Editorials

Does ArenaNet Do Death Well?

While we as the player character are never able to die permanently in Guild Wars 2, the same cannot be said for our NPC allies. After all, when you’re warring with dragons, gods, and undead liches, there are bound to be some casualties. But from a narrative standpoint, what do these deaths mean to us? Do they shock us or make us sad, angry, or disappointed? Do they occur so often the impacts become blunted? And are the deaths themselves fitting? Do heroes die a hero’s death or are they swatted down by a not-even-veteran average Joe enemy?

This article looks at all of the allied NPC deaths in the game, from the gates of Arah to the sandblasted deserts of Elona. I’ve divided the article into three parts: the personal story and Living World Seasons 1 and 2, Heart of Thorns and Living World Season 3, and Path of Fire to present day. I’ll be covering the character deaths in chronological order so you can get a better idea of how the developers’ rendering of, and stance toward, death has evolved. For each, I’ll be providing ratings on a scale of 1–10 for execution (pun intended), narrative significance, and emotional impact. Keep in mind that this article will be more spoilery than usual, so if you haven’t played a certain part of the story yet, you might want to turn the page.

The Personal Story

Your Order Mentor

Execution: 6
Narrative Significance: 5
Emotional Impact: 6–9

As soon as you’re finished with your racial storyline, you choose an order to be inducted into and meet your mentor. If you choose the Durmand Priory, your mentor is a rash, curious, and excitable sylvari called Sieran. If you go with the Order of Whispers, you meet Tybalt Leftpaw, a friendly, modest, and goofy charr engineer with something to prove. If you call the Vigil your home, you accompany Forgal Kernsson, a gruff old military man who thinks actions speak louder than words. No matter what order you chose, your mentor dies in the attack on Claw Island, single-handedly holding off the Risen so you and the Lionguard can get to safety.

Your mentor expresses their gratitude to you: Sieran, for showing her friendship is just as important as adventure; Tybalt, for trusting him and coaxing him out of his shell; and Forgal for bringing meaning to his life after the death of his mate and children. They are all willing to die for the cause, disappearing slowly but purposefully through the gates of the fort, Risen charging toward them.The only consequence it has on the story is that it allows you and some survivors to get off the island and rally forces to retake it. But overall, Claw Island holds little importance to the story as a whole.

The emotional impact probably depends on who your mentor was and how close you felt to them. Tybalt has a cult following in the community of being the saddest death that caused quite a stir. Since he’s such a genial, try-hard character that’s easy to relate to, you can see why. Nevertheless, you can feel equally bad for Sieran and Forgal. Sieran because she was so keen to see more of the world and had started to be grounded by working with you. And Forgal because you softened him up and developed a true partnership once you had proven yourself.

Pact Allies

Execution: 1–2
Narrative Significance: 1–5
Emotional Impact: 1–5

If the fact that I’m grouping several NPCs together here doesn’t tell you anything, I don’t know what will. The allies included in this grouping are Tonn, Tegwen, Zott, Sam Beirne, Ferghen, Kekt, Arda Greyshriek, and Grechen.

Throughout the personal story we rally many allies to the cause to fight Zhaitan. Mercenaries and demolitionists, corporals and shamans. Unfortunately, we never get to know most of them well. If you’re a sylvari, you might have spent time saving and fighting alongside Tegwen before she formed the Pale Reavers. If you’re a norn and insisted that honoring the spirits is important to you, there’s a slim chance you remember Ferghen, the tracker who enlists your and Eir’s help to soothe the minotaur spirit. Generally though, these characters are downright unmemorable.

The poor execution rating is because many of the deaths take place off-screen and some don’t even warrant a cutscene. Some, like Corporal Beirne’s, are ridiculously scripted and unnecessary. Even if you’re breezing through Archmage Harshaf’s health bar, you will still be interrupted by a cutscene in which you can only watch as he kills Beirne. As the player, sometimes we’ll be unable to save everyone, whether because we aren’t in the right place at the right time or because it happens too quickly. But honestly ArenaNet, we were standing right there! Others die without you even knowing just so they can become Risen fodder later. I guess they thought that would be more meaningful?

For some like Tonn and Tegwen, there is decent narrative significance because their deaths allow the Pact to strike definitive blows against Zhaitan. Tonn stays behind to detonate a series of ghostfire charges in a Risen troop ship. Tegwen distracts Risen giants and destroys a temple so you can escort tanks deeper in Orr.

