Through a World of Warcraft discussion message board, I heard of a research study being conducted by West Virginia University on the relationships between videogame players and their avatars. In a “what the hell” mood, I responded to the survey with a story about one of my WoW characters.
I thought the story was minor, but to my surprise I was contacted by one of the researchers. I was asked by them to expand the story for “a curated collection of multimedia stories to be displayed in print in the WVU Library as part of its Art in the Libraries program, as well as a more complete collection to be curated and hosted through the WVU Library’s digital collections, indefinitely.”
What follows is the longer version of that story that I plan to submit for the collection.
I’ve played World of Warcraft (WoW) since before the game formally began in November 2004. In the first few days after the game’s release, I created a group of avatars based on characters I once played in a live-action role-playing game. One of those LARP characters was Theodorus Ursus, a wood elf Druid.
At this time, many WoW players were influenced in their choice of characters by an animated ad Blizzard released to promote the game. One of the the characters in the ad was a female Night Elf Druid. I personally am neither female, nor an elf, nor a Druid, but I decided to lean into the stereotype that the ad presented. I feminized “Theodorus” into Theadora and created that avatar in World of Warcraft.
In WoW, one of the unique characteristics of a Druid is their ability to assume different forms; e.g., bear, cat, seal. Druid characters gain the ability to shapeshift into these forms as they go up in level, and in the early days of WoW they could only gain those forms by going on quests.
The Druid quest for Aquatic form (the shape of a seal) was given when the character was level 10, but (as I’ll describe) it was a stiff challenge to complete the quest at that level. The responsible thing to do would be to continue to gain levels until your character was ready to complete the quest. Of course, in video gaming you don’t want to wait; you want it NOW! Also the Druid Aquatic form was useful; it allowed the avatar to breath underwater, and it increased underwater movement speed.
I received the quest from the Druid Trainer in the Night Elf city of Darnassus. As I was trying to figure out how to travel to get to the quest’s site, I met two other Night Elf characters. One was another Druid, Etherealmoon. The other was her friend, Longarms, a Warrior. Etherealmoon had also just received the Aquatic form quest. They were slightly newer to WoW than I was, and did not know how to get to the site.
I’d played a human and a dwarf character already, so I had some idea of the geography. I offered to ask as guide, and together we set off on the trip around the planet of Azeroth.
The first step in the journey was easy: travel to the nearby town of Auberdine. From there we took a boat to Menethil Harbor on another continent. That when the most difficult part of the overall journey began: Menethil is located in the Wetlands, a zone with monsters from level 20 to 30, and we were level 10.
There was nothing for it but to run as fast as we could. We stuck to the road, which monsters generally avoid. Even so it wasn’t easy. In WoW, monsters are attracted to you at a distance that increases by how much the monster’s level is greater than yours. At at least 10 levels difference, we were pulling in monsters all over the place. All of them could run faster than us. We could do almost no damage to them, so each monster attack would wipe us out. There would be no other option than to run back in spirit form to where our corpses lay, resurrect, and start running again.
Fortunately, a couple of times some higher-level players would help us out. The rest of the time, it was running, spirit-running, and hope.
Finally, we got to the other side of the Wetlands and passed through a tunnel into Loch Modan. That zone had monsters from level 10 to 20. By sticking to the road, we were only attacked a couple of times, and this time we could do some significant damage to the monsters. I don’t recall any corpse runs in Loch Modan.
After Loch Modan, we passed through another tunnel into Dun Morogh. This is a starter zone, with all the monsters below our level. It was smooth travel until we reached the Dwarven city of Ironforge. From there we took the underground train to the Human capital of Stormwind. Then we ran through Elwynn Forest, another safe starter zone, and entered the final zone of Westfall.
Here my knowledge as a guide petered out. The quest-giver had given us a clue about where to go, but it was not specific. Fortunately, a passing higher level player had already been on the quest and told us where to look on our game maps: “It’s just to the west of the unnamed island near the middle of the coast, not far from the ‘T’ in “THE GREAT SEA” on the map.” It took us across Westfall, to a spot where there were no roads, and the monsters could be of level 10 to 20.
After a couple of real-time hours of travel, we got to the spot. We were on the other side of the world from where we’d started.
There was a new difficulty: at the time, the completion of the Druid aquatic-form quest was in the water, a short ways into the “fatigue” region: If you stayed more than a minute in that area, your character would die. If you died and went into spirit form and tried to get back to your corpse, your spirit would experience fatigue as well.
It was a race against time: Get as close to the spot as we could, then swim as fast as possible to the interior of a sunken ship deep undersea in the fatigue zone.
Etherealmoon did it on her first try. I was nowhere near as swift. I made several tries, with my avatar dying deep under the sea. A couple of times I couldn’t even get to Theadora’s corpse before fatigue overtook my spirit form. Both Etherealmoon and Longarms were rooting for me, but there was no way they could aid me.
I gave up for the day. I tried a couple of days later, and just barely managed to succeed.
As I write this, it’s fourteen years later. All three of us diverged in our gameplay and how often we logged in, and I never adventured with Etherealmoon or Longarms again. I still see them from time to time. When I’m playing Theadora, I give them a wave.
That journey can’t be repeated anymore in the same way. Blizzard changed the game to make it easier to travel to that location; only the newest players would not have access to a mount that can travel faster than the monsters can. The site for completing the aquatic quest is no longer in the fatigue zone. Monsters now scale with a character’s level, so it’s no longer a challenge to cross those zones. There are many web sites that offer guides to completing quests in WoW; these did not exist in 2004. Even getting advice about the location is easier, since there’s now a coordinate system the players can use to share map locations.
Of all the stories I could have told, why do I remember this one? From the perspective of most World of Warcraft players, it’s a fairly minor event. I’m pretty sure both Longarms and Etherealmoon have forgotten it. I’ve adventured with many other players since then. It’s not even the most difficult challenge I’ve faced in World of Warcraft, much less other video games.
It’s because, for me, that journey had an epic quality for that time and with those strangers who were willing to share it with me. I think it took place less than a month after World of Warcraft started. Everything was fresh and new, and the game challenges had greater impact. There was something around walking around the world that gave the journey an extra spice.
I don’t have any pictures of Theadora from that time, and any picture of her now would show her in fancy armor that did not exist back then. Instead, I present how Theadora looks in her seal form, the goal of that long-ago adventure: