Monday, March 7, 2022

End Of Dragons, End Of An Era

On Saturday evening I watched the credits roll on End of Dragons. Yes, there are actual credits. A lot of credits.  They go on and on and on... 

This has to be the fastest I've ever finished a major Guild Wars 2 storyline. It was months before I saw Zhaitan die, years before any of my own characters killed him. I suffered a severe lack of enthusiasm for the base game's interminable "Personal Story", something I felt the game could have done very well without.

By the time Heart of Thorns launched three years later, the good ship  "mmorpgs don't need a story" had not only long-since sailed but foundered and sunk with all hands. The first Living Story, featuring my favorite Tyrian anti-hero, Scarlet Briar, did a great deal to bring me on board with the whole concept of an mmorpg built around a continuing narrative. Not that anyone really had much of a choice by then. It's been pretty much all story, all the time, right across the genre for a decade now.

The Living Stories proceeded at their own, usually funereal pace, eating up not just months but years. The expansion storylines were by necessity much more compact. Mrs Bhagpuss and I killed HoT's big bad, Mordremoth, exactly one month after launch. Path of Fire's Kralkatorrik took just two and a half weeks.

From that litany, you might assume my completion of the EoD storyline in just ten days suggests it was shorter or at least slimmer in content, something that would be consistent with the prevailing trend over the life of the game. I guess it might have been that. I don't know for sure. 

I didn't make any notes of how many times I played or how long for, let alone how much of each session was taken up with story as opposed to exploring the maps. GW2 doesn't have any kind of timestamp relating to specific content that would allow me to go back and check. My impression, though, is that it felt about the same length as both previous expansion storylines.

However long it was, the main reason I finished it faster than the last two is that I was enjoying it more than either of those. I wanted to burn through it because I was having fun.

When I last wrote about how I was finding it, I sounded very positive: "The story is much better than I was expecting. It might even be the strongest sustained narrative the game's had, although I realise that's a low bar. It feels much more focused and controlled than usual, with fewer digressions and follies." 

By and large, that remained true to the end, although there was a small wobble when a couple of familiar characters made an unexpected re-appearance. There are a few moments like that but not so many as usual nor so disruptive. 

The End of Dragons narrative, while more straightforward than GW2 players are probably used to seeing, isn't entirely linear. It does have those inevitable plateaus, where you find other characters' concerns pushing you off your own, objectively more important, path. For once, though, those moments, a seemingly unavoidable corollary of playing an mmorpg rather than a single-player RPG, are much more convincingly integrated into the overarching plot than usual. They feel more like a genuine part of the narrative than a mechanical contrivance of the genre. 

The running themes of Canthan beaurocracy, inter-departmental rivalry, pressure of work and personal intransigence, all of which have a function in slowing things down and padding out the run-time, also serve to increase a growing sense of frustration and pressure as felt by the character, not the player, which fits very well with the ramping-up of tension in the narrative itself.

It also works to the story's favor that there seem to be considerably fewer supporting characters than usual. That's not to say there aren't still plenty of them but for once I had no problems remembering who everyone was and how my character came to be working with (or against) them. 

The balance of new and familiar characters felt about right, too. Given that this is the culmination of a decade-long story cycle, it must have been tempting to go for a "the gang's all back" finale. Most of the main players do get to make an appearance in the end, just not in person. The core group of key players remains admirably consistent throughout, adding some structural steel to the whole affair.

It's still not time to discuss the plot in detail but it's not going to spoil anyone's fun if I say the whole thing finishes with a really big fight. I was expecting it and dreading it but it was fine in its way, particularly once I realised that it has to be close to impossible to lose.

That in itself raises a question I feel ought by now to be capable of receiving a clear and unequivocal answer. ArenaNet have moved a very long way in the past couple of years towards making all narative content not just soloable but enjoyably so. End of Dragons seems to mark a high point in the process, whereby even the really big fights come with such padding and protection, even the least skilled player should be able to muddle through, somehow. 

