The road to Mists of Pandaria – A man behind a face

Two days ago I started blogging again, and I chose to look at the MoP trailer and explain why I was impressed with it. While watching the video, I noticed something odd towards the end:

See the small Pandaren face on Chen’s barrel?

Why would there be a Pandaren face on something that belongs to Pandaren celebrity Chen Stormstout? It would be like, I don’t know, Worf from Next Generation having a drawing of Klingon-like features on his fanny pack (not that I see a Klingon ever wearing a fanny pack). Actually there is a very simple explanation, but as with any good story we’ll have to go back a bit and take a short memory trip.

Many of you who are fans of the Warcraft franchise will be familiar with the name of Sam “Samwise” Didier. The big guy is the art director at Blizzard Entertainment and has been since the Silicon and Synapse days (i.e. early nineties). He’s the man behind most of the concept artwork for all of the major Blizzard series – Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft. He’s a huge metalhead – among his works are many covers for HammerFall‘s albums, and he’s the vocalist of Level 90 Elite Tauren Chieftain. Oh and did I mention that he runs a website called “Sons of the Storm“?

Dude is a total badass in my book. Or at least a Geek with a capital G, in a good way. If you want to know more about him, the folks at Blizzard and their geeky shenaningans, you can watch the documentary they released last year for the company’s 20th anniversary (where Sam proudly wears his HammerFall T-shirt).

Anyhow, let’s get to the relevant part. At some point between Warcraft II and Warcraft III, Samwise was the father of a little girl. For Christmas, as a small gift to his family he drew a picture of a big panda with a small cub on his shoulder. Sam drawing himself as a panda wasn’t a random whim – Panda was his nickname, as he has the looks of a big bear yet none of its ferocity (this story courtesy of WoW Insider – funny how that article was published in 2010). Somehow that picture made its way out of Sam’s home; people took notice of the art and started talking of a new “Panda” race.

Sam dismissed the thought at first. However, an April’s Fools was made portraying Pandaren as playable units in the upcoming Warcraft III. It was quickly revealed as a joke, but it draw quite a reaction. From there, Samwise started drawing little Easter eggs in his art: tiny pictures of a panda face. In the meanwhile, Metzen started working on Pandaren lore, and they were officially featured for the first time in Warcraft III.

After that… we already know the story. Pandaren and their homeland Pandaria will be the namesake of World of Warcraft’s third expansion. Will Samwise stop putting random panda faces in his artwork? I am not sure, but it certainly seems proper to do it in the closing scene of this trailer, as a small doodle from over a decade ago managed to spark the life of a whole new world.

Next on The Lazy Tree: Indecisive 25man EU guild LFM (maybe) before september 25! Stay tuned!

The road to Mists of Pandaria – What is worth fighting for

I’ve been tinkering with the idea of restarting The Lazy Tree for a while now, more so with the launch of MoP fast approaching. I had the name and subject of my next post (posts?) clear in my mind. However, I was not happy with the direction I had taken TLT in and I felt like I had nothing worthwhile to say anymore – which is a bit silly, I know, as a blog is often filled with random thoughts and venting rants.

What happened then?

First, I have received an email from an old friend in a server far far away. She is going to run a WoW charity marathon in a couple of months; I will talk about the event at length in a future post, however I just wanted to mention how happy I am to see more events like this taking place (think of the DS race Athene organized a few months ago, without the fanboys). Not only it’s a great way to raise money for a good cause, it’s also something that really helps building a better sense of community in World of Warcraft. The Lazy Tree might not be the most followed website in the WoW blogosphere but I’ll be happy to help in any way I can. More to follow soon(tm).

Second, Blizzard released the Mists of Pandaria cinematic trailer today. Somehow that feels like the real start of the path leading to MoP, even more than knowing its release date, the sign that things are getting serious. Anyhow, I am very impressed with the trailer.

The obvious comment is that the animation is gorgeous. If a WoW movie is ever coming out, I hope it’s CGI instead of actual actors and scenery – as long as it’s produced by Blizzard Studios (that doesn’t sound bad). Not only it’s amazing to watch, but they also managed to have the two characters in the opening scenes tell a story only through their expressions and movements, as there is no dialogue in the trailer – only a narrating voice at the beginning and the end.

