Ian: I wanted to hit Wetlands after Westfall, to be honest. It’s a zone which I knew had been reworked somewhat and it was always a favorite. The problem with the Wetlands is that it’s now the same level as Duskwood, a zone which has long been considered one of the best examples of what WoW’s narrative capabilities (inasmuch as WoW has narrative capabilities worth contemplating favorably) can do. It was my favorite zone in the original game, one whose absence bothered me when I went Horde all those years ago.

Before that, though, Peter began to yammer on about Shadowfang Keep, an instance of slightly higher level requirements than the completed Deadmines. The minor problem involved was that we’d set down rules about how we did dungeons and one of the main ones was that we queued from the entrance. Shadowfang is situated way to the north of where we were, with no flight paths and no friendly quest hubs nearby to shorten the journey.

The idea to hit Shadowfang Keep was made on a night on which we were a little short on time, so I was in favor of skipping it for the time being; dungeons tend to be relevant content for about ten levels after they become available, so I was in no rush. Peter, however, decided that it was queue as soon as you can or not at all. Being the magnanimous, awesome fellow I am, I relented and decided to join him on the trek to Silverpine Forest and its resident dungeon. It was his punctured memories at stake, not mine.

Peter: I love Shadowfang Keep.

I mean, I really, really love Shadowfang Keep. I would say that the Keep was the thing that finally made me completely hooked on WoW all those years ago. It was the first dungeon I got to go in with a complete group of people who were all roughly the right level, so it was the first time I got to fully experience the mechanics of the holy trinity. It was also atmospheric as hell, and it was hard for me and my virtual friends, making success all the sweeter.

This meant that Los Cheevos Hermanos absolutely had to run the instance. Ian started whining when I said we had to do it, because it’s quite a distance away, and we had our rule about only queuing after actually making it to the entrance of the dungeon. I told him to shut up and start running. He whined a little more, but then I heard his wife, Laurie, telling him to shut up as well, and he finally huffed out a disgruntled “fine.” Ian whines a lot.

And so the journey began. I had travel form by this point, and it’s got a pretty sweet new skin of a mighty stag. This made me, frankly, excited about the prospect of running for 30 minutes or more. Boggins, on his inadequate and dwarfish legs, was less excited, and I couldn’t really blame him. What made this extra fun was the fact that, in addition to having travel form, I also had a fancy druid talent that gave me a passive run speed increase and that talent stacks with stag form. Poor Boggins.

Travel Form

Speaking of druid forms, it was also about this time that I got my aquatic form. I promptly jumped into the nearest bit of water I could find and clicked it, which was a terrible mistake. Aquatic form is far scarier than any raid boss Blizzard has ever released. I am still having nightmares, and have yet to use it again.

Aquatic Form

So anyway, off to Shadowfang Keep we went, me as the hero of the wilderness, traveling at the speed of an early automobile, and Ian with his basic run speed following behind. He went on follow at one point and I kept having to slow down and wait for him.

Ian: Back in the olden days, your run north to Shadowfang Keep from the level appropriate Alliance areas was epic. Not hard, precisely, but enough enemies crossed your path that you had to dodge them and be careful where you stepped. This was because the zones you had to cross were a good ten to twenty levels higher than you were. WoW has a mechanic which has enemies of a higher level than you having a much higher aggro range, or range from which they notice your low level self and come barreling over to one shot you.

I was expecting something similar. Hell, I was hoping for it; I may have been a little annoyed that we had to run up there for a passingly brief dungeon run but I wanted it to be memorable if we were going. Dodging spiders in Arathi Highlands, hoping we miss any high level Undercity guards… the whole thing.

I didn’t get that. What I got, instead, was a game which had removed all the scary mobs from the paths with its revamp. No unwanted aggro, other than the time we blundered into some hostile faction guards at one of the zone borders. No circuitous paths to avoid scary mobs. No enemies crisscrossing the road. Just thirty minutes of walking.

To be fair, some of the revamp set up some very nice looking scenery and the trek gave us a chance to see it. Wetlands added in some lovely fog and will o wisp effects. Combined with the setting sun in the game, it was quite pleasant. But there was no danger anymore and I remembered that there was, once upon a time. But that was a different game in a different time. In this game, we were safe.

Wetlands

When we finally got to the entrance, a strange dichotomy became very clear to me. The dungeon, itself, obviously occupies a specific physical location in Blizzard’s world. But Blizzard chose to do a very strange thing, one which wasn’t obvious with Deadmines and which completely decouples dungeon from surroundings.

Once upon a time, you would pick up quests to do inside the dungeons outside in the world. They were usually at the ends of long quest chains. With Cataclysm, all of the quests are now from inside the dungeon, almost always from NPCs at the entrance. This by itself isn’t a terrible thing. You can get your quests from a central spot inside the dungeon, turn them into the same place (or the NPCs greet you at the end), and go do another one.