Allies like these carry the most emotional impact. Although you probably won’t get too choked up about Tonn’s death, his wife Ceera certainly does. After grieving, she continues with her duties as Pact medic and assists sylvari and other races alike in the campaign against Mordremoth. As I mentioned, you can theoretically spend a fair amount of time with Tegwen, and her bond with Carys is touching. Finally, Beirne leaves behind his coyote companion, Allie, who is adopted by Deborah. That’s right, ArenaNet went down the pet sympathy route.

Belinda Delaqua

Execution: 2
Narrative Significance: 3
Emotional Impact: 1

Poor Belinda. Introduced in the Dead End bar during the aftermath of Scarlet’s War, Marjory Delaqua’s sister was killed off unceremoniously two episodes later by a Mordrem vine while defending Fort Salma.

Belinda’s death is usually seen as a cheap shot – and with good reason. We didn’t know she existed until she appeared on-screen, and if you were unable to play Season 1, you’ll first discover her even later in Tangle Root near the entrance to Dry Top. Narratively, her death was entirely preventable if only she hadn’t been sent as a messenger to Fort Salma. We didn’t know much about her and we don’t even see her demise. It seems ArenaNet expected our emotions to ride the wave of Marjory’s grief, but apart from a brief crying stint in front of her sister’s dead body, Marjory’s mourning also takes place off-screen. For those reasons, I rate the execution and emotional impact poorly.

Her narrative rating is slightly higher because her death did cause some tension between Marjory and Kasmeer. It was likely also a factor in Marjory’s decision to tail Lazarus after the mursaat’s supposed return. Marjory taking up her sister’s sword, which had Belinda’s soul trapped inside, also paved the way for the necromancer’s first elite specialization, the reaper.

Heart of Thorns

Eir

Execution: 8
Narrative Significance: 8
Emotional Impact: 7

At the beginning of Heart of Thorns, we venture into the jungle trying to survive, looking for our lost allies, and figuring out what to do in the ruins of our grand plan to infiltrate Magus Falls. Eventually we find Eir and Faolin trapped in vine pods, starved and dehydrated. We free them, but a Mordrem vinetooth chases them down. Eir is shanked in the torso with a thorn by Faolin and then impaled by the vinetooth. Her death is fairly cinematic and pretty unexpected considering the only deaths we had encountered so far were people we weren’t very connected to.

Narratively, her death is important for Braham’s character development. He had just started reconciling with his mother and admiring her legend when she dies before his eyes. He takes it poorly to say the least, lashing out at the player character and impetuously leading a band of norn into the northern Shiverpeaks to confront Jormag. We barely pull him out in time after realizing Jormag’s death would be cataclysmic for Tyria.

Though Eir is arguably the first major death in the game, the emotional impact is blunted a little because we hadn’t seen much of her prior to her death. We last truly interacted with her early in Season 2, when we were trying to convince Knut Whitebear to come to the Pale Tree’s summit. Also, unless you played a norn, did the dungeons, or read the novel Edge of Destiny, you won’t have the full story of Destiny’s Edge and her death won’t have as much weight.

Trahearne

Execution: 6
Narrative Significance: 4
Emotional Impact: 4–6

Pact Marshal Trahearne dies at the end of Heart of Thorns. He’s been taken and, despite his fierce resistance as a Firstborn sylvari, is partially corrupted by Mordremoth by the time we find him. He insists we take his broken sword, Caladbolg, and finish him off before Mordremoth can fully take his mind and return. Because we realize it isn’t over even after we’ve fought Mordremoth and struck the killing blow, the execution is rated above average.

His death leaves the position of Pact Marshal vacant, which we later refuse and Logan Thackeray eventually fills. Logan’s branching out and acceptance that Queen Jennah can take care of herself is an important part of his character arc, but it hasn’t proven so for the story yet. Aside from that, Trahearne’s Wyld Hunt had already been completed and he was relegated to a pencil-pushing background character at that point. Thus, the narrative significance of his death is low.

Much like your order mentor, the emotional impact of Trahearne’s death depends on how much you liked him. Many players in the community complained that Trahearne was a glory-hog or, at the very least, he received credit for the Commander’s victories. Still, Trahearne was with us for a long time, throughout basically the entire story if you are a sylvari. Wise and committed, if a bit dull, Trahearne’s death might have been a little upsetting, but we come away with the feeling that he didn’t die prematurely.

