Epic Storytelling - Guild Wars 2 vs. Its Contenders

Updated Wed, Jul 25, 2012 by gunky

From what we saw in the Beta Weekend Event, Guild Wars 2 is a very big, complex game. I come from an Epic PvE background - both Star Wars: the Old Republic and the Lord of the Rings Online center around grand-scale stories with world-changing events and legendary battles. GW2 promises the same thing, but what it delivers is very different from either of these.

The Narrative

The PvE in Guild Wars 2 is centered around the "personal story," which has a rough equivalent in Star Wars: The Old Republic's class stories and the Lord of the Rings Online's epic books. The GW2 personal story is, in some ways, more refined than either of these equivalents because it is tailored to the specific character.

GW2 Sylvari Ranger

What's this Sylvari's story? The Guild Wars 2 personal story system will reveal it.

In SWTOR, the class story is a one-size-fits-all narrative. It progresses the same regardless of the character's background, race or advanced class selection - a Cyborg Juggernaut gets the same story as a Pureblood Sith Marauder.

LotRO's epic books are even more generic. Everybody gets the same story, beginning to end, with only minor variations here and there. A Hunter will get a different vision from Galadriel at the conclusion of Volume II Book 6 than, say, a Guardian or Captain, but getting to that particular chapter follows the exact same path regardless of class and race.

In GW2, there is a lot more personalization, based on character background decisions made during character creation. For example, the character I rolled for the beta weekend was a Norn Warrior, a brutish thug who, according to the selections I made during his creation, got black-out drunk at a moot and ended up stealing a siege weapon and taking it for a joyride. And that's the story I played out - a medieval-warrior version of "Dude, Where's My Car?"

The Style

Style-wise, GW2 falls somewhere between the brilliant voice-acted cut scene dialogues of SWTOR and the rather archaic "wall of text" quest bestowals and turn-ins of LotRO.

In SWTOR, nearly every mission involves some kind of dialogue, with branching decision trees and multiple possible outcomes. These dialogues are fully voiced and animated. You watch the characters move around and do things just like they would in a movie. This is one of the major selling-points of SWTOR, and it is done very well.

LOTRO Riders of Rohan scenery Guild Wars 2 Sylvari - The Grove

A scene from LotRO's Riders of Rohan expansion (right), and Guild Wars 2's Sylvari city, The Grove (left).

LotRO uses a much older, tried-and-true quest system: talk to the NPC with the ring over his head, read the (sometimes very long) page of motivations for killing ten rats, click Accept. This has been the MMO standard for many years, and though it is now really showing its age, it's still perfectly adequate. Especially for LotRO - it is much easier to keep with the style and tone of the Professor using the written word.

GW2 is kind of a hybrid of these two systems. The personal story is delivered in installments which are fully voiced, but the cut scenes are much, much simpler than those of SWTOR. What you get is two characters facing one another on a painterly background, talking about what's happening. You don't make decisions in these dialogues, you just watch the movie. Occasionally, the cut scene will inform you of a decision you have to make - for example, do you tell the army leader you want to set up an ambush, or that you wish to stage a frontal assault? - but these decisions are made via clicking on text boxes with no animated voice overs.

It's more "current" than LotRO's old-timey text boxes, but not as dynamic as SWTOR's "choose your adventure" type dialogues. And this is only for the personal story - the generic landscape quests are delivered via text boxes... or, in the case of dynamic events, they appear automatically on your tracker when you get near the area in which they are happening, with no associated dialogue of any kind. Dynamic events, however, are not part of the storytelling, and are a topic for another discussion.

The Characters and Tone

What epic Player versus Environment gameplay really boils down to is memorable characters.

LotRO uses iconic characters from Tolkien's universe to tell its stories. The characters that do not come directly from Tolkien often feel as though they do - the Dunedain rangers of the Grey Company are not really given a lot of face-time in the novels, but the LotRO NPC versions really seem to belong in that world. Players rub elbows with some very important people, and the stories they forge feel almost as epic and meaningful as the adventures of the Fellowship of the Ring.

