Flameseeker Chronicles: Sylvari week wrap-up

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Flameseeker Chronicles
Guild Wars 2 Sylvari week is over, much to the relief of abused F5 keys everywhere. We've finally seen the redesign, we've read the lore, we've gotten more details about the culture, we've watched new videos, and best of all, we've talked the subject to death.

Now that it's all over and we've had a chance to process the infodump, it's time for my standard post-race-week Flameseeker Chronicles analysis. Follow along after the jump, where I'll recap a few of the high points of Sylvari week.

But they're just Elves!

I'd feel silly not addressing this subject first because it's such a hot topic. People just love to insist that Sylvari are Elves and ArenaNet is pretending that they aren't, as if the developers are trying to hide some dirty little Elven secret.

As much as I'd like to leap into the debate all hot-tempered, I can't quite make myself get up in arms about this. The problem with the core argument that there's not really a hard and fast definition of "Elf" these days. Tolkien created a generally accepted modern definition of how Elves look and behave, and now any nature-dwelling race with mystical overtones is slapped with the Elf label without much thought.

That label is often applied a little hastily, in my opinion, because the natural, growing world is a part of nearly every MMO out there, just by virtue of the games being set on planets that support life. You tend to see more natural environments in fantasy MMOs, and it makes sense (and is a wise use of game assets) to have living beings there. Making some of those beings playable and/or interactive adds to the range of products the company can offer the customer, so to speak.

I personally don't see the Sylvari as Elves because I don't think about it that way. If the aesthetics, abilities, and lore of a race appeal to me, I'll play it without a need to make it fit a pre-conceived definition. If they're not my thing at first glance, I'll give it a test run to see if my first impression continues after a hands-on, but I can't see myself slapping a label on something and dismissing it on that basis without trying it firsthand.

So the answer to "are they Elves?" as far as I'm concerned is "does it really matter that much?" The lore is years in the making and fits beautifully into the world, and the Sylvari are only one of five radically different races available to play in GW2. To paraphrase Ree Soesbee, they're not Elves, they're not druids -- they're just Sylvari. The developers know the race better than I do, and forcing the race into a pre-defined box will neither decrease nor increase my enjoyment when I play it, so I'm content to accept that.

New look unveiled

So what did you think of the redesign? (No, really, hit the comment button and tell me!) The new look of the Sylvari pleased me immensely with regard to the reasoning behind it. The old version, as Kristen Perry said, was just a race of people with plant accessories. The Sylvari are born directly from the Pale Tree, so while it makes sense for them to be generally humanoid according to the lore, it's a bit silly for them to be actual humans.

This new version with ears made of leaves and hair that looks like tree branches makes so much more sense. The Sylvari are pure plant material formed to mimic a human appearance, and it works very well.

While I love the logic behind the new look, I'm a bit on the fence about their appearance. The summer Sylvari with the bright green foundation and loud floral accents makes them look too cartoonish and toylike for my taste. It's the same problem I had with the old design.

Thankfully, ArenaNet gave players a wide range to choose from with the varying seasons. My personal preference runs more to browns, muted greens, and the like, and I love the autumn and winter versions. The Guild Wars 2 development team has a gift for making lore and design intertwine to great effect, and I love that the Sylvari lore allows an opportunity for players to create such a wide variety of looks within a single race.

Story and background

I can't claim to be a lore expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I often find myself reading through GW2 lore forums with my mouth open, impressed by the puzzle pieces that the community lore experts have put together. I have the deepest respect for those of you who analyze the most minute of details, looking for the etymology of words, discussing the biology and growth patterns of various Tyrian creatures, pondering how the topography of Tyria would affect bits of story, and so on.

That said, I do love knowing the story and history of Tyria. I'm that slowpoke in your group who insists on reading quest text and hates to skip cutscenes. I never get tired of hearing Danika squeal "Lyssa be damned!" (mostly because it's just funny), and Ogden's Benediction gives me chills to this day.

