Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's living story and the Orrian menace

Flameseeker Chronicles
The cleansing of Orr has long been a popular source of speculation in the community, which is why I asked Colin Johanson about the possibility of it happening in the course of Guild Wars 2's living story when I interviewed him in July. Although I understood his reasoning, I was still disappointed by the answer: that it'd be very difficult to change Orr due to its intersection with the personal story but that in future chapters ArenaNet will do its best to make sure no areas end up locked in time.

In a recent Q&A session, our own Richie Procopio asked ArenaNet president Mike O'Brien a similar question and got a somewhat different response. According to O'Brien, the studio's original intent was to steer away from content that could impact the personal story in the interest of simplicity; however, ArenaNet wants to make sure that nothing is off limits to the living story overall. I'm trying not to read too much into that, since it could just be a different way of phrasing what Johanson said, but given a little hope to cling to I'd like to discuss why it's so important that ArenaNet not establish any existing content as off-limits -- especially not Orr.

A changing world

I think it's safe to say that nearly every MMO has a changing, growing world by some definition. New zones are added, new NPCs pop up, and the story advances -- even if it does so at a comparatively glacial pace. Most MMOs are top-heavy, though, and create new content at the high end. The lower- and middle-end content stays mostly the same in order to ensure a stable leveling experience. It doesn't need to change -- and in fact, changing it would likely constitute a waste of resources -- because players are expected to outgrow it and leave it behind forever. Changes typically happen to leveling content only when a development studio wants to overhaul the whole shebang, and even that happens rarely enough to be a major event.

GW2 was designed to be different. Downleveling and the replacement of quests with dynamic events ideally means that the entire world is open for normal play at max level, and in many ways ANet has succeeded in making that viable. The fact that it's entirely possible to play in a level 10 zone as a level 80 character and not be completely wasting your time or ruining the experience for other people is pretty astounding; we've even seen the majority of living story activities available or concentrated in sub-level-20 zones. That said, the difference between Orrian zones and "leveling" zones, even content like Frostgorge Sound, is pretty pronounced. There are no renown hearts in Orr. Massive dynamic event chains move across the landscape, many of them meant to be tackled by large groups. Veterans and champions are plentiful, mob density is high even after a significant nerf, and success or failure of events actually has a notable effect on which items players have access to from karma merchants. In terms of design it's the area closest to realizing the potential of the event system, which is one of the reasons it's so disappointing to think of it being stuck always in the role of "setting for the personal story."

In another game, it wouldn't really matter whether Orr's potential was fully realized or not because at the release of the first expansion it would at best become ancient history for players to work through on their way to the new level cap and currently relevant endgame stuff. But GW2 is not another game, and since ArenaNet has expressed a strong desire to create a world that changes to reflect the passage of time, I can't imagine a greater test of that design philosophy than how the developers handle Orr.

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The narrative

Orr is one of the most visually impressive areas I've ever seen in an MMO. Steeped in lore and melancholy, its gigantic ruined temples and fascinating geometry give a sense of scale unmatched by anything else in the game. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but this is a genre in which dozens of games feature an obligatory zombie menace with equally obligatory bleak zombie environments. I'm much happier about the presence of zombies when I can fight them in an area that's at least interesting and aesthetically appealing.

With all the impressive effort the environment designers put into creating Orr, it's small wonder that the personal story and open world lore surrounding it are particularly thoughtful. We're encouraged to care about this ancient, dead place and consider it with respect; we're not hunting down Zhaitan merely to stop it from expanding its territory but to oust it from a place that should be ours. The last leg of the personal story revolves around a quest to save Orr when it could have just as easily driven home the point that there's nothing left to save. NPCs discuss plans for the temples once the Pact has recovered them. In the denouement of the story, the fate of Orr is mentioned in the same narrative breath as the fate of Tyria.

