The Monstrous Timelessness of Warcraft 3

Last week’s Warcraft 3 Invitational was an odd event. It was heartening to see Blizzard put some attention on the fifteen year-old game—especially with the news that the new 1.29 patch is the start of a renewed focus on the game—but it was also slightly confusing for people who expected to see that patch put the context of a clear roadmap for the game’s future.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Which brings us to “The Culling of Stratholme”—which I think my editor is finally going to let me talk about.

Rob bringing the shade.

Warcraft 3 was an incredible game at the time. It was revolutionary to me, and I spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours in it. And yet I never want to touch that game again. The amount of damn micro in it just feels so exhausting having gotten used to more modern RTSes. Warcraft 3 will always be incredible, but I’m honestly surprised so many people are excited for the new life being thrust into it.

Culling of Stratholme still is one of the greatest missions that forces you to just throw away any moral thought to your actions though. Arthas was a monster, and being forced to be that monster was great. The expansion’s campaign never really felt as good as Arthas’ story.


Glad you could bake it, Uther.

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I’m glad that some of my memories about this game and its story aren’t just nostalgia glasses. I always thought Arthas’ fall was an extremely well done bit of storytelling.

It makes me sad that the storytelling in WoW and beyond hasn’t been…great, and kind of makes me wonder if this one bit might have been more fluke than anything else.

It makes me sad that the storytelling in WoW and beyond hasn’t been…great, and kind of makes me wonder if this one bit might have been more fluke than anything else.

It got a bit better when they started doing the phasing thing in Wrath of The Lich king, thus making it possible to actually change the world map for a player depending on what’s going on.

I quit playing WoW after getting my raiders their bone drakes for kicking the everloving shit out of Arthas on Hard Mode. It was a good night.

Blizzard’s output around the Warcraft 3 and Starcraft period had that distinct 90s PC games feel, where each setting had a novel’s worth of backstory and the tone would wholly embrace its own campiness while still trying to be “gritty”.

That outlandish camp is still present to this day (“I AM MY SCARS!”), though you don’t see as much of the grittiness, since they’ve become a sort of Gaming Disney where each of their properties become enshrined into being monuments of their brand identity.

I mean, they literally made a digital Disneyland for themselves in the last Overwatch map, they’re not exactly hiding it.


This is great. I remember playing the campaign as a kid and Arthas’ fall from grace was extremely impactful, perhaps not always consciously, but certainly subconsciously. And Rob is absolutely right - it is the quickness with which he reaches that decision and that complete lack of awareness of its horror that make it so strong.

He goes from being a cocky kid to (I guess spoilers???) murdering his own father in cold blood and usurping the throne.

It made me feel… uneasy. Arthas had an aura about him that I could not quite pin down. It’s not really even a tragedy, he wasn’t really seduced by the undead, he was not some innocent kid who was led astray, he did not go “down a wrong path” over several decisions and choices that led him to a dark place over time. Instead he fuckin’ dove deep into that place as soon as he saw the opportunity to do so.

I legitimately miss the '90s era when it came to big paperback manuals with a hundred pages of backstory. Starcraft’s was pretty fun, and of course Homeworld was an all-time classic.

Damn the Homeworld manual was good. So good.


The entire Argus arc has been my favorite bit of WoW story in years because it leans so fully into the ridiculous pulpy camp shit instead of trying to walk a weird line between grimdark and slapstick.

But you’re right, it feels like each of their brands are becoming self-referential feedback loops and it’s…well I’m not sure how to feel about it. Its not like most of them were Deep Serious Lore.


Same here. While it’s campaign was excellent I never enjoyed straight WCIII deathmatches because of the intense micro it required. Throwing hordes of nameless troops into a meat grinder is what I want from an RTS.


Interestingly, when this mission was recreated as a WoW dungeon, the story was changed so that the player in the dungeon never has to, and indeed cannot, attack defenseless civilians. You have to wait for them to turn into zombies before you can kill them.

There is some narrative justification to this. Rather than playing Arthas, you’re playing a hero from the future who is visiting the past in order to stop some time-traveling dragons from disrupting historical events. You’re supposed to be disguised as one of Arthas’ foot soldiers. Arthas orders your party to go ahead and stop Mal’ganis’ minions from disrupting his work of killing the infected villagers. You even see him explicitly kill two of them at the start before they turn. It’s all set up so that the player can tell themselves they kept their hands clean.

