Sunday, 7 May 2017

Go Left! No,The Other Left! : GW2

This post is all spoilers - turn back now or rue the day...






Ok, so, with this latest Living Story episode, Flashpoint, it's like the entire narrative just did a handbrake turn. We, collectively, have spent the entire last five years of our lives trying to kill Elder Dragons and now suddenly they're on the Protected Species list. Did anyone see this coming?

I always thought ANet had set up a perfectly sound scaffold that would last for the expected life of the game. They began with six elder dragons, killed one in the base game then a second in the first expansion.

Given that it appears to be taking them a minimum of two years to get an Xpack finished, that gave GW2 a story arc that should have lasted more than a decade. Everyone generally seemed happy with draconic genocide as a way of life and there was palpable enthusiasm for the project. All good so far.

As the third season of the Living Story ground onwards, some pacing issues appeared that began to cast a shadow over that scenario. Taimi (now commonly referred to on the forums as "Deus ex Taimi" for her seeming ability to pull breakthroughs and inventions out of thin air, time and time again) discovered a way to pair off Elder Dragons and make them go boom.

No, sorry, give me a minute...just not coming to me.

Meanwhile Braham (aka Emo Boy), never one to take parental advice well, stomped off in a paddy, believing he could handle Jormag the Ice Dragon on his own - or at least with the backing of several thousand drunken Norn berserkers. With the expansion now (un)officially revealed to be focused squarely on the part of Tyria where the crystal dragon Kralkatorrik lives, it was beginning to look as though LS3 might conclude with the death of at least one, possibly two Elder Dragons, leaving us a little short in the dragon department going forward.

That outcome would certainly have tied in with the increasingly frenetic, not to say confused storytelling. The GW2 narrative has never stood up well to close analysis but of late it barely sustains a casual read-through. It frequently feels as though what we're getting are scattered pages from a much larger script. Someone presumably knows what's going on but it's certainly not the PCs - or the players.

The plot leaps and lurches, characters vanish then reappear without explanation. Major concepts or story arcs are introduced only to be seemingly abandoned. Each episode weirdly contrives to be both far too short and far too complicated at the same time.

You'll be none the wiser, take my word.

As for accessibility, if you don't know your Guild Wars (original game) lore to doctoral level you may as well forget it. GW2 is increasingly turning into the straight follow-up its name always implied, with every new reveal designed to draw stunned gasps from those who played through the elder game's several lore-heavy campaigns a decade or so back.

Unfortunately, for those who didn't there are more likely to be blank looks than dropped jaws. "Who is this guy again? He did what? How long ago? Remind me why I'm supposed to care."

Mike O'Brien, in a wistful, almost pathetic comment in the recent AMA, reached out to current GW2 players to proselytize on the game's behalf:

"While we’re talking, there’s another thing I’ll ask for your help with. You love the game: then get the word out. Not just today, with the release of episode five, but whenever there are things to talk about. I know many of you look to us to keep the game’s player base strong through paid advertising, but there’s only so much that paid advertising can do for GW2 in 2017 when most people made their buy-or-don’t-buy decision back in 2012. What brings new players to an older game isn’t the advertising but the buzz, excitement, press coverage, word-of-mouth."

Which is all very well, but if it's hard to bring new players to an old game, how much harder must it be to bring them to an old game that demands intimate knowledge of a game that's older still?

When the Mursaat appeared a couple of chapters back I had no clue what it was or what significance it held. I'd vaguely heard the word and that was it. When it was hinted that the creature might be a disguise for some other entity I was mildly intrigued but when it was revealed, in the latest episode, that beneath the armor lay Balthazar my reaction wasn't awestruck amazement.

No, it was "...hang on, I know him...give me a minute...there's a Hero Point in Auric Basin with his name on it, isn't there...?" Of course, if I'd played more human characters I might have recognized Bal as one of the six gods you get to choose from at character creation, but Charr need no gods and Asuras have the Eternal Alchemy. Why should we either know or care who this guy is?

Taimi Sums It Up.

Failing to recognize a God might be embarrassing but trying to solo one? Isn't that the fantasy equivalent of death by cop? Who thought it was a good idea to have the player character face off against the God of War in a duel? Not to mention that players of human characters with any interest in the lore at all are wondering why they are being asked to kill someone they'd be more comfortable worshiping.

I beat him, of course. It wasn't even that difficult. In fact it was one of the easier, more enjoyable Living Story boss fights, not that that's a high bar. He's probably not really dead because I didn't get a "Godslayer" title. Little clues like that give it away.

