Guild Wars 2 writer on MMO storytelling and "sneakily getting the player to tell us what kind of game they want"

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.

Both! Both!

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.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.