WoW: Goblins

I’ve been spending some time in goblin lands. I’ve been doing this because goblin NPCs are the most entertaining company of all the playable races. They’re also one of the newest playable races, having come in with Cataclysm. I suspect that these two things are connected — that, now that WoW is such a proven money-maker, the team behind it is granted whatever resources they need to polish the new content to a glossy sheen. (Not that you’ll find a glossy sheen anywhere in goblin territory.) Now, I haven’t bought Cataclysm, and therefore I can’t actually play a goblin character. But the expansion has effects in the core game, probably in part as a way of advertising the expansion.

I don’t really know what role goblins played in the game before Cataclysm, but I assume it’s greatly expanded since then. I was kind of wondering how they would be plausibly powerful here: the D&D goblin, after all, is basically just one of the lower steps on the Evil Humanoid ladder, right above kobolds and below orcs. But in fact, Blizzard had established a precedent for goblins back in Warcraft II, where they drew less from D&D and more from Magic: the Gathering, which gave them access to crude explosives and balloons and similar unreliable, prone-to-backfire technologies. WoW takes that further, making them not just figures of slapstick violence with lots of explosions, but also Azeroth’s masters of industrial technology.

Note that WoW already had a diminutive, technologically-oriented race on the Alliance side: gnomes. Adding goblins as a player race is something of a step towards symmetry. Just how much symmetry there should be between Horde and Alliance seems to be something that Blizzard has seesawed about for a long time. (In the original Warcraft, the two sides were exactly equivalent modulo graphics until you reached the point where the more powerful spellcasters were available.) Gnomes and goblins are very different in style, though. Gnomes are portrayed as craftsmen who create marvelous clockwork devices. Goblins are more into fossil fuels, explosions, and despoiling the environment. Gnomish devices tick and whirr; goblin contraptions shudder and belch fumes. Every playable race has a special type of mount that characters of at least level 20 can buy and ride: the humans’ horses, the skeletal steeds of the undead, the wolves of the orcs. Gnomes get gleaming mechanical chocobos. Goblins get little three-wheeled go-karts with exposed engines. One of the first things you see when you exit Orgrimmar in the direction of goblin territory is a bunch of ungainly goblin-piloted mechs with buzzsaws for hands, busily clear-cutting the forest so they can strip mine the hills it’s on. Their disregard for nature is rivaled only by their disregard for personal safety. If you bring a goblin an unknown device as part of a quest, chances are that they’re going to poke and prod it until until it explodes in their face. There’s one quest where a lab accident set a bunch of goblins on fire, and they just run around on fire indefinitely.

The really important thing to understand about goblins, though, is that they speak with New York accents and Pesci-esque verbiage. This underscores the despoiling-of-nature part again — just as New Yorkers are content to live on an island that’s been almost completely paved over, so too would goblins pave the world if there’s a buck in it for them, or if they thought it would look neat. But more importantly, the mode of speech suggests an attitude, even an ethos. Goblins aren’t just ravening maniacs, they’re beings who do what they do because it fits their sense of cool. It’s just that their sense of cool involves heedlessness of consequences. This is probably also why they generally have the most aggressive style of communication, all “Whaddaya want?” and “You want a piece of me?”, even when addressing being three times their height.

As industrialists, the goblins are naturally also the Horde’s masters of commerce, and their various faction names all have words like “company” or “cartel” where other races would have “order” or “kingdom”. Looking over the special features of player-controlled goblins, I see the connection is made even more strongly there: goblins get discounts at stores and can access the bank from anywhere. Taken in combination with the accent, and given the treatment given to Tauren and Trolls, my first reaction is that they’re drawing from Jewish stereotypes. I’m certainly not the first to suggest this, either. But a quick google suggests that not everyone sees it: on forums where someone suggests it, it’s generally followed by vociferous denials and accusations of trolling (which are probably accurate). Let’s just say that nothing in WoW is just a racial stereotype, and that goblins definitely have stereotypical attributes all their own, apart from any real-world inspirations. It does, however, strike me as particularly problematic in this context that the goblins as seen in Warcraft II were suicide bombers. That was all very abstract at the time, but throw in identifiably ethnic attributes, and it retroactively starts smelling political. If I ever design a CRPG, I think I’ll leave out an explicit “race” mechanic just to avoid this kind of thing.

1 Comment so far

  1. malkav11 on 6 Feb 2011

    Goblins were, prior to Cataclysm, strictly neutral (except for certain groups, which were hostile), and had a fair number of significant settlements, most notably Gadgetzan in Tanaris and Booty Bay in Stranglethorn Vale. They’ve also been represented in Outland, and IIRC they were up to stuff in Northrend too. So although there’s now a Cartel (Bilgewater) that’s joined the Horde and made a huge impact on Azshara by landing their city there, they’re not really -that- much more prominent than they were already. And the neutral goblin groups are still around.

    Compare to the Worgen, who were, prior to Cataclysm, one type of hostile NPC that mostly showed up in the immediate vicinity of Shadowfang Keep and one or two other spots.

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