Guild Wars 2 should get out of the storytelling business

For all that I do like Guild Wars 2, I am still unchanged from my position that the story is seriously lacking (to put it nicely).  And I’m not just talking about the personal story, which has been roundly criticized although I think it does have its moments, but the attempt to tell compelling tales with the living world updates.

I’m going to put this out there right now: I think Guild Wars 2 should get out of the storytelling business and focus on its strengths.  Every two weeks we’re getting a bunch of stuff to do with a vestigial tail of a tale attached.  It’s really forgettable and has ceased to be a compelling reason to log in.

I’ve struggled with putting into words what exactly is *off* with the story here.  I know it is, because it’s not resonating with me in the least, and I just find that weird.  I’m more than willing to meet a game halfway in paying attention and not skipping past the quest text.  When I talk with friends in other games, this general disapproval (or at least complete apathy) regarding GW2′s storytelling comes up a lot.  For a game that gets a lot right — visuals, dynamic combat, a strong achievement system, a fun world to explore — it’s just got one of the most lackluster methods of telling stories.

I think the problem here is multi-fold:

  1. Guild Wars 2 does not have a traditional quest system in place to tell cohesive stories.  Instead, because ArenaNet was trying so hard to distance itself from its contemporaries, it’s handed developers a mess of disjointed tools to try to achieve the same result.  So the in-game mail system, achievement system, instances, and cutscenes are cobbled together to fill the gap, but we lose story cohesiveness in the process.  Let me say this clearly: Achievements are good for optional tasks and rewards.  Achievements are bad as a storytelling mechanism or a framing device.
  2. The writing just hasn’t gotten better.  I’m sorry, but it hasn’t.  I know some people live and breathe the lore of this game, but I don’t care about the history of Tyria until the game tells me a story that makes me want to care.  The recent Halloween update was really embarrassing with its new story addition that ended up being “summon a new bad guy out of a coffin, fight him with candy corn, go do a bunch of achievements to get a living candy corn elemental, put him back in his coffin.”  That’s not a story.  That’s a shopping list that puts me in danger of Type 2 Diabetes.
  3. Guild Wars 2 keeps wanting to go big, with epic world-changing or world-threatening events.  Yet the most interesting stories that I’ve encountered in the game are all smaller character pieces.  It’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how the Scooby Gang got so used to the apocalypse happening every week that it just became routine.  A bigger dragon isn’t going to make for a better story, but perhaps the tale of a family torn apart by a previous dragon attack would.
  4. As I’ve said before, I know pretty much every Secret World NPC by name and heart.  I would be very hard-pressed to name more than a couple of the stable of NPC characters that ArenaNet is using for its living story, and I think it’d be impossible for me to tell you much about them.  There’s the big-eyed Charr and that Ellen lady who won the election and some Scarlet chick who appeared out of nowhere.  Plus others.  They may be deeply written in the devs’ bible somewhere, but they come across as cardboard cutouts in the game.  Maybe this is just my perspective, but that’s not a good sign when your characters are so forgettable — AND when you’re putting the storytelling emphasis on them instead of, I don’t know, my character.
  5. One of the most-requested features I’ve seen is some sort of summary page or ways to re-live past story content so people can catch up on what’s going on.  This is telling.

Short of just plugging in a traditional quest system (which would set off riots because GW2 fans love their drama) or completely replacing the writers, I don’t see this game’s storytelling efforts as getting better.  And I say without malice that the team should perhaps ditch it entirely to create more world, more small events, and more content that can grow and shape the game.  GW2 has so many strengths that it seems a shame to ignore those in favor of trying to conquer this “living world” mountain instead of giving players what works.

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15 thoughts on “Guild Wars 2 should get out of the storytelling business

  1. I think some of that blame has to be put on the Personal Story system as well. It could’ve functioned as a perfect way to introduce the player the locals, current events, and new zones, but it instead strives so hard to be so separate from the world at large. Without any other way of delivering solid exposition to get me into the world and setting, all of the world quests just feel hollow, uninspired, and mechanical.

  2. I ‘m not going to step in and defend the quality of the writing because, well, it’s not good, is it? Nor am I going to argue that the make-do-and-mend approach to using every available game system to pretend there are no quests is an improvement on actually having quests. I’m not even going to quibble over whether the underlying lore is worthy of attention or not.

    I would, however, suggest that the current update does indicate that there *is* probably an underlying narrative structure here that is playing out over a very long timescale. They did say at the start of the Living Story that the intention was to replicate the narrative cycle of a long-running TV show and it seems to me that they might still have that in mind. Each individual episode adds just a tiny bit more to some ongoing continuity that will only become clear months from now.

    Whether that’s a viable way to deliver narrative in a game people play for hundreds, thousands of hours at a stretch, that I’m not so sure.

