Steve Danuser Interview: WoW Shadowlands Narrative Design & Future Stories

With World of Warcraft: Shadowlands slated to release later this year, fans are eager to see how their favorite characters will grapple with a new challenge in the face of a collection of spiritual planes known as the titular Shadowlands. With each realm in the Shadowlands so distinct, as shown in the Afterlives cinematic videos, there’s a lot of room for different stories to unfold alongside the main plot. Luckily, Screen Rant had the chance to conduct a Q&A session with Steve Danuser, Lead Narrative Designer behind World of Warcraft. He was able to shed some light on the building of the beautiful World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Afterlives cinematic shorts, the way the expansion’s new world has been informed by complex situations that challenge notions of good and evil, and the new perspectives fans will get on some of World of Warcraft‘s most intriguing lore.

What was the approach to building out these [Shadowlands Afterlives] shorts – disparate in terms of their tone, but unified in terms of their exploration of Shadowlands and its greater themes – to make sure they each stood out in their own way?

Steve Danuser: We realized early on that Shadowlands was introducing many deep concepts that would provide our players with nuanced themes to ponder. As we began planning the Afterlives series, we recognized an opportunity to introduce those concepts through relatable characters, including many rooted in Azeroth’s history.

Opening with the iconic death of Uther the Lightbringer, Bastion contrasted our most bright, idyllic afterlife with the hungering darkness of the Maw. Through Draka’s ceaseless struggle, we learned that the armies of Maldraxxus had been plunged into strife and division. We followed the wild god Ursoc’s spirit into Ardenweald and told a story of hard choices and painful sacrifice. And through the silky venom of Sire Denathrius in Revendreth, we showed how greed and avarice could twist a once-noble society into a realm of selfishness and greed.

While each cinematic stands on its own, they build upon one another to frame the looming threats that players will face when they enter the Shadowlands.

How much do the animated shorts explain some of the mechanisms at work in Shadowlands’ narrative? Will there be any hints – big or small – that fans who watched the shorts will be able to pick up on or see the development of in-game?

Steve Danuser: We know that no detail, no matter how small or seemingly incidental, escapes the watchful eye of our players. From concept, to script, to storyboards, to animatics, all the way to final sound and images, every word and every frame is lovingly crafted in painstaking detail. Nothing is there by accident.

Players have already picked up on a number of elements that hint at larger storylines or concepts. When we depicted Uther’s soul being shattered by Frostmourne, we wondered if the detail might be too subtle. But in fact, the community spotted that immediately and began speculating what that might mean for Uther and other characters. When we showed Draka infiltrating a Burning Legion stronghold, viewers quickly picked up on a reference to an earlier cinematic and realized the implication that the Necrolords not only defend against invasions, but travel beyond the Shadowlands to neutralize potential threats.

There are other details in the Afterlives series that will take on greater meaning once players can play through the full Shadowlands story and see how these elements tie together.

Shadowlands feels very political in the way it explores resource scarcity, and the shorts go to great lengths to show that the regions have the capacity for good and evil. Is there a side in the Shadowlands fight that you anticipate fans will identify as the “good” and “bad,” or do you feel like as we explore what Afterlives has established that will be impossible to call?

Steve Danuser: We intended for the themes introduced in Shadowlands and in the Afterlives series to inspire conversation and debate. It’s not as simple as saying something is right or wrong, good or evil. The ecosystem of Death functioned seemingly without incident for countless eons before the Arbiter ceased functioning and the anima drought created a scarcity of resources. Yet we see how swiftly the functions and norms within each of these realms began to break down. Such a rapid unraveling should raise the question of how healthy that system was to begin with.

Visually, we have deliberately played with perceptions and assumptions. The gleaming spires of Bastion hide a darkness growing within the ranks of the Kyrian. In contrast, the overcast skies and looming stone towers of Revendreth exude a gothic horror vibe, yet we learn that the Venthyr exist to carry out a noble calling of redemption and rehabilitation.

In the Shadowlands, nothing is exactly what it appears to be at first glance. You must always look deeper.

As is often the way of Blizzard’s best cinematics and shorts, Afterlives leaves us with a lot more questions than answers. How many of these threads are explored and resolved in Shadowlands, and how much can we expect to continue through the larger story of World of Warcraft?

Steve Danuser: While we intend this expansion to tell a focused story with a satisfying conclusion, it also opens up countless possibilities for the Warcraft universe. One of the most exciting aspects of bringing Shadowlands to life (pardon the pun) is the opportunity to not only explore established lore, but to build upon it and take it into tantalizing new directions.

The Chronicles books provided a window in the Warcraft cosmology from the point of view of the titans and their progeny. In Shadowlands, we get to delve into those mysteries from a different perspective, and we find out that there’s far more to the nature of reality and the planes of existence than anyone had realized. Many of the concepts introduced in the Afterlives series and in the stories revealed in this expansion will tee up some very intriguing possibilities that will be explored in future content.

For example, from the dark reaches of the Maw to the ancient halls of Oribos, you’ll hear mention of powerful beings referred to as the First Ones. As the story of Shadowlands unfolds, we’ll meet allies helping to explore the mysteries of their existence, as well as adversaries determined to plunder their secrets. Yet what we learn will merely scratch the surface of what lies ahead of us.

Finally, we have to ask. You can’t just tease Arthas in a Shadowlands narrative and then never see him again in the expansion, right? That would be evil.

Steve Danuser: At the conclusion of the first act of the Shadowlands arc, there is a scene in which several of our main characters discuss the legacy of Arthas Menethil. They note that his specter hangs over all of them like a shroud–an apt metaphor for an expansion focused on Death.

The story of Arthas from Warcraft III to its conclusion at the end of Wrath of the Lich King is one of the most iconic tales in our canon. We do not invoke his name lightly. At the same time, Shadowlands allows us to explore the origins of the darkness that consumed the heart of the young prince. In the process, we just might learn more about him and the others whose lives were forever impacted by the choices Arthas made.

What comes through in each response to the questions we asked is just how much thought has gone into World of Warcraft: Shadowlands and the way it will impact the game’s greater lore. On top of that, it sounds like the Shadowlands Afterlives shorts – which are already a recommended watch for fans of the property – will also be fun to go back to after playing the game to see what hints players did and didn’t miss. While the World of Warcraft: Shadowlands delay cleans up the last bit of gameplay problems players identified in the beta period, it sounds like the game’s story is prepared to do some heavy-lifting of its own after launch.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands will release sometime in 2020.