Also, I have a feeling this is going to be a long post.
Anyhow, Syn and I decided to finish up all the living story episodes in GW that we hadn’t completed up until now. This included Seeds of Truth and Point of No Return.
The problem with being a writer is that I analyze everything I read, watch and game. Sometimes it’s difficult to just sit down and enjoy something for what it is because, like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard, wonky plot or character development is downright painful.
This happens here where I feel that the writers sacrifice characters, plot and just plain logic to try to build up another character. It’s so forced and makes so little sense that it’s hard to watch.
Checking that Build
One side note.
I mentioned in the comments of my previous post that I wondered if my warrior’s build was out of date, which was the source of frustration when battling in these new scenarios. I checked it out, and actually, the build is still the basic zerker build that is recommended for greatsword warriors. I noticed when I went to fight non-Mordrem enemies – like when I needed to clear out bandits to open a skritt tunnel – I had no issues dispatching them, and actually felt like I was a semi-competent player again.
The moment I had to face down swarms of Mordrem, the frustrations returned. So I guess it’s the Mordrem’s designs, coupled with high density, that are the cause of my frustration. I did a little better this time around, but still saw myself downed more than I’d like to have been.
Thankfully, the final two episodes were story-heavy rather than throwing boss fights at you ever step of the way. The one boss fight we did have, Shadow of the Dragon, was a bit more intuitive than the previous boss fights. Though it still had some gimmicky tactics, we were able to take him down with minimal deaths on our part.
I want to say that I laud GW2 for what it attempted to do in these final episodes. I think the delivery of the story was well done. I like the idea of seeing into Caithe’s past through memory seeds and reliving things in her shoes. I really enjoyed seeing the early days of the Sylvari – the tension of the “second-born,” the struggle of the first born between each other, and their struggle against the Inquest, who sadly colored Sylvari early experiences with other races.
The first couple of memory sequences are really, really good, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. They are what I think the Living Story should be.
But then, about halfway through, I start really having issues.
The Edge of Destiny
I want to preface this by saying that in the hype a few months before GW2 released, I quelled my excitement by reading the two GW2 novels, which includes The Edge of Destiny. I’m so very glad I did, because I came in knowing a lot more about the world and I was much more forgiving to the stumbles of Destiny’s Edge because of it. I think I understood the depth of the pain and loss the group bore much more deeply than I would if I never read the story.
However, my impressions of all the characters were set by the book. One character that always seemed to conflict between book-version and game-version was Caithe. I may have totally misunderstood her in the book, but she always came off as a strong female character who was independent, confident, clever… but brash and caught up in a detrimental relationship. She may not have always made the right choices, but she seemed to fight with honor and for the right reasons in the end.
I’m just not getting that from the Caithe in the game. And I’m not even talking about her choices in the latest installment of living story, either. I haven’t played much as a Sylvari, but I remember one of my first impressions of game!Caithe in the early levels was that she was disdainfully talking about murdering someone – might have been Sylvari who were Nightmare Court or bordering on Nightmare. I can’t remember the specifics. I just remember being repulsed by how cold and cruel she sounded in the game. My response was, “That’s not the Caithe I knew from the book!”
Caithe’s Love Conundrum
With that out of the way, I want to talk about where I had some major issues with story and character development in Caithe’s final memories. Why this whole story just didn’t work for me and how her character development, rather than becoming something mysterious or long-suffering, just fell flat due to forced attempts to make her what the writers wanted her to be. Even if it didn’t make any sense.
First, as interesting as it was to see young Caithe, I don’t feel this relationship between her and Faolain very strongly. Sure, they share the same love of traveling together, the same burning anger against the foes of the sylvari, the same desire to protect their people, and the same teenage angst when the Pale Tree expects nothing but perfection from her children.
It’s there, but so quickly brushed over, that I just can’t believe that a strong and independent character like Caithe could just blindly follow Faolain to do the things they did without ever once questioning until the very end. Okay, I get they both thought the Inquest had it coming. I agree with that. But when it came to slaughtering innocent centaur tribes, it turned my stomach to play through the scenario. Why would Caithe just blindly rush into this bloodbath when she, herself, could plainly see the centaur were not an enemy?