ArenaNet has spoken frequently to the idea that it wants players to be intimately involved in the world and to feel as though our actions make a difference. I can speak only for myself, but the major cause of my feeling as though my actions mean jack squat in an MMO is the fact that I'm so rarely allowed to see the tangible results of those actions taking effect in the world. It's pretty easy to create this impression in some cases -- the farmer who wanted 10 brown bear bums for his bear bum banquet can start greeting me on quest completion by thanking me for making his banquet a success, and I can feel as though I personally made a difference without needing to see the event in question take place. If, on the other hand, you've spent over 10 levels of personal story telling me I'm risking my life and that of other people to save a place only to reluctantly admit afterward that you can't progress it to actually being saved because it needs to provide context for all of the other people who are pretending to save it, then what I did in the course of the story obviously means nothing.

This is functionally no different than how nearly every MMO handles the main plotline of zones. Usually the only closure we get as supposed heroes is a few lines of text telling us how badass we are and that the residents of Disaster Peak owe us their lives. While we're being told this, monsters continue to eat the residents of Disaster Peak at an alarming rate and will probably do so forever. Similarly, even if the cleansing of Orr is handwaved as something that will take years in order to explain why we never actually see it taking place, it's still disconcerting to know that while ArenaNet may want everything to be fair game for what the living story can change, what it can actually influence may be a lot more earthbound, and for exactly the same reasons that most MMO developers find it easier to create new content than tie up loose ends. Yes, we have new plotlines like the Cutthroat Politics release to make us feel involved, but as fun as that was, I'd argue that deciding which NPC wins an election or seeing minor landmarks destroyed and rebuilt is not quite on the same scale as knowing that our efforts in Orr might have tangible results.

This may seem as though I'm coming down hard on Colin Johanson, but that's not my intention. I just want to see GW2 live up to the standards ANet has set for it, and the issue of not wanting to
disrupt the flow of the personal story should be addressed if it's going to do that. Orr isn't the only Risen-infested zone, for example, and nearly every zone that does have a Risen infestation has a corresponding personal story chapter to explain why they're there. Can those areas ever change? What can we expect from characters who figured prominently in the personal story but are now popping up as major characters in the living story? Will they be allowed to change and grow, or would doing so confuse their place in the personal story? Can Zhaitan ever be explicitly acknowledged as having been defeated during the living story, or does ArenaNet feel that it would be too strange for new players who haven't even chosen an Order yet?

The conflict is so strong here because the personal story is a highly optional chain of mostly solo, instanced content that often has absolutely nothing to do with the open world stories beyond using zones as settings for missions, while the living story is an attempt to ensure that the open world is a vibrant and changing place with a progressing plot. In their current forms they're destined to clash, and one has to suffer for the other to reach its full potential. The living story is ambitious, as well as being the primary focus for marketing and designing content for GW2, and people are still wary of it. It'd be a shame to limit where it can go.

Granted, both Johanson and O'Brien mentioned wanting to find ways to fix the problem. If that fix encompasses only future content, though, it still leaves three gigantic level 80 zones forever corrupted by the first dragon we fought, standing as a testament to the fact that there are some things we simply can't change no matter how much the game tells us otherwise. Orr will be dated, becoming undead in its own way: still moving, but far from alive.

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Super adventure dragons

My initial plans for this week's article were to gush on for 1,400 words about how much I love Super Adventure Box and how excited I am to see it returning, but I figured that would be best left for next week after dying a bunch of times in Tribulation Mode has provided me with some objectivity. I'm pretty sure that I'll never come even close to completing it, but I'd like to pay tribute to the SAB team's work by seeing how many ways they can manage to kill my character.

I'm a little more neutral on the planned Tequatl revamp. It is revisiting Orrian themes in a way, so I'm curious to see what kind of lore ties into it, but how the community reacts to the fight is going to determine whether it was worth the effort or not. I am glad to see ArenaNet trying for big, challenging open world content, though; one of the most intriguing parts of our interview with Mike Zadorojny was the discussion of how GW2's open team play mechanics lend themselves to the potential for harder open world battles. It's a good experiment, and I hope it turns out to be a success.

What are your plans for the Back to School release? Are you ready to jump into SAB, or are you more interested in getting to level 500 crafting and working on Ascended weapons? Have Tequatl's revamp and the other PAX announcements piqued your interest, or do you have some reservations? Let us know in the comments below, and I'll see you in the box!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.
This article was originally published on Massively.