Thursday, September 5, 2013

Guild Wars 2 - On Personal and Living Stories

I touched on this briefly at the beginning of my series on the Living Story, but I think it's worthy of a post in and of itself.  +Jonathan Doyle posted a good-sized ramble the other day expressing his discontent with the story so far in Guild Wars 2, and in particular his character's role in it.  So this is partially a response to that discussion, and in part more of a general commentary on MMO's and player's roles within them.

You're just one of the General's army
You're Not the Hero
A good part of Mr. Doyle's dissatisfaction comes from the role your character plays in the personal story, which ultimately has your character in the role of 2nd Lieutenant 3rd Class in the army against Zhaitan, which is led by sylvari scholar-turned-general Trahearne, embarked upon his own Great Hunt.  Now, he's certainly not alone in his dislike of Trahearne.  In fact, Trahearne is, in my experience, one of the most universally reviled heroes that is the center of a story as I've seen in recent experience.  And this is certainly something ArenaNet has heard (from everyone).

But if you take a step back, you'll see that this is nothing new - especially where ArenaNet is involved, but for the most part is the case with the lore of most MMOs in general.  It pretty much has to be, because it is the only way for MMO developer's to develop a cohesive canon.  Your character can be of any number of races, either sex, from a variety of backgrounds, and have whatever funky name you so desire to give it. So it is of course, impossible, when describing the lore of the world, to talk about your character's role in it explicitly.  At best, there might be some mention of a nameless hero, or a group of heroes in the annals of that world's history, but for the most part it is the actions of the NPC's your character does all the leg work for that are recorded in history.

Nightfall was all about one hero. It wasn't you.
This was certainly the case in Guild Wars 1.  In Nightfall, the story is not about you at all - it's the story of Kormyr and her Sunspears, and her fight to recognize (and ultimately defeat) the return of the elder god Abaddon.  Never mind it was you and your party that actually defeated Abaddon.  Kormyr ascends to godhood for her part, while your role in the activities fades into oblivion.  Factions was the story of Master Togo, and the return of Shiro Tagachi. Eye of the North is about the heroes that you assembled to fight the Destroyers, and the workings of a pair of star-crossed lovers, Gwen and Kieran Thackery.   And if you look at other MMO's, you'll find this to be the case as well.  Even in City of Heroes, it's not your hero that saves the day.  No, it is the Heroes of Paragon City that save the world.  You're just one of a number.  The only heroes that will be remembered from the stories of that world will be Statesman, Sister Psyche, Positron, and the other members of the Freedom Phalanx.

Now, a great deal has been said, and I absolutely agree, about the somewhat heavy handed way in which this was handled in Guild Wars 2's personal story.  By creating a story in which you are second in command in the army that marches against Zhaitan, the writers were essentially beating you about the head and shoulders with the knowledge that this story wasn't about you.  You're not in charge.  Regardless of the fact that it's you that is doing all the real work - again.  To this I say - Yap, couldn't agree more.  My only take from this is that I know the developers have heard long and clear the discontent the players had over that aspect of the story, and won't be structuring any more stories in such a fashion.  But be that as it may, it is the nature of the beast that your hero will always be of the unsung variety.

On The Living Story
In The Living Story, ArenaNet has changed the tact of their storytelling.  The player is still not the center of the action, but now they are cast more in a role that makes more sense in the context of the world - that of one of a number of heroes/adventurers that have to thwart the plans of evildoers.  Events are taking place in the world.  Alliances are being created (of the Molten variety), invasions are occurring, villains (Aetherites) are making their plans known, and allies (Zepherytes) appearing from unlikely locations.  And working together with other adventurers, the player is still saving the world, they're just being acknowledged in the role that they play - one of the many.  Queen Jennah's Message even goes so far as the explicitly thank the players for their role in thwarting the plans of Scarlet Briar.  This is absolutely a letter from the writers of the story to the players.  And they're saying straight up: We recognize the nature of the player character in our world.  And we're building content that can, at last, recognize the role in which the players as a whole have to play, if not the individual.
And while the introduction of Scarlet Briar certainly seemed someone - sudden, there have indeed been references in a number of places that someone has been pulling the strings behind these most recent incidents.  And while I agree these references are subtle, (and we're not even sure that it's Scarlet) I do think it speaks to the fact that there is an underlying narrative at work here, and it is being revealed along the way, even if it's not entirely clear up front what it is.

Not for Everyone, but it Works for Me
In the end, of course, it really boils down to a matter of taste, and what works for me isn't going to work for everyone.  I definitely think ArenaNet didn't deliver as good of a narrative in the personal story as they could have - though I actually quite like the first parts of the various personal stories.  And within the personal story, we have some remarkably well-written and likeable characters.  Sadly they are all mostly killed off by the end of the story.  And I agree it took them quite a while (about 4 months actually) to find their feet with the Living Story.  But I really feel like in the past few content releases it has definitely picked up steam, and I love where it's going.  I personally don't give one whit about Moto and his fun box, but that's okay, because I suspect we'll be back into the more pertinent story in the releases to come, and it gives me time to work on my crafting!

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