Saturday, January 19, 2019

All Or Nothing - Post Mortem And Review: GW2

Following Jeremai's advice in the comments on my earlier post on Guild Wars 2's latest Living World episode, All or Nothing, I'm going to say a few things about what I saw there. If anyone hasn't played through the storyline yet but intends to, I'd look away now...


Right, that's my civic duty done. Let's get on with it.

All or Nothing is a very odd episode. As I said before, it's not just short, it's exceptionally short, even by ArenaNet's reduced standards. What's more, at least half of that very brief running time is filler. And yet it's one of the strongest episodes of the current season.

All of its strength and impact is focused on the final chapter and even then it's mainly the denoument and the coda that carry the weight. The reaction to what happens has been mixed but there haven't been too many voices denying that the ending packs a punch.

I'm going to recall this from memory, more than a week later, so the details may be sketchy. I think it will be instructive to see what stuck and what didn't.

In the first chapter The Commander (that's me - or you) is tasked by Ogden the Last Living Dwarf with yet another set of "trials" designed to bolster the bizarrely fragile ego of Aurene, the odd little dragon we've been nursing along for what seems like several decades. The goal is to re-inforce the supposed empathic bond between the two of them.

I have several issues with this, the main one being that it feels like the most obvious filler. That's mostly because it is the most obvious filler. It's the GW2 equivalent of one of those quest sequences where an NPC tels you that before she can do the thing you need her to do you have to go get her ten goblin toes, eight swamp roots and a moonbeam.

Just keep humming "Stand by Me" and we'll be fine.

I was already eye-rolling on the way into Glint's Lair (a location that started out, long ago as mesmerizing and iconic, but which now has all the allure of a high-school gym). There the dead dragon Glint, who continues to behave, via some holographic smoke and mirrors, as though she's very much alive (a theme to which we will return) sets up a series of tasks for the Player Character to perform.

I muffed the first one so badly I ended up Alt-F4ing out of the game and going to the forums, where I posted a pouty little huff-piece in which I claimed I was done with the whole thing and off to play another MMO. I wasn't and I didn't, of course.

What I actually did was log back in and repeat the trial, easily and successfully, on my second attempt, the difference being that this time I listened to the instructions. We're so conditioned to fight anything that attacks us that when what we're meant to do is stand next to someone and give them moral support the concept flies right over our heads. Well, over mine.

The other trials were equally simple. With that out of the way, The Commander and Aurene both get to have separate, private conversations with Glint. I forget what mine was about and we don't get to find out what Glint said to Aurene, but I'm failry sure it's going to turn out to be something of devestating importance further down the line. Then it's off to Ogden again for some more dwarven business as he sends us off to talk to one of his dead pals. 

Caithe speaks for all of us.

In the transition from Guild Wars to Guild Wars 2, the Dwarven race seems not only to have become extinct but to have lost almost all its gravitas. You'd think sacrificing your entire population in an eternal struggle to keep one of the great dragons from consuming all life on the planet might engender a little respect but no. Apparently the reward is that your afterlife becomes a series of comedy walk-ons.

Here we return to the main theme once again, which is that nothing and no-one in Tyria ever truly dies. Ogden even makes a joke about it, saying that he's sure the dwarf being dead won't pose a problem for The Commander. And it doesn't. The supposedly defunct dwarf is waiting for us, ready with a bit of slapstick and a few zingers about how boring it is being dead.

At this point I was finding it hard to take anything seriously. It was all amusing enough in that "we're professional writers and we'd like you to notice" kind of way that video games have (and without any doubt the writing on GW2 has improved significantly since last year's Major Incident) but it's nothing we haven't all seen literally thousands of times before.

This turned out to be a mistake.

With that part out of the way (I think there might have been some kind of sub-boss fight - I really can't remember) it's on to the new map, Thunderhead Peaks. It's a nice map. I wanted to explore it but I tried to stick to the plot, which had me doing some basic chores and then talking to the Dredge (a race of communist moles who always send GW2's writers pun-crazy) into lending their technological expertise to the struggle. We'll end up being very glad we did that.

I enjoyed this bit, particularly the part where you have to blow up a series of Dredge tanks by laying a trail of oil and setting light to it. It's a sequence that stumped quite a lot of people. There were more complaints about it on the forums than anything else. For me, it turned out to be one of those moments when you understand why it is that you love MMORPGs so much more than offline games. 

I was puzzling over the final tank, not having figured out how to make my oil trail reach far enough to do the business; half a dozen other people were all around me, doing the same. As we pondered and poured, various ideas were suggested, tried and rejected until eventually someone said "you have to pour it through the fence - don't go around". That turned out to be the trick. 

The great thing was, the entire conversation happened in /say. While no-one was roleplaying, it felt and sounded exactly like a natural conversation between people engaged in a task. It was a moment, for sure.

