Thursday, 12 December 2013

Scarlet Against The Snow : GW2

Jeromai has an excellent post up about the change of pace that comes with GW2's latest Living Story update. Ravious agrees, as do I. If only we could believe it comes from a deliberate revision of policy rather than just a felicitous gift from the holiday season.

The Living Story itself, or its "first season" at least, now has an end date. It's all laid out in this official memo. There are four more releases to come, the next not arriving until January 21st. Assuming the traditional two-week drop rate that puts the "epic finale" on March 4th 2014, meaning the inaugural story-arc that began so limply with a few dazed refugees stumbling through the Shiverpeak snows will have occupied our time for well over a year.

All discussion of the merits and methods of the Living Story process seems to have been subverted and overtaken by negative reaction to Scarlet, the storyline's hugely controversial central character and star villain. If ArenaNet set out to create someone we'd love to hate, well they got it half right.

Focusing on Scarlet's many flaws risks letting ANet off the hook for the more serious, structural problems that have sometimes tended to make playing GW2 this year an enervating activity. It's a feeling that surely underpins our sense of relief as we come into Wintersday with the prospect of six whole weeks to get stuff done before it all kicks off once more.

Much has been made of the lack of effective tools for carrying a story in the first place. The decision not just to make a questless MMO but to make the very fact that it has no quests one of its unique selling points looks ill-advised when only a few months after launch you choose to re-focus your entire game around a single, extended narrative.

A heroic effort has been made to use just about every in-game system to share the load - mail, achievements, dynamic events, incidental dialog, personal instances, cut-scenes - you name it, they've tried it. In the end the main thing all that hard work has served to do is emphasize how useful a framework the MMO quest is and why game developers created it in the first place.

Over time the handling of the tools and the way information is disseminated through them has very clearly improved. That and we've become used to to it. It feels rather like driving a beat-up old car, the door handles replaced with string, a tinny transistor radio balanced on the dashboard, the exhaust pipe patched with a Coke can; it's not pretty, it's not always comfortable but it's familiar and it gets you where you need to go.

Some parts do shine. There have been some impressive cut scenes. The team working on those should feel pretty pleased and proud with their work for the year. Indeed the visual elements have all been impressive, with the Bazaar of the Four Winds the stand-out.

Whoever does the incidental dialog deserves a bonus, too. Arguably the best part of every Living Story update has been the bit where you hang around before and after the action and listen to the characters bantering with each other.

If you want to know what's going on, some pro-active talking to NPCs on your part is advised, too. I spoke to all the actors in our current drama as they idle on the blasted heath in Kessex Hills and learned a lot. Most of it probably came up already, but in the hurly-burly of chasing achievements and trying to stay alive it's all too easy to miss a few lines of dialog. Luckily I have two accounts so if I think I've missed a key plot point I can take another run at it, but I have to notice I missed it in the first place.

I hadn't really appreciated the degree to which the three Orders, Vigil, Whispers and Priory, were now involved in the battle against Scarlet. I didn't realize Lady Kasmeer was in training as Marjory's assistant (nobility appears to operate under very different rules in Kryta). I certainly hadn't appreciated that when the Asura let Scarlet study at all three Colleges it was because they thought they were studying her.

Ah yes. In the end it all comes back to Scarlet and that is a problem. Having a central villain who elicits a first response of "FFS not her again!" is going to cause difficulties in any narrative form. ANet like to compare the Living Story to a TV series but if your audience's instinctive reaction when your main villain appears on screen is to flip to another channel you're going to struggle to keep them coming back for future episodes.

My feeling is that where Scarlet is concerned the damage has already been done. No matter how epic the finale, no matter how neatly the loose ends are tied, no matter how satisfying the conclusion, too many people just flat out can't stand her. She's unlikely to be forgiven past indiscretions just because she bows out with one hell of a fireworks show.

In any case, I'd be very surprised indeed to find the whole thing wrapped up prettily with all the bows tied. It's been a rag-tag, kick and hope affair thus far and I fully expect to go into next Spring not all that much wiser about what was going on or why it mattered.

All in all, the Living Story Season 1 has had its ups and downs. Bits of it have been fun and the bits that haven't have been easy enough to ignore.  Whatever follows it is going to need to do better. TESO launches just a month after the final episode of the Scarlet story arc. WildStar must be getting close to pressing the Go button, too. And there's a WoW expansion coming, most likely before the end of Summer. This year GW2 had things relatively easy. Next year could be tougher.

