Telling a coherent story in an MMO is no easy thing. It's difficult enough in a singleplayer game, where writers and designers only have to deal with a single perspective, a single set of player motivations. Telling a story to thousands of online players is like trying to deliver a speech to a crowd at a funfair: you'll get some people to listen, but you'll lose just as many if not more to the merry-go-rounds, the shooting galleries, the things they're really there for.
I spoke to ArenaNet lore and continuity designer Ree Soesbee about how the Guild Wars 2 writing team has chosen to approach that challenge, as well as the difficulty imposed by having a fully-voiced player character and the importance of providing light-hearted moments amongside drama and tragedy.
How do you balance telling your own story against what people are going to inevitably run off and do?
There's a certain amount of iteration. We start with a limited number of people in the room and as we build structures for things they get passed on and the next team adds detail and it comes back to us periodically. We do that because we want the story to be as consistent as possible.
There's a story chain in the world where you go to a Hylek village that is being threatened. The Hylek are frogmen who worship the sun god. As a player you get involved in their village, you learn their lore, you help them make decisions - do they support this priest, or do that thing - and then when you go into an event map that has Hylek all over it we want that to be the same feeling. So we have to bounce back between them all and make sure there's a consistency involved in the whole game. We do the best we can.
So it's more about the experience as a whole than a single narrative?
The narratives are different. The way I tend to write a story in a game - same way that I tend to gamemaster for an RPG - is I build a world and I make it as detailed as I can and then I just turn the players loose. I know within the story that these points are going to happen - this place will be attacked, that good guy will die, you'll eventually have to fight that bad guy - but I don't know how the players are going to get there. There are eight different ways they could get there.
In Guild Wars 2 you could be an Asura, you could have an invention and it could go wrong and you could realise that it went wrong because that bad guy did it. You could come from the Sylvari and be in the forest and find several murdered Sylvari. When did that happen? Oh, that bad guy did it. When you and the Asura decide to go into the dungeon, you'll find that you're both fighting the same bad guy but from very different motivations. That allows us to tell a singular story about the dragons that are trying to take over the world, but depending on your motivations the story might be different, the NPCs coming with you might be different. The things you're able to bring in, whether its a magic item from the Priory or siege items from the Vigil can be very different while we're still telling a singular type of story.
You've got voiced player characters, and the player is hands-off at the point when they're watching the character they've made talk.
What's the challenge of writing that? Presumably you've got a pretty narrow line to walk.
Yeah. We've done a lot in [text-based] conversations to allow you to choose if you want to be very ferocious, very kind, if you want to be kind of a sneak thief. In the cutscenes its a little more limited because you can't have a guy say too many different words. We do make alternate lines and even entire alternate cinematics, where if the player is a Sylvari or has a specific reason to hate this guy they might get a more aggressive player line or a whole different response from the guy. We try to install those as much as we can, because we really want our choices to make a difference. Not just the tangible difference of “I'm fighting with siege weapons” versus “I'm fighting with a magic item” but also “my character's a different guy because he's a Sylvari, my character's a different guy because it's a Charr.” We really try to take that into account. There's only so much we can do - we can only have the actors in the studio for so long or they get fussy.
We really try to keep in mind that the player character is a hero, that whatever choices he's making are what the player character considers to be for the good of the world or the good of his people.
You guys take a pretty definite line - they're a hero, they're going to have this particular moral alignment. It's “how are you going to achieve this heroic thing” rather than “are you an asshole”. Is that degree of extra freedom superfluous in other games?
No - it depends on the kind of game you're playing. We've said from the beginning that Guild Wars 2 is a game about heroes. If you're playing a game about villains there should totally be choices to be a villain. What we wanted to do was tell a story that ends hopefully in the defeat of the dragons, and the choices of bad guy who would do that fall into anti-hero. So that was as far as we were willing to go.
We let our world be the sandbox. You can go into the world and choose not to help the villagers and let the centaurs just destroy the village. You can do a lot more of that in the external world. We give you 50% diversity in the story. If you want want 100%, the other fifty is going to be out in the world because we have to keep to a story and a direction.
In terms of the way people behave, in Guild Wars 2 there's no codified way of saying “I let this mugging happen - plus two asshole points.” Do you find that you just don't need to do that?