The overall arc of the Wrath of the Lich King WoW expansion is set up in such a way that by the end of it, in the final confrontation with Arthas as the Lich King, he’s able to point to your exploits as a hero in Northrend and try to tell you that your journey was engineered by him from the beginning to set you on the same path he took. That he was testing you in order to turn your raid group into his greatest minions. Honestly, it falls a little flat. The few morally gray quests that are sprinkled in with the standard fantasy MMORPG quests don’t really feel like enough to sell the story. None of them are morally ambiguous or outright evil to the degree that the last few missions of the Human campaign in Warcraft III are. None of them really have the player come to the conclusion on their own, through the mechanics of the game itself, that the most efficient way to beat the objective is to do something cruel or wrong the way the original Culling of Stratholme WC3 map does.


Culling of Stratholme was sort a big moment for me personally because it was one of those moments that illustrated how desensitized I was. WCIII was a game I asked my wife to play when we first started dating because it ran on her laptop and I just told her to play through the Arthas campaign.

When she got to the Culling she was furious at Arthas and at having to play through this section. At the time I was a (20-year-old) person who thought the ends always justified the means and had no real moral qualms about force attacking civilians to cleanse the city.

But hearing her reaction and her fury led to a lot of self-reflection for me. She had had a very disturbed reaction to the AC-130 missions in Modern Warfare (which I thought was the coolest shit at the time) and it made me really examine how desensitized I was to killing in games.


I had that experience with Modern Warfare 2. While that game came out when I was still younger, I had no qualms just committing mass murder that that first airport. Now I really cringe when I think on how willing I was to just completely disassociate myself from a game and have fun shooting things. I will admit that, like you, I didn’t really think too much of the Arthas campaign at the time but I excuse my younger self as I barely paid attention to the cutscenes anyways.

Also until just now, I never realized how messed up the AC-130 missions were. I guess a lot of us are already so desensitized to the idea of drone strikes.

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At the time what I thought was so cool about the AC-130 sequences was that they look identical to actual combat footage from AC-130s. I pointed that out to my then-girlfriend-of-two-weeks and she was horrified. I feel pretty mixed about it now because there’s enough going on in MW1 for me to think that Infinity Ward was trying to make a statement with those sequences but I don’t revel in them like I used to.


Having now watched drone footage it is scary how similar MW’s AC-130 segment is. But I have doubts whether IW or any CoD is making statements that aren’t jingoistic and military-positive. Even in MW2 when you’re set-up to look like you massacred an airport and your own team betrays you, it’s always played as needing just more “good guys with guns” to kill the bad guys. That could just be my take on it years after I’ve played it, so I will admit there’s a possibility I’m wrong.


I played through it again about a year ago, and I think Modern Warfare (1 specifically, 2 and 3 are different) has at least some sense of ambiguity and ambivalence about it. In a lot of ways it is very face-value, pro-military shooting gallery game, but it undercuts itself in some ways that make me think that they were at least attempting to say something, even if I’m not entirely sure exactly what that is.

The American section of the campaign generally portrays a bumbling clusterfuck of a military force who can’t get basic information right and who are outwitted at every step. And while we take it for granted now, the death of the American player character was genuinely shocking at the time - after a big heroic rescue sequence (“leave no one behind” etc) the bomb goes off and they actually make you slowly drag yourself out of the crashed helicopter to look at the ruins of the city you have ostensibly been trying to liberate for the last few missions before the character dies of radiation poisoning.

The SAS side of the storyline portrays a casual brutality that almost makes me wonder if they weren’t trying to make some sort of point about how covert anti-terrorism operations are in fact pretty difficult to distinguish from non-state-sponsored terrorism.

I found the AC-130 sequence to be both a genuinely surprising break in the gameplay and to have a chilling effect, especially when I accidentally blew up a building and none of the crew cared.


Perhaps I should revisit them some time. Thanks for providing a more updated take on the campaigns. I do remember how incredible the mission where you’re killed in an explosion was, but I never thought about it’s context surrounding the rest of the game which shows more of a superhuman rushing through and murdering countless people.

I wonder if there’s also a little ludonarrative dissonance going on. Where the story is trying to paint it as this horrid struggle and hellish war, but I’m just running around and knifing people before sitting down to regenerate health.

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2 and 3 are just straight up unhinged Tom Clancy nonsense, story wise. They do have some neat setpieces, but nothing makes sense.

And yeah, that sort of ludonarrative problem is pretty universal to shooters, or action games in general.

On the plus side, without Modern Warfare and its successors, we wouldn’t have gotten Spec Ops: The Line.


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I’ve never played the modern warfare campaign, but this take from Noah Caldwell-Gervais - link to the exact part of the video in the description - struck me as pretty thoughtful and nuanced, it engages with a lot of the ideas talked about in this thread.

As for Warcraft III, I’m pretty sure the massacre mission had a similar effect to me that Rob describes. It’s interesting to note that Starcraft 2’s human campaign has a similar beat, but you make a choice and skip the massacre entirely. I love the idea of a game forcing you to do uncomfortable things to explore a character or military conflict. I fear the way we value player agency and power will take some of these moments away.