Reading through all of the Sylvari information this week really gave me a sense of what an intricate and fascinating story ArenaNet has woven from a single jaded Centaur we met back in 2005. The lore has grown and expanded over the years, eventually giving us a full-blown playable race with enough backstory to keep lore-lovers busy for ages. It's pretty impressive stuff when you consider that the developers could have easily left it at "they're plant people born from a tree; have fun."

Voice acting

I saved the worst for last. Or the best for last, if you're one of the many who have sent emails and Tweets asking what I think. I cut loose on last week's Massively Speaking, joked around, and had some laughs about how crazy the Sylvari voice-work drove me, but now I want to be a little more serious and explain exactly why it bothers me so much.

I called it the worst yet, and I do stand by that. The Norn recordings were probably the best of a mediocre lot, but on the whole it bothers me so much because ArenaNet has trained us to expect a very high standard. There has been such an incredible amount of work put into environments, art, story, and gameplay, and then we get these vocal samples for each race that feel flat-out lazy to me.

The Sylvari have a certain combination of reserved dignity and childlike wonder at the world around them. To me, it felt like the actors were told "Sylvari are dignified and high-born, so slap on a slightly posh British accent like Madonna did in the '90s to indicate that," given a script, and left to their own devices. It reminds me of Norn week, during which the voice actors seem to have been told "Norn are really big and aggressive, so be deep and growly and a tiny bit shouty sometimes. Good luck!"

A really good voice actor with a flexible voice and a talent for interpretation can indicate emotions, intent, and even background with various subtle cues. Slapping a fake British accent on something and calling it a day is not the way to go about that.

The actual dialogue was a little better for me, but it's still pretty uneven. I really loved the Sylvari/Human conversation about how the two races were born. It was an insightful exchange that I could believably see a Sylvari and Human having. The hairball conversation, on the other hand, made me cringe so hard.

I will admit that part of it is because, as a cat owner, I know that if your cat is hacking up a hairball, you know exactly what is happening. That noise can wake me out of a sound sleep at 2 in the morning, and I've got the presence of mind to sling her off of the bed before she deposits it onto my back. There's no confusion there. So maybe the person who wrote that dialogue doesn't have a cat; I don't know. But I'll be fair and admit that the irritation with that part of the conversation might just be me.

Overall though, the pieces just didn't fit together, and it was so all over the place it was distracting. The hairball discussion sounded like one that a couple of moms might have if they bump into each other at Target. The trying-too-hard-to-be-mystical "echoes of you" comment was pure cliche fantasy MMO, so now I'm picturing a couple of woodland creatures chatting about their magical cat in the bath accessories aisle of Target while pretending to be British and it's all just incredibly distracting and confusing.

I shouldn't be thinking about this stuff while listening. I should be getting a feeling for what they're like and appreciating the insight into the culture like I did with the birth conversation. I should be enjoying this peek into the world, like I do with every other aspect of Guild Wars 2 that I've seen so far. The whole thing is such a jarring contrast to the awe and excitement I feel at other parts of the game that it stands out like a sore thumb and makes me want to yell "oh come on, you guys! You can do better, I know you can! I've seen you do better a hundred times!"

ArenaNet boasts some of the most talented designers in the industry, something we've seen over and over with every new reveal, so I'm holding out hope. I suspect too that I've heard some of the same voice actors more than once, so I'm crossing my fingers that there's a bit of a placeholder element here. Finally, during my hands-on GW2 time, I never once cringed at a voiced NPC the way I have done during race reveals. My fingers remain crossed.

There you have it -- some of the hottest topics of Sylvari week. Now it's your turn to tell me what you think, so hit the comment button and let's talk!

Rubi is a longtime Guild Wars player and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column keeps a close eye on all the events in Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. It's also the home of a weekly summary of the travels of [MVOP], Massively's Guild Wars guild. Email Rubi at rubi@massively.com.
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