The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
The origins of the Shadowlands remain uncertain, but they have existed ever since mortal life first arose in the physical universe. They span all worlds, including Azeroth, on which Icecrown serves as an anchor to the Shadowlands. There are those who believe mortal souls are drawn into this dark place when they die, remaining there forever. Others hope their souls will go on to a brighter place rather than languish for eternity within the cold confines of the Shadowlands.
This skips all the content before the previous expansion to give players the most modern experience from a quest design POV (and to make sure the players are connected with the current storylines). It also ensures new players have a shorter leveling ramp—Blizzard says it will be as much as 70% shorter than it is currently to get from level one to the cap.
It's hard to get a sense of an entire World of Warcraft expansion from 30 minutes of play. In my short demo, I recreated my main (a Beast Mastery Hunter) and played through the introductory quests from the Bastion zone, a heaven-like plane from Azeroth's afterlife. The minute-to-minute gameplay very much followed the formula of modern WoW questing, with a variety of tasks like challenging specific enemies to duels, helping craft things in timed minigames, and of course, killing 10 rats (well, not rats, but they might as well be).
The final destination of the spirits of the deceased remains a mystery to the priests and philosophers of Azeroth. However, as spells such as [Resurrection] can reunite a dead body with its spirit, and a majority of living creatures from the tauren to the troll shadow hunters claim they can communicate with and call upon the power of the spirits, a widely held belief is that the spirits of the dead remain on the Material Plane — in an immaterial state that can only be altered or contacted through the use of magic.
This section contains information that needs to be cleaned up. Reason: The death knight realm has already been confirmed to be the Shadowlands. Sylvanas committing suicide from ICC in EoN has already been connected to the Shadowlands. Reword still unclear things, move confirmed things to the main section of the page or remove them entirely if they are already incorporated there.
Frankly, the aspect of Shadowlands I'm most excited about is an overhaul of the leveling system—something that wasn't a part of this demo in a major way. This kind of breaks the rules of a hands-on article, but I want to take an opportunity to talk about it and why I think it's interesting, regardless, since it came up in my interview with WoW developers.
The experience curve is adjusted to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they'll be able* to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it's easy to try a zone you've never played.