I had a great time at BlizzCon, and met a lot of great people. It’s really fun to meet someone in person that you’ve only ever interacted with online, either via Twitter, in blog comments, or in-game.
Unfortunately, this year I didn’t take great notes on where I was and who I met every day, so I’m not going to try and quickly write up a recap. While I have a lot of great stories, unless I sit down and carefully re-trace my steps I’m guaranteed to forget someone or something, and then people will just feel disappointed that I forgot them. If I have time later on, maybe I’ll try and put together that sort of recap. But probably not – the further we get from BlizzCon, the less I’ll remember and the less relevant it will be. Plus, there are more than a few people who would probably prefer I didn’t share all of the stories I have from when they were drunk. You know who you are.
So I’ll just say that I had a blast meeting everyone. I had a lot of great conversations, met a lot of people I already knew and respected, and met a lot of people that I barely knew at all beforehand. But I was very happy to meet all of you, whether you’re e-famous, or a theorycrafter, or a player that’s read the blog once or twice, or just an avid player that recognized my name.
Instead, this blog post is going to focus on the game-related news from BlizzCon, and my reactions to that information. And today, we’re going to start with something that you probably never expected to see on Sacred Duty: A lore discussion!
Time Is On My Side…..
There are very few things I disliked about the new announcements. For the most part, I’m on board with all of the changes they’re making in Warlords of Draenor. But the story is one of those things that will never completely sit well with me.
Now, to be fair, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about Mists of Pandaria at first either. For too many years, I’d assumed Pandaren were a joke race that would never see the light of day in WoW, and it was hard to break that mental stigma. Plus, really, Pokemon in my WoW? And yet, here we are two years later, and they totally pulled it off. Mists has arguably been one of the stronger expansions, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of story and lore. Even though I’ve never participated in a single pet battle, I know far more people who have done so and enjoyed it. Even though I thought Pandaren were a joke, they turned out to be a well-fleshed-out race complete with culture and history that made them pretty bad-ass. So it’s clear that first impressions can be misleading.
However, my objection to the Warlords of Draenor story is more fundamental. Buckle up, it’s physics time.
You see, I absolutely hate time travel in video games. As a physicist that specialized in things like quantum teleportation and superluminal pulse propagation, I’m intimately familiar with the important and fundamental role causality plays in physics. And that’s made me fairly intolerant of any sort of “faster than light” or “time travel” suggestions, whether it’s in the media or in a game’s story. When my own research was featured on slashdot, I was of course ecstatic, but still a little dismayed at the sensationalist presentation. I have a self-created mental block on the entire idea of time travel.
So the “we’re going back in time” nature of the Caverns of Time has always sort of bothered me. While I love getting to see the stories from the earlier Warcraft games recreated in WoW, it’s always been a struggle for me to reconcile the time travel elements with the rest of WoW’s story. And don’t even get me started on the whole Rhonin / Dragon Soul storyline – it was around that time that I threw my hands up in despair and completely gave up on WoW’s story ever making sense again.
Because frankly, time travel in games and movies has rarely been done well in my experience. Generally, the amount of hand-waving that has to be done to justify time travel just creates new paradoxes that make the whole thing feel silly to me. Once you allow the possibility of time travel, I feel like a narrative loses a lot of its motivation. Striving to kill <current Big Bad> becomes much less suspenseful if you know that some intrepid time-traveler will just come fix it if you screw up. Not to mention the inherent paradox there: if they’re coming back to fix it, shouldn’t they be here now? Why aren’t they?
We Are The Worlds
WoW’s take on time travel is a fairly standard one. As far as I can tell, it mimics the “many worlds” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. In layman’s terms, every time a choice is made, the world splits into two or more different timelines, one for each possible outcome of the decision. So for example, there’s a timeline where Garrosh dies at the end of Siege of Orgrimmar, and a timeline where he’s spared and imprisoned by Taran Zhu.
When we go back in time to the Black Morass or The Battle for Mt. Hyjal, we’re sticking within our own timeline and trying to prevent the Infinite Dragonflight from altering the events of our timeline. Which again, raises the silly paradox of one-upsmanship: if we succeed, why don’t they just go back in time again to re-alter it?
