Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oh, Hey! Destiny's Edge! Didn't You Guys Used To Be Famous Or Something? : GW2

I had something of a GW2 epiphany this week. I was reading the Edge of Destiny novel and  suddenly I understood just why so many players really hated Season One of The Living Story.

Sure, it was episodic and fractured and all over the place, I knew that. Sure, Scarlet was a deeply unconvincing villain and the plot, in so far as there was one, made no sense at all. I got all that, even as we were playing through, but none of it particularly bothered me at the time. It was like the buffet at a wedding - you pick out the bits you like and leave the rest, don't you? And if that turns out to be most of it, well, it doesn't really matter because the food's hardly the reason you came, right?

Well, maybe. There's another way to look at it, though  Try turning that analogy on its head. It seems some people hadn't come expecting a big, flashy wedding at all. They'd come for a satisfying meal with some old friends and that hastily thrown-together buffet left a lot of them feeling very hungry. I was a bit puzzled by that but now I think I understand.

Edge of Destiny isn't great literature. It's not even great genre literature. It's fluent and professional but somewhat perfunctory, something Ravious picked up on in the review he posted back when the book came out, some two years before GW2 . Despite being over 300 pages long it often feels more like reading notes for a novel than the novel itself. In part  that's down to the minimalist prose style, which uses a lot of short, declarative sentences and one-line paragraphs, but mostly it's because of the vast number of fight scenes. Detailed descriptions of fights and battles probably make up almost two-thirds of the word count.

Nevertheless it zips along. I've read a lot worse. If I'd never played GW2 I'd probably still have finished reading it. Of course, if I'd never played GW2 I would never have started reading it in the first place. Edge of Destiny exists only as an adjunct to the game. Nothing unusual about that. Lots of successful enterprises in many forms of entertainment have spin-offs in other formats. That's fine.

It's fine, but it's not what's happening here. Not all of it by a long way. Having read the thing at last, I'd say that far from being just a bit of ancillary fluff or deep background for lore obsessives, a reading of Edge of Destiny is pretty much required if you hope to engage emotionally with the whole Elder Dragon storyline. They should have included the eBook with the game purchase. It's that essential.

MMOs always have an awkward, difficult, relationship with narrative but GW2 is even more problematic in that regard than most. For a start there's the vast iceberg of the original Guild Wars looming ominously below the surface. GW1 was a narrative-driven rpg that over many years produced several lengthy campaigns and a number of smaller expansions. The plots, characters and stories of many of these feed directly into the lore and storyline of GW2.

GW2, then, does not come clean to the table and neither do its players. Depending on their previous level of involvement with the franchise they will have highly varying degrees of both pre-existing emotional commitment and knowledge and understanding of the ongoing story and the world in which it takes place. But it doesn't end there.

ArenaNet chose to use a highly divisive Personal Story format, in which not only does each of the five races get served a different piece of the narrative cake but the slice they get is divided at least twice more, first according to the somewhat arbitrary and uninformed choices the player was forced to take at character creation and then again depending on his or her choice of Order in the game. Although everyone comes back together for the bulk of the storyline, a player's understanding of what is going on, why and what it all means will necessarily be highly colored by that point, depending on her race and the choices she has made.

As well as reading the novel this week I also played through the Asuran Personal Story as far as Lion's Arch for the first time. I've never been an admirer of the Personal Story in GW2 but I have run through variants of both the Human and Charr versions up to Claw Island. Neither of those runs told me much of specific relevance to the overarching Elder Dragon narrative that forms the spine of the entire game, or at least nothing I remember.

In contrast, the Asura personal storyline (College of Statics version) confronts that narrative head on. The whole "elder dragons are waking up and eating all our magic" thing is directly addressed and examined, along with the ongoing issues of governmental cover-ups and subterfuge that seeks to keep this information from the public. For the first time I didn't just feel I understood what was going on but also why we, as players, were involved with the Orders and why those Orders were necessary.

So, we already have a narrative structure in which it is entirely possible to play several characters to the level cap and complete their personal stories and yet still have no clear idea of what it was all about. Unless we assume everyone will play all variations, that's not ideal. Unsurprisingly, many, many players complained on completing the Personal Story that it felt hollow and they felt emotionally disconnected.

Much of the blame was placed on the deeply unpopular Trahearne and the anticlimactic Zhaitan "fight" but there's also a soggy hole right at the center with the supposed "getting the band back together" sequence in Lion's Arch. Just who were these people and why should I care? My character might be understood to know and be awed by these Tyrian celebrities but as a player my only real knowledge of their history came from the three children playing "Destiny's Edge" in the plaza as I arrived.

