The Genius and the Folly of Garrosh Hellscream

When Blizzard announced that Garrosh Hellscream would be the new warchief of the Horde, fan reaction was strong and almost uniformly negative. Massive lists of better potential warchiefs were compiled, mentioning everyone from Saurfang to Sylvanas, from half a stack of peacebloom to basic campfire.

An election banner for Varok Saurfang and Vol'jinCertainly, I have always counted myself among the Garrosh haters. He has taken the Horde back in time, effectively erasing a decade of development for the faction’s lore, and he has generally been written as an emo, thick-headed, and utterly unlikable character.

But Mists of Pandaria has caused me to see Garrosh in a new light. Could there be some method to Blizzard’s madness?

Yes, and no.

The genius:

I don’t know when Blizzard decided Garrosh would be a new main villain. I’m sure it wasn’t in their minds when they first stuck him next to that campfire in Nagrand, but I’d like to imagine it wasn’t something they just pulled out of their proverbial behinds when Pandaria came along.

It feels to me like they planned ahead a bit here, and that’s where I start to believe there might be some sparkle of brilliance in making Garrosh warchief of the Horde.

Garrosh taking over pissed a lot of people off. Those of us who were fans of Thrall and his Horde have grown incredibly resentful of Garrosh and Blizzard’s decision to appoint him. We feel like our Horde has been stolen from us. We feel disenfranchised.

I’ve even compared it a form of false advertising. I joined a faction of noble savages, not the Nazis. The Horde I agreed to play is not the Horde currently in-game. I very much feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under me as a Horde player.

Not coincidentally, this is exactly how most of the fictional members of the Horde now feel, too.

Garrosh has become a ruthless tyrant. Anyone not an Orc and a loyalist is treated as little more than disposable cannon fodder. Hellscream’s secret police roam Orgrimmar in the night, brutally silencing any who dare speak against the warchief.

The Tauren hate him because he killed Cairne. The Blood Elves hate him because he’s wasting their lives, something their small population cannot withstand. The Trolls hate him because he killed Vol’jin — as far as they know — and threw them all in internment camps. The Forsaken hate him because… they pretty much hate everyone, actually.

Even many Orcs hate him for his allying with the Blackrock Clan and essentially restoring the dark Horde of yore.

But still, Garrosh does have his supporters, and this, too, mirrors the real world. Many young and hot-blooded Orcs, born into slavery under the Alliance and tired of being hated by the rest of the world, welcome Garrosh’s take-no-prisoners attitude towards any who would oppose the ruthless advancement of the Horde.

Similarly, many players feel that Garrosh has gotten the Horde back to its savage roots. They feel that honour and the Horde are two concepts that can’t coexist, and that ruthless conquest is the natural way of life for Orcs.

I would argue that such players grossly misunderstand the lore, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point is that there is a conflict among Horde fans that closely mirrors the conflict in the game. In both realities, those who cling to the brutality of the past are arrayed against those who welcome an honourable future.

Burn, Hellscream, burn!It’s a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy that could almost give The Secret World a run for its money.

Ultimately, I tend to view villains as having only two key responsibilities, and one is to be hated.

Garrosh Hellscream has absolutely aced this test. By making him the leader of a faction without initially hinting he would be a raid boss, Blizzard has given us a personal vendetta against Garrosh. For the first time since Wrath of the Lich King, I’m truly chomping at the bit to face a boss purely because he pisses me off.

I’d happily kill Garrosh even if he dropped no loot. Hell, I’d sell off my purples for a chance to take a crack at him.

From that perspective, putting Garrosh in charge was something of an act of genius.

The folly:

But unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I said that villains have two responsibilities. One is to be hated. The other is to be feared.

Garrosh has failed this test miserably.

Garrosh is something of an anomaly among Warcraft villains in that he has no special powers or abilities. He’s just an Orc, albeit an unusually strong one. That in and of itself might not have prevented him from being compelling as a villain, but Blizzard has almost gone out of their way to ruin his intimidation factor as much as possible.