To give a few non-spoilery examples, I found fairly early on in the final fight that getting knocked down or even killed didn't retard my progress in any way. More often than not my charcter would either be revived by an NPC or rally from a supposed kill almost immediately. If neither of those happened, the option to "Revive at a Checkpoint" put her back in the fight in less than five seconds, back to full health and with all timers reset, while all the enemies retained whatever damage they'd received.

Even getting knocked off the floating platforms, something that would usually result in instant death, merely meant some invisible force swept my character up and dropped her back where she came from. About halfway through the battle I just stopped bothering about any of it and let it all happen around me. Victory seemed inevitable, it was just a question of when.

The fight didn't even last all that much too long. A couple of minutes, maybe. The question I was asking myself, though, was "If there's no chance whatosever that I'm going to lose, why do I have to do this at all?" The next logical step for story content in mmorpgs, surely, has to be an option to have all the set-piece fights play out in cut scenes. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have lost anything by skipping the actual button-pressing part and I would have been able to hear all the dialog, something that's always hard to do in the middle of a firefight.

Much like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, the end of the story is by no means the end of the show. There are several codas, one of them quite elaborate, none of them involving any kind of combat. There's very much the sense of curtains being closed and bows being taken. 

After I'd seen everything to the final blackout, I went in search of other opinions. I knew I liked it but I wondered if my reaction was in step with the general sentiment. First, I went to the official forums, a visit that left me with an over-riding impression that no-one gives a much of a damn about the story at all. 

The main EoD discussion forum was overwhelmed with post after post complaining about practical issues with the big end of expansion Meta, something about which I may end up posting at a later date. As it happened, I had done it, once, before I finished the story. It happens in the final map, the same one the story sends you to, the aptly-named Dragon's End, so it can be kind of hard to avoid. It was running when I arrived there so I just tagged on and saw it through.

Although I didn't know it at the time, the narrative intention is that you should do the open-map Meta before going into the final climactic story instance because the events in the Meta precede those in the solo instance and contains story elements that are significant. How you're supposed to know that I'm not sure. I didn't find out until I read the lengthy Reddit discussion on the way the story ends.

The GW2 subreddit is where the lore and story get a real workout. Even the Lore forum on the GW2 website is sparse and scattered these days, not much more than a handful of ad hoc speculation threads and some axe-grinding. 

Reddit has separate threads for all five Acts of the EoD storyline and they're all long and active. I read much of the thread discussing the fifth and final Act, in which many people also gave their judgment on the whole thing. That judgment seemed to be for the most part very positive.

No-one thought the story was perfect but the majority of the complaints revolve around specific details or decisions by the writing team rather than any sense that either the story or the writing was "bad". 

There seemed to be something of a consensus that one or two of the major characters could have used more of an introduction before the expansion arrived, so the emotions we were supposed to be feeling would have stronger foundations. Quite a few people also felt some of the characters could have stuck around for longer than they did. I felt much the same on both counts.

There was also a commonly-expressed opinion that we might not only have seen the "End of Dragons" with the conclusion of the ten year long Elder Dragon storyline but quite possibly the "End of Guild Wars 2" as well. Several people remarked on something I'd found hard not to notice: unlike every other Living Story and Expansion storyline to date, EoD doesn't come with any kind of cliffhanger or lead-in to a new narrative arc. There's not even much in the way of obvious and pressing unfinished business.

There are any number of hanging plot threads, naturally, but nothing that suggests The Commander or their allies should be the ones to do anything about them. The storyline guild, Dragons Watch, still exists but I was left with the strong feeling it had been downgraded to not much more than a social club. The Pact goes on but its raison d'etre has vanished and anyway the player character's Pact Commander title became an honorary one a long time ago.

I don't really think ANet are going to come out and announce they're putting GW2 into maintenance mode while they work on Guild Wars 3 but for the first time in a decade I have absolutely no idea where the game might be going next. And that's probably a good thing. 

Unlike many vocal commentators, I always liked the Elder Dragon storyline. If we had to have a story at all it might as well have been that one. An awful lot of it made absolutely no sense whatsoever and as plenty of redditors point out in the thread I read, there have been an awful lot of retcons over the years. 