Hail, hail! The gang's all here!

With that out of the way it was back for a series of reports from the various forces engaged in the imminent struggle and another data point for the thesis on Death in Tyria. Fighting alongside The Commander and the remnants of The Pact in the struggle against Kralkatorrik, The Crystal Dragon, are some pirates (because of course there are), a buch of Sunspears and two whole armies of dead people. 

In The Mists we have a regiment of ghosts engaged in baiting the dragon and back in the physical world we have what's left of Joko's Awakened armies. Take your pick between ethereal or corporeal reincarnation. Either way its apparent that neither personality, memory nor freedom of action are necessarily expunged by death, which kind of makes being dead a non-issue in my book.

This sits oddly, to say the least, with the repeated displays of emotion engendered by the storyline's many celebrity deaths. In the first chapter of this very episode there's a pause to take in the inert, crystalline corpse of Glint, still present in her lair, before some post-incarnatory glyph of Glint herself starts chatting away as though she'd never left.

Age cannot wither her.
Getting back to the plot, around now Taimi breaks in with some bad news. All our careful preparations to have the battle at a time and place of our own choosing are out the window because Kralkatorrik is on his way. No more time for clever plans - we're going to have to take him on with what we've got.

The most impressive thing about this part was the iron will of the ANet writing team. How they managed to resist having someone say "Let's do the show right here!" is beyond me. I guess they were probably too busy ladling ironic foreshadowing over every line of Taimi's dialog in a (very successful in my case) attempt at misdirection. I was expecting the Brave Little Mite to clutch her chest and expire from Mysterious Unspecified Wasting Disease at any moment.

More seriously, I was dreading it. I like Taimi (I know not everyone does) and I would rather she wasn't sacrificed in the name of either "realism" or sales. Killing both popular and unpopular characters for impact has become an unfortunate trope of the game to the point where it's now the frequent subject of ridicule in forum discussions.

This episode, even though it did feature that very trope, turned out to be better than that. A lot better. When the final denoument arrived I wasn't expecting it at all and neither, as far as I can tell from the subsequent conversations in and out of game, were most players.

The last chapter is a big set-piece battle with Kralkatorrik. As these things go it went about as well as could be expected. There does seem, finally, to have been an epiphany at ANet  where attritional boss fights are concerned. I wouldn't say this one was actually fun but it was better than bearable.

It made sense at the time.

It was nicely broken up into manageable sections. The goals were reasonably clear and well sign-posted. Almost all the action required only the use of normal combat skills and the now-familiar special action key. There were a couple of welcome and unexpected surprises. The whole thing didn't outstay its welcome.

And then it happened. This is the spoiler of spoilers coming. Last chance to look away...

With Kralkatorrik on the ropes and victory within our grasp, everything turns to ashes. I was exultant at the fact that the whole thing was about to end and I wasn't even fed up or bored yet. I was already flash-forwarding to the victory celebrations. One last heave...

Cut-scene. Blackness. Failure. Loss.

I was stunned. The writing team had successfully blindsided me. Yes, I did think "this is too easy". Yes, I did notice that we seemed to be going to the victory cut scene with the Dragon at around 30% health. I still thought we'd won.

But we hadn't. Kralkatorrik had been faking it like a pro-wrestler. He was up and at us in a blink. I never saw what happened. For a while there I thought The Commander was dead. Again. 

The Walk of Shame.

In what could almost be seen as showing off, if only it hadn't worked so well, ANet chose this as the moment to unveil a new set of movements or animations or something. The darkness bleached out and when I could see and move again I limped on. It all felt strangely physical. Three-dimensional. I'm not sure what they did but it had heft.

By the time the rest of the battered survivors came into view I was still emotionally stunned. Aurene was dead. I hadn't thought I was all that fond of her. Seems I was. Seeing her lifeless form impaled on vicious spikes of glass was more disturbing than it should have been. I did, quite literally, experience a montage of flashbacks inside my own head, of the times my character and the young dragon had played together. It felt a little like losing a real-life pet.

As I said in the original post, I went to bed thinking about it, I dreamed about it and I woke up and thought about it some more. That's quite powerful writing. Effective melodrama, that's what it is.

All of which leaves us in a very strange place indeed. The storyline has ground to a shrieking halt in absolute failure. In narrative terms, this is a crux. If it was a television series or a novel it would be the season finale or the cliffhanger ending. We'd all have a clear year or so to ponder the implications then we'd come back fresh and ready to carry on.

This was unsettling. Still is.

This is an MMORPG, though. As players, nothing changes or stops. We exit the instance to the usual chatter and hum of the game. Around us the NPCs are preparing for the fight we just lost. Tomorrow we'll be back to doing our dailies. It requires compartmentalising on an epic scale. 

