Updated Tue, Nov 01, 2011 by Saia
Pandas have been a part of Azerothian lore for a long time, especially when it came to April Fool's jokes. They have delivered pizza and lurked - albeit unseen - in Stonetalon Mountains where neither Alliance nor Horde could find them. Yet this year, after joking speculation for many a BlizzCon, Blizzard finally revealed that, yes, we would finally be able to play as the mysterious Pandaren and visit their fabled island paradise, Pandaria, in the next World of Warcraft expansion.
The lore already present tells of a mysterious race with a prowess in martial arts and a love of good beer. They are explorers and nomads who have appeared in Warcraft III, albeit in a more fierce, less civilised and joke form. But from a lore perspective, we met Chen Stormstout for the first time as he crossed paths with Rexxor and watched events become lore and legend but where did these cute but deadly creatures come from?
Pandaren - or at least the final syllable - has its origins in Chinese and means ‘person’. So they literally are panda-people. They were conceived by Level 90 ETC frontman and long-time Blizzard artist Samwise Didier after his daughter was born. They were then used in 2003 as one of Blizzard’s most memorable April Fool’s jokes where they were introduced as the fifth race of Warcraft III. They later appeared in 2005 Pandaren Xpress stunt where a panda-sized GM would take your order. Of course, let’s not forget the Pandaren Monk non-combat pet which has kung-fued it’s way into our hearts.
Once a joke, this race is now a reality.
These beer-drinking warriors might have started out as a joke but they have actually played important roles in WoW lore. In the Northrend tileset, Chen Stormstout aided Illidan in his quest to destroy the Frozen Throne. They also appeared in a more brutal form as Garithos' guard to stop the forces of Lady Vashj and Kael'thas Sunstrider from escaping back to outland via the Dalaran portal. But despite seeming to help the Horde or just half-demons, the Pandaren themselves are a neutral faction who will befriend almost anyone. And, while they might not have actually appeared in WoW, the hints have been there for quite some time and Chen certainly leaves a lot of empty kegs in his wake!
Player response to the Pandaren has always been mixed. They were something to chuckle at or the race that furries were waiting for. As a collective, we’ve been asking for them for years and this BlizzCon, that wish was finally answered. Interestingly though, Chris Metzen let slip during a DirecTV interview after the announcement of Mists of Pandaria that they were originally going to be the Alliance race in The Burning Crusade. Suddenly that April Fool’s Joke from so long ago has been expanded and integrated into current WoW lore. It’s no longer fiction but WoW fact and it’s also a chance to really turn Azeroth upside down as the Pandaren themselves will be playable by both Horde and Alliance.
While this year's expansion announcement caught many of us - including me - off-guard. This is a great opportunity to explore more about a culture with very different ideals to those of either the Horde or Alliance. While cute and fluffy, the Pandaren are not beings we should mock (at least to their faces) and whether we like it or not, they're not just a joke but an established part of the lore of Azeroth and than's not going to change any time soon. Besides, it's not like their the first anthropomorphised race we've had the option to play: just look at the Tauren and the Worgen and neither of them are the butt of so many jokes.
Pandaria, with it's rich and lush setting, presents us with a totally new environment and the Pandaren themselves represent a middle way through Azeroth. They're a peaceful people who fight when they must and, as a result, can teach quite a few things to the warring Horde and Alliance. Their inclusion is a fantastic way to plum new depths when it comes to both the interaction between the two factions but also how they will deal with the resources at the Pandaren's command.
So now we know what is coming and how Blizzard is going to try to revitalise the game by really going off-piste, it’s time to decide: should the Pandaren have made the jump from joke to reality? Were they better off as the stuff of annual amusement or do they play an important part in the lore which needs to be explored? Let us know in the comments below.