Ever since Tolkien, the worlds of fantasy literature and video games have been overrun with tribes of ugly, barbaric humanoid warriors, whose main purpose for existence is to serve as the front-line cannon fodder in the armies of evil. Tolkien himself seemed unsure about what to do with them. Although the professor is famous for fleshing out the history, language and culture surrounding his fantasy races in great detail, the orcs had to make do with a comparatively shallow, one-dimensional treatment.
Still, even if underdeveloped, orcs captured people’s imaginations as a villainous warrior race, and orcs spread through hundreds of fictional universes. Usually closely associated with, related to or just another name for trolls, goblins, hobgoblins and other such nasties, orcs filled that indispensable niche of the bad guy you love to hate. Twisted, vile and irredeemably evil, they let us play at war and kill and kill again with a clean conscience. Aliens, zombies, robots and Nazis have all played a similar role in other genres.
Leave it to gamers, with their tendency to subvert rules and play characters against type, to spearhead the movement to rehabilitate the orc into something approaching a hero, a race that people would be proud to play as and a faction you might even want to root for.
‘WarCraft: Orcs And Humans’ The Orcs Are Wicked, But They’re The Winners
Blizzard’s orcs first appeared in WarCraft: Orcs and Humans as cruel, green-skinned barbarian warriors, with a clear inspiration from Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle.
The orc faction in-game was clearly positioned as the bad guys, with the lore from the manual and the game itself emphasizing their wanton cruelty and affiliation with dark magic and demons. These orcs were just as evil as any of their cousins from Middle-Earth, Warhammer or Dungeons and Dragons.
So far, so traditional. But Blizzard has a reputation for being able to take an established idea and put their own distinctive spin on it.
The first unusual thing to notice about Blizzard’s orcs is that they were even playable in the first place. Even if they were still evil, their player was presumably rooting for them. Not to mention the fact that as much as their background clearly painted them as the villains, their army was almost exactly the same as the humans. In this way, the green ‘baddies’ aren’t so different from us.
The second was that they were the winning faction in the first game, according to canon. This was a subversion of the typical trend at the time for video games with multiple faction endings. Usually, only the ‘good endings’ were considered canon in sequels.
‘WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness’ Gives Us Multicultural Monsters With A Sense of Humor
In Blizzard’s second strategy title, the orcs returned to head up a coalition that included trolls, ogres, goblins and dragons. No longer fixated on murdering anyone who wasn’t them, these orcs could make friends, albeit friends that had similarly pointy teeth and claws.
Their multiculturalism wasn’t the only evolution in the orcish horde. WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness introduced different unit quotes and barks for the various soldiers. Upon repeated clicking each unit would express itself via affirmations, annoyance, world-wearing workplace grumbling or cheeky humor.
It was chiefly this sense of humor that endeared the orcs to many players. It’s hard to look at your peons and grunts as irredeemable monsters once you’ve heard them laugh, sing and belch.
Even though they had become more relatable, the orcish horde was still evil, cruel and in league with dark powers. This time they weren’t so fortunate in war, either and lost to the classic Tolkienesque alliance of humans, elves and dwarves.
But with the Horde’s defeat came Blizzard’s chance to re-shape them in a more heroic mould.
Thrall Reboots The Orcs In ‘WarCraft III’
After the orcish horde was defeated at the end of WarCraft 2, the slate was cleared for Blizzard to begin their ‘reboot’ and rehabilitation of the orc. If the orcs were going to be believable as heroes, they needed a relatable hero-figure for players to identify with. Key to this effort was the figure of Thrall, an orc who was raised by humans as a slave. Divorced from the prejudices of the Horde, Thrall was idealistic and noble, with a vision of a new, less belligerent society for this people.
I’ve written before about the origins of Thrall as the protagonist of the scrapped adventure game, Lord of the Clans. Blizzard ultimately felt that Lord of the Clans didn’t quite meet their high standards, but a near-complete copy of the cancelled game is out there, and it provides some insight into Blizzard’s rehabilitation of the orc. The story ultimately has you rescue the defeated orcs from subjugation and defeating the evil human lord who enslaved them. The player roots for the underdog orcs against a really nasty bad guy, and it does make orcs believable as heroes.
Ultimately though, WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos did it better. The game’s increased focus on hero characters allowed Blizzard to put a relatable character front and center, but also show how his personality affected the composition of the Horde as a whole. It allowed us to see a society transformed by his leadership, and not without tension.
WC3 also has the advantage of shifting the onus away from the orcs by introducing an even worse evil faction in the form of the Undead Scourge (and behind them, the ultimate evil of the Burning Legion). The second storytelling trick utilized by Blizzard was a new plot point to excuse the over-the-top villainy of the orcs in the previous gamesâ€”they were originally a more noble race that had been corrupted by drinking the blood of demons.
