Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's Fractal algorithm

FotM loading screen
It's been just about a year since ArenaNet introduced Fractals of the Mists to Guild Wars 2, and so it's appropriate that this week's release centers on polishing and additions to the popular never-ending, increasingly difficult dungeon-ish thingies. We'll finally be seeing the results of the Cutthroat Politics vote. Agony infusions are being updated. New rewards will be added.

Heck, it's even enough to get me to give Fractals a second look, which is no mean feat since it's one of the few chunks of GW2 PvE content I haven't spent a lot of time on.

I've never been a big dungeon runner. A large part of that is thanks to my brain, which likes to beat up on itself, and one of the ways this manifests is as severe social anxiety disorder. Without medication, running dungeons even with a group of friends seems like a form of exotic torture designed specifically to terrify me into social paralysis no matter how much I want the rewards, and I would rather roll naked over white-hot nails as long as I could solo it. With medication and therapy, it's still something that takes roughly two hours of mental preparedness beforehand if I don't want to be a miserable, uptight bundle of nerves throughout the run. I'm just now beginning to understand why people find it fun, instead of boggling at the strange, masochistic habits of you Earth-lings (beep).

In theory, though, I should love Fractals. And I do, but only in theory. I love the concept of each one being a suspended vignette of the past. The shoutout to dedicated community contributor Dulfy in boss form is extremely cool. The chained Colossus manages to be one of my favorite GW2 characters despite appearing only briefly and not having any lines. And I'm still waiting for miniature versions of those wonderful cat golems. Despite all of that, I didn't have a great first few experiences trying to run them, and their initial marketing as "dungeons for people who love dungeons more than anything" led me to think that maybe they just weren't meant for a guy who approaches high-end group content the way a feral cat approaches a human hand that has kibble in it. Some of this was sheer bullheadedness on my part, since I really didn't care for the patch that introduced Fractals and running them was initially the only way to get Ascended items. They're still the only way to acquire back pieces with Ascended stats, and that irritates me (although thankfully ArenaNet is working on a solution).

The guild I'm in is very tiny -- four active players and one inactive -- and made up of real-life friends: my wife, who Guardians her way through group content while yelling praise to the God-Emperor of Mankind; a mighty Norn Ranger who just passed her bar examination on the first try; our squirrel-loving guild leader, who is always accompanied by an assortment of baby quaggans; and yours truly. Dungeons and Fractals ought to be just about perfect content for us; maybe we can't field a guild mission by ourselves, but we're nearly a full party, and all of us are competent players as long as you don't count my tendency to forget that Necromancers are capable of dying. Stubbornly sitting out of Fractal runs probably makes me a bad guild member, but I just can't shake the feeling that by trying to do them I'd be sticking my nose into the competitive PvE scene where, much as in structured PvP, the unblooded and inexperienced aren't easily tolerated.

So why am I tentatively excited for the Fractured release, which arguably steps up the competitive angle even more with the addition of Fractal leaderboards? Two words: story mode.

Man Fractals sure are pretty
To nobody's surprise, I like the lore

The narrative aspect of Fractals of the Mists is currently both the most interesting (to me) and least developed part of the content. The themes and visuals of each setting are tremendously vibrant, each hinting at a much bigger story. However, only a few of the existing Fractals actually reference a definitive moment in lore. The implications of the existence of the Colossus would be literally colossal if it had any connection to the plot, but I suspect it was simply a really awesome idea the dungeon team had for an area that was perfect for Fractals because it wouldn't have fit anywhere else in the game. The Uncategorized Fractal was speculated to be a bleak alternate future of Rata Sum but has since been confirmed to take place in the past and have nothing to do with the Asuran capital city aside from similar architecture. We know what the Urban Battlegrounds and Solid Ocean are because they're references to the original Guild Wars, but they're presented without context otherwise. Who is the Mossman in Swampland? What the heck is up with those giant statues in Aquatic Ruins? Why do we need to fight Dredge in Underground Facility when they suck so very, very much?

Dessa was never able to give us much information on what we see in the Fractals. She seems disturbed by the Uncategorized Fractal, which clearly has a story behind it, but we're never told why. Beyond that, her commentary is more along the lines of "Ugh, a swamp!" and "Kill that thing!" Going back through with Ellen Kiel in the release-specific story mode gives ANet a chance to hopefully polish up and expand the storytelling a bit without having to extend the short-by-design, endlessly repeatable normal-mode Fractals.

With the inclusion of the Thaumanova Reactor meltdown in the Fractal lineup, we're also moving into exploring events that have a recent and noticeable impact on Tyria. I really wanted to see the proposed Abaddon Fractal, and I'm still not sure that requiring players to banish it to being lost in the Mists forever was a satisfactory way to show that our election decision had an impact, but I also don't agree with the people saying that Thaumanova is doomed to be boring because it's just going to be another wacky Asuran science screwup. We don't yet know what caused the reactor to blow, but we do know that it was a prototype for something similar to the Crucible of Eternity. CoE is a big deal, lorewise. It's where the Inquest is doing experiments to incorporate Elder Dragon energy into its research and where we got probable confirmation of a sixth dragon with a nature magic theme that is possibly related to creatures corrupted by Nightmare. The implications of all of that are huge. Even putting aside the still mostly unexplored effects of the reactor meltdown itself, there's likely some interesting information to be gleaned. Fractals provide an excellent opportunity to let players explore past events hands-on; the stories on the official website are a great way to provide character snapshots that wouldn't make good playable content, but Fractals will likely work much better for portraying action.

We know the story of the Aetherblade and Molten Alliance Fractals, but their inclusion is still important as a test for preserving temporary living world content through Fractals. If ArenaNet truly wants to change the world, it's going to be a very useful tool for making certain that various environments and fights aren't lost to future players forever. That might provide a good compromise between those of us who enjoy the concept of one-time content and players who resent the idea of anything vanishing completely.

Snowblind Fractal
Mechanics-schemanics

Lest it be said that I'm only excited about the update because I'm a big Durmand Priory nerd-type, I'm also looking forward to the reward changes and balancing. GW2 has slowly been working toward more sensible reward distribution for various types of content, and any progress in that area is a good thing in my book. Also a good thing: difficulty increases that don't just plump up the hit points and armor of enemies to make them take longer to kill. Mistlock Instabilities actually sound kind of fun; one of the more minor reasons for my Fractal-based apathy was that I didn't see any real reason to want to move to higher difficulties, as it seemed it'd be pretty much the same stuff only more annoying. I'm crossing my fingers for those new mechanics to work out well because hopefully the variety will make its way into other content.

Do you run Fractals? Are you looking forward to the update? Are you still upset that Evon Gnashblade didn't win the election? Tell us about it in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Fractals of the Mists!

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.