Demmi Beetlestone

Execution: 9
Narrative Significance: 5
Emotional Impact: 2–5

Demmi Beetlestone, daughter of Legate Minister and Confessor of the White Mantle, Caudecus Beetlestone, dies at the end of a pistol barrel, killed by her father’s own hand. When she discovered the basement of brutes in their manor and suspected Caudecus of murdering her own mother, Demmi reached out to the Order of Whispers. During the Order’s storyline, you wade through a gaggle of pirates and sneak through Lion’s Arch, bringing Demmi to her salvation on the Chantry of Secrets’ doorstep. Caudecus’ man, Commander Landon, tracks Demmi down and a confrontation ensues with a handful of exploding apple barrels, resulting in Landon’s death.

The execution of Demmi’s death is cinematic and sudden. She’s shot by her own father after previously escaping him and returning to right the wrongs he’s committed. Her death is key to the narrative as it causes Valette Wi grief and regret. In Valette’s remorse, she agrees to portal everyone down to the sanctum where a bloodstone-crazed Caudecus meets his demise.

The emotional payoff varies since you won’t have interacted with Demmi if you never played the Order of Whispers storyline. Even if you did join the Order, the mission to dispatch Caudecus is the first instance in which you are able interact with her since taking steps to retake Claw Island in the personal story. Regardless, Demmi’s kindness, confidence, and connection to Tybalt make her death a little more prominent.
Path of Fire

Vlast

Execution: 7
Narrative Significance: 8
Emotional Impact: 2–4

Vlast, Glint’s offspring, is killed by Balthazar soon after we hear of his existence. Practically, as a young adult dragon, Vlast couldn’t have stuck around during Path of Fire. He would have made our journey a lot easier and been a power creep to us as player characters. Combining that with his fiery, explosive death and the array of shimmering rainbow-laced yellow crystals lying around, and the execution is high.

The implications of his death for the story are massive. Balthazar gains power. We lose an ally. Aurene is traumatized. The only thing we have left of Vlast are his scattered memories. And later we discover we lost a potential vessel to contain the wild dragon magic in Tyria. This leaves us with a question: is Aurene enough to absorb the magic of not one but multiple Elder Dragons?

The emotional impact is small since we see him for the first time moments before his death and we only hear about him a couple story steps prior. But if you played Guild Wars: Eye of the North, you might remember defending Vlast when he was naught but an unborn dragon in a crystalline egg protected by the Dwarven Brotherhood. In that case, you might feel more of a connection to Glint’s offspring.

The Player Character

Execution: 10
Narrative Significance: 10
Emotional Impact: 10

After a long, idle, completely black screen, we see our character as a small orb of light – a spirit in the Underworld so damaged and confused we were sent to the Domain of the Lost. We were killed by Balthazar in a surprising confrontation atop a spire in the Elon Riverlands. Why is our death rated so highly across the board? First, we didn’t see it coming. We never expected to encounter Balthazar during the instance and I’m sure quite a few people didn’t have great builds prepared for the ensuing fight. Second, we had to give it our all. The fight was drawn out but all along Balthazar was just toying with us. He killed us easily, making it seem as though Vlast’s sacrifice was for nothing. That gives the execution a 10.

Of course the death of the player character is inherently huge for the narrative. It’s a card developers can generally only play once. We died in Factions to Shiro Tagachi and we die to Balthazar in Path of Fire. It’s a big event but because of that it’s a trick that can’t keep happening. So far, our death has affected the story in two big ways. The first is that we find Palawa Joko and cook up the idea to steal his army and leave him trapped in the Underworld. This ensures he develops a grudge against us. The second is that since we have died already and carry with us the scent of the Mists, we are unaffected by the Scarab Plague, as the bugs infect only living or recently dead hosts. This allows us to stomp scarab swarms and confront Joko directly in Gandara.

The emotional impact is a perfect 10 not just because it’s our customized character, but also because of the circumstances. One thing to consider is we aren’t sure of Aurene’s fate back in Tyria. Last we saw she was tethered by magical chains, chirping painfully because she couldn’t save us. But there’s also what we endure in the Domain of the Lost. Since our death was so harrowing, we have to find our soul and discover who we were and what our purpose in life was. This takes us on a journey down memory lane, facing scenes from the prologue just after character creation, through early Living World content we can’t otherwise re-experience, all the way to our rearing of Aurene and death at Balthazar’s hands. Watching five years of MMO content – five years of memories, laughs, and triumphs for us as real players – was wistful, sentimental, nostalgic, and even a little melancholic.