On the other hand, in the End Time instance, we’re traveling to a future timeline where Deathwing wasn’t defeated. And in the Well of Eternity dungeon, we’re going back in time to take the Dragon Soul so that Thrall can use it in the future. But if we take the Dragon Soul out of the past, doesn’t that change how the rest of history unfolds? Why do we return to a present that seems basically unchanged from how we left it?
The only rational explanation for this… well, ok, let me step back a moment. There is no rational explanation for this, because the whole pile of time travel nonsense is inherently irrational. But the least irrational way to rationalize this is to assume that actions in one timeline don’t necessarily affect the others. So maybe we’re going back to alternate timelines that are eerily similar, but not the same as, our “own” timeline. So yeah, we stole the Dragon Soul from another timeline, which then caused all sorts of chaos in that timeline, probably resulting in the deaths of millions of people or something. But it’s okay, because those people all sucked anyway, since they weren’t from our timeline.
I shouldn’t have to point out the multitude of problems with that interpretation. What makes our timeline (or us) special? Is the Thrall in our timeline the same as the Thrall in other timelines? Am I the same person in this timeline that I am in another? How do I know which one is the “real” one, or are we all real? And what does that say about individuality or free will if I’m just one of an infinite number of Theck clones in different timelines, all of whom have the audacity to jump into each others’ timelines and fuck around with them?
All aboard the Crazy Train, I guess!
The story of Warlords of Draenor, as it’s been explained to us, takes this concept to the next level by linking different timelines more strongly. It’s depicted graphically below, though I can’t take any credit for the diagram; I stumbled across it in a post by Klaudandus on Maintankadin. Garrosh manages to travel back to old Draenor and create a new split in the timeline. The “Alpha” timeline on the diagram is the one we know and have played through, where Garrosh never went back in time. The “Beta” timeline is the one in which Garrosh alters the events in that timeline to create the Iron Horde. He then somehow opens a new portal that links the Beta timeline to a point in the future of the Alpha timeline.
The reason I say it “takes this to the next level” is that instead of allowing a few individuals hop around on the Timeline Superhighway, it’s essentially creating an on-ramp linking Interstate (“Intertime?”) Beta Draenor to Future Route Alpha Azeroth, so that anybody can hop back and forth between the two and cause chaos. And instead of connecting two instants in time (whatever the hell an “instant in time” means in this hackneyed excuse for a coordinate system), it’s a continuous link, such that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the time and date in Beta Draenor and the time and date in Alpha Azeroth, just with a pretty hefty offset. I’m not exactly sure what that offset is – years? tens of years? hundreds of years? Does time even have any meaning if we’re going down this time-traveling rabbit hole?
What Did That Cat Ever Do To You?
So yeah, clearly I’m not a fan of the time traveling crap. It’s just too problematic. I know most people can just gloss over it and enjoy the ride, but I’m not one of those people. To me it just smacks of lazy storytelling in the same way that the many worlds interpretation smacks of lazy science. Even calling it “science” is being generous, in fact. A large proportion of the scientific community (probably the majority of it) doesn’t consider the many worlds interpretation to be science at all, because it is inherently not falsifiable through any means we can conceive of. In that sense, it’s no better than a religion, because we can’t test it. Scientists have long since accepted that there are other, slightly less insane ways to rationalize quantum mechanical behavior. Though, for the reader’s amusement, I’ll note that to do so we say that we give up on “reality” to keep causality, which sounds even more off-the-wall. But it actually does make sense once you rigorously define what we mean by “reality.”
In short, it’s the “Schrödinger’s cat” explanation you’ve probably heard about but never really understood. You put a cat in a sealed box with some sort of random mechanism to kill the cat. Traditionally it’s a vial of poison triggered by a chunk of nuclear material, but anything that is both random and fatal will work, so it could just as well be a pistol triggered by sunspots or a high-voltage arc triggered by seismic activity or a time traveler. Also, clearly physicists are awful human beings for doing this to a cat. Poor cat.
But the point of this gruesome example is that once the box is sealed, we don’t know whether the cat is dead or alive. We could assign a probability to each (i.e. the cat has a 50% chance of being alive), but we don’t know for sure until we open the box. In quantum mechanical terms, until we open the box the cat is both dead and alive! Or more precisely, it’s in a “superposition state” where it is simultaneously dead and alive. It’s only when we open the box that the cat “decides” which it is for sure.