SWTOR draws from a different well: rather than using a set of established, iconic characters (excluding Revan, of course), it uses the iconic setting and builds memorable characters within that framework. The NPCs are occasionally memorable because they are archetypical - Sith Lords are universally despicable tyrants, Jedi are universally compassionate Lawful-Goods. Some NPCs, like my bro Khem Val or my other bro Malavai Quinn, are memorable just because they are so very well-written. The key, really, is that it is all more or less consistent - everything feels like it belongs.

Star Wars: The Old Republic smuggler

Behind every good smuggler there's a great story.

GW2 has no massive Intellectual Property to draw from, and is a kind of gonzo mish-mash of weird. Each of the non-human races can be summed up in 3 words:

Charr - militaristic demon cats
Norn - giant deathmetal dwarves
Sylvari - tree elf furries
Asura - Manga Yoda gnomes

This is further complicated by the addition quasi-steampunk elements to the typical fantasy fare. You have your industry-standard sword-swinging Warriors, magic-flinging Elementalists, bow-stringing Rangers, and gun-slinging Engineers who drop (apparently) steam-powered artillery on the battlefield and huck grenades. Also you can buy cosmetic aviator sunglasses.

And because the Guild Wars 2 universe is already so over-the-top, the NPCs come across as, well, rather bland. I don't mean this as a criticism - the interaction of all these weird elements works in a quirky and entertaining way, but the NPCs need to be a little bit tame in order for the player to have something to relate to.

Of course, part of that is me coming at this setting with essentially zero knowledge of the universe, and only reaching level 21 over the course of the beta event. My character never got to see elder dragons or the other epic high-level stuff, and I never played the original Guild Wars. People who are familiar with the major players in the original Guild Wars, and in the books and such built around that universe, will have a very different perspective.

GW2 Norn

The Norn in Guild Wars 2 - Giant death metal dwarves? You be the judge.

Apparently, my Norn character met famous heroes of significant importance to the lore, quite early on in his career. They were exactly as over-the-top and ramped-up as everything else in the game - larger than life, twice as ugly, and infinitely more likely to wear spike-covered armor and use a giant sword -  and failed to make a lasting impression on me. But the same could happen to a player trying out LotRO for the first time who has never read the novels or seen the movies and has no idea who Strider is. Or to a SWTOR player who never played Knights of the Old Republic and has no idea who Revan is.

Ultimately, it's unfair to compare the Guild Wars IP to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are monolithic and have had decades to build up massive cult followings. Guild Wars has only been around since 2005, and though it is one of the top ten best-selling games of all time, it has nowhere near the cultural saturation of the older, bigger properties.

Going in with basically no expectations, but coming from a tradition of strong storytelling, I found the GW2 system of storytelling to be a bit jarring. The familiar elements combined with the bizarre pastiche of the setting kind of blindsided me at first, but once I started to embrace the craziness and stopped comparing it to the venerable, established IPs I was used to, it got a lot more interesting.

Never ever played anything more appropriate to title then SWTOR, but still for sure I'm looking forward to try gw2 (despite being completely uninterested to continue playing original gw for month or so of gameplay). To immersion ads a loooooot voice acting, realising only now with games with superb voice acting, mainly AOC and SWTOR. But SWTOR has so many incredible twists in story line, that is unbelievable. I.e. at the end you discover that one of your ally since start is actually undercover agent, ... or you must sacrifice one ex contact to save other innocent people, ... or discover that top Jedi is actually Emperor agent, .... and more and more and more (but more would also ad to much spoiling :-)).

