Points of Interest Review: Storytelling in the Heart of Thorns

There has been a flurry of information around storytelling in the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion, and today’s Points of Interest continued to explore this aspect of Guild Wars 2: character and story form, two of the more prominent pillars in any role-playing game. The more character-driven and story-driven a game is, arguably, the more engaging it is and the more likely players will continue to visit. Rubi Bayer’s most recent guests, Bobby Stein –lead writer – and Scott McGough – narrative designer – discussed further details regarding the intimate intertwining of story in the upcoming expansion as well as some recently announced changes regarding past stories.

Learning from past Living World seasons and heeding comments from the community, Stein continued to expand on his recent forum post, which detailed the restoration of the late-game Personal Story steps. In addition to returning the story to its original narrative order, small improvements have been made, although Stein was quick to add that players should have realistic expectations. A most welcome improvement to the Personal Story will be the restoration of a pristine Lion’s Arch for character’s whose personal story step has them currently wandering around the “cratered” version of the city. In addition to improving immersion, this will give newer players a chance to experience the city where veteran players once passed the time of day.

Pristine Lion's Arch

Pristine Lion’s Arch

Looking to the future, McGough explained that the upcoming story would be darker as the war with the Elder Dragon Mordremoth continues. Players of the Living World have already witnessed some of this storytelling with the death of Belinda and the devastating attacks on Fort Salma and the Pact Fleet. Moving forward, the storytellers have tried to play up the suspicion surrounding the sylvari and stated that, without presence of mind, willpower, or the protection of the Pale Tree, sylvari may fall under the influence of the dragon and, like Scarlet and Aerin, may not realize they are acting on Mordremoth’s orders. By making it impossible to tell if a sylvari is under Mordremoth’s control, the writers are engaging players on a visceral level, breeding suspicion and mistrust and asking them to trust anyway.

In order to engage players more fully in the story, ArenaNet has also announced that the player’s character will be moved to a more central role in Heart of Thorns. Arriving on the scene of the Pact Fleet wreckage as a Pact commander, it will fall to the player to begin putting things back together. In this way, the player moves the story forward rather than being dragged forward as some have felt happened in portions of previous stories. Other aspects of the character have also been fleshed out, including the return of the character’s ability to speak and the addition of race-specific dialogue. With immersive characters in place, the stage is set for an incredibly immersive story.

Who’s going to fix this mess? … Oh, that would be you.

For the past two years, the writers and developers have been working to create this experience as part of the jungle expansion. The layered Maguuma maps will provide denser content and replayability by closely weaving the story into both instances and the open world. Consequently, decisions that players make as they play through the story will ripple outward from the instance and affect the open world itself, creating a “unified experience,” according to McGough. As a storyteller, the idea that every decision my character makes may impact the broader game-world around me is intriguing and I am excited to see how it plays out. The previous example relating to the suspicion with which players and NPCs now view sylvari is just one taste of this. One of the first choices players will have to make upon entering the Heart of Maguuma is whether or not to trust the sylvari Laranthir, the Vigil’s second-in-command. If players choose not to trust him, they can turn away his aid. To support this interwoven storytelling, we are told that consequences for choices have become more immediate – rather than waiting several story instances to see how a decision turns out, players will learn how things end before the instance does. This solidly compartmentalized storytelling lends itself well to another goal the developers and writers had with Heart of Thorns: replayability.

Can any sylvari be trusted?

Can any sylvari be trusted?

In order to improve replayability, players will be able to immediately re-enter story instances and make a different choice. If they chose not to trust Laranthir the first time, they can replay the instance immediately and choose to trust him the second time through. This is a far cry better than the personal story, for example, in which you had to re-roll a character in order to make new choices. Today’s Points of Interest also mentioned using different characters as another form of replayability. Sylvari characters, for example, will have different reactions to the story playing out around them than charr, who may be different than human. This character-specific interaction has been a feature of the previous Living World stories – beginning in season one and then expanding in season two – and will now be incorporated into the broader storytelling palette. This attention to individual choice promises to expand a player’s experience of the game and means that replaying through the story with a variety of characters – I’m looking at you, fellow altholics – will be less of a grind. Ultimately, the fact that different choices will have different, far-ranging consequences, not just for a single player in an instance but for the entire map, also suggests, in my opinion, that the “friendliest MMO community” may find another reason to bolster community spirit and camaraderie as players pull together to create favorable conditions through individual decisions, thus allowing for the completion of the map’s meta achievement. Storytelling on the grandest scale.

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