the end is he is a totally different character. Yet at the same time, the player can fully understand, and even sympathize with Arthas and why he is making the choices that he makes. It's a relatively simple story, told very well.
Unfortunately, they don't do anything that interesting with Arthas after this. The Undead campaign takes place immediately after the Human one, and continues to follow Arthas, who is now a Death Knight, serving the Litch King and the Undead. The problem with this arc is that Arthas no longer has the agency that made him interesting in the Human campaign. The story is no longer character driven, and it's just a lot of, "go here, do this." Sure you meet some of the characters again from the Human campaign, like Uther, and they are like, "Arthas, why have you betrayed us?" but he's just like, "I'm evil now." Arthas is much more one dimensional, and it's just not nearly as interesting as the straight forward arc from the Human campaign. Even in The Frozen Throne expansion, they still don't do that much with him. He just kinda sits on a cold chair and that's it.
After the Undead is the Orc and Night Elf campaigns which are pretty good. They are a little more character driven and focus on how each race is affected by the rise of the Undead, and how they have to make more and more desperate decisions. The final campaign, the Night Elves, culminates in the Humans, Orcs, and Night Elves all teaming up to face the demon that you summon during the Undead campaign. It's a cool way to tie all the stories together, and does a good job of illustrating what has always been the strength of the WarCraft series, that there aren't any clear heroes or villains. Except for the Demons, those guys are assholes. But the Humans, Orcs, Night Elves, and even Undead to a certain extent, are all just trying to protect their peoples which is why they come into conflict with the one another. There's a lot of people forming unlikely alliances to face mutual threats, as well as political scheming and intrigue. The Night Elves, for example get desperate and free this ancient prisoner called Illidan, who is a Demon Hunter, and becomes important later on in the series. They do a really good job of putting the characters in really tough situations to see how they come out the other side. The Orc chieftain, Thrall, for example, stays true to his people, even when his friend allies with the Demons.
This is another reason I find the Undead campaign so disappointing. Not only does Arthus not have strong motivation for any of the things he does, his morality is no longer ambiguous. He's just a bad guy. There is some political scheming and stuff going on between the Demons and the Litch King, but it has little to do with Arthas, and doesn't really end up going anywhere.
There's still some cool stuff in the Undead campaign, like when Arthas and kills this High Elf named Sylvanas, and then resurrects her as a banshee. She's on his side now, but still despises him. Later, in The Frozen Throne expansion, she forms her own rouge faction of the Undead called the Forsaken. They go own to be major players later on in the series.
The WarCraft series has done a really great job of creating this believable and expansive world full of complex characters with rich backstories. But I kind of miss the narrative simplicity of that first Human campaign with Arthas. His story could've made a great movie, and would've been the smarter choice to adapt.
I actually kinda like the WarCraft movie, though it is definitely not perfect. There's a lot of characters with a lot of made up names to learn, that don't all have clear motivations. While it does make sense from a franchise perspective to start with the beginning of the war between the Horde and the Alliance, the main overarching conflict of the entire series, it's complicated narratively and hard to tell in a compelling, easy to follow way. When the movie starts there's already a ton of backstory that they have to cover for a lot of the characters, despite it being the start of "the war" in WarCraft. The movie also tries to set up characters like Thrall, who are important later on in the series. All this stuff is kinda cool if you are familiar with the lore of the games, and the movie even has a ton of fan service and references, but it is almost unapproachable without all that knowledge. The campaigns in WarCraft 3 only focus on a couple of characters and we get to see the world from their perspective. So even though you are just dropped right into this world, the story is still engaging because you know what the stakes are for the characters you are following. Particularly with Arthas' story, because there is time spent getting to know him, so you care what happens to him. If the WarCraft movie focused on telling Arthas' story instead of all the backstory of the world, I think that it would've been more successful.
The WarCraft series has a fascinating world with compelling characters and engaging storylines, but none quite as narratively satisfying as the first Human campaign with Arthas all the way back in WarCraft 3. The story uses classic fantasy troupes in a new way to give the protagonist a compelling and interesting character arc. The Scourge of Lordaeron campaign is made engaging because it tells a simple story very well by focusing on one character who is given understandable motivations and an extremely distinct arc.
If you have not played WarCraft 3, I highly recommend it, and the remastered edition, WarCraft 3: Reforged, should be out soon, so now is the perfect time to give it a try.