When coupled with the queuing for dungeons from anywhere, however, it creates a weird sort of unmooring from the larger story Blizzard is funneling so many resources into telling. We got to Shadowfang Keep and I realized that, unlike pre-Cataclysm, I would have no idea this place even existed in narrative terms if I were a new player. I only knew it existed where it existed due to my having played ten years ago. There’s no quest to go to the entrance, no directions, no talking about it. A large portion of this is that it’s not in an Alliance area; it’s in a completely Horde controlled zone. But there’s no talking about it outside the dungeon anywhere now, at least Alliance side.

Shadowfang Keep

I’ve complained about the fact that the world feels much smaller after the teleportation and instant gratification of the Looking For Group system. I say this as a supporter of the system; it’s undoubtedly better to run your dungeons quickly instead of casting about for a half hour or more for a group, particularly on a small server which might be short of tanks or healers. Blizzard realized this for a brief time, too, requiring the entrances of dungeons to be discovered before you could queue for them; they quickly threw in the towel on this compromise, however.

But I wasn’t aware of how, for lack of a better word, lonely most of the dungeons feel now and it’s all down to the combo of queuing and placing all of the quests inside. As vibrant as Deadmines felt because there was an entire zone centered on your delving there, dungeons (my favorite part of the game) felt more and more incidental to the proceedings as we leveled further. There were exceptions, and we’ll touch on those when we come to them in our writing, but mostly the dungeons were just there, a string of characters on your screen for you to highlight, hit queue, and teleport to. No pomp, no circumstance, just a barely noticeable road sign. With the quests placed inside the dungeons, each one becomes this self-contained narrative all its own. They may reference the outside world but they’re not of it.

 

Peter: I expect no points for originality here, but I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how impersonal the whole experience is these days. Even though we were walking to the entrances in the old manner, we were using the dungeon finder when we got there, which meant that we were thrown in with random strangers.

Despite this having been implemented in WoW for years now, the whole thing still feels genuinely weird to me. The most talking that seems to happen is an occasional “hello,” but most players don’t even do that. And why should they? The dungeons are short, mostly linear, and mind-numbingly easy. Most of the player base is only there to level up their third, fourth, or twentieth alt. Because of cross-realm grouping, none of you will ever see each other again.

Like Ian, I can admit that the way things are now is incredibly convenient, and going back to the way things were before would be a downer. But that doesn’t change the fact that some magic has been lost. I can still remember the names of some of the people I met seven years ago trying to put a dungeon group together in /2 while standing around in Undercity for two hours. I can’t even remember most of my guildmates’ names these days.

Real communication with internet strangers would have to wait until we ran Stormwind Stockades, and it would not be pretty.

 

Ian: Once the initial two dungeon experiences were out of the way, they began to come faster and faster. The whole package, the speed of leveling making the dungeons come faster, the anonymity, the way quests and locations are set up, made the dungeons forgettable. That’s really sad. They’re still clearly the most enjoyable part of the game but the individual experiences aren’t as memorable anymore. What would once be a memorable individual run of a dungeon is now just a gestalt experience of “Dungeon”. It’s not “that run where the tank died to spike damage and everyone ran around”; it’s “Stockades” or “Razorfen Kraul”.

Stockades was the first dungeon which went by so quickly I barely remember the details. Bear in mind that Peter and I are being deliberate with our leveling and questing. We’re not racing through any of this in our attempt to both be critical and recapture some of the magic of almost ten years ago now. But starting with Stockades, the dungeons just became blips. As we continue through this series, I’ll be spending less time on the dungeons (and I imagine Peter will, as well) simply because I don’t remember any details.

Our Stockades run (and Stockades has always been a terrible dungeon, basically three big rooms with a bunch of criminals rioting inside) was only memorable because a gnome rogue pulled things he shouldn’t have and yelled at us about it. At first, he yelled at me. That’s what you do when things go wrong. You tell at the tank. Which, by the way, is why I never did endgame tanking. I really like tanking and I’m good (not great) at it but I also don’t like being the scapegoat when things go wrong.

Peter decided he wasn’t going to heal him. So then the rogue started to yell at him, too, which was way better than him yelling at me. Don’t misread me here; I wasn’t hurt or upset by this stranger angry at us over his slightly longer than usual time in a video game he was aiming to play for six hours anyway. It’s just empirically good for my brother to be yelled at by strangers.

The little social tussle was just memorable enough to comment on but not at all memorable enough for me to remember the guy’s name. That’s WoW.

By the time we got out, we were ready to go to Duskwood so off we went. What we didn’t realize then, and what I’m still kind of amazed by now, is that the way Duskwood would unfold would end up setting the stage for a complete transformation of what this project was about.