Competition is supposed to be the friend of both quality and value. Let's hope so.




13 comments:

  1. "Much has been made of the lack of effective tools for carrying a story in the first place. The decision not just to make a questless MMO but to make the very fact that it has no quests one of its unique selling points looks ill-advised when only a few months after launch you choose to re-focus your entire game around a single, extended narrative."

    I hope EQN team is studying this First Season of GW2's living story. They will try the same thing, tell a story not using quest text.

    Anyway, IMHO we can consider this first season as being an experiment. Anet saw what will work and what will not work. If they learnt something, next living story season will have more cutscenes. And a better villain, I hope.

    With relation to Scarlet, I intrigued how much hate she have and how much that hate is the same that Trehearne have. It is the same thing about Kormir, who played GW1 know what I am talking about. Not sure if Anet will finally make a story where we don't have Kormir, Trehearne and Scarlet... but I guess LOTRO will ever have the problem we will have Frodo as MC...

    Scarlet... I guess at the end she will ascend to a dragon... and she will hint that the Pale Tree is itself an elder dragon, that decided not destroy Tyria.(for now?). I am curious about how the story will end.

    With relation to competition, sorry to say it, but TESO will be a huge deception and Wildstar will, sooner or later, move to be a F2P/B2P game. GW2 will finally enter the chinese market... and that willl more than double the number of GW2 players... Just look how many players that other NCSOFT mmo have in the chinese market, yes that one that have no date for have a western launch... Not sure when NCSOFT will permit GW2 enter the korean market too, but when it happens it will be more 1 million players.

    The only real competition GW2 will have will be with EQN launch. And everyone need note how much EQN is like GW2, but with better tools. The same features are there, horizontal advancement, no quests, no holy trinity, similar combat system (8 keys), dynamic events, but with a better AI and voxels.

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    1. Can you ascend to a dragon? Is that how dragons are made? I actually have no idea where dragons come from in Tyrian lore...

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  2. Re: Quests. You know, I appreciate Anet's effort in getting rid of "quests," and pushing dynamic events and things that happen in the open world. Didn't work out too well though. Too many design issues in terms of narrative. And now they're back to instances and quest-like achievements (which aren't a bad replacement, mind you.)

    RE: Scarlet. Though people may hate her, I highly doubt very many people would "flip the channel." If they do so, they had problems with the game beyond Scarlet. Heck, if there's anything I learned from reading internet raging over the years, is that those who rage the hardest are the ones who stick with the game the longest.

    And then give it a few years and nostalgia will cloud everything anyways. Look at people who speak lovingly of Prophecies' storyline and criticize the Personal Story. Rurik was as hated back in the day as much as Traherne is now, and the same criticism about how segmented the story felt applies to both games.

    -Ursan

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    1. I flipped the channel by going to WvW instead of following the Living Story. Of course that had a lot more to do with not wanting to do Fractals and Dungeons than with hatred of Scarlet, who I actually find quite amusing, if ridiculous.

      And yes, nostalgia trumps all. On the other hand, I played Prophecies just after release and I clearly remember it as a Love/Hate relationship with Rurik. I did want to help him, I just wanted him to slow down a bit and stop being such a hot-head. I was quite shocked when he died and it did motivate me to carry on to finish what he'd started. That's a big part of why we are on Yak's Bend - that part of the story had about as big an impact on me as pretty much anything in a video game storyline ever has (which, to be fair, isn't saying all that much).

      I'd be very surprised if I ever end up feeling that way about anything Scarlet was involved in. Still, let's wait and see how it ends. I'd love to be proved wrong on that.

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    2. I don't think it's just nostalgia. I meant to do an analysis of the story arcs of GW1 as compared to the GW2 Living Story, but just haven't found the time for sufficient research and laying it all out yet.

      The key difference, I feel, is in the ups and downs, success and failures. In GW1, there was a very masterful hand at work giving you a victory here, then a failure/treachery/something crappy happens there. (Win temporarily against Charr? Prince Rurik dies. Get to Kryta and help out the White Mantle? Turns out misguided in the long run.)

      That builds suspense and interest that leads to a climax. Basic building blocks of writing, really. The villain is a real threat.