When we first met Garrosh in-game, he was a pathetic, depressed creature who spent all his time weeping by the fireside because his grandma was dying. And it hasn’t really been uphill from there.

We’ve been told Garrosh is a military genius, but we’ve never been shown this. When you think about it, he’s actually been something of a spectacular failure as a commander-in-chief.

His invasion of the Borean Tundra promptly got its ass kicked by Scourge. It was only the meddling of Saurfang, and the assistance of the player, that enabled it to succeed. Garrosh got the credit because Saurfang kept his actions a secret.

His plan to conquer Gilneas proved to be an utter failure and has dragged the Horde into a bloody quagmire war that is still unresolved.

Garrosh has tried and failed to invade Ashenvale not once, but twice. In-game, the Night Elves drove him back, and the only thing that stopped the Horde from losing their foothold in the forest entirely was a pact with a Demon. In the novel “Wolfheart,” he was driven back, and he personally got his ass beaten in by Varian in single combat.

He lost Stonard to the Alliance, robbing the Horde of one of its oldest and most storied settlements in Azeroth.

His invasion of the Twilight Highlands was an unmitigated disaster, saved only narrowly by the efforts of the player and Zaela.

And then there’s the whole “let’s experiment with the Sha because that’s totally not a bad idea or anything” scheme of his.

I could keep listing off his failures, but you get the idea. Simply put, Garrosh is an idiot, and it’s hard to take seriously a villain who has been so clownishly incompetent for most of his history.

Now, he did lay the smack down on Theramore pretty good, and he has generally come across as much scarier and more capable in Mists of Pandaria, but it’s hard to ignore the past.

And this brings us to the other fatal flaw of Garrosh Hellscream, and that is that his writing has been horrifically inconsistent. One day, he’s preaching the virtues of child-killing to Saurfang. The next, he’s executing his own generals for killing children. Then an expansion later, he’s burning the ships in Theramore to ensure as many civilian casualties as possible.

I actually have an explanation for this, and Christie Golden has said the same thing when talking about her take on Garrosh’s character: he has a very weak personality.

This may seem odd for a character who greets you by screaming, “ONLY THE STRONGEST MAY DWELL WITHIN ORGRIMMAR,” but what this means is that he’s very susceptible to the influence of others.

When he was hanging out with Saurfang, he picked up some of the elder Orc’s high-minded ideals. Now that he’s fallen in with Malkorok and the Blackrock Clan, he’s adopted their vicious attitude toward warfare.

But again, this does not make for a compelling villain. He’s little more than a spineless puppet, following whoever whispers in his ear at the moment.

There’s an almost tragic irony here. One of Grom Hellscream’s favourite insults to throw at his enemies was, “Weak-minded coward!” And weak-minded is exactly what his son grew up to be.

* * *

In the end, Garrosh looks set to prove far more interesting and valuable to the ongoing storyline of Warcraft universe than I ever thought possible, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a character more funny than frightening, or the countless missteps Blizzard have taken in regards to him.

Garrosh could have been brilliant, but he was mostly terrible, and I see it averaging it out to a story that is merely okay.

New article:

My latest article at WhatMMO is Great MMO Players of Fiction. Because I know you all want to hear about Batman ganking Captain Ahab.

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2 thoughts on “The Genius and the Folly of Garrosh Hellscream

  1. I’ve been a WoW player since ’05. I named one of my bearded dragons Hellscream, only because I thought the name was pretty awesome for a mostly docile little reptile.

    That said, I totally agree with all of your points in this article, and I can only assume they figure most fans don’t pay enough attention to lore to piece this all together.

    • I don’t know about that. I’ve seen enough interviews with Metzen to know that he genuinely loves and cares about the lore. I think it more likely the schizophrenic nature of the writing is due to a combination of their passion getting the best of their good sense and the Blizzard philosophy of iteration.

      Think about how scattered all the other aspects of the game are. Valor and justice points were perfectly well in Cataclysm, but they had to go and change everything anyway. I fear that same philosophy applies to their stories.

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