Well, some might answer “She loves Faolain! She’d defend her love!” Which… might pass… if their relationship was realistically built up in the story. But it wasn’t well developed enough for me to accept that. One “I love you the way you are!” does not a relationship make.
Now, this might seem like it goes against my normal complaints about the other over the top relationship in GW2. True, I don’t like that, either. But I think there’s a balanced way to write a believable relationship of dedication and trust between two characters. I didn’t see it between Caithe and Faolain, though. Certainly not enough for me to believe that Caithe would act out such crimes without questioning her own, or Faolain’s, judgement.
Even when you do love someone, you don’t always agree or follow everything they do without question. Especially not murdering a tribe of creatures you were just moments before talking to peacefully. Not the way that Caithe is normally portrayed as a character -did she suddenly lose all her smarts? It just doesn’t make sense.
At the end, she tried to justify it with a weak, “They attacked first. She was defending herself.” But even Caithe didn’t sound convinced of this when she said it.
Caithe’s Moral Conundrum
I didn’t like the centaur scene, but I could have overlooked it if not for the way the final memory played out. This whole scene was the real kicker.
Okay, so she and Faolain track down their sister Sylvari, Wynne, whom Faolain suspects is hiding information from them. That’s what this thing has been about the whole time – Faolain throwing a temper tantrum that Wynne is hiding something important from the rest of the Sylvari.
When they finally catch up to Wynne and corner her, Wynne refuses to tell them what they want to know.
Faolain’s response: “I’ll just torture it out of her.”
Her own sister. Right. Sounds like a perfectly legit response.
This is the first time Caithe actually stops and tells Faolain that she’s taking it too far. The first argument from Caithe during this whole nasty ordeal. Finally, she stands up for Wynne, who is a sister to her.
But that lasts all of one or two sentences before Faolain goes off to find a instrument of torture anyway, leaving Caithe to watch Wynne. What does Caithe do? Does she try to get her sister out of that mess?
No, they just stay there waiting for Faolain to come back.
In the meantime, Wynne convinces Caithe that Faolain is doing the wrong thing and is acting out in desire to gain power. She says that she can’t allow Faolain to know the secret, because Faolain will use it against the Pale Tree.
Then Wynne does something totally illogical. She tells Caithe the terrible secret she’s been hiding from the other Sylvari.
Wait. What? Why? Why would she do that? Caithe is obviously close to Faolain. If this information could be the end of their race, and Wynne didn’t trust anyone with it, why tell someone now? And why Caithe? It doesn’t cut it to say “Well, Wynne wanted Caithe to know how dire the situation was.”
This… just didn’t make sense. Especially with what happened next.
Then Wynne tells Caithe that the only way out of this is for Caithe to kill her.
Wait. What? What? Really? How is that the ONLY way out?
How about Caithe saying: “You know, I see why you kept this a secret. Let me help you escape Faolain, and we can go back to the Pale Tree where we can talk about this. We can get out of here with my super neat shadow flicker magic (that I used to infiltrate the Inquest lab in a previous episode), because I have cool powers like that.”
Or what about Caithe saying: “You’re my sister and I can’t kill you! I may love Faolain, but this is going too far, and I want to help her. There’s two of us and one Faolain. We can subdue her, take her back to the Pale Tree, and figure out what to do from there.”
What Caithe actually does: “Okay! You’re right! Stab! You’re dead!” *sobs uncontrollably*
And why does she do that? Because the writers want…
Caithe: “Oh, I am the poor, tormented character who killed her sister in cold blood, was shunned by the Pale Tree, driven apart from my (supposed) lover… and had to bear the dark secret of our entire race for all this time! This is why I back-stab your party and keep stealing Glint’s egg. I have perfectly good reasons that you can’t possibly understand!”