      In GW2, it's a TV series where the protagonists are 100% safe at all times and failure or setbacks never seem to happen. Action movie threat-of-the-week strikes each episode and is defeated! The super-villain becomes comical, and moreover ridiculous if they don't ever acknowledge they're defeated.

      It may want to be an arc, but it hasn't been showing off any proper structure. Barely any continuity, no ups-and-downs, not centered around our characters as protagonists, anything potentially significant happening behind the scenes, and so on.

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    3. Do you not count the mentor figure dying on Claw island a failure? It's very touching moment, as the love spread around for Tybalt and Sieren shows.

      Personally, I don't compare GW2's Living Story to GW1's Missions. I compare it to the Personal Story instead. Much more similarly structured.

      If anything, the Living Story should be compared with the whole Winds of Change stuff (forever bummed at its discontinuation...).

      -Ursan

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    4. @Jeromai The points about how really similar it is to an ongoing TV series are very well made.

      @Ursan Tybalt's death was mildly moving, but I thought that owed a lot more to the relatively competent voice acting that character benefited from than any particular skill in the writing.

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    5. The Personal Story, especially the earlier non-Orr parts, does have proper story structure, yes. I believe those were primarily planned by Jeff Grubb and Ree Soesbee?

      They feel distinctly different from the Living Story story arc, which seems to be primarily by Scott and Angel, I think (I forget their surnames offhand.)

      I compare the Living Story to the GW1 story missions because both big stories are meant to be the meat and potatoes of the game, the carriers of lore to the masses.

      Nothing would make me happier to have more Personal Story storylines pop up in GW2, but all the past year's development suggests that they're not touching it with a ten foot pole.

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  3. I totally agree with the premise that if Scarlet had been an Asura, everyone would've loved her. =P

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    1. I think she's really an Asura inside a state-of-the art Golem running in Sylvari Camouflage Mode.

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  4. I think I agree that Scarlet herself isn't make or break. I can't really stand her -- I'm not a big fan of "Harley Quinn" from the Batman stories either. But if I was still invested in GW2, if the gameplay was still fun for me, I'd just say that she wasn't to taste, but overall things are fine.

    The real thing that has taken my playtime down from "constant" to "only when a friend needs help with some content" (about once a month, for maybe two hours) are the game changes. I was one of those that really liked the game as it launched. I was one of those that stood about and watched the dynamic events chain into one another, that liked hearts, that felt the personal story was fine, if somewhat constrained.

    The one statement that I felt, very strongly, in that first few weeks was that "you can just run out and play." Go over here and do this, then if something catches your eye go do that. The spontaneous group formation that came and went as we came and went. The self-directed gameplay.

    Since then, we've moved into linear questing. Dungeons with heavily scripted fights. Tons of twitch heavy mechanics. Daily homework. Plenty of dodge or die mechanics. Frequent "zerg" events. And massive gear grinds.

    Even if I liked her, I don't think Scarlet could keep me involved. I don't think I can blame ArenaNet for doing this. Watching the players spontaneously produce a zerg that just ran between two points, over and over again for two straight weeks during SouthSun II really shows that that is the sort of gameplay that many want. Changing the game to meet the demand isn't crazy at all.

    But it isn't to my taste, and no living story, even if I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, can help that. Having the living story be something I don't like doesn't change anything.

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    1. It seems as though not enough people really wanted that new vision for MMOs. Like you, I was more than happy for it to carry on along the road laid out pre-launch but it took just a few weeks for the wheels to begin to wobble on that particular bandwagon.

      The problem with zergs (and I speak as someone who thoroughly enjoys zerg play) is that they are so OBVIOUS. It looks as though that must be what everyone wants because you see huge gangs of players rushing about doing it, but really, what percentage of the people playing at any given time do those zergs actually represent?

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  5. I think the hate for Scarlet comes from the fact that if MMORPG players believe something ripoff they will bash it (look at people bashed the Pandas from WoW as a ripoff Kung Fu Panda even though there has been a Pandarian Brewmaster for ages in WC3).

    So while everyone is bashing Scarlet for being "Harley Quinn" (1992 character) and feeling indignant to such poor try by Anet on fooling its players, I'm all enjoying Scarlet voice acting because it reminds me of the excellent "Queen Elizabeth I" character played by Miranda Richardson from the superb Black-Adder II http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088484/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2 from 1986.

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