Now that may seem ludicrous, and to be fair it is ludicrous for a cat for a few reasons. But it’s not ludicrous for quantum-mechanical systems, which is what the principle really applies to. A quantum-mechanical particle has a number of properties (spin, momentum, position, energy, etc.) that aren’t completely decided until it interacts with something in such a way that the property needs to have a fixed value. For another analogy, assume the particle could be one of two colors: red or blue. Until it interacts with another object in such a way that it’s color matters (for example, someone observing it), it isn’t one color or the other, it’s in a superposition state of being both red and blue. Note that this isn’t the same as being purple!
This is what we mean by giving up “reality.” We have this inherent notion that objects have fixed, well-defined properties – a tennis ball is yellow, my car is blue, and at any given point in time those two objects have a particular position and velocity. We call that concept “reality” because we assume that each object has “real” properties – i.e. that the tennis ball really is a tennis ball and won’t suddenly become a baseball. But on the quantum-mechanical level, some of that goes out the window. If the ball could be a tennis ball or a baseball, it’s both until we make a measurement. And when we measure it, we have a random chance of discovering that it’s either (i.e. it isn’t just that we don’t know which type of ball it is until we measure, it’s that it literally isn’t one or the other until we measure, at which point it randomly decides which one it is, as if it were flipping a coin).
The fun part of all of this is that giving up “reality” is a choice we make. To be able to explain experimental results, specifically with regards to entanglement, we have to give up either reality or causality. That means that, technically speaking, we could give up causality if we wanted to preserve the fixed nature of things. Most scientists have decided that reality is the one we need to give up though. There’s far more evidence that causality is preserved (both in quantum mechanics and other branches of physics) than the alternative, which is that our intuition based on macroscopic objects simply doesn’t apply at the quantum level.
Mother May I?
In addition to all of the paradoxes and concerns I’ve raised already, perhaps the biggest issue I have with time travel is the notion of free will. If you assume that time travel exists, and that people can do so willy-nilly, then eventually you need to accept that the timeline you’ve experienced has already been altered in every conceivable way possible by every person that cared to interfere with it from all times in the future. At which point, what’s the use in caring about anything? It’s hard to make it feel like your actions matter when there’s the ever-present threat of a time traveler erasing everything you did. And if what you’re experiencing is already the result of those efforts, did you really have a say in how things turned out? Or are you just dancing to the tune of some time-traveling puppeteer?
Some of that can be explained away by making time travel difficult, expensive, or limiting it in some other way. If only a few select people can pull off such a feat, it’s a little more palatable. Or so the reasoning goes, I guess? I don’t really buy it, because those arguments always assume that future technological advances will never reduce that cost. The concept of nearly-instant global communication between any two people would have been unfathomable to society even 100 years ago. Yet today we have cell phones that let us do exactly that. And when in the future, someone discovers the time-travel equivalent of cell phones, then what? Better yet, why haven’t they brought that technology back to us already?
I should also point out that the whole “limited” point of view falls sort of flat for WoW. We have a giant portal connecting two timelines now. And for years we’ve had countless adventurers skipping back and forth through the Caverns of Time as if they were on a day cruise to Lets-Take-A-Shit-All-Over-Continuity’s-ville.
Really, the only “good” variation of time travel I’ve ever seen in a video game is in the Assassin’s Creed series. I’m sure that biologists and geneticists reel at the entire pseudo-scientific “genetic memory” concept that the game invokes. But the mechanic works well for a lowly physicist like me. By retrieving “memories” encoded deep in DNA, a modern-day protagonist can go back and re-live the experiences of one of their ancient ancestors through a virtual interface. In other words, you’re playing a video game in which your character… plays a video game about their ancestors!
Really though, the animus mechanic solves all of the major problems with time-travel in games, because it’s distinctly not time travel. It puts strict causal constraints on the problem, because you can go back and re-live the environment and world, but you can’t do anything that alters the course of history. While it’s more constricting from a story-telling point of view, it’s also a lot more sane.
Well, ok, mostly sane. Just don’t take that guy’s word for it.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about some of the actual mechanics changes that were talked about at BlizzCon, and what I think about those. Which is probably far more relevant given the nature of this blog. Bet you never thought you’d see a 2000-word rant on game lore at Sacred Duty! Maybe I should have saved this post for April Fools Day?