Friday, March 8, 2013

How the Legend Faltered: 'Guild Wars 2' and the Personal Story

To start, let me say that I love Guild Wars 2. Like many original Guild Wars fans, I pinned all my hopes for an MMO onto ArenaNet's return to Tyria. For the most part, Guild Wars 2 delivers. I'm as engrossed in the world and the game as much, if not more so, than any MMO to date. Unsurprisingly, of course, not everyone is happy. 

Despite Guild Wars 2's critical and commercial success, there's a portion of the player population still disgruntled over a host of varying issues. Rangers are concerned that their damage isn't up to par with other professions, more casually-oriented players cry foul over the introduction of Ascended gear, and World vs. World invaders twiddle their thumbs anticipating the promised progression for WvW in the March update.

But, for me, as a player, what bothered me most about Guild Wars 2 wasn't the bugs, the relatively imbalanced nature of the eight professions (let's be honest: Warriors are a bit OP), the lack of support for sPvP, or even the humongous foul-up that was November's Lost Shores event. No, I felt most betrayed over the disappointing mess of soulless supporting characters, unrelated narrative arcs, and lack of reward, both material and narrative, that made up Guild Wars 2's Personal Story.

"This is my story?"

Let's review something Ree Soesbee said in the video above: 
"Guild Wars 2 is a specifically a game about you. It's a game where your story is as important as any story we've built into the game. What we want is for the player to feel like the hero and to feel like they've really changed the world around them."
At some point, the folks penning the Personal Story seemed to have lost sight of the central tenet of the game: "The player to feel like the hero." Anyone who's played through the Personal Story knows exactly who I'm referring to here, and if you don't, let's just say that right as the story is getting good, the action and the tension are building up as you finally come into conflict with the game's main antagonist, a certain Sylvari hijacks the limelight.

Yes, I'm talking about you, Trahearne. After you join your Order and after you've started making a name for yourself as a hero by helping one of the lesser races of Tyria, this guy shows up. At first, I was intrigued by him and even a little pleased because I got the feeling that finally, here was another character who understood the threat the Elder Dragons posed and hoped that maybe Trahearne represented the beginnings of my character assembling his own band of do-gooders to take Zhaitan down.

Instead, I ended up playing second fiddle to him. Trahearne, whose only achievement thus far has been being a firstborn and apparently "knowing a lot about Orr" (AKA convenient plot device). There's even a whole mission where you follow Trahearne around while the Pale Tree shows him his destiny and then goes ahead and gives him the magic sword Caladbolg, which (again, conveniently) cleanses Zhaitan's corruption. To make it even worse, if you had been playing a Sylvari, an entire chapter of your Personal Story involves you making an incredible effort (killing a Lich, which, if we reflect on the fact that a Lich Lord was the Big Bad of Guild Wars: Prophecies, is pretty badass and difficult) of recovering the same, damn sword-- and your Mother Pale Tree goes ahead and gives it to Trahearne. Plus, as added insult, Trahearne acts like he's never met you, even though you collaborated just a few missions ago. What a slap to the face.

I understand that, at this point, after choosing from five different races, with three different origins per races, three vastly diverse Orders, and even more permutations based on the choices you've made so far, the Personal Story has branched out a lot. Whoever was in charge of the Personal Story probably thought, "Oh crap, we have to somehow tie all this back together!" But instead of going through the trouble of writing in several different transitional chapters -- perhaps taking into account the Order you had joined and your racial backstory -- we're treated to a pretty uniform "doomed defense" mission. And, from that point forward, the Personal Story is essentially the same, no matter what decisions you had made prior: Trahearne is Marshal of the Pact, leading the overall effort to defeat Zhaitan, and you're his butt-monkey (AKA second-in-command).

Now, I actually have no problem with playing the role of a second-in-command, especially for an organization as huge as the Pact. What I do have a problem with is playing second fiddle in terms of the story. I thought I was supposed to be the Hero? Instead, I'm running errands for Trahearne and talking to members of the Pact who should know me, whether because we had run into each other before, or because I was a Warmaster (Magister, Lightbringer, take your pick) of their order! I mean, if you played Guild Wars: Nightfall, playing the role of second to an NPC who outranked you isn't something new.