All the same, the penultimate chapter of the third Living Story season concludes with the player character having single-handedly defeated a god and two elder dragons in a single battle lasting less than ten minutes. Okay, Taimi was there, but she mostly just yelled encouragement and watched.

I'm not sure about jumping the shark - this is more like pole-vaulting a blue whale.

Go Team!

And yet it was pretty good fun. I long ago stopped wishing for GW2's story to make any sense. It just doesn't and I imagine it never will. So long as it has strong set-pieces, plenty of melodrama, some soapy operatics and a few good jokes I'll go along for the ride.

The theory doing the rounds seems to be that the developers want to free the game from the death-grip of the elder dragons so they can open out some more interesting storylines. If true, I suspect that will translate into more fan service for ex-GW1 players and plenty of self-indulgent nods by the writers towards their own particular favorites.

It's not the route I'd have gone down five years after launch but as we've seen time and time again nostalgia is a very strong card in MMORPGs. And anyway, I wouldn't put money on Mordremoth being the last dragon to die at our hands. Why are we going to the Crystal Desert if it's not to finish off Kralkatorrik, eh?

If nothing else the shambles is keeping me interested to find out what happens next. I guess that's about all you can expect from a potboiler. I still want to know what Kasmeer has been up to (her reappearance raises more questions than it answers), who Queen Jennah and Countess Anise really are (I like the theory that they are both aspects of the Goddess Lyssa), who the mysterious "E" is/was, what's happening to Rytlock back in The Black Citadel...

It may be a lot of old nonsense but by golly it's entertaining old nonsense!

6 comments:

  1. It's almost as if the stories that aren't about Elder Dragons are more interesting. Go figure.

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    1. Storywise that is 100% true. As a structure for the life of a video game franchise, though, I thought the serial murder of a set of known, named dragons was as neat a peg to hang an MMO on as I've seen so I'm leaning towards this being more restless self-indulgence by bored writers than a deliberate move to hold the interest of the audience or improve the long-term health of the game.

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  2. I have given up on the GW2 storyline making any consistent lore-appropriate sense. The "story" just swerves left and right as if bludgeoned by a plot sledgehammer that -needs- to hit certain key milestones.

    Even if you did know your GW1 lore to a doctoral level, the story wouldn't make any sense either because you're too busy noticing inconsistencies and asking why would these characters act this way?

    As for what happened in Flashpoint, it's much too neat and I doubt we've seen the last of everything that exploded in a blinding flash of light. If the writers think that, then they're really smoking something.

    But I get the sense that our player characters were just puppeted through an elaborate sham to witness the big B working on his own plan, and given the alternative is just to stare helplessly like a wallflower, may as well let Taimi (sorry, plot exposition device #3) produce an alternate theory and have the Pact Commander believe it until proven otherwise.

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    1. I spent half an hour reading the Lore forum yesterday and it's evident that there are a lot of annoyed or confused GW1 fans as well as some excited ones. I do think a huge part of the problem is just how fractured and sporadic the various components are. We get an info-dump once a quarter and a slew of small hints and promises in-between. Nothing seems to tie in with anything else and by the time we get back to a story we've left it's a year later and no-one can remember what was going on.

      It's like trying to read a novel from a handful of scattered loose pages, knowing that they may not be in the right order and there are certainly more missing than you've found. I still enjoy the speculation but I have no expectation that there will be satisfying resolutions to most (or any) of the loose plot ends. They'll most likely be left to flap in the wind.

      As for the puppeting of the player characters, I noticed that lack of agency is beginning to emerge as a repeated complaint on the forums. Personally, I have always been fine with my character being primarily an observer in MMO storylines but I'm pretty sure most people don't like it. That's probably the aspect of the current method of storytelling they need to address most urgently.

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    2. I don't mind the silent observer (TSW, FF14) as long as they're not too much of an anthropomorphic camera (ESO). When Big B goes from calling us "boss" to stomping off like a teenage adult, Logan comments on having been offered the position of pact commander, and we're indulging Taimi's every Scarlet-caliber whim ("You disagree, Commander? How dare you imply that I am not an adult like you!"), I begin to feel more like a Plot Apparatchik than someone who's along for the ride. Harrumph.

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  3. I wonder how much of the change in storytelling is from turnover. Jeff Grubb, who is one of the old vanguard of pen and paper RPGs and one of the long-time ArenaNet writers -- he did much of Factions, Nightfall, and Eye of the North -- left in February of 2016.

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