I wish they spent more time thinking about their story and less about making flashy trailers to hype people up…
I had a chat with Jonreece about this very topic in the comments to the very positive post I wrote about the latest Living Story. He had very much the same problems with it that you describe. I fully agree with both of you and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the story.
Why? Well, I guess because I have really, really low expectations of the storytelling in any video game. In thirty-five years of playing them I can’t recall a single example that goes beyond the standard you might expect in an example of a middling genre narrative in another form and even that would be the exception.
Mostly, video game writing, particularly when it comes to character development, is about on a par with the old Saturday Morning Cartoons. If a character gets two personality traits instead of one that counts for depth.
Voice acting makes a difference. When EQ2 wet for fully-voiced questing it was excruciating, embarassingly bad, but over the years the quality has improved a good deal. GW2, particularly, benefits from some competent voice work. Plenty of dialog that would be dead on arrival as text have some semblance of life breathed into them by intelligent line readings. I let a lot slide because of that.
Subjecting MMO dialog to close textural analysis can seem almost cruel. It’s something I enjoy but it can have the queasy feeling of criticizing a friend’s poem for bad scansion. These things are produced by paid professionals, though, so I guess we shouldn’t hold back.
I also formed my appreciation of Destiny’s Edge almost entirely from my reading of the novel. I don’t believe I would have any real affection for them just from what I know from the game. Maybe Rytlock. That said, the novel wasn’t much more than very low-end genre work itself. The plot barely made any sense and the prose style might came off more like notes than a finished work. There was some nice use of language though and the characterization was its saving grace.
I think what I’m saying is: I don’t expect much and even then I’m usually disappointed so any time I get something even a little above par I feel disproportionately impressed. Not a great recommendation, is it?
Yeah, I know what you mean. Even when I recommend “The Edge of Destiny,” I always warn that it’s not the best book I’ve ever read. But the characters were enjoyable, and that’s what carried me through it.
I’m not sure what’s going on with MMO writing, to be honest. They have a full team of professional writers working on things like this, yet time and again, I see them make plot and character mistakes that I’d expect to see in… well, as you said, Saturday Morning cartoon shows.
I can’t say that GW1 writing was all that fantastic, but for some reason, I took it a lot more serious than I can GW2 living story and main story. It’s as if they’re now so worried about hype-hype-hype or providing fan service that they can’t see the major flaws and just common logic of their own stories.
Are there editors looking at any of this? I find it really hard to believe that the things we players can quickly see as glaring issues are overlooked by writers being paid to make these stories.
As you said, though, because I, too, am a writer, I find it hard to come down too harsh on fellow writers. But I know that if I were the one writing the Living Story episodes, and I tried to pull something like this, I’d want an editor to slap me hard and tell me to revise!
Grr! Caught me again. Was it always like this or did you change something?
Nope. Haven’t changed anything. I haven’t seen anyone else having this issue, either. Not sure why it’s doing that. So sorry! 🙁
I can see your point for the love story, but what I got from it was that they were a couple even before you see the memories. And of course you get but a glimpse of the picture, so I wasn’t too bothered by it. I agree with you the last big reveal was done a bit sloppy. I actually wondered how Faolin missed the dagger sticking out of Wynne’s chest… Though now that you mention it Wynne just telling Caithe is not that believable after she saw what happened to her centaur friends/allies. Nonetheless I immensely enjoyed myself with this patch, the story, the armor and the movie at the end ^^
That’s totally cool – I’m glad you enjoyed the story, even if I’m a picky writer! 🙂
My other question was, once Faolin does realize what Caithe did to Wynne, how is Caithe going to explain it? Wynne doesn’t seem the kind of person to attack her sisters, so I couldn’t see Caithe saying, “Wynne attacked me, and I defended myself. I had to kill her.”
I dunno. Faolin would be mighty suspicious at all this, I’d think.
I’ve long since come to terms with ArenaNet’s “variable writing quality.” I guess as a hobbyist writer it’s easier for me to ignore the majority of those fingernails-on-blackboard moments. I’ve been dealing with my issues by iterating on my own fictionalized account of my main character’s involvement in the story until I reach a point where it makes sense. Sometimes that takes a while.