For all its faults as a novel, Edge of Destiny succeeds admirably in introducing the reader to several eminently likeable and well-drawn characters. For that reason alone, for those who came to GW2 having read the book, meeting Eir, Rytlock, Caithe, Zojja and Logan in game would inevitably offer a greatly increased potential to achieve significant emotional impact. I had seen that sequence several times before but this time, reaching that stage of the Personal Story just a few hours after living through the downbeat, depressing ending of the novel, watching them bicker, argue, trade recriminations and finally stalk off across the Plaza in different directions came freighted with a whole, new, powerful set of resonances.

Partly it's that I feel I know these people now, in that way all readers feel they "know" characters in books they have read, a mental trick that prose finds much easier to achieve than almost any other narrative form. Partly it's that I understand, in detail, what they achieved, what they failed to achieve and what that failure cost. My pleasure and interest in GW2's storyline has been immensely enhanced as a result of reading the novel and that's a problem.

MMOs already suffer badly from portmanteauism. They have no through-line. They exist as an often disparate, even conflicting, congregate of parts that, we hope, somehow contrive to form a  greater whole. There are many voices raised against the wisdom of including narrative in the genre at all. To hold significant elements outwith the game itself seems almost reckless and yet it seems to be the trend. Just this week SOE released the latest of their series of EQNext "Lore Books". I haven't bothered with any of these in the past; now I feel I probably should, although I imagine I have plenty of time to get around to doing that.

Reading is dangerous. It gives people ideas.
In a way, though, I'm quite glad I waited until two years after launch before I thought to read Edge of Destiny. Yes, I missed out on a deal of emotional weight that the game might have had for me until now and yes I'd have had a significantly better understanding of what was going on around me. On the other hand I saved myself a lot of what I now see as entirely justified anger and frustration over the year and a half that ANet spent fiddle-faddling around with a bunch of annoying second-string characters and an aggravating Mary Sue villain instead of just getting on with the real story. I was able to take Rox, Braham and the rest at face value and get to know them without strongly wishing they were someone else.

I was lucky. I had just enough GW1 background to get by on the lore and more than enough residual affection for the franchise to give the new game a pass when it needed one. At the same time I wasn't drenched in the world and all its trappings to the point where everything that didn't feel "just so" jarred.

GW2 sold a lot of boxes and a lot of them went to people who didn't know GW1 or Edge of Destiny from a hole in the ground. The Personal Story didn't seem to grab many of those people and neither did the big, out-of-narrative, one-time, dynamic open world events. Meanwhile the established franchise fans who knew all the lore and had read and played all the things weren't happy either.

ANet made several attempts to appease the uncommitted with varying degrees of success but in the end the difference is this: disgruntled fans stick around. They kvetch and complain and make everyone feel uncomfortable but it takes a lot more than a few badly-implemented game mechanics and a botched narrative arc to drive them away for good. Which, I think, is why we find Season Two playing so solidly and deliberately to the established fanbase. That's the mature market for the game.

And I guess, like it or not, it includes me. I'm contemplating starting the Sylvari Personal Story later today. No-one but a fan could possibly stomach that.


  1. Ironically, the Sylvari Personal Story has the best presentation for the entire Orr stretch because they introduce Trahearne to you very early on at a logical point, instead of just popping in like a big deus ex flora into the other races' stories.

  2. I did sylvari first, without any real lore exposure prior to that (I'd played GW1 up to the Searing once), and Trahearne came up a few times in the early story, without being a sudden surprise. He was still a bit annoying as the Pact commander, just because it felt like the sort of role the player should have held (especially since he was always asking you what to do next).

  3. World of Warcraft got really bad with this from around the release of the Cataclysm expansion. Basically the whole backstory for the expansion was released in a novel and if you didn't read it you were just presented with a completely altered world and no explanation for it in game. They then continued to release novels where important NPCs (supposedly, I didn't read them myself) went through some character development, while all you saw in game were those same NPCs appearing to have schizophrenic personality changes from one zone to the next. It... didn't make for the most compelling experience.

    1. I never had the slightest idea about the storyline when I was playing WoW. I wasn't really aware there was one. I've learned since then from much blog reading that there's a long ongoing saga in play but it goes right over my head. At least WoW doesn't have an overt "Personal Storyline" with a big, green map marker that never goes away.

