Lately I’ve been reading bits and pieces of commentary about Guild Wars 2’s “living story” – the regular, small, often temporary content updates which are intended to both provide a constant stream of current events, and to affect the wider game world in meaningful ways. It’s a concept I really like and approve of: the game world feels active in real time, and I am a fan of the idea of an MMO that’s more of a world than a game. For those who want more game than virtual world, there are problems, and the move toward instances and month-long availability of things is to appease those who would rather have everything available at their leisure rather than a real-time world in which they miss half of it. Still, there’s one common sentiment that I’ve seen in multiple areas which I think bears addressing, and that is the idea that the living story as we’ve seen it now “doesn’t contribute to the story.”
To be clear, there are definite points to the argument: each living story arc has felt very separate from the others, a self-contained and temporary thing which doesn’t leave much behind and doesn’t link into the other arcs in any particularly meaningful way. Despite the large number of loose ends I believe to be deliberately left open for later development, we have only seen living story material that comes out of nowhere: the karka, the Molten Alliance, the Zephyr Sanctum, none of these was foreshadowed anywhere beforehand. With four living story teams actively working right now the material will be more elaborate, faster and better polished than during, say, Flame and Frost – but it’s going to take a very deliberate, co-ordinated effort for those four teams to create stories which are coherent and point toward a larger continuity rather than isolated events.
The problem I have is that so many people seem to have a narrow definition of what counts as proper story in a game. Assembling the Pact and destroying Zhaitan, now that’s a game story! Good stuff. But many people are saying that trade agreements, election campaigns – that’s not what they want to hear about, or play through. They want to continue the campaign against the dragons. They want to slay monsters and save the world. They want EPIC.
To my mind, that’s exactly what the living story is not about. That doesn’t mean we all have to like it, but the living story is what happens in-between: everyday life in Tyria (which is still a lot more exciting and dangerous than everyday life in most other places). It makes Tyria feel more like a living world precisely because it’s not always dragon-slaying and world-ending catastrophes. Sometimes, it’s politics and festivals. Epic fantasy stories portray important quests and times of dramatic change, but that doesn’t mean those worlds are always like that. You may say that you don’t want to read about the everyday lives of peasants in a fantasy world, and that’s fine – but with the living story GW2 is giving us a fantasy world in real time. It’s going to take a while to work up the plans and resources to slay a second Elder Dragon, and actually much of the world isn’t involved in that. The living story is current events. Get as involved in that – or not – as you will, just as in the real world.
Why should the only thing which progresses GW2’s story be killing dragons? That implies that the point of the world (with all its elaborate race lore and history) is to kill the big beasties until we win. Then what? If ArenaNet gave us a dragon every six months, then in three years at best we would have slain them all, and then what does the game do for continuing story? I would argue, cleaning up the remains of corruption and dealing with the new dynamics between the races in the wake of the Pact’s work; others would argue, a bigger monster turns up who’s event stronger and we have to kill it! This is the cheap, self-reproducing storytelling of shounen manga, the Dragonball Z style. If we think all the game has to offer is a series of bigger boss fights, I don’t know why we’re debating story in the first place. Instead, ArenaNet are spreading out the campaign against the dragons, in something resembling real time. We will fight another dragon! And hopefully, we’ll get a long series of events leading up to it. But not right away.
With Guild Wars 2 ArenaNet have done an interesting thing in separating parallel storylines, all of which we can play through, but all of which happen more or less simultaneously. The personal story (consisting of many short instances) is the story of the player character’s rise to fame with the Pact, and the slaying of Zhaitan. It’s “main story” material. At the same time, the series of dungeons (also instanced) tell the story of Destiny’s Edge, who work their own issues and history out while the personal story is happening. The final story instances merges with the end of the dungeon stories to a common point. The living story is generally held to take place after Zhaitan’s destruction, but it is also a kind of parallel story: the story of what the rest of the world is doing while these grand, heroic events unfold elsewhere. As a player you can be fighting Zhaitan, helping Destiny’s Edge, and keeping an eye on the Captain’s Council elections at the same time. They’re all different kinds of playable content, and different kinds of story.
I think what it comes down to for most of us is a change of approach. Living story content is released every two weeks, and constantly advertised. For many players at max level who feel like they’ve done all the core content, there’s a sense that these releases must be intended endgame and thus what they should be doing. For others the limited duration and unique rewards (even though they’re often things like mini-pets which most players have no need for or investment in) make them feel obliged to finish living story content whenever it appears. What I think we need to do is take a step back and ease that sense of obligation. New content is going to keep appearing, and we don’t have to abandon the rest of the game for it. These are current events – if you were there you were there, if you weren’t something else will be happening now. If you have to take three months off the game you will miss things, but you’ll be back in time for something else. In a few years’ time our mini-pets and Zephyr Sanctum models and unique gear skins will signal our connection to a certain event, but we need to stop feeling like we have to play temporary content and start feeling like there’s always temporary content we can play.
Not everyone will like the living story – some of us will wish it was more real-time and spontaneous, others will wish that more was instanced or permanent so that content was still available after the moment. However, I think that we should consider a change in how we play before we condemn it.
Guys, no one is ever going to innovate if we refuse to accept new ways of doing things. That doesn’t mean every innovation is good, by any means, but if we complain as a knee-jerk reaction to everything that is new and unfamiliar, everything will just get patched and modified back to a common denominator, and it will all feel the same.