Two soldiers – one an Orc, the other a Human – are stranded on the shores of an unknown continent after a bloody naval war. After a moment of confusion, the Horde grunt quickly recollects himself and starts exploring the area, aware that there might be survivors from both sides around him. The Alliance man does the same and makes sure to be prepared to fight – they are both veterans after all, as the scars on their bodies tell us, and act as such. Only one thing concerns them: having to fight on unfamiliar ground.

The above is inferred in just half a minute. No explanation is needed as you easily understand their motives through their expressions and movements.

The two warriors eventually meet and start a grueling fight, only to be interrupted by none other than Chen Stormstout. Not having a clue of whom or what they are facing, they both turn their attention to the furry creature and do the only thing they can think of at the moment, i.e. they seek to swiftly terminate his life.

Of course Chen is having none of that murder nonsense and easily schools them with a non-lethal weapon, his bamboo stick, despite their combined efforts. We even get a bit of light-hearted humour as the Alliance soldier is forced to lend the Orc his sharpened stick after they get their collective arse handed to them a first time (I will admit I had a good chuckle there). As the two soldiers lay powerless on the ground, the mist unravels and they are treated to the beautiful scenery of Pandaria, while the narrating voice (Chen?) reminds us that the Pandaren know what is worth fighting for – protecting their kind and their homeland.

What’s up with the Panda face on Chen’s barrel?

That means, they certainly won’t let the Horde or the Alliance come and raze&pillage their peaceful continent… also, there are certain spirits on Pandaria which would draw strength from a new conflict, but that wasn’t mentioned in the trailer…

Right, so there is some fine CGI and great storytelling, sounds amazing right? Well, I do think that Blizzard did a great a job with this trailer, and those are not the main reasons.

We have been told before that 5.0 will be focused around the Pandaren and the Alliance-Horde conflict. We are treated to plenty of Alliance vs. Horde in the trailer. Even though they momentarily team up against the unknown menace, the early part of the trailer is all about Horde and Alliance focusing on killing each other – the thought of being stranded on alien ground, maybe forever, doesn’t seem to shake the two soldiers. That part was well done and we haven’t seen some actual WARcraft action in WoW trailers since the Classic cinematic (I refuse to call it Vanilla), although I will admit that it would have been hard for Blizzard to screw up that segment.

Now there is something else that needed to be done in the trailer and wasn’t as easy. That’s establishing the Pandaren as the central figure of the expansion. Yes, of course they are the new playable race, they have a whole new continent named after them, they look cute et cetera et cetera… Yet, what does the average player know about them? Pretty much nothing. I have read around claims that the concept of a Panda-like race has been around for a while, but as someone who is certainly not very knowledgeable about WoW lore, I have no idea what to expect from the Pandaren. This might be a very uninformed claim but in my opinion, the risk was there; the risk that people might stop at a swift look and perceive Chen’s kind as a shallow attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a certain movie character and asian culture.

That’s where I feel Blizzard did a great job. Especially compared to the Alliance and Horde characters, Chen is made to look very strong, both in martial prowess and in intellect. He easily defeats his opponents yet has no desire to see them dead. Why? As explained later, the Pandaren only seek to protect their kind and preserve peace. Chen is made to look wise and very clearly above the grueling dispute of his opponents, allowing himself a glimpse of a chuckle at one point.

Yes, his fight scenes might look a bit campy and corny at times, but like I said it’s just some light-hearted humour that doesn’t seem out of place in Warcraft. It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Chen was made to look in any possible way like the star in the trailer; that was the right thing to do, and it was a success. In only a couple of minutes Blizzard managed to clearly put across the main points of at least what the Pandaren fight for, what are their motives and why should we like them, giving them some needed depth to the eyes of a casual observer.

TL;DR a very good short movie (yes, I dare to call it that) that sets the pace nicely for the first few months of Pandaria and gives a strong sense of adventure and excitement. Let’s hope that the actual content will live up to the expectations.

EDIT: fixed some spelling mistakes, but the spacing between a few paragraphs is still… weird. I will look into that.

Chapter IX – Closure