  4. @Jeromai and David

    Well, I did the Sylvari story up to about level 15 tonight. Very interesting. Caithe seems to me to be no more than a cigarette paper's width away from being Nightmare Court herself. If she's any kind of hero it's definitely Batman not Superman at least when it comes to morality.

    Actually being introduced to Trahearne in context makes a huge difference. I was taken aback when Caithe described him as her brother but later I realized that of course Sylvari have no nuclear families and she's presumably expressing a level of kinship that derives from their status as Firstborn.

    I stopped just at the point where Malyck shows his face and drops the bombshell that there are Sylvari unrelated to The Pale Tree. Until I read that on the forums recently in a discussion over LS2 I was completely unaware of that major plot and lore point.

    So far my investigation of the Sylvari Personal Story seems to bear out all my doubts about the problematic nature of the mechanics in GW2 when it comes to an average player having clue one about what's going on. I'm all for mystery but this is just silly.

    1. If 93% of characters are going to miss it (as David points out below, only 1/3 of Sylvari get that plotline), I don't think it can be that important.

      All us Infinity Ball Asura were speculating in Season 1 about what that story tells you about the steam creatures, and how Scarlet uses them, and if there was some deeper meaning there. But as the story revealed later, Scarlet just invented them, and the bit with the alternate timeline was unrelated.

    2. One third of those steam creatures went into a portal and never came back out again. I am certain these were pilfered away and 'improved' on by true geniuses. There is still hope for world domination yet!

    3. I'm a superhero comics fan of half a century's standing. I *know* that, in genre serial fiction, there is no pre-existing reference, no matter how fleeting, that cannot at a later stage become the current, single most important piece of information in the entire history of the enterprise. Equally, I know that there's no honking great major plot point, signposted and telegraphed so clearly it could be seen from the moon, that can't vanish unresolved and apparently forgotten between one episode and the next.

      It's the nature of commercial genre serial fiction created by a fluctuating collective of writers and artists. When the Asura and Sylvari Personal Stories were written, those writers may have had specific ideas about where the stories would lead. On the other hand they may have seen them as complete and finished, leading to nothing. Whatever those writers thought or planned won't mean a thing to some new writer who gets a great idea next week.

      If you can't keep half a dozen contradictory ideas in your mind at once and believe that what you knew as "black" yesterday is "white" today, it all becomes very frustrating. Every time the merry-go-round grinds to a halt and starts spinning in the opposite direction some of the less agile fans fall off. It probably pays to keep the jolts to a minimum if you want to hold on to the maximum number of paying customers. There's a point at which suspension of disbelief turns into giving the writers so much rope they hang themselves.

      Don't think we are anywhere near that point yet but the current, more linear narrative structure was probably a good idea.

  5. On the mystery point... note that the non Pale Tree Sylvari thing only comes up if you picked the "where life goes so do I" option in character creation. Every one of the character creation option branches off a chapter of your personal story...

  6. Yep, you nailed this topic for me. Not only did I play GW1 since beta weekends, but I also read Edge of Destiny in anticipation for GW2's release a few years back. I don't consider myself a lore junky, but having these (and Ghosts of Ascalon) as a foundation for my understanding was very important in my approach to playing GW2. Story is a deciding factor of whether I'll stick to a MMO or not, and I've had plenty of complaints about the end of the Personal Story and Season 1 of the Living Story.

    So far, Season 2 isn't perfect, but I'm enjoying the new approach more than the previous season. I plan to hang in there and see what happens -- I am interested in the Elder Dragon threat far more than I was interested in Scarlet.

  7. As someone who did not play Guild Wars 1, I do feel like my first play through of the game was missing something. However, they did give me enough information to understand some of what was going on. I feel like I missed out on really understanding the dragons and their history.

    I feel like GW2 could do with adding lore objects of some kind with attached story - like books you can find all over the place or, even better, little narrated cut scenes. No need to fully animate them - they could use concept art and the like. It would fill out the lore a little better for those who are interested without feeling the need to go and read it on a wiki or in a novel.

    1. They do have a few of these. Ebonhawke has a lot of books scattered around that give some background about the Siege for example. The problem is they are ridiculously short. Each "book" has just a few sentences. You have to find half a dozen to get the equivalent of a paragraph or two. I found them more annoying than intriguing for that reason.

      Presumably text puts next to no strain on any part of the game engine so I can only assume they are so brief because whoever put them in assumed players have the attention spans of hyperactive kittens. I'd have thought the kind of players likely to want to read a book of lore in the first place would be not just eager but willing to spend a few minutes reading an in-game lore source rather than a few seconds.


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