Let's talk about censorship. Or at least what we're willing to call Censorship (Big C intended).
Late last week, Blizzard released World of Warcraft Patch 6.2 on the Public Test Realms (PTR). As the name suggests, the PTR is where Blizzard tests patches and certain features before releasing them for live play. There's a long history of data-mining the PTR patches as a preview of what players can expect in the future, though these patches tend to be rather fluid. One new facet of this upcoming patch is a new feature of the played-controlled Garrisons, adding shipyards and naval missions to the mix.
There's various classes of ship for this new feature and all of these ships are named after figures and places in World of Warcraft's lore. The Destroyer class is called either Durotan's Pride (Horde) or Moira's Hammer (Alliance). The Carrier class is named Liadrin's Shield (Horde) or Spirit of Auberdine (Alliance). The Submarine class is Valeera's Dagger (Horde) or Tyrande's Silence (Alliance). It's the latter one that's caused a recent controversy. To explain why, I need to go into World of Warcraft lore.
Back in the Cataclysm expansion, Blizzard introduced the 5-player Heroic dungeon, Well of Eternity. In the dungeon, the player goes back in time to help Illidan Stormrage and Tyrande Whisperwind fight the Burning Legion and protect the Well of Eternity. It a pretty big moment within the game's lore, dealing with the demonic corruption of Illidan. At the end of the dungeon, Malfurion Stormrage joins the fight and closes the Burning Legion's portal. He then turns to a weakened Tyrande, who is his lover (and later, his wife and the Night Elf faction leader) and has this brief conversation.
- Tyrande Whisperwind: Malfurion...
- Malfurion Stormrage: Hush, Tyrande. Where is Illidan?
- Tyrande Whisperwind: By the very edge...
Blizzard has been living down that dungeon ever since, as fans felt the scene reflected poorly on Malfurion and Tyrande. Malfurion, as he's one of Blizzard's more heroic and noble characters, and Tyrande, as a more forceful female figure in the lore. This was back in 2011 and people hated this exchange in particular, in addition to disliking how Blizzard handled Tyrande's character overall. Words were written!
"Why does Malfurion say this at the end of the Well of Eternity heroic? Isn't Malfurion suppose to be benevolent and in love with Tyrande?" asks one WoW player in a forum post. "Can't we just cut out that dialogue part in the heroic and make Malfurion attack whoever is attacking his wife?"
"Yeah, what was up with that? It actually sounds more like something Tyrande would say to him, going back to their WC3 characterizations," replies another.
So when Tyrande's Silence popped up, some assumed the ship's name was a callback to that moment. That wasn't Blizzard's intent, so they decided to change the name of the ship. Thus began the outcry that Blizzard was censoring themselves by renaming the ship. World of Warcraft Community manager Josh Allen addressed the situation in a series of tweets.
Remember this is on the Public Test Realms, where Blizzard tries out ideas before deciding to keep them or not. This is exactly where Blizzard would normally change something like this. In fact, prior to the PTR patch, the ships were simply known by their class, not any specific designation. It's flavor text at best.
And the unintentional callback to "Hush, Tyrande!" is rather understandable. Even when it was noted that Tyrande's Silence was being renamed on the forums, one of the first replies jokes about the line. Blizzard says it's a loose reference to one of her Heroes of the Storm attacks, but she lacks a silence in the game. Instead, she has a Stun: Lunar Flare.
But the last tweet made by Allen illustrates the problem: any change whatsoever is perceived as Censorship. Which isn't true, because this is commercial art, which is bound by a whole set of other factors beyond the vision of a specific creator. This is something I've written about before, talking about the line between art and product. Art exists to present the creator's vision to others and elicit an emotion, a product is meant to be sold and fulfill a consumer need. These two ideas are constantly at conflict with each other. Sometimes, the most creative decision is not the one that will sell and vice versa; commercial art is about this balancing act between the two.
"The artist who wants to purely pursue their vision, commercial realities be damned, has to be willing to have their work sit in an empty room, unseen," Hinterland Games creative director and co-founder Raphael van Lierop told me in that previous article. "For me, it's important to create 'art' that expresses some specific sense of creative values and particularly those that are personal to me. But, it needs an audience to matter."
Part of commercial art - actually, part of any art - is feedback and criticism. It's about listening to your audience and deciding if you want to make changes to your work based on what they say. This is why speech is important. Telling a developer (civilly) to make a change in a move, mechanic, character, or story is fine, because the developer is free to listen to or ignore you. That's the way the system works. If they make a change, that's deciding to change for your audience. Creators are allowed to make that choice. They can also decide to stay the course and stick to their original vision.
Game development history is littered with changes made by developers, producers, and executives in order to improve the saleability of a product. It's rife with changes made because creators simply realized something wasn't their intended outcome. History is also full of creators who simply decided to go with what they originally made, feedback or sales be damned. That's a choice that's different for each creator and throwing out "Censorship!" in response is not being honest about why they made the decision. It's worth noting that "creator" is a misnomer for many of these games, which are made by teams of hundreds. "Vision" is a collaborative effort; few games are completely the vision of one person.
You can try to argue that no censorship of any sort should happen ever, but then you deny a creator the right to make changes based on feedback. When Bioware changed the ending of Mass Effect 3, that was listening to their audience and making changes accordingly. Square Enix decided to change some costumes in Bravely Default for its Western release and XSeed Games added new male art to Akiba's Trip; two different ways to deal with similar ideas.
People delineate between aesthetic (characters, story, and dialog) and mechanical (gameplay and features), but that separation is largely mental. Both are still the result of a specific viewpoint and series of ideas by designers, so any change would be messing with those ideas to refocus the intent or outcome. You can be as excited or as angry with a change of costume or change of moveset. Which is to say, we as an audience request or demand changes in our games all the time. Sometimes developers comply, sometimes they don't. You can call their decision self-censorship, but it doesn't change the fact that's it's something they're allowed to do as the owner of a work.
Blizzard is allowed to rename Tyrande's Silence to something else and it's not buckling. It's also not indicative of some dark slippery slope hiding within the industry's future. It's business as usual, because commercial art is still a business. You can dislike that they changed it too! That's also feedback, that Blizzard can mull over in turn. That's how this whole thing works: provide your feedback in a civil manner and the let the creator decide what they want to do. And once the creator has decided, you're allowed to decide how you feel about them. And that includes whether you wish to patronize their products in the future.
I just hope you're not doing it over these two words.
And Blizzard, just go with Tyrande's Sentinel, which is one of her attacks from Heroes of the Storm.