When Blizzard released the opening cinematic to Mists of Pandaria last Thursday, the reactions varied from the ecstatic to the downright dismal. One of the comments that caught my eye— which summed up a sentiment expressed in many other comments— asked, “What’s with the comedy bit? Makes it look like a Disney movie.”
The “comedy bit” the commenter is referring to occurs in this segment until about 2:36:
Since the announcement of Mists at last year’s BlizzCon, people have been saying that the expansion is a joke, a child’s plaything and not the stuff of legends that we’ve become accustomed to in the Warcraft franchise. Compounded with the fact that Tenacious D played at a previous BlizzCon and Kung Fu Panda has not one, but two movies plus a new spinoff animated TV series on Nickelodeon, it’s difficult for much of the audience to take anthropomorphic pandas seriously. As made apparent in the comments, it seems the inclusion of the “comedy bit” didn’t help much to alleviate those claims.
Maybe the cinematic storyboarders did it on purpose as a thumbed-nose at the naysayers. Perhaps the writers thought, “Well, they think we’re a joke anyway. Why the heck not?” It could be that Blizzard is telling us to not take things so bloody seriously all the time, what with the eternal pursuit of gear, stats, and virtual shiny stuff.
I think the reason— whether it’s true or not— has two parts to it.
Blizzard has never shied away from including pop culture and comedy into the fabric of its games; World of Warcraft is no exception and, in fact, probably contains the most references. They’ve always been subtle and you usually had to go hunting for each thing. So, regardless of the fact Chen Stormstout and the Pandaren and all associated things have existed since Warcraft III, a whole expansion that revolves around pandas kicking butt with martial arts makes Blizzard look like they’ve taken the leap from unobtrusive Easter eggs to “Here, have a bunch of content based on a plethora of references!”
Many of us know that simply isn’t the case. If we take that scene at face value, it’s almost the complete inverse to the blood elves’ introduction in the opening cinematic to The Burning Crusade:
It starts out idyllic, pretty, almost peaceful and then goes to the horrible, downright gruesome and terrifying. The juxtaposition of the extremes are, in its own way, humorous with that, “Ha ha, I didn’t see that coming!” sort of fashion. The Animaniacs came up with two very apt terms for such humor effects: “Funny Ha-Ha” and “Funny Uh-Oh.” I’ll let you decide which term describes each of the scenes best.
So, we know that Blizzard has always employed a touch of humor in its works, but we still have the question: Why the choice of “Funny Ha-Ha” in the MoP cinematic?
Note what happens after the “comedy bit.” The Pandaren brewmaster monk— who is none other than Chen Stormstout himself— proceeds to easily kick ass and lifts the fog of battle from the eyes of his combatants to reveal a world of majestic beauty and wonder. Boiled down to the bare bones, the cinematic can be summed up in one line: You just got served by the goofy one.
The plot of the cinematic, at face value, summarizes what we’ll be experiencing in the course of the expansion. It’s Horde versus Alliance and the Pandaren will show us the error of our warlike ways. The orc and human are so hellbent on destroying one another that they underestimate the mysterious creature who interferes with their skirmish. They even miss the environment they’ve been thrown into after being shipwrecked, despite destroying bits and pieces of it during combat.
But it can also allude to the criticism that’s been volleyed at the expansion as a whole since its announcement. “Aww, cute cuddly pandas. That sort of crap is for kids.” “It’s time for happy, sunshine Panda-land.” Blizzard stands in the place of the monk while the players are in the positions of the orc and human.
There’s nothing cute or cuddly about the guy kicking ass and taking names from the orc and human in that cinematic. The inclusion of the “comedy bit” just highlights the fact that the pandaren are so skilled in their ways that they have time to be funny in the middle of a melee. Some warriors boast how they can beat someone with one hand tied back or while blindfolded. Well, that monk just beat two people without breaking a sweat and can make a joke of things at the same time.
Blizzard’s telling us they can teach us a very solemn lesson— the effects of relentless, bloodthirsty warfare on Azeroth and its people— while having fun with it overtly. Just because something appears funny or un-warlike does not dismiss it from being dead serious. We shouldn’t underestimate it until we’ve had a chance to put it through its paces. And, we simultaneously ask ourselves, “How much of a joke is the expansion, really? Why are we taking things so seriously?”