Is free will an illusion? This starting zone offers the opportunity to grapple with this and related questions. As I did in the first four installments, I begin with my character’s narrative, then introduce the issue and raise questions in light of Yvilee’s experiences.
YVILEE’S NARRATIVE: Free to be Undead
A shimmering val’kyr hovered over my open grave, calling me by name. “Rise, Yvilee!” Wobbling I rose. Damn! I was literally rotting skin and bones. “Welcome back to the realm of the living,” the val’kyr said. “With the blessing and power from the Dark Lady, I have freed you from death’s grip.” The horror of it all struck me: I was one of the undead!
“You are free to follow whatever path you choose from here.” Really? Free to be a walking corpse, what kind of freedom was that? No one I’d known, even if they’d survived the battle, would have anything to do with such as me – and who could blame them? What a wretched turn of events! I had little choice but run with Dark Lady Sylvanas’ band of Forsaken, my vicious foes. Call me a turncoat – I don’t give a rat’s ass. I had to look out for myself.
I told Agatha, that was the val’kyr’s name, that I wanted to join up. She pointed toward the undertaker, who greeted me: “You’ve held up nicely, especially after being dead for so long!” Geez, what a lame compliment. I started to give him the finger but shrugged instead. I’d quickly calculated my options – at least I was free to think – and decided that gaining the Dark Lady’s favor was the smart thing to do. I could be quite the toady when it served my purposes. Little by little toadiness would make my star rise, at least that was the plan.
Of course I had to start at the bottom. I kowtowed incessantly, appearing eager to perform even the smallest and most revolting tasks. For starters, the undertaker needed embalming fluid and twine to replace new undeads’ missing parts – hands, jaws, things like that. I racked my mouth into the best smile I could manage (not easy for an undead) and said, “Let me get it!” then jumped along like a happy camper to fetch the stuff.
Soon more and more Forsaken officers sought my help. I gathered battle-ravaged corpses for recruitment into the Forsaken. I shattered the brittle frames of Rotbrain undead, relieving their sick minds of misery. I tracked down and terminated worgen infiltrators. I collected all kinds of junk – like doomweed, darkhound blood, and murloc scales – for our apothecaries’ kill-everything concoctions. And on and on. I was tireless.
In fact, I was pretty damn good at this undead business and came to revel in it. My kickass imp Cholop was having a hell of a time too. I forgot to mention I’m a warlock, so it figures I’d naturally take to such a life, if I may call it that. But it seemed like I was getting nowhere fast. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my big break came when I met Lilian Voss.
Three newly-risen undead were “having trouble coping” with their “fate,” the caretaker said, and I, with my “working tongue,” could “relate” to them (he was quite the smartass). “Happy to oblige,” I said, biting my tongue.
The newbies were totally freaked. I got that – who wouldn’t be? But only the orc quickly wised up and joined. The uppity ex-marshal said he’d start his own Forsaken band and strutted off into the woods. Lilian, however, couldn’t believe she’d died and screamed all the way to the village, “My father will protect me! My father will protect me!” – from us the undead, I assumed.
Whether she joined us or not was no concern of mine. Whatever, she’d remain undead, period. But I kept having this fantasy of pounding her silly head into reality. Why, you may ask? Could be that on some level I felt we were alike; we’d both been young women working for the Scarlet Crusade when we died – and now, well, it wasn’t fricken fair. In any case, I decided to show her once and for all what she’d become. When I found Lilian in the inn once again cowering at the sight of me and calling me an abomination, I held a mirror in her face and said, “See for yourself, fool! You’re just like us.” She looked and cried, “I can’t be undead! Not me!” and dashed off.
Word soon came that the Scarlet Crusade held Lilian captive atop a heavily guarded tower. What? They’re not known for taking prisoners, especially not their worst nightmare, the undead. I went after her, fighting my way to the top – dammit I’m good. There she was in a cage. Even though the fool said not to bother, that her father would save her, I went about picking the lock – but quickly stepped into the shadows at the sound of footfall on the stairs.