I was a big fan of the original GW and played it from 2006 to midway through 2010. I got bored as there was hardly any new content to play. When the last expansion "The Eye of The North" came out they announced that GW2 was in the works. I was very excited about this but I had to wait for a number of years before it came out. I the meantime I decided to try Aion. At first I really liked it, but being hopeless at PvP I found out very quickly how very annoying it was to be ganked frequently. I love PvE and when your progress is halted by other players constantly I found myself not wanting to play. Also, I found out from level 20+ it was the same old grind fest, collect this, collect that, kill this and kill that. This made the game very tedious. Then I heard the SWTOR was in the pipeline and, being a big Star Wars fan, I found myself really looking forward to it.
Finally when it was released I had the chance to play an MMO again and I absolutley love it. The characters and storylines are just brilliant. Ok, so what I have heard is that it is WoW in the Star Wars universe. I never played WoW so I wouldn't know but they really seem to have got this game right.
I pre-ordered GW2, I was still excited about re-visiting Kryta once more. I got to play the final beta and I found myself totally confused and bored by the lane stories that were presented to me. The graphics are beautiful but the cut scenes for your story leave a lot to be desired. I guess I was spoiled with SWTOR and there great way of telling stories, but after all, your characters story is what drives you to play the game, unless you play purely to PvP.
The bottom line is, I never really gave GW2 a chance, having only played it for about 4 hours. But I have paid for the game and I will play it some more upon release, besides it is free to play once you have paid fot it. I wil continue to play SWTOR until such times as I can't afford it anymore or I get bored with it (which, as of right now, I can't see happening).
IMO they pushed GW2 too far by trying to be very different from other MMO's in the way it is presented. The artsy way of telling stories and instances, but I feel they sacrificed story for the glitz and beauty of the game. How very dissapointing this is. What's that expression? "If it ain't broken, don't fix it"?

May I suggest, sir, that when you do go back to play at release, you forget what you know about how to play MMO's, and just take your time in the world? Explore a bit, stick around after an event ends to see what happens next or watch the npc's. What you find might surprise you.

As a long time follower and friend of you and your articles gunky, I have to respectfully disagree with you here. I prepurchased GW2 and have played all three beta weekends, and would like to point out that if the cutscene dialogue is the only aspect of the GW2 story that you're analyzing, you're really missing the whole point of GW2.

The immersion in GW2 really comes from the innovative quest system and the incentives they give for just going out into the world and exploring the intricate universe they've created. Most of the starter zones that were available in the beta were merely there to set the stage for the epic plot twists they're about to unveil on us in about a month when we gain access to the whole story. Like you stated, we have not yet seen a dragon, the main villains in the game, and I would expect the story to pick up significantly when that happens, and you'll see those heros such as Eir, Ritlock, Logan, Caithe and Zojja start to become those iconic figures that you're talking about.

Most of the starter zones, however, are spent cementing the history and tradition of each of the races, allowing us to explore the issues and problems facing each race on a day-to-day basis. The story telling is not just done by the cutscenes. If you get a chance to get into game again, spend some time just walking around town listening to townsfolk, do some of the heart quests (the ones in the asura zone are particularly good at identifying them as a race and providing the player with a means of attachment to the race), or complete a few dynamic event chains (not just show up and finish the event, but stick around and see what happens afterwards, the interactions that go on after events are some of the best storytelling i've seen in a video game). Pay attention to the little things and you really start to grow attached to those races that you knew nothing about going into the game. (I hated the asura in GW1, but I really like the little devils now, and I think you'll find there's a lot more to them than Manga Yoda Gnomes if you just hang around and enjoy the game as you progress.)

The one thing a definitely do agree with you on is your last sentence. You really can't compare this game to traditional mmo's. It's different!!! The combat is different, the quest system is different, the story-line is different... You have to get out of the way you traditionally think about an mmo, "Quest, Quest, Quest... Kill, Kill, Kill... Loot, Loot, Loot...) and think of it as a venture in exploration. Don't grind, don't quest, don't try to find the easiest way to get through the game, just go out there and try to find something cool by exploring; talk to people, go try to climb that mountain, go run over to that castle just to see what's going on. If you do that, then I think that elusive story that you were looking for will smack you right in the face.

Sorry buddy, but GW2's questing is not 'innovative'. Instead of giving you a total number of mobs you have to kill. It just shows up as a meter. . .you still have to kill X amount of rats(or whatever else). Same thing with collection quests. . .you're still running around and collecting X of something and it fills up a meter.