In the end, though, I was happy enough with how it finished. It feels like not just a closed chapter but a closed book. Aything that follows ought to be able to stand or fall on its own merits, without having to lean so heavily on what's gone before. 

Whatever it is, though, I suspect it'll be a good, long while before we find out.



  1. Ah, Scarlet Briar. Scarlet "I'm SO not right in the head" Briar.

    I actually bought GW2 when, unknown to me, the first cutscenes involving her popped into the game. So practically one of the first cutscenes I was presented with upon reaching Divinity's Reach for the first time. I just kind of went with the flow there, because everybody seemed to be heading in that direction, and....

    Holy Batballs, Batman! I saw that first cutscene with her in it and I thought "She's absolutely nuts. Maniacally nuts. I'm so glad I don't have to fight her yet."

    1. Yeah, she was off her rocker alright. It did turn out to be something of a valid plot point in the end but a lot of people at the time took it as a not much more than a blatant rip of several other, well-known psychotic villains. Still one of the best big bads I've seen in mmorpgs although I wouldn't claim the bar there is all that high...

  2. Excellent write-up.
    I too enjoyed the story of EoD (while simultaneously dreading each mindless, time-sink, boss-encounter).

    I definitely feel like ANet could now walk away from GW2 development. Honestly, I feel like they should; the graphics are very dated, and I feel like they've learned enough from GW2 to be able to potentially create something fresh in GW3.

    1. Although as a player I want the mmorpgs I play to go on forever, as the genre matures I'm beginning to see the problems with both success and longevity. I agree that ANet would almost certainly be better served creatively to move on to another game, either GW3 or a new project, but it's very hard to see how that can happen while GW2 is still bringing in the money and holding onto players.

      They didn't mothball GW1 until GW2 was already out and a success and I'd guess they wouldn't want to risk GW2 by doing anything differently there but the cost of running a live service game and building a whole new mmorpg behind closed doors must be prohibitive for all but the biggest players. Even Blizzard ended up scrapping Titan and Square Enix pretty much only kept faith with FFXIV out of stubborn pride.

      There's a post in this that I might get to one day.

  3. Glad to hear that GW2 turned the story around in a more positive way at the end. I haven't played since the base game PoF mostly due to story wonkiness.

    However, be careful of: "I don't really think ANet are going to come out and announce they're putting GW2 into maintenance mode while they work on Guild Wars 3..."

    Because that's EXACTLY what they did with GW1 and GW2. I remember Eye of the North being a fairly fresh expansion back in 2007 when they dumped the news on us that GW2 was being made and GW1 would see no more content. You can find on the official wiki: "Guild Wars 2 began development in the middle of 2006; it was first announced to the public in 2007."

    Needless to say, it took the wind out my sails for Eye of the North to know this - even though the game is still running today. I remember thinking that they'd JUST released an expansion, why didn't they give us a little more time to enjoy it before knowing they were focusing on something new?

    Maybe they did learn their lesson from that. They need to make $$$ off of the GW2 cash shop stuff, after all, (which wasn't something that played a part in GW1 at that time) so they're likely to keep GW3 more under wraps now days.

    1. I'd be delighted if ANet put GW2 into maintenance in favor of working on GW3, with two provisos: firstly that GW3 was no more than a firm 12-18 months from launch and secondly that GW3 was actually something I'd want to play instead of GW2. Those are two pretty big "ifs".

      It also occurs to me that a really smart move for ANet would be to leverage the whole "take your gear from one game to another" things that the NFT clowns keep yammering on about and implement it, minus the entirely pointless NFT part, in GW2/GW3. Instead of making a complete replacement they could build a synergistic partner, allowing players to move between the two games, thereby having their cake and eating it.

      They already nodded at something like that with the whole Hall of Monuments thing between GW/GW2 but this time they could really go for full integration. It seems to me that if the future of this genre is going to be games that last decades, any developer who ends up with a reasonably successful mmo risks also ending up as a one-game company unless they can come up with a smarter plan than just constantly adding new rooms onto the old house.

    2. With the engine upgrade to DX11 it is both unlikely that GW2 will be shelved and new graphic updates can be rolled to older content.


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