A Scarlet officer approached Lilian saying, “High Priest Voss denounces you as a daughter. He’s ordered that you be executed immediately.” She pleaded, “NO! This can’t be! … we were friends once!” He jibbered on, something about what a bitch she’d been and that he’d enjoy killing her. But before he could turn the lock, she jumped right at him through the bars, her entire body a cold purple fire, and just like that he fell over dead – fricken incredible! Then, fire all gone, she slipped back into the cage and told me to go. I’m not stupid. I got the hell out of there.
Time passed. I was reporting to top level officers for missions crucial to the Forsaken – and having a blast. I’d all but forgotten about Lilian when the High Executor told me I had a new ally, a young undead woman with amazing powers and a blistering hatred for the Scarlet Crusade. Sounded like Lilian, and sure as shootin’ it was.
A trail of small purple flames above the meager remains of Scarlet soldiers led me to a Crusade camp. The only soldier alive was a lieutenant, clearly tortured and near death, hanging upside down from a meat hook. Lilian stepped from behind a tree and, without so much as a howdy-do, gushed out her life story: how her father, High Priest Voss, had raised her as a weapon against the undead; how just for him she’d sacrificed her childhood studying sorcery and martial arts; and how, now that she was undead, he’d ordered her execution. The bastard!
“Come,” she said. “We will speak with him now, in his tower to the northwest.” It wasn’t as if we could just stroll in. The path to the tower was heavily guarded, but Lilian, Cholop, and I took care of them in short order, leaving behind another trail of purple flames.
I followed Lilian as she ran into the tower. She stood tall before her father, who tried to make nice. She told him to shut up and turned her purple fire on his bodyguards – poof! He got only a few words out before she grabbed him by the neck and, in a flash, ran up the wall. Purple smoke instantly filled the tower. Then his dead body fell to the floor. And she sped off down the road.
That was the last time I saw Lilian. With her awesome powers and my cunning, we’d make a fricken dynamite team. But I doubt if she ever joins us; she’s just too damn independent and a bit crazed to boot. Whatever, I received a promotion and a commendation from the High Executor for getting rid of those damn Scarlet soldiers. Now I’m off to the Plaguelands to continue the Forsaken’s quest for world dominance. Be very afraid ;-}.
DISCUSSION: IS FREE WILL AN ILLUSION?
Basically the undead are zombies with free will. As undead, the Forsaken cannot procreate; so they employ val’kyr to resurrect their dead enemies as new recruits, in this way building and replenishing their troops and agents. Yvilee was resurrected to serve as an undead agent of the Banshee Queen, Dark Lady Sylvanas. Even so, she’s told from the git-go that because she has free will she does not have to join the Forsaken. In fact, as a player I could have chosen to take Yvilee to another starting zone, like Evensong Woods or Mulgore, at least after the first few quests in Deathknell.
The Forsaken take pride in having free will. Undead characters’ freedom to choose is mentioned or alluded to a number of times. For example, at the end of the starting zone, the undead High Executor says, “From birth to undeath, we all have our own path to follow.” And he tells Yvilee, “If you’re ever ready and willing, I may have some work for you in the Plaguelands.” But is free will, as some people believe, an illusion?
Although the val’kyr Agatha tells the newly-risen Yvilee that she is free to do as she pleases, she wonders what kind of freedom she actually has; after all, she cannot return to her previous life. What kind of freedom does she have? What about Lilian Voss? Given their different circumstances and dispositions, could they each have acted other than they did? Who’s freer and in what sense, Yvilee or Lilian Voss? Or are they equally determined by conditions beyond their control? More generally, does the free will versus determinism debate even make sense today, given what we know about genetics, physics, and psychology?
To help answer these and related questions, see Casper J M Hewett’s “Determinism and Free Will in Science and Philosophy” (2006), found on The Great Debate website run by an educational group in the United Kingdom.