Sylvari Week

It’s been Sylvari Week over at ArenaNet’s blog this week, a very pleasant surprise for me as I’ve been looking forward to learning more about this mysterious race and they’ve kept the lid on any information for a long time. I had been planning on making a sylvari for my first character with Guild Wars 2 finally makes its way into my hands, and it seems like a lot more people have joined me in that since the beautiful re-designed images hit the web on Monday.

What we knew already was that the sylvari were a race of plant people born from a massive, magical, sentient tree in the Kryta/Maguuma area (for those familiar with the original Guild Wars). Being closely associated with nature and considered dainty and beautiful by humans, they share some characteristics with the standard Toklien-esque fantasy elves, but in contrast to that tradition they are a young race – the first sylvari were “awakened” from the Pale Tree 25 years before the game’s story. Although they are born fully-formed and with some knowledge imbued by their mother, the Tree, they are a curious people who seem to love experiencing in life what they might have only vaguely heard about in their pre-awakening Dream.

There are a lot of key words capitalised in the above paragraph, even though I tried to cut down on them. For a more complete summary, the sylvari page on the GW2 website has just been updated. Over the week we have also had the customary blog posts from developers and designers, shedding light on the ideas behind the race and the development they have had from the original concept. Noteworthy is artist Kristen Perry’s post about the re-design since last year, and the theory behind the sylvari’s new look. Perry is quickly becoming a favourite of mine; she had already impressed with her work on designing the female charr. There too she put a lot of thought into what made sense, and not just what was conventional, and I know I’m not the only one who admired her ultimatum on charr female breasts:  “I gave them a choice: either be subtle and downplay the breasts (it wasn’t a point of the race, anyway) or go full-on realistic. Yes, that’s right —none or six!”

But back to the sylvari. Perry has thought this out thoroughly. They are plant people, imitating humanity in form but totally different in essence. At the same time, they had to be considered beutiful to humans – which generally means they have to look human. This is always a challenge in designing non-human characters that players need to relate to, because we recognise human features and are likely to be repulsed by anything too different. The Mass Effect games navigate this delicately, but there’s a reason you’re unlikely to have a Hanar or Elcor party member, and it’s not just about combat abilities. Characters that look notable alien still tend to be humanoid and have facial features and movement which we can relate to – just watch Garrus or Mordin speak the next time you play ME2. Some fans feel that the sylvari should have been taken further from the human-like appearance, but it’s a balancing act between appropriate weirdness and players disliking the overall look instinctively.

Perry’s compromise is to have the sylvari look very human, but upon closer inspection, not be made like humans at all. There are a multitude of little tricks to imitate what we expect to see, and what artists include in a basic human form: leaves forming a ridge in place of a brow, leafy curves that happen to sit where we expect muscles, veins running conveniently where tendons should be. She justifies each human-like feature with an alternative anatomical explanation.  Perry starts her character designs from different points, thinking in terms of plant growth patterns; even the apparently redundant belly button, which is such a human feature, is given a justification. Clothing designs also follow a different, but consistent, logic to ours. The thought behind it all is admirable, and the best part of it in my opinion is that it leads me to believe that sylvari would think like plants, at least in their sense of aesthetics.

[Edit: Neatly summarised by Kristen Perry in this interview: “They are a tree’s interpretation of humans.”]

It was of course great to see some images of male sylvari, which range from the conventionally masculine (complete with twiggy beards) to the slender and elven (but not girly!). This is something we hadn’t seen much of at all before, but I’m extremely pleased with how they’ve turned out. The variation among both genders was also good to see, backing up the promise of elaborate customisation options. After so much silence and confusion about the sylvari, this week’s reveal has created a lot of new fans and, I hope, drawn a little more attention from those outside the existing GW2 fandom to pay notice – if only to Kristen Perry’s artwork!

I haven’t even gone into the gorgeous environment designs for the Grove (although come on, this is a Guild Wars game; we all expect gorgeous by now, right?), or the fleshing out of sylvari manners, custom and society. Some of this was predictable – closeness with nature, curiosity, philosophical tendencies, lack of hierarchy. Other aspects took me by surprise, such as the chivalrous manners, relatively soft English accents, and maudlin romanticism suggested in at least one audio clip (I think he may have just been overly dramatic, or overly sentimental). There have been partial answers to the oft-asked questions about sylvari sexuality: physical sex is still a mystery (my vote goes with no, they can’t), but sylvari love on an emotional and mental level, and as non-sexualised plant beings they make no distinction between males and females in their love. Along with this confirmation came a note from Ree Soesbee that Caithe and Faolain were, in the sylvari sense, basically lovers before one went over to the Nightmare Court. The potential for role-play dynamics is excellent here.

Once again, my congratulations and thanks go out to ArenaNet and all of the wonderful staff they have for their efforts in creating an original game in an original world, and for trying to have it make coherent sense while they do. I for one am thrilled with the sylvari as they are, and can’t wait to make my female elementalist of the Cycle of Dusk when you’ll let me 😀

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