Just because it's not telling you 15 out of 30 rats killed. . .doesn't make it 'innovative'.

Actually, what you are describing would be part of a dynamic event chain, and everyone who participates in that event would contribute to the slider. An example would be a quest where you help a child collect armor pieces that he wants to use to create scarecrows to scare away the mobs that hurt his dad. After that event finishes, if you follow the child, you can watch him set up the scarecrows, watch the mobs come and run away scared, watch 2 of the mobs bring back a shaman, who tells them they are idiots, and who then brings the scarecrows to life, setting up a rather long chain of events that leads to your killing an uber powerful champion of an elder dragon.

It is innovative, and immersive, and incredibly fun.

The equivalent of a regular quest in GW2 would he the hearts, and instead of requiring you to "kill x amount of rats", it would give you a choice of things you could do to help in that area- what you do is up to you.

btw, the norn are a race based upon nordic themes, so yes, drinking and crude behavior is a large part of their lifestyle, but I don't think you do them justice without discussing their connection with the natural world, their belief in the spirits of the wild, their feelings towards the great hunt and how their whole civilization is motivated and connected by these connections with nature and their animistic religious views. I don't see the death-metal connection with them at all. There's not a single piece of spike-covered armor in the picture above. In fact, most of their racial armor is very earthy and covered in furs or tribal markings.

I definitely agree, Mitchwise.

Furthermore, I can't find much about the Asurans that is similar to Yoda beyond some slight appearance.

I think that most MMO players will need to free themselves from their expectations and try to smell the coffee in this game for once instead of racing to the top and looking around for some dungeons to raid repeatedly. Arenanet has said that there are many stories in GW2 rather than the over-arcing story lines that GW1 had, so it is not even tying itself down to repeating what it accomplished with GW1. We should all be forewarned to expect something unique and perhaps stop trying to compare it to the familiar.

I was struck this third weekend by the humorous touches the writers had injected into the Sylvari, Asuran, and yes, even the Norn personal stories I found myself experiencing. Once again I was reminded by the writers/developers that their Prime Objective for GW2 is to show us a good time. Maybe we need to relax and let them do that.

The key to your entire critique of GW2 lies in the last sentence.

"The familiar elements combined with the bizarre pastiche of the setting kind of blindsided me at first, but once I started to embrace the craziness and stopped comparing it to the venerable, established IPs I was used to, it got a lot more interesting."

The other games you talk about can be played just like the game they copied, WoW. I realize they both have ideas incorporated that improve on WoW, ie SWToR's storytelling, but when you really break it down, those games are WoW with a few bells and whistles. Hell, before ToR was released, I saw an interview where one of their developers said that not following modeling a new MMO after WoW was financial suicide. That told me everything I needed to know. Yes, ToR did really well at telling a story, but their world was bland and lifeless.

Guild Wars 2 cannot be played like WoW. Well, it could, but a person playing it that way probably won't enjoy it. I have played WoW for years, and when I played the first Beta Weekend for GW2, it took me a full day of not enjoying the game AT ALL before I realized the problem wasn't the game, it was the way I was playing it. Once I realized that the story is all through the world, and that rushing from heart to heart was causing me to miss most of it, I started to enjoy GW2 more than I had enjoyed a game in years.

If you enjoy rushing from place to place to finish the game as fast as possible, you might not like GW2. But, if you like exploring a world that rewards you for doing so, then you will find something to love in GW2. If that comes from sticking around to see what happens after a dynamic event (hint: usually another dynamic event that you would miss if you left), finding a hidden jumping puzzle with a chest at the end, listening to the hilarious dialog between a couple npc's (there is an absolutely HUGE amount of voice acting in GW2), figuring out that copying the song a nearby npc is humming on the piano close to him unlocks a secret, or just watching the moa trainer teach her birds to dance, depends on you.

I’m truly enjoying the words and writing style of your blog. It's immediate catch other's attention which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here.
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