When writing about Thersa a few days ago and discussing the emotional impact her character has on players with Anea, I did some thinking about which, if any, quests had a similarly powerful effect on me. I'll be honest - I don't usually attach genuine emotion to NPCs very often. Maybe it's because I did so many Forsaken quests while "growing up," but sad events or quests generally roll off my back. I might take a moment and think "Ooh, that sucks" or more commonly, admire some nice bit of storytelling, but events like Thersa's demise don't really stick. And if it's an Alliance race who suffers? Well...I have to admit that sometimes I enjoy murdering those Forsaken prisoners with poisoned pumpkins and lethal lagers. /shrug
But one simple, short questline in Zul'Drak completely floored me when I first experienced it - the story of Gerk. He didn't save my life, he didn't give me some fearsome anti-Scourge weapon, nothing like that. But he remains one of the most heroic NPC's I have encountered in the game.
You first hear of him in the quest That's What Friends Are For, when Crusader MacKellar sends you to find three lost paladins - Dargath, and two twin dwarf brothers, Gerk and Burr.
Now let me make one thing clear - I find paladins in WoW extremely generic. Kind of foolish, somewhat overzealous, arrogant, always blabbing about the Light This, the Light That...they all sound the same to me and come across extremely bland. Even an intense quest like trying to save Bridenbrad is meh. It's a sad quest, sure, but name something about Bridenbrad that's different than any other paladin. They're brave and heroic and all that, they're just...all the same.
When you find Gerk, he's trapped in some vile vat of green goo - never a good sign. Sure enough, not only is he dying, but in the worst possible way. He watched his friend get killed, was forced to watch his twin brother get dissected on a table like a laboratory experiment, and now he's slowly, inexorably being turned into an undead abomination...something that to a member of the Argent Crusade, must be the most torturous, horrible fate imaginable. It's a horrifying story, honestly.
Angry and grieving, poor Gerk asks you to carry out his vengeance for him, one last spit in the face of the Scourge. This is hardly groundbreaking; it's simply a Kill X Creatures quest. And Gerk certainly has cause to seek a little payback before he dies. We've even had similar quests before where the quest-giver is dying (or even dead!) and we go turn in the quest to their friend or boss, who thanks/rewards you. Thanks for avenging my husband, thanks for discovering their fate, etc.
But when you return to Gerk, the first line in his response is not spoken, but a simple stated observation.
<Gerk is dying.>
This stopped me in my tracks. This brave, unremarkable dwarf, who'd lost everything and was doomed to a horribly bitter fate, was dying in a scourge vat of poison in the middle of a diseased, twisted undead land, with no friends or family around.
I couldn't just take my XP and gold and run off to go continue questing, leaving him to face his fate alone. I had to listen. I was the only one who could.
(I was genuinely shocked at how strongly I felt about this.)
Now, I expected a certain type of reaction from Gerk. Something along the lines of "Thanks for avenging us, now our spirits can rest easy." or "Serves those bastards right!" or maybe even "Gerk has died, but a satisfied smile is on his face, and he seems at peace." Small displays of satisfaction such as these make us feel all warm inside, even if the quest giver is still screwed over or dying, because it's a sense of closure. No matter what happens now, they have their justice - they can die happy. They got to go out fighting.
However, Gerk surprised me.
Th... They say these Vargul are the... the ones that weren't found worthy by the Lich King. Can... Can you im... imagine it? Just th... think how powerful the... the... worthy must be...
He's not interested in revenge, not really. He doesn't even mention the Vargul you've just slain on his behalf. Maybe he felt he had to avenge his fallen friends. Instead, he sadly reflects on how scary it is that there are even stronger undead out there...that as powerful as you are, the Scourge is simply overwhelming. You can tell that even though he's moments from death, and is resigned to his fate, he is completely shaken and terrified at the idea.
The helplessness in his words, emphasized by his literal helpless state, is tremendously depressing. But then with his dying breath, he expresses not bitterness, not hatred...but concern. Not for his Argent Crusade buddies, not for the Alliance...but for YOU.
I'll say a prayer for you in the hereafter, hero... May you never have to face them in number.
Despite his awful, cruel fate, despite the fact that he's about to perish and become a wretched monster, his final wish is that you remain safe...that you don't meet a fate such as his.
I gawked at the screen. It was heart-wrenching. But there was nothing I could do. There was no alternative, no follow-up quest where I could go find a cure. All I could do was be there for his final moments.
And then he died.
I stood there for a few minutes in shock, aghast and overwhelmed. I forgot that I was playing a game for a minute, and tried to click around Gerk's vat, looking for a release catch or drain that would at least free his corpse. I intensely wished that this was D&D, where I could do any number of things to free him and lay him to rest. Instead, I was appalled at the helplessness of the situation - that I couldn't save him, couldn't bury him, couldn't do ANYTHING. I spent a few minutes traveling around the area decimating every scourge I could find, but it didn't make me feel any better.
What really struck me about Gerk's final dialogue is that you can tell Gerk wasn't some uppity, holier-than-thou paladin who laughed in the face of death, happy to uselessly throw his life away for a righteous cause. He wasn't some moronic idiot out to die a grand death and become a hero. He was just a normal dwarf. A dwarf who did his best and died heroically. Even though he didn't actually express gratitude in words for being there as he died, I think you can sense he appreciated it.
I went back to Crusader MacKellar to tell him about Gerk's fate. His response:
"It was a great sacrifice that those three made and it won't soon be forgotten. Their passing will not be in vain. We will be victorious!"
And that was it. No sense of loss. No appreciation. No pledge to go find their bodies and lay them to rest, or honor them as heroes, even though Gerk, Dargath and Burr saved his life. Nothing except self-righteous delusions of majestic, noble victory.
Go die in a fire, MacKellar. You insensitive, stupid jerk. You weren't there. You didn't witness poor Gerk's final moments, see his emotional (and likely physical) agony. There was nothing glorious about his death. Freaking paladins.
It's been many months since then. Only Sindragosa still stands in my guild's way before we face the Lich King himself. Maybe it won't be this week, or the next, or even the one after that, but eventually we'll defeat him.
There has been many fallen heroes in the course of Arthas' reign. Uther the Lightbringer, Bolvar Fordragon, Dranosh Saurfang...the list goes on and on. But when Rades finally stands over Arthas' corpse, when Frostmourne lays shattered on the icy ground before me, I'm going to spend a moment remembering a simple quest giver who was compassionate enough to pray for ME, for MY safety, even as he died a terrible death. I may not say it aloud, as I'm sure we'll be listening to Fordring give some long-winded speech, but I'll definitely be thinking one thing:
This is for you, Gerk.
(Note: there is now a follow up to this post.)