You might not have noticed at the time, but World of Warcraft took its first, quiet, baby steps towards including LGBT characters in its 12-year-old virtual world when it released its Legion expansion last year.
With all the fanfare over Blizzard's Overwatch making its most visible character, Tracer, a lesbian, seeing World of Warcraft slip a pair of lesbian NPCs into an obscure questline feels a bit lacklustre. But the game's history with queerness explains why this is both monumental -- and also presented in a way that barely anyone paid attention to.
The couple in question are Legion NPCs Enchantress Ilanya and Priestess Driana. It's through a small quest chain that you as the player realise that these two are no mere cursed elves. The enchantress asks you to find her old apprentice and wants you to relay that she forgives her for her old choices. You eventually find the priestess, who by dint of siding with the old leader of the elves, has gained demonic powers and is now a satyr. You help the priestess cleanse herself, which is where the story takes the romantic turn.
Driana remarks that the spring is a place where her and her master, actually her lover, spent many "blissful hours together", and that the love that infuses the place is more potent than the magic that's cursed her. The story wraps up with you reuniting the two lovers, who are both ghosts by now but happy to not be apart any longer. It's a sweet little yarn told entirely in the margins of a quest chain, the kind that makes doing the endless grind to top level in Warcraft bearable, and now it has the bonus of introducing a romance that isn't strictly heterosexual to the game's universe.
For something so momentous, it feels incredibly sidelined -- the quest itself is locked behind the enchanting profession, for starters. Professions in Warcraft are essentially crafting and gathering skills that players level up, and the Legion expansion introduced a set of quests for each profession that made it easier for players to learn as they moved through the game's new continent. Therefore, a lot of players may never see this if they aren't already doing enchanting, and those who are might do what a lot of MMORPG players tend to, which is to quickly page through all the quest text without reading it.
This is not to say that all LGBT characters in games should be big enough to feature on a game's box art, but we have so few right now that Ilanya and Driana's lack of impact is an immediate consideration. World of Warcraft's narrative set up provides several tiers of characters; the biggest names of the game are the movers and shakers of the large overarching story, one that is only minimally connected to the day-to-day experiences of players. They show up in big story quests at pivotal moments or in cutscenes.
Everyone else that a player would interact with is usually some level of quest NPC. Ilanya and Driana are sweet, but not noteworthy, and are just barely above the kind of "are they or aren't they" NPC interactions that used to pass as representation in the game prior to this. But the fact that they were included at all, after all this time is still surprising, since Blizzard's had a spotty history with LGBT issues over the long history of its gigantic MMORPG.
The first character that I remember that was a gay joke was Hearthsinger Forresten, which you might miss if you don't look at his loot table closely -- the items he drops all reference rainbows, dancing or flames. But that's minor in terms of how the game has danced around male femininity -- male blood elves (a race in the game) have long been a joke in the community and with the developers since being added to the game. Before Blizzard officially released them in the Burning Crusade expansion, people complained that the models were too skinny or wiry and so they were beefed up to appease what seemed to be a straight male audience.
It didn't help that they also had several silly in-game barks and emotes that betrayed a very vain, catty sensibility, which has a history of being used as queer coding. There's also several jokes in-game that imply that male blood elves are the same as, or could be mistaken for, women, with the male NPCs in question being referred to as damsels or babes by male characters who think they are female, and explicitly wearing dresses or robes.
The community has had to do its own work injecting queerness into the world, whether it's interpreting NPCs as lovers in fan works, or having to cling to the few very ambiguous (or implied to be pornographic) instances of non-heteronormativity as proof that Azeroth isn't devoid of queer people.
It's also the queer fanbase that has been quietly wondering for over a decade about when their time will come. A high point of this on-going discourse was when my friend Todd Harper, a professor of game design at the University of Baltimore, asked a question about the company's stance on narrative choices to Rob Pardo, then chief creative officer of Blizzard, at a MIT Media Lab talk. Harper's question was more generally about Blizzard's values and how they perceive their audience when portraying socially progressive content, to which Pardo responded, "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us. It's not something that we're against either, but it's just not something that's ... something we're trying to actively do." (Pardo left the company shortly after this talk.)
For a long time, it felt like this was the line Blizzard was taking with anything progressive, including queer inclusion, and to some degree, it still feels like a line it is sticking to, despite more political moves in some of the games' stories.
Legion is not a perfect expansion, but in it, one can start to see the little cracks in WoW's longstanding "neutral politics" facade, and one can't help but think that more designers that are coming into Warcraft's fold are helping shape the legacy of this 12-year-old game to make it slightly more meaningful. It's why I still think it's remarkable that there are now two queer elves in the game who, even dead or cursed, are still allowed to acknowledge their love for each other.