We get a little of that because some of the conversations have choices where you can choose to be ferocious and you literally get asshole points and the next guy might be scared of you. But I would rather have a game that says “we're going to give you 50% of the options that you would have in real life, and we're going to make those 50% of the options make a difference” than have a game that says “I'm going to give you 100% options, but it's really not going to matter that much because the story has to be this way.” I feel like we have said up front that this is the line, instead of pretending that there's a larger line that we didn't live up to.
Is it the case then that the more people you hold people to that 50%, the more they can express themselves?
The more we can remind them of what they picked. We let human player characters pick their social class and we're trying to put in options where they'll treat you differently or you'll get a different result depending on what your social class is. You said “I like a guy that's a member of the gentry” and so we're treating you like a member of the gentry. So you like your guy, because you picked it: that's your investment in that character.
Surely responses are better the more subtle they are, the more seamless they are?
The more seamless they are. Seamless isn't always subtle, but yeah. The more they make sense, the more the reactions and responses can be tracked in your mind as “yeah, that's my character."
Next: the themes of Guild Wars 2, the importance of comedy, and when it's okay to build the world's most depressing MMO.
Do you work thematically?
In the main storyline we do, and in a very broad sense in races or areas we do. The strongest points of that are in the story where we say “Caithe is this person” or “Logan is this person." Caithe's story has a lot to do with loss and refusal to accept that loss. The other people in [plot-centric hero group] Destiny's Edge have a lot of anger and so forth, Caithe is just in denial - the Sylvari haven't really had enough death to understand it. So in the Sylvari early chains where mostly it's the Sylvari player character that's going to interact with her, they get that story and they go into the overall world story seeing Caithe's point of view and seeing that theme through the story.
An Asura who comes through the story from the “you killed my friend” point of view is going to go through those same events and they're going to see it as a redemption from bitterness while Caithe is going to see it as an acceptance of death. It's like two different storytellers telling the same story: one of them is telling it like a war story and one of them is telling it like a funny story. It's kind of the same tale, but it feels different because that theme is coming out of a different place.
You have the tragic line and the comedic line. Do you need both?
Yeah, absolutely. It's easy to set down a book. I read a book recently and it had scenes in it that were just horribly tragic. I would set it down and go do the dishes and think about that scene. It's harder to do that in an MMO. You don't want to stop in the middle of a fight. You want to finish the quest, and then you'll go and do the dishes or something and think about it, but by that point you've finished the chunk. I think it's important to have a certain balance where you're not overwhelmed with any one feeling.
I guess you can't expect a player to play a massively tragic MMO for two hundred hours.
Unless that's the point! You could put it on the back of the box: "THE MOST DEPRESSING MMO EVER!"
World of Misery! Everything is going wrong.
Sneakily, the biography system helps us do that. If you pick a character, like, "MY PARENTS DIED WHEN I WAS THREE. I AM AN ORPHAN. I LIVED ON THE STREETS." Clearly you want a story with a little more tragedy.
“I have pure white hair!”
“I have snow white hair! I carry two swords! And I'm blind!” [Laughs] One of the human things is, “I wish I'd joined the circus as a child.” Clearly not going for tragedy. The story with the circus and references to the circus later in the game are going to be funny references. Your feel for the game when you play it through will have that humour you chose to have. We're sneakily getting the player to tell us what kind of game they want and then giving it to them.
It sounds like a way of doing the old Ultima personality test. “You see a knight walking through the forest...”
“...what do you think of that?” Yeah.
But it's “what kind of story attracts you" instead?
Exactly. Then we make sure those things show up again so you get the story you want.
From a technical point of view, there's the cliché - “show, don't tell.” In an MMO you presumably have to 'tell' quite a lot.
So you get to show?
Oh yeah. What can I say without spoiling things? We have at least one situation where the player character has to trick a bad guy but you're not really told how. You go through the process and something horrible happens to you. And the bad guy says “oh no!" and runs off - then it's revealed it was just an illusion. We didn't say what was going to happen because we wanted the player to be surprised in and out of character when that occurred. You can't 'tell' a story that way.
We show a lot in fly-throughs. In one of the Charr chains, you create a musket. It's a brand new type of weapon and so forth. You go off and you get pieces of things and then you put it together in, like, a 1980s montage.
The opening cinematics are a great example of this. Yes, we say “I am a member of the Ash Legion, I sneak in the shadows” and then we show this Charr sneaking up on a human and blood goes everywhere. That is showing , man!
Thanks to Ree for her time.