The world of World of Warcraft, like most elaborate fantasy settings, is dominated by an endless hierarchy of the supernatural. You’ll find the lore wrapped in gods, gods of gods, old gods – with demons mixed in for spice – and a menagerie of other creatures that will eventually become a raid boss. This is reflected in the game’s architecture. Ruins dominate the world. Most zones have at least one ancient, mysterious locale. Some are made up entirely of them.
Even so, the game has plenty of sympathetic characters, and the best of them are where the world’s real heart lies. Wrath of the Lich King, considered a high point in the game’s lifespan by many of its veterans, had instant allure thanks to the antagonist its named after.
The Lich King.
Though the particulars of the Lich King’s story arc are confusing and ham-fisted, the broad idea is this. Arthas of Lordaeron was a respected, well-loved prince. His realm was invaded by the undead. In fighting back, he took increasingly brash actions, even murdering his own people in an effort to keep them from control of the blight (don’t ask me how that helps against the undead – like, I said, confusing). He’s lured into grabbing a cursed blade called Frostmourne, which gives him incredible power. Yet his rage makes him victim to the blade’s curse, which brings him under sway of the evil he wanted to fight.
This is a classic fall from grace. Arthas’ story is cliché, but effective, and indisputably human. We all understand that power carries responsibility, and know the temptation to use power for its own sake.
Which is why the Lich King’s fortress, Icecrown Citadel, looks like the cover of a heavy metal album.
Icecrown’s striking form is exceptional in World of Warcraft – hell, in fantasy video games as a whole – because it’s fresh. Evil in fantasy is almost always ancient. Technically, as Warcraft lore geeks can detail, the source of the Lich King’s evil is, as well. But the Lich King himself is relatively new to the scene, and he’s formed partly from the soul of Arthas, who was just 24 years old at the time of his fall.
It’s not clear when the citadel itself was built, but it definitely has that new-car smell. Not even the major “good” cities in World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, like Stormwind and Iron Forge, are as logically arranged or well maintained. That Icecrown looks as it does is surprising. You might not expect the capital city of an undead scourge to cast a symmetrical silhouette, but here it is.
Just like Arthas’ plotline, Icecrown Citadel has a clear inspiration. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and The Return of the King especially, showed us a Mordor built from cold, black metal, formed into intimidating, yet organized, spikes and ridges. It’s a sensible look which visualizes the unforgiving, driven, purposeful malice at the heart of Mordor and its antagonist, Sauron – who, by the way, the Lich King bears obvious resemblance to.
At first glance, it’s not clear this design makes sense for the Lich King. It’d make sense for the citadel to be new. But organized? As an undead scourge, I’d expect the Lich King’s forces to be unwieldy, chaotic, inhumane. They’re depicted as exactly that in other areas of Northrend, the continent added in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Even the Undead – a playable faction of characters in World of Warcraft, formed by servants of the Lich King who’ve regained their individuality – live in a putrid, confusing ruin, built from the former capital of Lordaeron itself.
As striking as Mordor is in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, though, we don’t see much of it up close. When we do, there’s little detail. Mordor is a land of pure malice, and as such, it is hard to relate with.
The Lich King’s realm different. Its malice is guided by fantasies of power. Sauron does not have a throne. The Lich King does. More than that – he has a gigantic throne, surrounded and elevated by ice. He sits on that throne and, while wielding his rune-inscribed blade, telepathically controls his undead army.
I mean – that’s pretty fucking metal. Right?The fall from grace, though as cliché’d as fantasy gets, isn’t always this relatable. Sauron is part of the trope, but we never see much of Sauron’s fall, and we know little about him. He’s a force, but not a character. Arthas, later the Lich King, is different. He’s written to fall from the beginning, and everything a player needs to know about it can be gained by playing Warcraft 3 and Wrath of the Lich King.
Arthas is also, it must be mentioned, firmly rooted in the particular fantasies of the game’s presumed target demographic – young, white men. Before his fall he was a stalwart knight, handsome with long blonde hair. After his fall, as the Lich King, his aesthetic style infuses Mordor with inspiration from Norse mythology which includes the setting of the expansion, Northrend, the power of runic inscriptions, and an alliance with the Vrykul, a race of giants obviously based on Viking myths.
Cynically, Icecrown Citadel can be viewed as a monument to pandering. Its soaring tower and great gates mash the artist style of an iconic fantasy movie with themes from Norse mythology to produce a product that has instant appeal to World of Warcraft players. Yet, for me, it works – better, in fact, then many of its influences. While it borrows shamelessly, its particular mix of aesthetic design is something that could only exist in the era it was created.
And again, there’s that human element. While I appreciate the lore of Lord of the Rings, I’ve never felt invested in the story of the book. That has a lot to do Sauron. The dark lord of Middle-Earth, and his realm of Mordor, is a rare form of evil, so pure that it’s become alien. Mordor is dark, cold, featureless, lacking any hint of empathy.
Though the allure of Sauron’s power is expressed in the lore, I’ve never found it believable. Sauron is a creation that doesn’t seem to exist on the spectrum of human emotion.
The Lich King’s realm, on the other hand, is definitely on that spectrum – and Icecrown Citadel embodies that. It’s dark, uninviting, intimidating – and self-consciously badass.
The Citiadel is far from Blizzard’s most original work, and not my personal favorite, but it’s not just rose-tinted glasses that leave so many geeks yearning for a return to Northrend. Icecrown, not just in spite of, but because of, its pandering, is one of gaming’s most remarkable fortresses.