Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Simple Tale, Well Told : Blade and Soul, GW2

Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!

Okay. That's the warnings out of the way. Let's talk story.

Yesterday was something of a story day. It was almost four years ago that Mrs Bhagpuss first went to Clown School during one of the early GW2 beta weekends.That was one of the things that sold her on the game. It made such an impression back then that when we were playing The Secret World  a couple of months later, as we waited for GW2 to launch, our Cabal's message of the day was "This isn't Clown School!"

Ever since, I've been meaning to get around to going myself but something always got in the way. Race, mainly. To go to Clown School you have to be Human, you see, and that's never been a favorite choice of mine, when I'm rolling up a character in any game. In GW2 Human comes before Norn but behind everything else. It used to come ahead of Sylvari, too, but Scarlet changed all that.

Then there's the branching narrative. In GW2 you have to pick certain traits and characteristics at character creation if you want to get specific paths in the early storyline. Fortunately the Circus plot is heavily signposted, unlike some, but I still managed to miss it on both my previous human characters.

I'll never be able to fill your shoes...
I was paying attention when I made my new thief, though, and yesterday I slogged through the opening narratives that I'd done on a previous character (also a thief as it happens) until I finally got invited to join the Circus. Okay, not so much invited as told. And not so much "join" as "put out of business". Close enough.

The entire plot and all the characters appear to have been "borrowed" from Marvel's "Circus of Crime", an unconvincing bunch of would-be not-very-super villains I remember clearly from my readings of The Hulk, Daredevil and Spiderman back in the '60s. Granted, every traditional circus has a Strongman and a Clown but when you also throw in a Snake Charmer and a Ringmaster who uses a whirling device to hypnotize the audience into attacking the heroes I feel the boundaries of coincidence and cultural congruence have been breached.

For heavens sake, even The Human Cannonball turns up at one point. We were only missing a couple of acrobats for the full set. Let's be generous and call it "homage". It was fun, and I'm glad I finally got to fulfill my character's childhood dream of joining the circus but emotionally involving or well-written it really wasn't.

Unlike the unfolding narrative in Blade and Soul. I really wasn't expecting this but the storyline in B&S is getting quite interesting. The characters are developing a modicum of personality. It's turning into a bit of a page-turner.

Oh, cry me a frickin' river, Namsoyoo.

Oh, it's nothing remotely original. Let's not get carried away. It's the same ropy old genre fantasy nonsense I've tabbed through in a score of MMOs before. What's more, most of the voice acting is so flat it must have been ironed. That's when it isn't labored or hysterical. 

It's a shame the acting is so mediocre and hammy because, while the concepts may creak with age and familiarity, the writing itself is often spry and supple. The incidental side quests are not infrequently amusing and the characters who hand them out manage to convey more personality than the average MMO NPC.

Good luck dodging an arrow, pal.
The plot itself lumbers along as these things do. After almost twenty levels I'd come to expect the "twists", all of which had been telegraphed long in advance. The spies turn out to be exactly who you thought they were. The supposed allies and good guys that raised my hackles the first time we met did indeed turn out to be Bad Hats in the end.

None of which prevents the whole farrago from feeling surprisingly interesting and, yes, satisfying. I'm not a great fan of having a central, through-line narrative structure in MMORPGs. I prefer an accretional back story that builds up imagistically as your character follows his or her own concerns. Given that we're going to have a backbone to this skeleton, though, I've certainly seen flimsier bones.

Trouble follows her. It's not her fault.

In any case, I tend to wander off-piste quite early in MMOs, so following a narrative doesn't come naturally to me. Although I had been paying due diligence to the main story arc for once, it came at the cost of another supposed essential plot element. I'd completely neglected my extended Class Tutorial, which turns out to be a major pillar of the developing story as well. 

At nearly level twenty I'd last checked in with Hajoon, my irrepressible ex-classmate, friend and self-appointed tutor, back when I was about level five. The main story eventually brought me back once again to Bamboo Village, where I'd begun my adventures after being fished out of the sea like a half-drowned kitten. After an intense cut-scene (the cut-scenes in Blade and Soul vary but some of them impress) and a rather less-than-intense fight sequence, I found myself half a level short of the next stage.

This was where I began to be impressed. Hajoon's skin has developed a pallor. There are dark shadows under his eyes. His speech, usually so confident, is hesitant. Bad things are coming. I feel it. You know that old saw about "Show, Don't Tell"? Someone remembered.

Up until then I didn't even realize there were any level requirements. Since there were, I thought I'd kill two Blackram with one stone by walking back to the higher end of the map and completing all the quests I'd picked up and left hanging along the way, dinging Level 20 along the way.. 

That was how I came to do almost the whole of the class tutorial sequence in one go. It's supposed to be spread out over twenty or so levels but I did it in an hour and I'm glad I did. It didn't teach me much that I hadn't already worked out for myself but by the end I felt more bonded to my character than I'd ever expected to be in this game and I'm sensing my character's bond to her world more powerfully, too.

It's happening.

Again, I don't want to make any big claims for this. We aren't talking TSW quest levels of emotional involvement here, let alone anything you'd get from a good movie or novel. Compared to the GW2 personal story, though, which tries to push many of the same emotional buttons, this is on another level. Clown School it ain't.

It does very much help that Hajoon has the best voice acting I've heard in the game so far. It isn't particularly naturalistic but it freights emotion effectively. His character comes through consistently and coherently both in the words on the screen and the sound of his voice, whereas in too many other examples in Blade and Soul the voice acting works against the writing, diminishing its effect.

The Hajoon arc also has considerably more subtlety than the main story. For once the twist took me completely by surprise. The sudden darkening of tone in what had been a bouncy, funny, light-hearted romp worked very well indeed. It was both unexpected and unexpectedly moving. I didn't want it to happen and I didn't like that I couldn't do anything to stop it. But I believed it and I believed that was how it had to be. 

The honor was all mine, Hajoon.

Good writing. Good, simple, genre writing. It looks easy but it's harder to bring off than you'd think, which is why so much of it is so often inept. That and that no-one cares, which all too often seems to be self-evidently the case. Well, someone cared about this little story enough to write it well and everyone else cared enough to animate it and act it and direct it with sufficient attention and craft to allow such potential as it had to be fulfilled.

A small victory for quality, then, but not an insignificant one. Few of these little touches amount to much in themselves but they add up. Even when you didn't come for the story, perhaps didn't even want there to be a story, still, seeing that story well-told has its effect. 

I warm to Blade and Soul more each time I play. I like the setting, the ambiance and the characters. I want to see what's over the next hill and know what happens next in the story. It may not last but it's enough for now.

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