Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
Platform: Microsoft Windows, OS X
This blog post contains a narrative deconstruction for the MMO Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns. Deconstructions take a look at an aspect of a game, in this case narrative, and then break it down. Each piece is then analyzed for the most important elements, which work together to create that game’s particular experience. I will start with a basic overview, for readers who aren’t familiar with the game, and then look at the two most important elements of the game’s narrative experience, the personal story and the event system, and how they enhance and conflict with a strong delivery of narrative. After that, I will go further in depth by looking at two of the more specific elements of the game’s narrative, the player’s voice and NPC usage, and the successes and failures of both.
Unsurprisingly, everything after this point contains a risk of spoilers for the game’s story. Consider yourself warned!
The Large Scale
The primary way that Heart of Thorns tells its narrative is through the Personal Story. This is a series of quests, divided up into acts and then into chapters, which guide the player and their party of NPCs through the specific discoveries and encounters that create the Commander’s journey. Each chapter takes place in a personal instance, a small map created exclusively for the player, which only they (and invited friends) are able to access.
Within this instance, players will experience a short, scripted piece of their story. This generally follows the pattern of fording into unexplored territory, discovering a plot-significant encounter (either with enemies or allies), fighting past the enemy or enemies that stand between the player and their goal, and then reaching a small resolution, which concludes that chapter and provides the information that leads the player into the next chapter. Each chapter therefore provides a piece of progression, both for the character’s plot, and for understanding why the broader map looks and behaves the way it does.
There are a few occasions when the personal story is not instanced, and instead takes place in the normal game map. During these times, the quest changes almost exclusively to the character gathering information, collecting items, or following a trail. It never relies upon scripted combat encounters, which could drastically change in difficulty depending on the behavior of the other players in the map.
Because the personal story is almost always instanced, both developers and players do not need to take into account the aid (or interference) that may come from other players. This ensures that the player is always able to lead their own story, finding the path forward, confronting powerful opponents or waves of enemies head on, and the player’s action is completely essential to driving the story forwards. In essence, it makes the player the hero of their own tale.
The personal story is both enhanced and balanced by Guild Wars’ event system, which is the core of Guild Wars’ narrative outside of the singleplayer instances. The event system is ArenaNet’s solution to counteract the static feel of maps in many MMOs, and attempt to create a living world. Events are a small snippet of story, where the NPCs of the world are attempting to achieve a goal. This can range from small missions, like escorting an NPC to a location or collecting a particular item, to massive chains of events that can span an entire map, and require tens of players to successfully complete. Events often take place whether the player, or any player, is present to participate. For this reason, while the player is roaming through the open maps they will almost inevitably encounter an ongoing event. Players are able to encounter an event part way through, and can choose to join the event, often working with other players, or pass it by. Playing through events naturally gives players a sense of the ongoing conflict of a particular map, and gives them an opportunity to participate in finding a resolution to that conflict.
Each map has one or more “Meta Event”, which tells the story of the largest conflicts present in that area. Meta events are dynamic event chains, which require groups of players working together to successfully overcome each challenge. The event is only successful if enough players are present to overcome each stage. These events are the primary way the player is able to influence the game’s narrative on a larger scale. They allow teams of players to temporarily alter the status quo of the map, potentially calling in reinforcements for a fight, opening portals to create new paths, or otherwise altering the balance of power between enemies and allies.
Unlike the static maps that are usually found in MMO’s, the events create cycles within the maps, and makes the world feel more like an alive and changing place. While players are never able to cause a permanent change in the world, this temporary alteration of the map allows players to not only witness the story that is taking place, but also participate directly in the ongoing narrative.
Events, both large and small, also ensure that players will always have something to do while they are exploring the map. They also serve to help fill in spaces of what might otherwise be a large, empty world. This allows players to witness the ongoing conflicts within the map, and make a choice about whether or not they want to participate in finding a resolution to this particular conflict.
