Saturday, May 11, 2019

Not The End: Guild Wars 2

A few things came up this week around Guild Wars 2, which I am barely playing right now. There was the trailer for the final chapter of the current Living World season, for one.

The promotional trailers ArenaNet create for GW2 vary wildly in both style and quality. This is one of the moody, elegiac ones, a tone poem of sorts. It's not up there with the best they've ever done but it's not at all bad.

The first three characters you see, not co-incidentally I imagine, are Caithe, Zafirah and Rytlock. That's the same line-up that features in the Requiem series of vignettes that followed the previous chapter, All or Nothing.

I'd forgotten about the Requiem stories. I read the first, Rytlock's, when it was published a while back. I didn't like it much. It seemed an awkward retcon of my favorite GW2 character, struggling to turn the cynical, confident Charr warrior into some kind of 90s "New Man" throwback. Uncomfortable and unconvincing.

This morning I read the second and third tales. I'd forgotten who Zafirah was. She's the Deadeye people complained about in the fourth chapter, A Star to Guide Us. Her Requiem read a lot better than Rytlock's.

Caithe's, the last, was published this week. I read that and thought it was the best of all of them. Then I re-read Rytlock's. I still don't like it. I don't like the direction it tries to send the character and I think it's the clumsiest of the three, but in context I understand what it's trying to do; what all the Requiem pieces are doing. They're giving the narrative the context it so badly needs, something it never even comes close to finding within the game itself.

Asmiroth posted recently about Plot vs Character. Most popular fiction that purports to have any lasting value whatsoever cannot afford that false dichotomy. Character is plot is character. That's so ingrained in serial media like comics, tv and prose fiction we barely notice.

It doesn't work so well in MMORPGs. The cadence is far too slow. The delivery mechanisms are incoherent and obstructive. There's far, far too much distraction going on for anyone to concentrate on nuance or subtext.

My feeling about GW2's extended narrative is that it wouldn't work at all without the ramshackle superstructure that supports it from outside the game itself. The good trailers pack more of an emotional impact than the gaming content they promote. The novels, perfunctory and workmanlike as they are, still operate at depths and across breadths the etiolated in-game arcs lack.

The Requiem fragments point up the discrepancy to an almost embarrassing extent. Reading Caithe's memoir today I felt I'd learned more about her in a few minutes than in several years of watching her often incomprehensible actions within the game.

I might not like what the writer is trying to do with Rytlock in his introspective reflections but at no point to do I fail to understand it. That's something I couldn't say about almost anything Rytlock's ever done in the game itself.

There was one other item of note this week. ArenaNet announced there would be a new voice actor for the female Charr player character. In a game where player characters express themselves out loud, that's a non-trivial change to the experience for anyone who plays that race and gender combo.

I have several female Charrs but I don't usually do Living World content with any of them. Hearing Mara Junot's vocalization, I might start. I found the short interview very revealing about the process and she impressed me with her take on what it means to be a voiceover specialist.

What the video emphasizes, perhaps more srongly than ANet might realize, is just how important voice acting is in keeping the narrative afloat. GW2 has good voicework, by and large. Together with the equally-reliable musical direction, sound does almost all of the heavy lifting when it comes to telling the story.

ArenaNet's art department is rightly regarded as one of the strongest in the genre but few of those artists strengths are best displayed in the service of story. In most Living World chapters the Player Character either fights (and all fights look much the same) or stands around and listens.

The stunning backdrops of Glint's Lair or the Durmand Priory make for amazing screenshots but they do very little to carry the narrative forward. The art department shine in the new maps but few of those have narrative significance, being remembered, if anything, for the productivity of the farms they intentionally or accidentally encourage.

As I said at the top, I'm not playing much GW2 right now. Yesterday I logged in, did my dailies on three accounts then logged out. I'm down to doing that every few days, if I remember. Even when I was logging in every day I barely did anything more for months.

The prospect of a new Living World chapter does not encourage me to believe that's likely to change. It's been a while since I was excited about another installment. When I was playing regularly and enjoying it, I tended to think of the Living World as a slightly annoying interruption to normal business. Of late I've begun to see it as a bloody nuisance.

It's not that I've lost interest in the plot. I still want to know what happens next. Nor is it that I've fallen out of love with the characters. I'm still very fond of Rytlock and Taimi and increasingly interested in Caithe. And I really want to know what's happened to Zojja.

I'm just beginning to think I'd get all of that and more just from watching edited highlights of the in-game material on YouTube and reading all the ancillary material. I'm not sure what I gain by grinding through the mostly tedious, occasionally deeply annoying, combat.

Of course, I'll end up doing it anyway, just because it's there, but it really is a terrible way to try and tell a story, not just for GW2 but for MMORPGs in general. It barely works in Star Wars: The Old Republic, where it's the entire focus of the game. BioWare had to hide (or remove) the rest of the gameplay to accommodate it.

That last line in the trailer, though. They do know how to set a hook...


  1. Heh, listening to that Mara Junot interview I kept thinking that I knew her voice from somewhere but I couldn't quite place it. A quick Google search later I found out that she voices the leader of the Iliyanbruen elves in Neverwinter - who doesn't do much but hands out some daily quests, so it's no wonder her voice sounded familiar after working my way through the Sharandar campaign umpteen times!

    Playing SWTOR has increased my appreciation for and awareness of voice actors a lot. It's really amazing when a skilled one can voice two characters having a conversation with each other and you don't even notice that it's the same person doing the talking.

    It can be distracting too though, if their voices are too recognisable and they are being used to voice too many generic characters. For example Kari Wahlgren, who voices the female Jedi knight character in SWTOR, also did a crazy amount of voices for otherwise undistinguished NPCs in ESO, so questing my way through the zones there recently I couldn't help but think "oh, there's Kari again" every time I heard her voice...

    1. I was reading a series of episode by episode reviews of Supergirl the other day (because I'd finished the third season and the fourth isn't out on DVD yet and I was jonesing) and the reviewer picked up on several occasions where a scene was set against a non-diagetic song. They were seeing this as an admission by the programme-makers that the writing wasn't strong enough to stand on its own, needing to be bolstered up emotionally by the power of music.

      I hadn't thought that for one moment when I watched any of those scenes. I'd felt the music was integral to the mood. Once the idea had beenput into my mind, though, I was less sure. I find myself feeling like that about voiceover in MMORPGs quite often these days. Voice acting used to be so awful that it would never have been an issue but now it can sometimes be the stand-out element of the entire scene.

      It's obviously not that you want the voice actors to be less good than they could be but if they're going to turn in performances that are noticeably above the quality of the visuals and even the writing then it could be counter-productive. We aren't there yet but we're closer than we were a few years back.


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