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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.