With regard to Caithe and Faolain, it’s known that Sylvari love differs from human love at some existential level. There also seems to be a yin-yang dynamic between them notionally derived from their Firstborn emergence from the Pale Tree. Faolain’s desire to subsume her beloved seems to be strong enough to enable her to “forgive” (and inflict) a great many things.
I just hope they don’t smash us over the head with MacGuffins in the Elder Dragon denouement. Bhagpuss had commented over on Jeromai’s blog that he didn’t see many quality, professional writers sticking around in video games for very long before moving on to short stories, movies, etc. As a professional technical writer, what’s your take on that?
That’s really a good question. I would think writing on a team for a video game SHOULD be a dream job. But I don’t know what kind of pay they work for and what kind of internal pressures the writing team has – maybe the story is the way it is for reasons out of their hands?
I’ve never really talked to a game writer, but it might vary depending on the game company. It makes sense that they might use it as a stepping stone to bigger ambitions like screenplays. Novels and short stories tend to be things to do on the side – even I write fiction for fun outside of work. So, getting your name out there as any kind of “published” writer probably helps move you forward in that area of your career, too.
You do have a good point about Sylvari love and how it may be shown differently. Even if I can believe the feelings do exist between them, I still think the story needed a way to get that across to the players more strongly. They sure do that enough (too much) with Jory/Kas.
I used to write fiction for my own characters, too, especially filling in experiences with the main story and first season of the living story. It’s a good way of trying to piece things together. I haven’t done that in a while, though. Just lacking inspiration lately.
Wow. Where to start..
OK, so I finished the plotline Friday. I have to say that basically I was non-plussed. A lot of your critique of it rings true, but the way I ended up seeing it was that it was a story constructed for specific purpose — to entice people to buy the first expansion for the game. By the time it got to the last cutscene, it already felt like an advertisement, but that scene sealed it. I mean, the killing of Wynne was a “wait.. wat?” moment, and was scripted horribly, but then the final scene was “wanna see more? BUY NAO!”. It explains why the story was so disjointed and shallow; why the characters were so one-dimensional.
I understand the game dev hype machine better than most, being in the industry (in fact, our studio has “no hype” clauses in our charter), but this was particularly brazen and odious, in my estimation.
I think you’re pretty forgiving of bad writing, as you are in that industry, and writing for games is an altogether different beast, at least in terms of execution. However, there are some very important commonalities: plot consistency, character development, historicity, to name a few. It is actually quite difficult for someone to come from traditional novelist-type writing to write for games, because games impose some rather arcane and, often, heavy restrictions on creativity. One example of this was Peter S. Beagle writing quests for the MMORPG Horizons: Empire of Istaria. The developer at the time was ecstatic signing him up to do quest writing for the game, but it soon proved to be a disaster because it was so different from what he was used to. The game engine simply couldn’t do the things he wanted to do; it couldn’t implement his imagined storyline in an effective way. After many weeks and several rounds of edits going back and forth between him and the dev team, they made precisely ONE quest that took players about 10 minutes to complete, and contributed nothing to the overall plotline. Needless to say, that was the end of that collaboration.
Another thing to understand is that writing in games tends to be poor compared to more traditional writing in that you are often dealing with people who are more focused on game mechanics than the skins and tatters of story used to dress them up, which also makes it a self-reinforcing vicious cycle. If most of your players are of the “press spacebar to skip plot exposition” variety, one might think that it doesn’t make sense to throw a complex, convoluted plotline at them. The thing is that, for games which do story very well, like Deus Ex, for example, it actually DOES interest and involve those same exact kinds of players in it. As a result, you have producers who don’t see a value in putting a lot of time and/or effort (read: MONEY) into story, because the players will just ignore it or skip past it. So they turn out absolute crap that the players end up ignoring or skipping past, thus creating the self-reinforcing loop. It can be a difficult cycle to break out of, and often when they try, various additional factors (budget cuts, layoffs, lack of talent, technical issues, etc) can also doom it to failure.
