Illidan Stormrage Should Really Stay Dead – Part 2: Illidan’s Fall

Last time I detailed the history of Illidan’s story through the events of War of the Ancients, told in the Warcraft III manual and the War of the Ancients trilogy of novels, and Warcraft III.  Now we’ll take a look at Illidan’s final chapters to his story as they played out in World of Warcraft’s first expansion: The Burning Crusade.

Some players "were not prepared" for Illidan's fate in the expansion.

Some players “were not prepared” for Illidan’s fate in the expansion.

After the fight with Arthas in Northrend, Kael’thas and Lady Vashj brought Illidan back to Outland where he gathered followers and declared himself Lord of Outland, again feeding his lust for power and ego.  Having already imprisoned Magtheridon, Illidan begins building an army in Outland to defend against what he believes is an inevitable attack from the Burning Legion for his failure to destroy the Lich King.  With Magtheridon defeated, Illidan claims the Black Temple as his fortress and sways demons to his side against the Burning Legion by using the Shrine of Lost Souls.  He also begins using Magtheridon’s blood to create the fel orcs.  Essentially, the demon infused Illidan begins building an army of fel tainted warriors to protect him from Kil’jaeden.

For reasons not entirely explained, Illidan authorizes an attack on Shattrath City.  It’s possible since the draenei and eredar are in fact the same race, Illidan perceived the draenei as a threat.  It’s also possible Illidan believed that wiping out the draenei would lower the chances of the Burning Legion coming to Outland and finding him as a result (though Kil’jaeden found him there last time).  As stated, it’s not entirely clear why Illidan chose to wage war against Shattrath. Perhaps Kael’thas had already defected and sided with Kil’jaeden and was instrumental in convincing Illidan it was a good idea, the result putting more forces against the Betrayer and weakening his defenses without the Legion lifting a finger themselves.

After defeating Illidan’s Crimson Sigil guard, Illidan claims not even Arthas could defeat him.  This supports what Blizzard revealed in Classic WoW where after defeating the Dragons of Nightmare, players could access a scene where Malfurion speaks to Remulos regarding his brother and states “Illidan sits atop his throne in Outland – brooding.  I’m afraid that the loss to Arthas proved to be his breaking point.  Madness has embraced him, Remulos.  He replays the events in his mind a thousand times per day, but in his mind, he is the victor and Arthas is utterly defeated.  He is too far gone, old friend.”

Players often say “he went crazy” is Blizzard’s lazy way of writing a villain, but I feel players tend to overlook a lot of details regarding character development through the game (and many have strong lore opinions while openly, proudly, declaring they never read quest text or pay attention to the lore outside game).

Remember Illidan has always been power hungry and has pursued any means necessary to strengthen his power.  He was touched by Sargeras, granted a “blessing” in his magical eyesight and the tattoos covering his body, which glow green from fel energy.  It’s well established that exposure to fel magic slowly drives mortals insane in the Warcraft world.  Next, he’s imprisoned for 10,000 years in solitary confinement, though he does have the Wardens around, Maiev likely conversed with him (probably not very nicely), and Malfurion visited him, but still in solitary confinement.  Next is Illidan’s consumption of power from the Skull of Gul’dan, making him more demonic and further tied to the fel energies associated with demons.  Next, he surrounds himself with demons.  His pride has always been his greatest weakness, his ego more fragile than many care to admit and twice he fails to defeat Arthas.  And then on top of everything else, you factor in the possibility that during the War of Ancients, he may have had Old God influences affecting his mind and you’ve got a character who is well steeped in a slow, but steady descent into madness.

Now players do say that the story surrounding Illidan and his motives weren’t well explained in The Burning Crusade, but I think there’s enough to connect the dots. It’s just not slammed in your face like Blizzard started doing after the expansion.

Illidan is somewhat insane. He’s not outright raving lunatic, but he’s definitely not all there.  He knows the Burning Legion is likely going to come for him for his failures and he’s building an army to fight against them, but the one thing Illidan needs most to defend himself is more power.  Everything in Burning Crusade is centered on Illidan’s building defense against the Burning Legion.  In this alone, he’s not exactly a villain and why would the player really want to do anything to stop him?  He’s more likely a friend as the enemy of our enemy.

But Illidan’s also blind to everything but his obsessive goal.  He’s dangerous. He’s essentially training a pack of thousands of rabid wolves to defend him with no leash or perimeter to stop them from killing anything they come across.  You’ve got the fel orcs, who are openly waging war against the Alliance forces from the Second War and the draenei and are happy to fight the Horde as well.  You have demons who aren’t exactly trustworthy allies to begin with. And you have Illidan outright waging war against the naaru and Shattrath City to destroy the remaining draenei on Outland.  He may not be outright evil, but he’s definitely a loose cannon that needs to be stopped.  But there’s one other thing I always interpreted that he was doing.

He’s preparing to create yet another Well of Eternity.

Think about it.  Lady Vashj and the naga in Zangarmarsh have built all these pumps and their draining all the marsh in the area, siphoning it all into one lake, one very large body of water in the center of the area.  And what does Lady Vash (and Kael’thas) drop for the questchain leading towards Black Temple?  They each have one of the remaining four vials of the Well of Eternity.  Why else would Illidan have Vashj create a large body of water and entrust vials from the Well to her and Kael’thas other than to create a new Well of Eternity, the thing he’s been most obsessed with for over 10,000 years, the thing that first gave him his magic, the thing he knows can enhance his magical strengths more than anything else? What better way to fight off the Legion than to increase his power through a new Well.