My reaction has been to draw back. Since All or Nothing turned out to be the latter I've been doing my dailies and logging out. I haven't really played any GW2 other than the minimum maintenance version since. I'm not sure that's the outcome ANet would have been looking for.

What I have done is read a lot of commentary and discussion on the forums. There's a poll on whether Aurene is really dead. The result is currently running 80-20 in favor of no, she's not. And therein lies GW2's ultimate problem.

Death as a concept is now so utterly, irretrievably compromised in the game that, in narrative terms, it means nothing. As this episode demonstrates, a well-written and well-timed death can still ring all the right response bells but once the emotions stop jangling anyone can come up with half a dozen get-out clauses in a matter of moments.

Enjoy it while you can, Caithe.

Aurene ate Palawa Joko, a Lich with the secret of bringing the dead back to life. She'll reincarnate via his assimilated powers. Glint took Aurene aside after the first trial to explain something vital that we were not told; that will have been to prepare her for her death and tell her how to come back from it. The departed Gods will come back and return Aurene to life. Aurene still lives on via the link she formed with Caithe (I forgot to mention that part, didn't I?). There's even a theory that Aurene overpowered Kralkatorrik's mind and is now him...

Whatever the machinery, the point and the problem is that everyone knows Aurene is only as dead as the current writing team wants her to be. I'm a lifelong comics fan so I have a very high level of immunity to "No-One Is ever Really Dead" syndrome, but even I have trouble with the louche and freehanded way ANet handle continuity of existence.

That said, I still want to know what happens next, so they're doing something right. All in all, this was one of the better episodes. In retrospect, the triviality of the opening chapters can be seen as a set-up for the hammer-blow of the ending. It's all part of the process, raising a false sense of security, feeding a sense of complacency that adds a frisson of guilt to the mix when it all goes bad. 

Now we wait three months for the next hour. It better be a good one.


  1. I liked it. It reminded me of the more bittersweet and dramatic moments of the first Guild Wars, where your protagonist could be fooled or the villains gain an upper hand before your slog to put things right puts things right (as the prophecy foretold.)

    Oddly enough, I've stopped logging in too, beyond the bare minimum to attend raids and such, but I don't think it has any relation with the story and more to do with my relationship with GW2 and MMO grind as a whole. Much of it is voluntary grind and accumulation and after six years, interest is bound to fritter away.

    I'm not sure that lack of continuous log-ins affects ArenaNet any, beyond a potential lack of players to do all big open world metas.

    If they can force back a periodic influx of players every couple of months, who get tempted to drop 10-20 bucks for a shiny cosmetic or a quick gold influx to get caught up, that probably does them better good than converting everyone to continuously playing players who give them nothing because they're already earning gold through playing. They need a balanced subset of both for their profit model to work.

    Anyhow, I can't recall paying 'em a dime for gems in 2+ years (beyond a pointed literal donation of monetary support the day they fired you-know-who) so their microtransaction profit model design still bamboozles me, as opposed to things like Path of Exile or Warframe, where I am very much tempted to drop huge sums of cash periodically.

    1. I literally never spend money on GW2 other than to buy the expansions. Mrs Bhagpuss, on the other hand, spends approximately the same as if the game had a $14.99 monthly sub. She often sees outfits or skins in the Gem Store that she wants and she buys them without hesitation. What amazes me is the sheer number of people I see in game - everywhere - with all the exploding harvesting tools (which you would have to pay me to use), the rainbow-hued mounts, the wacky gliders... clearly there are plenty of people spending a lot of money on stuff I wouldn't use if it was free.

      I actually spend more money by a wide margin on EQ2, where I still pay a monthly sub and also have in the past bought quite a lot of cash shop currency for real money (when it was on double or triple sale). The EQ2 cashshop has plenty in it that I think is good value and useful, which the GW2 gem store never has. I'm playng a lot more EQ2 these days than GW2 as well, so I'm more likely than ever to spend money there instead.

      I do think GW2 is benefitting strongly from there simply not being any strong, new competition. Has there been even one successful AAA Western theme park MMO launched in the last seven years? FFXIV, technically, but only as a relaunch. If a single, new, good one should ever appear I think there will be trouble in Tyria.

      Until that happens, which is probably going to require the passing of many years and a new generation of developers and players entering the market, I'm just hoping they can pop out an expansion every other year to keep interest going. Without at least that it's going to be hard to summon up the enthusiasm to keep playing.

  2. I just wanted to say thanks for deciding to write about this after all! I find it incredibly interesting to read what other people think of storylines in MMOs, even ones I don't play.

    1. You're welcome. I to hear other people's takes on this sort of thing even if I'm not playing, too. It was also interesting for me to see just hbow much I remembered about it a week later - quite a lot as it turns out, which probably speaks in favor of the writing or plotting.


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