At the end of WC3‘s orc campaign Grom defeats the demon responsible for the corruption at the expense of his own life, clearing the way for a new era.
Under Thrall’s leadership, the Horde was rebuilt in a new image. Thrall recruited the trolls and tauren through compromise and diplomacy. The orcs were no longer conquerors but refugees struggling for survival and acceptance in a hostile environment. Thrall even extended offers of peace to his traditional enemies, the Alliance.
The new Horde was recast in a kind of ‘noble savage’ mode, both in attitude and aesthetics. The warrior culture remained, but the cruelest aspects of it were toned down, in favor of emphasizing the honor and forthrightness of orcish warriors. Demon worship was replaced by a shamanistic, earthy religion of ancestor/nature spirit worship.
The orcs had been reinvented, with their worst aspects exorcised, but they remained a force to be reckoned with. In contrast, the Alliance in WC3 had shown itself to hold its own share of warmongers and extremists. The stage was set for the upcoming World of Warcraft, with its two factions for players to choose from, neither of which could claim any absolute moral high ground.
‘World Of Warcraft’ Shows A Heroic Horde Haunted By Its Past
When World of Warcraft rolled around, it was the definitive tipping point for the orc’s path to pop culture stardom. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had been reviving the irredeemably evil, ugly and vile orcs of Tolkien on the big screen for three years, but now WoW offered a strong alternative. It’s worth noting that The Elder Scrolls made their orcs playable for the first time in 2001’s Morrowind, but it just didn’t have WoW‘s wide reach.
WoW became a worldwide cultural phenomenon, by far eclipsing the strategy series it evolved from. Suddenly gamers all over the world were proudly declaring their allegiance to the horde and its signature race. Orcs were no longer something to fear.
Even if orcs are now valid as heroes, Blizzard needs to toe a fine line between keeping them on the right side of virtue without losing that rebellious, bad boy charm. The orcs have leeway to be wilder than their human counterparts, with a style drawn from punk rock and biker culture. In recent storylines, the orcish Horde is forced to contend with its crueler, more aggressive elements. However sympathetic they may be, making orcs into complete good guys would rob them of much of their appeal.
Blizzard’s new film franchise aims to tell the story of the orcs as a cohesive whole, with their entire evolutionary arc in mind. The first film has orcs as ruggedly handsome heroes as well as a credible threat to humanity. As sympathetic as they get, a core part of orc identity that never got lost from Tolkien is that they have an antagonist relationship with humans, uneasy at the best of times. A non-threatening orc is no orc at all.
The Modern Orc Can Be A Hero, But Never Be Completely Tamed
Of course, if you still prefer to slaughter orcs in the hundreds, you still can. Games like Orcs Must Die! and Shadow of Mordor will happily satisfy your bloodlust.
I don’t think that Tolkien could ever have imagined that his evil creation would end up capturing the public imagination on such a grand scale, but there’s an inkling that he was aware of the bad-boy appeal of the orc for the rebelliously inclined.
In a short unfinished manuscript for his sequel to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien shows us a snapshot of Gondor 100 years after the orcs have long been vanquished, where ‘orc-work’ has become fashionable among rebellious youth. Maybe the punk-rock stylings of Blizzard’s orcs have some root gene in Tolkien after all.
I must have killed thousands of orcs with sword, spell, bombs and boltguns during tabletop and video games. I regret nothing. They had it coming. But even with many years under my belt fighting the good fight, I have a soft spot for these tough guys and enjoy playing them in games where they can be protagonists.
Personally, I think that the orc’s transition into that grey area between good and evil was the making of them, and I had a great time playing through their evolution in the WarCraft series. Ultimately, the need for a race of bad guys in fiction may never go away; something I couldn’t help but dwell on as my Skyrim orc slaughtered the falmer in their hundreds.
Nowadays, thanks to revisionist writers and designers, Blizzard being most prominent among them, Morgoth’s minions have become much more than a horde of evil goons. The modern orc is fertile ground for an exploration of racial prejudice, hyper-masculinity or the wilder, more instinctive sides of humanity. In fantasy worlds of sparkly elves and dour, hard-working dwarves, the orc provides a rough, gritty anti-hero edge that was missing.
Always the misfit, just as likely to be friend or foe, the orc now sits often but uneasily with human, elf and dwarf in the fantasy game roster. I for one welcome them to the party. My orcs have never been the most squeaky clean of heroes, but dammit they kick ass and get the job done.
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.