Now, Kormir gets a bad rap. Some folks like to blame her for essentially playing you the whole time so she could Ascend and become a god. But she did choose to sacrifice herself by absorbing Abaddon's released chaotic powers. Nobody knew that doing so would turn her into a god; she could have just as likely exploded into a pile of confetti. Her actions in the Realm of Torment was an act of sacrifice and her attempt at redemption.

In Nightfall, Kormir was Spearmarshal of the Sunspears. When the story kicks off, she's kidnapped by the Big Bad and tortured. Much of what drives you and your companions in the story is rescuing Kormir. So, while you're de facto leader of the resistance, Kormir is still your spearmarshal --yes, even if you grinded and got the Legendary Spearmarshal title, Kormir probably still outranks you by seniority. In a lot of ways, Kormir was Nightfall's Trahearne. Under her auspices, heroes of myriad backgrounds (remember, Nightfall's story had to work in characters from Prophecies and Factions as well as newly-made Elonian characters), came together to face an all-powerful threat to the world.
But I actually liked Kormir!


It comes down to a few reasons:

1. We knew Kormir. She wasn't just some Sylvari who showed up seemingly at random at a critical point in the story. If you were Elonian, she had been your mentor and your trusted leader. If you were Tyrian or Canthan, Kormir came to you, seeking your help.

2. Kormir never steals your thunder -- well, except that one time. When you succeed in Nightfall, it's because of your heroic cunning, bravery, or [insert heroic trait here]. You get the glory for it because you earned it. Kormir congratulates you and mostly stays out of the limelight. When the narrative calls for someone to give a butt-kicking speech to the troops, it's you who does it, not Trahearne. When Kormir decides to do the speechifying, it doesn't end very well.

3. Kormr's catchphrase: "You never fight alone" is much cooler than Trahearne's "Moving on."

Being Commander of the Pact isn't what took the limelight of the Personal Story away from you. In fact, being made Commander puts you in a better position than if you had been made Marshal, because as far as we know, all the Marshal does is sit around at Fort Trinity and "make plans," whatever that means. No, what happened when the Pact story arc started was that the writers forgot that Guild Wars 2 was supposed to be about the player. They got so focused on the Pact and the upcoming showdown with Zhaitan that they forgot to make it matter to us, as the players. We're not invested in the fight.

This happens too often in video games. We're told over and over again that this guy is the bad guy and that we should hate him because he does bad things. But, we never feel the effects of these bad things this bad guy apparently does. In effect, the bad guy is bad at doing bad things. Sure, some NPCs are corrupted, killed, etc. by Zhaitan, but this never strikes too close to home. We simply don't care enough that Zhaitan is doing these bad things, so we can hardly care about how the Pact is going to fight him.

On top of that, we don't feel connected to the Pact. Despite being its Commander, we hardly ever see us interacting with members of the Pact outside of combat ops. It'd be more believable if we saw interaction between the Commander and the soldiers of the Pact. There's a reason we care about what happens to Commander Shepard and his crew in Mass Effect, because we know these characters, we know what's at stake, and we feel like we're part of it.

The Personal Story should have felt, well, personal. This was supposed to be our story and, while we are given chances to make choices during the game, it felt tacked on. The only consequences of our choices is that we end up doing one set of missions instead of another. The soldiers under our command are generic, forgettable faces, an army of Redshirts, that we don't care about. And the Pact that we're supposed to be proud to be a part of, this dragonslaying organization of registered badasses, just feels hollow.

I'll go more into how the lack of a good supporting cast contributed to the disappointing Personal Story in another post.

1 comment:

  1. \(-___________-;)/
    If only it wasn't true. The thing I hate THE MOST about this game is the POS storyline. On my second character I was rarin' to go. Then I realized that it was going to be the same thing... Evem the pact mission aren't much different save for the storyline!