Monday, March 10, 2014

Learning To Listen : GW2

Story is a contentious concept for modern MMOs, what with Bioware's "fourth pillar" misstep and the coming sandbox hegemony, but never forget the Guild Wars franchise was founded on storytelling.  As GW2 slowly settles onto its foundations it's a heritage that's becoming increasingly apparent.

When the original Guild Wars game appeared it seemed quite the odd duck on the MMO pond. There were those who questioned whether it was an MMO at all. It was developed at a time when the orthodoxy was a sprawling, episodic leveling game funneling to tight, sequential narrative, accessed by set-piece raids. Everquest was the genre leader, still in a period of growth, spitting out an expansion every six months and, while what most now remember about that period was the Great Gear Escalator, at the time every expansion told a story.

By the time Guild Wars arrived in the spring of 2005, WoW was already upon us. While Blizzard vaulted over Everquest, their acknowledged inspiration, with a streamlined, accessible updating of the elder game's structures and mechanisms, ArenaNet struck out on what, at the time, seemed a distinctive and different path. Instead of traveling fifty long levels through an open world, sometimes alone, sometimes with a small group of fellow-travelers, performing services for strangers like some unholy melding of Kwai Chang Caine and The Littlest Hobo, Guild Wars characters pursued a precise and inflexible narrative through a series of instanced adventures towards a final, formal conclusion.

Several further Campaigns, as ANet named them, followed, using the same design. Unfamiliar as that approach seemed at the time, with distance it becomes clear that, like Blizzard, ANet's plan was to take what they saw working for Everquest and make it more accessible. The "Co-operative Missions" that formed the backbone of both gameplay and narrative in every Campaign from Prophecies onwards were EQ's story-raids, by that time bloated to require anything up to seventy-two players, scaled down to be manageable and accessible for a small group or even, with the help of NPCs, a single player.

Flick ahead a few years and with much trumpeting of new paradigms and redefining the genre along comes Guild Wars 2. Gone are the instances and campaigns, replaced by something that, for all the supposed innovations - dynamic events, hearts, vistas - looks remarkably similar to the MMO orthodoxy ANet supposedly subverted back in '05. Here's a big, open world to explore for eighty levels of episodic adventures. Then off you go to Orr for End Game.

Well, that didn't work. Without a gear grind for motivation the nested dynamic events in Orr didn't appeal to players the way raids did in other MMOs. Neither did the Personal Story satisfy the cravings of long-time Guild Wars fans brought up to expect deep, complex and satisfying tales and tactics. All of which brings us, at last, to The Living Story, whose first season has just arrived at its finale.

Whether it was always the fall-back plan after Orr failed or whether, as seems more likely, it came about by push-shove from player resistance born out of continual dis-satisfaction with poor rewards and ephemeral updates, a year into the Living Story we seem to have arrived at an unsteady compromise, a stylistic mash-up of Campaign-Lite storytelling re-tuned for the quasi-raid mechanics of GW2's open group ethos. Indeed, the recent retro-fitting of the Three Knights event to fix a hard cap on the size of the Zerg brings us perilously close to a formal raid setting. About the only thing missing is a Raid Frame to allow selection. Maybe that's in the works with the Commander revamp.

The hullabaloo over execution has muted discussion of the actual story of the Living Story. It'd be all too easy to let that slide. The Guild Wars franchise comes freighted with both back-story and lore enough to befuddle and stun all but the most dedicated fan. Just dipping into any one of the many threads discussing ramifications and speculating on outcomes is enough to make you feel you've arrived for an examination fatally late and terminally under-prepared.

 It's just as well, then, that there's another way in, a way that doesn't require research or preparation but just asks that you keep your eyes and ears open as you tootle around Tyria doing your own thing. Arguably (and I'm arguing it) the true strength of the Living Story narrative lies neither in what Scarlet is (or was) up to, nor which Elder Power looked back at her when she looked into the Void, nor yet what all that tells us about the future.

No, the strength of the design rests firmly on that ever-growing cast of characters the Season kept on adding right until the end, and most especially on the serendipitous approach Anet took with their individual and collective stories. While Scarlet leads the players down the main thread of the plot, all the various characters spin off in to intrigues and fancies of their own, filling in back stories, adding texture and context and sometimes opening up entirely new possibilities to puzzle.

Interviews with ANet devs frequently allude to the budgetary restraints within which they have to work so it's both surprising and heartening to see the extent to which they are still able to provide voice acting for new, non-core content. It's better voice acting, too. I've found it surprising and enlightening to discover just how powerfully immersive it can be to overhear characters you recognize talking out loud amongst themselves. Throughout the progress of the Living Story it's these snippets of overheard conversation, happened upon by chance, while busy doing something else (sorting my bags, mostly), that have firmed up my interest both in the storyline and the world.

The simple fact that these conversations can happen anywhere, often at unlikely times or in odd places, creates the impression that there is more going on than I'll ever be able to experience. There are conversations with narrative impact that only occur on a single "platform" in the Scarlet battle, for example, secure behind layers of happenstance. Good luck navigating to a specific one of those.

 It's a feeling that drives some players to distraction but it's something I prefer, almost require, before I can feel fully engaged. I do love an asynchronous narrative and here the methodology permeates the structure, going much deeper than mere eavesdropping. The characters talk out loud to each other but to us they talk in text. Every major and many a minor character can and will answer a few of your questions if you take the time and trouble to ask. Objects left lying around, like Scarlet's Journal, shed light while also casting deeper shadows. Even the descriptive text on items carries narrative charge.

Finally, the story  spins out of the game, propagating by social media, where it loses me. No matter. Those echoes still resound. There are many ways in which our MMOs are ceasing to resemble virtual worlds but in this exuberant, far-reaching abnegation of any desire to direct or compel attention I see The World re-asserting its ascendance over The Game.

Go out into that world; listen, look, savor. That's story, that is, right there.

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