That is another big problem in the industry — most people available for hire as “writers” have qualifications like “I wrote a blog on games”, or have written rather poor self-insertion fanfic and posted it on FA or DA. They can compose sentences just fine, but crafting a story.. a world.. a milieu.. they have no clue where to begin, or where to take it if they do. The ones who can, on the other hand, often find the limitations on their creativity that game designs (and studio management) impose too great, and they simply take the more traditional route in their writing careers.
Anyway, back to the GW2 storyline. Even considering all these factors, I felt like this story line was a cop-out from dealing with them. I mean, as an old, jaded gamer, I can ignore and forgive a lot of shallow story and next to non-existent character development — I have become used to it. However, when the whole point of the story is to get me to reach into my wallet for some cash (“insert coins to continue”), I think it is on a whole different level of poor.
Also, on a side note about game mechanics, tossing people into a character with skills one has never used or seen before without some time to get used to them is rather silly. I mean, I am all for “on the job learning”, but I would like to have a little time to study and understand the skills and knowing basically when to use them tactically and strategically. Instead, I was just mashing buttons, leaping/dashing into and out of combat, and generally allowing my party members to get kacked because I just sprinted 100 yards away and had to trot back because the dash skill was still not recharged by the time I got back to the battle. Fortunately, the skills were appropriately deadly to compensate, almost unrealistically so, but it felt so random and clumsy. It was like I was riding a killer bull that I could only control with leg squeezes and a riding crop.
I and some of my guildmates are discussing some of the wider implications of the “Sylvari Secret” and how it relates to Glint, and the speculation is all over the place (which is to be expected in a guild of Dragons }:=P ). That is turning out to be more interesting than the actual storyline. <.<
Sorry for the rambling. I just had a ton of different thoughts and issues that popped up in my head from the game experience as well as your article and the comments. If you would like some expansion on anything, I'm happy to oblige. }:=)
Thanks so much for your insight on this! It was a very interesting read.
I wrote this article before Heart of Thorns was revealed as an official expansion – though we did have our suspicions. Looking back on it now, I’d agree the end, especially, was an over-glorified advertisement.
I wrote a follow-up article to this, discussing the exact cycle of poor story writing in MMOs, and how player expectations (or the lack of) could be a contributing factor. If we don’t look for more from game stories, why would companies put money into it?
In the comments of that article, I was challenged by a reader to “do a better job” of working through the plot and character development flaws of the whole Caithe/Wynn thing. And I threw out a lot of on-the-fly suggestions on how it could have been something much, much more gripping.
You can find all that here if you’re interested in the further conversation: http://www.sygnus.org/2015/01/20/mmos-story-accepting-mediocrity/
I was always curious how all that worked out for Istaria, btw. *highfive for fellow Istaria player* I’m a little intimidated at the though that such a lauded writer couldn’t work within those confines. Here I thought maybe I could do it better, but maybe I’m wrong! XD
Well, I don’t think it was that PSB /couldn’t/ work within those confines, but it was his first time, and it was more of an experiment than something the HZ devs had planned for. I don’t blame PSB for the issues, he couldn’t have known how to prepare for writing for MMOs, and Tulga Games didn’t really help that.
If you are going to do serious writing for a game, you have to be well-informed as to the capabilities of the game engine and structure you are working within. As a producer, that means setting out clear goals and documenting the game engine, at least from the design document level. Then have that all that ready in written form to give to your writing team so they can adjust their efforts to “fit” within both the genre and story scope, as well as the technical limitations of the game engine itself.
I have no doubt that PSB (or you yourself) could do it, but it is a matter of good game design, planning, documentation, communication, and execution, as well as having a game plan which actually intends to utilize good talent tell a good story. It’s a rare combination nowadays, and it is very easy for the wheels to come off the cart along the way. However, with the right mix of good design and good talent, I have no doubt that it can be done, and done well. It is something we plan on doing with some of our later game plans, but we’re just getting started. }:=)
Please keep us updated on your game development! I’d love to see what you create! 🙂