Blish

Execution: 8
Narrative Significance: 6
Emotional Impact: 7

Blish, an Inquest asura we rescued from the chaos in Rata Primus, had transferred his consciousness into the body of a golemite. Presumably, he isn’t dead per se, but he turned his higher functions off indefinitely to power a tracker consumed by Kralkatorrik.

As players, we don’t even see Blish’s death. We leave him in an undisclosed location in the Mists at his urging that he can’t be Branded by Kralkatorrik and he’ll catch up with us as soon as he’s able. Rather, he tells us the truth as we hop away on our raptors to a rift opened by the long-dead dragon Glint. And that’s what makes the execution so good – we can’t turn back even if we want to because we’re already halfway across the Mists.

We don’t fully know the narrative significance of his death yet, though there is one important thing to remember. Blish was planning to help Taimi find a cure for her degenerative disease or else talk about transferring her consciousness into a golem as well. But with the news that her condition is no longer in remission and she is slowly dying to a terminal illness, who knows what will happen?

We didn’t know Blish long before his death, but he had already firmly established himself as a member of Team Taimi. He was more composed than the excitable, overworking Taimi, and the blunt, single-minded Gorrik. There is also a little foreshadowing earlier in the story: Blish is powered down and locked up in a crate like cargo when Gorrik is imprisoned in Amnoon. Gorrik says he’s, “cut off from the golem’s neural net… it’s like a black box.” When Blish comes to, he seems incredibly frightened and shaken by the experience, saying, “I…I couldn’t see, hear, speak, move. No sense of space or time. Only nothingness.” Taimi and Gorrik insist it’ll never happen again, a promise they can’t keep when Blish willingly decides to power down. Add that to his manner of death: how he shares with us his last words, encourages us all to be honest with each other, and insists that his life is worth the trade to save millions, and you have an above average emotional impact.

Aurene

Execution: 10
Narrative Significance: 9
Emotional Impact: 9

“I don’t know.” These are the only words the player character can helplessly mutter after Braham asks us what we do now. We’re staring at the body of Aurene impaled by purple Brand shards, Taimi’s sobs filling our ears, watching as the crystalline flowers on Caithe’s armor turn to dust. As we limped down the Branded passageway, all we knew was that Kralkatorrik had gone limp, pulsing purple stripes in his rocky hide dark, before rearing up and aiming a breath attack at us. Aurene leapt in the way, her blue and gold flames competing with Kralkatorrik’s violet energy, before she was tossed back and we blacked out. From then on, the camera angle is constrained, a black aura obscures the sides of the screen, and all you can do is trudge forward to this realization. Bright, powerful, dramatic, confusing – that’s how Aurene’s death was executed.

I think it’s safe to say the scene brought tears to the eyes of several players. Reactions ranged from disbelief to anger to sadness and it’s easy to see why. We’ve been with Aurene since the beginning, from unhatched egg to adolescent dragonling. We taught her about helping the needy, defending the weak, preparing for battle, and the cultures of the world. We have saved and been saved by Aurene numerous times as our bond grew. She remained by our side even after consuming a hefty supply of magic and, during her absence, we collected gifts from all the people whose lives she had touched. We are her guardian and champion and her, our closest companion and hopeful light in these bleak times.

I can only analyze Aurene’s death based on today’s knowledge though. As there are plenty of things to suggest her death is impermanent, I won’t say the grades for narrative significance and emotional impact will necessarily stick. That in mind, I wrote another article discussing the prevailing theories about Aurene’s fate and what they say about the game development and future narrative. Check that out for a much more in-depth discussion surrounding Aurene.

The Final Verdict

What can we say about ArenaNet’s execution of death over the years? As you can see from my scores, it’s gotten better overall. They’re experimenting with different ways of enacting the deaths, and have realized that an off-screen death can be just as powerful as a dramatic, action-packed one in front of our faces. They give characters a reason to die, and make sure their death has a ripple effect, if even a small one. They no longer introduce characters to send them off to the guillotine one chapter later. Not every character’s death can, or should, hold the gravitas of our own player character, but death is part of every MMO storyline, and it should be done right.

View Comments
To Top