  3. I’ll admit that even having come back in to the game recently, I am avoiding the living story elements like the plague. As you said, I am far more involved with the “personal lives” of the NPCs in TSW than with any figure in GW2. I think the problem starts with the personal story and spirals from there, with the players becoming less and less the focus of the game story. However I believe WoW has suffered in a similar way, mistaking “adventurers” for “Heroes” and then still shoving them aside in favor of Beings that “truly” matter.

    We’ve had this conversation before, but part of the appeal of TSW for me is that the player character is so much a blank slate. Everything about their personality—up to and including their voice—is in my imagination. GW2′s PCs are not really mine, any more than SWTOR’s PCs are, despite the illusion of choice the game systems attempt to convey.

  4. I pretty much agree. I really liked Guild Wars 2, and still think it’s a stellar example of an MMO, especially with no subscription, but I haven’t seriously played since getting my second character to level 80 a few months back.

    Why? The game is too disjointed, and the storytelling is all about the NPCs and the things they’re doing. That works in a book, because you can put yourself in the shoes of the NPC (main character) while reading, and experience things through their eyes. That doesn’t work in a game, where you experience things through the eyes of the PC. If the PC is irrelevant to the story, the story is irrelevant to the player.

    Also, the constant stream of limited time events is tiring. I don’t have time to log in every day and play through all this stuff, just to have it disappear and be replaced with something else in 2 weeks. Chances are I don’t even have time to complete the current living story content before it vanishes forever, so why even bother? The longer I stay away, the more disconnected from the game I feel, and the less incentive I have to log back in. Not to mention I have multiple characters — so do I play the one I want to play, and divert from what I was doing to do the living story, or do I play a character I don’t want to play who is well geared and capable of more easily doing the living story, or do I ignore the living story because I don’t have time for it?

    Although I think the “living world” idea is clever, they need to have more permanent content additions to the game rather than all this limited time crap. Events are great, don’t get me wrong, but when most of your new content consists of limited time events, you’re not giving absent players much incentive to return. With a standard MMO, you can leave and come back 6 months later to explore 6 months worth of new content. With GW2, you return 6 months later to explore 2 weeks of new content and a smattering of permanent additions, because the rest of the developers hard work from the previous 6 months is gone forever.

    /facepalm

    That’s . . . just not a great idea for the long term appeal of a game.

  5. Their new release is showing that they are learning and improving. There is a permanent change to the landscape that was foreshadowed a forthnight ago, a story instance to introduce the content and a cutscene at the end, plenty of NPCs to chat about events, a few new events around the area, new mobs to fight, and this is only an introductory phase, there is no entry into the tower of nightmares yet. I don’t think any current MMO comes even close in terms of changing up their game world to create a narrative. Saying they shouldn’t spend time on dialogue and cutscenes when the characters don’t appeal to you is insulting to the effort and artistry that has gone into this release.

  6. You have hit it right on the head my friend.

    The problem is, they DO have a system in place to tell these types of stories and do so in a manner that can be relived and enjoyed well after their initial implementation. The Personal Story system.
    What was so good about the original Guild Wars had everything to do with story as well as the gameplay. We did not have “expansion” packs, as well as we had “mission sets”. The Personal Story system could (and should) be updated and used as a system of Missions that are added over time.

    This is the system that I was hoping to see. It is a system that kept me playing the Final Fantasy XI for a decade. It is a system that kept me coming back to play the original Guild Wars. When you tell a compelling story and there is need for group play to continue that story and there is actual payoff at the end, you just can’t get any better in an RPG and an MMO.

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  8. Completely agree.

    Storytelling has always been GW2′s weakest link, yet for some inexplicable reason it’s the one thing they’re trying to do the most of. It’s high time they just move on and focus on developing the kind of content they’re actually good at.

  9. I think my feelings on GW2′s story are pretty well-known at this point. It’s just appallingly bad, and it’s the main reason I haven’t played the game in nearly a year. I like nearly everything else about it, but if I’m going to devote myself to an MMO longterm, I need to care about the world and its characters, and GW2 utterly failed to get me invested in Tyria and its peoples.

    It’s not even delightfully cheesy like WoW’s story. It’s just shallow, dull, and poorly written.

  10. It is a shame that Anet changed the storytelling formula. A couple of months ago I finally got Eye of the North for Guild Wars so I could get my legacy rewards. I played through the content of EotN and the storytelling is so much better than GW2.

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  12. “Guild Wars 2 keeps wanting to go big, with epic world-changing or world-threatening events. Yet the most interesting stories that I’ve encountered in the game are all smaller character pieces.”

    This is my issue with the living story tbh

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  14. Living story – two-weekly installments of unfailingly excellent gameplay, merged with guaranteed-to-be-terrible storytelling.

    Sack the writers and hire some more programmers, imho.

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