So we’ve got dungeons fighting the fel orcs where we learn Illidan was creating them to build an army of his own.  We have dungeons fighting the naga who are potentially building a Well of Eternity.  We have Magtheridon in Tier 4 which stops Illidan’s source of creating fel orcs. We stop Lady Vashj in Tier 5, which cuts off his plan to create said Well of Eternity.  We fight Kael’thas who we learned had allied himself with the Burning Legion in betrayal of Illidan.  Then we head into Tier 6, which is to stop the leader that’s been setting everything into motion and causing chaos and strife in Outland, freeing Akama and his broken ones in the process, who I’d say is a bit questionable that his soul is trapped. Seems like they were slaves to Illidan more than allies.

Eventually players reach the top of the Black Temple and find Illidan himself.

Kind of creepy he STILL holds onto the Skull of Gul'dan

Kind of creepy he STILL holds onto the Skull of Gul’dan

And upon defeating Illidan, the following plays out:

Illidan falls to one knee, holding himself up on his fists, with the Warglaives of Azzinoth still clenched in them.
Maiev Shadowsong yells: It is finished. You are beaten.
Illidan Stormrage yells: You have won… Maiev. But the huntress… is nothing without the hunt. You… are nothing… without me.
Illidan collapses and dies.

There you have it, right there in the game.  Illidan collapses AND DIES.  There is no “he didn’t actually die” or “he managed to survive.”  Illidan died in Outland atop the Black Temple. He’s definitely dead.  Yet players clamor for his return to World of Warcraft, so much so that Chris Metzen has teased the idea at two Blizzcons and other appearances, suggesting that he would love to do a redemption story for Illidan.  But there’s just one problem….by this point he shouldn’t be redeemable.  You’re asking Blizzard to write a story to redeem over 10,000 years of selfishness.

I get it. Illidan’s so cool, he’s a bad ass.  Yeah, he’s the Wolverine of World of Warcraft and players think he’s so very important that he just has to be brought back, but there’s so many problems with this idea.

First, it belittles his story.  Illidan is a pretty good example of Blizzard doing a good character.  Illidan isn’t evil, I’ve never said he’s evil, he’s just very selfish in his thirst for power, but he does have some good intentions. He has taken action to protect his people, to save Tyrande, and to prove himself to his brother.  He’s a very flawed character with a pretty good story that presents “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  I don’t think he’s the anti-hero people claim him to be because he’s honestly not very heroic.  Batman is an anti-hero and while he’s driven by personal motivation, the death of his parents and an obsession to end crime, he takes action to help people, to protect his city.  Illidan’s primary motivation is usually acquiring power and if along the way he finds an opportunity to help someone he cares about, he’ll do that as well.  So I don’t think he’s an anti-hero, but I think he’s one of Blizzard’s best flawed characters who isn’t straight up good nor evil. He’s simply pursued his path, sought what he wanted, and made the decisions when they presented themselves.  To bring him back now would be akin to writing an extra chapter to Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet where the protagonists get up and were faking it the whole time.  It eliminates the tragic ending to the tragedy.

Second, how would it make sense?  Illidan didn’t dissipate into a flock of bats or smoke. His body fell to the ground and stayed there when he died. He’s transformed and demonic, but he’s not a pure demon, he was still a kal’dorei.  What, after five years of decomposition his body just comes back together?  Someone snuck past Akama’s forces and dragged the body off to Auchidoun to preserve it so they could resurrect him years later and he’d suddenly be a good guy?  It’s very difficult to properly bring Illidan back into the storyline at this point.

Third, do we really want another “I didn’t really die!” storyline?  Players were making fun of Kael’thas not really being dead as soon as it started with Magister’s Terrace (because apparently they ignored the cut scene in Shattrath after you turn in the quest for defeating Kael’thas).  Cho’gall has died and come back for use again (twice even).  Kel’thuzad is defeated twice (though that one made sense by typical lore standards).  Sure, World of Warcraft is essentially a comic book story in video game format, but do we really want to get to the point where we think “oh, they killed X, wonder how long before he comes back to life” like we do with comic books?

And fourth, and finally, do we really want to keep rehashing old characters?  Do we need Illidan back?  Isn’t his story complete and couldn’t new characters rise up instead?  We already have a demon hunter in Felwood in Cataclysm, we had two demon hunters named in Burning Crusade, and we had more training outside Black Temple.  Couldn’t a new character come into the storyline, one of Illidan’s first disciples who have trained under him to be a demon hunter longer than the others?  Someone who embraced Illidan’s belief in fighting the Legion with the Legion’s own fire and believed that, while ugly, the demon hunters are necessary?  A character not afraid to walk openly into Darnassus, boldly into the Temple of Elune, and tell Tyrande and Malfurion to their face that they’re wrong for shunning his order and that Illidan could have been the kal’dorei’s hero if he hadn’t been so quickly condemned, and despite their reaction, is able to safely make his way out of Darnassus as well.

Personally, I’d much prefer to see a new character like this, one who represents the aspects that made Illidan interesting, but doesn’t deny his mentor’s flaws either.  We, as players, complain that Blizzard has run out of ideas, but we then shackle them to reusing the same characters they’ve already used and completed the story for rather than urging them to create new characters with the themes we like best.  World of Warcraft has comic book themes, but it shouldn’t get caught up in the comic book tropes like this.  Old characters can still shine, some are long overdue for their moment in the spotlight, but characters who have had their story start, climax, and resolved should stay buried and whether you agree with how their story ended, it’s still best that it stays ended so that new stories and new characters can rise in their place.

There’s simply too much to lose and very little to gain with a needless resurrection.  Illidan Stormrage should really just stay dead.

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