The Inherent Conflict Between the Personal Story and the Map
When the players are roaming around in the open map, participating in events and exploring with other players, there are no constraints on where they are able to explore in the Heart of Thorns maps. However, a large portion of the events that take place in the personal story relate to the player fording deeper into unexplored territory, opening passageways that were previously sealed and revealing new portions of the map. If a player wants to maintain their suspension of disbelief on this journey of exploration, they have two choices. Either they are either going to have to limit their participation in events to areas they have already explored, or they will have to choose to willfully disregard large portions of the events they have completed while roaming in the open world. After all, it is almost inevitable that following a chain of events, or even roaming ahead with simple exploration, will lead the player to encounter areas that they aren’t supposed to have found yet, or shouldn’t have been able to find, by the chronology of the personal story. Within their personal story, the player will then have to go through the effort of “unlocking” the new area, despite the fact that they have been there before, perhaps many times before, while they were roaming the open world.
With the way ArenaNet has framed Heart of Thorns, this conflict is almost unavoidable. By ensuring that the map is open to exploration, players who have grown used to being able to venture anywhere they please at their own time will not find their usual gameplay experience interrupted. This is especially true for those who haven’t entered a map for the sake of the story. However, players who do care about narrative coherence within the gameplay will have to disregard the discrepancies in their player character’s timeline to maintain a logical and cohesive story.
The Small Scale
Giving Characters a Voice
Up until the Heart of Thorns expansion pack, there was one major flaw in the personal storytelling. This was the fact that ArenaNet had chosen not to give the player character a voice, literally the ability to speak, in most major situations. There was voice acting to some extent, but outside of major cutscenes, where the player character would interact with one, maybe two characters and speak a few predefined lines, they would otherwise remain completely silent. In many situations, this made the player character feel like a ghost, following someone else who was leading the story.
This flaw was finally resolved in Heart of Thorns, when the player character became able to speak on the open map, both in and out of the personal story. For once, the Commander was able to actually take charge of a mission, give orders to those following them, and express their opinions on the people and situations they encountered. This changed the Commander from a tool for the player to help other characters complete their objectives, into a character in their own right, with a unique set of personalities and beliefs.
Of course, this does have the flaw that it risks breaking the complete integration between the player and their character. The lines spoken out in the open cannot be chosen by the player, instead, they are dictated by the game. This means it becomes more than possible for the Commander to speak a line or profess an opinion that the player’s version of the Commander would never have spoken.
In some ways, this decision creates the same risk that the conflicts between the personal story and free exploration cause. There is a chance that the player will either have to choose to rewrite the story in their own minds, or alter their own character’s personality to match up with what they are saying in the game. Overall, however, this decision was a vast improvement, because it made the narrative feel more player-centric. Before this point the player character was supposed to be a leader, but they never actually got the chance to lead, only to follow orders silently. Now the player gets a chance to lead their team, even if the orders they are issuing are chosen by someone else.
The Risk of NPCs
Throughout the entirety of Heart of Thorns, there is a small group of NPCs that follow the player character throughout their story. These characters were introduced to the player a long time ago, and have shown little to no significant character development over the time that the player knows them. That isn’t to say they don’t suffer tragedies, almost every character within the plot has suffered some sort of loss or tribulation in their history, but they are all essentially one-dimensional, defined by the one or two character archetypes that drive their personality. Even worse, many of these archetypes are not developed beyond the stereotypes of the race that character represents. Taimi is the physically weak but intelligent Asura, able to use her brains to deus ex the player past any technological problem. Brahm is the strong, independent, and arrogant Norn, and Rytlock is the battle-hungry Charr who’d rather kill anything that gets in his way than try to avoid a fight.
ArenaNet shows little inclination to ever move past the continued use of these same stereotyped NPCs. One of the most intriguing characters in the story from my perspective, a giant frog-man named Tizlak, only shows up twice through the entire story. If an NPC is not one of the major NPC’s within Guild Wars lore, they are destined to be used once or twice and then forgotten about, their personal depth never reaching further than exactly what they need to show for their small snippet of plot.
Placing the emphasis on the major characters does allow the player to form a stronger connection with these characters, and therefore care more about their moments of suffering than they might otherwise. However, the lack of a diverse, compelling, and dynamic cast of NPCs within the story weakens a plot that otherwise could have been much stronger.
The narrative content within Heart of Thorns is a notable improvement off of traditional Guild Wars content. ArenaNet made choices, including giving the player character an actual voice within the game, that put the player front and center within the action, rather than leaving them as someone to witness and aid another’s journey. However, like many games, Heart of Thorns is still missing some of the basic story mechanics that would raise its narrative from “good for a game” to “stellar”. This includes spending more time on story flow and interesting NPCs.