I had the pleasure of chatting with Scott McGough, a Guild Wars 2 narrative designer who is currently working hard on Heart of Thorns content, about two new Hylek tribes that we’ll be meeting in the Maguuma Jungle. In this special edition of Flameseeker Chronicles, we have all the juicy details about how the two tribes come together to survive in the hostile jungle environment, with hints galore about how those races are equipped for combat and how they might perceive the players’ characters.
The Itzel and Nuhoch Hylek tribes are very different from each other, yet the Heart of Thorns narrative has deeply tied them together in their mutual battle against the dangers the jungle holds, especially the Mordrem. The Itzel are happy-go-lucky iridescent tree dwellers based on treefrogs that believe the jungle provides for all their needs, and their Nuhoch cousins are goliath bullfrogs that prefer to use brute strength and epic belly flops to solve their problems.
McGough will be publishing a blog post about the Hylek tribes on the official Guild Wars 2 website on Thursday, and this will be supported by a Points of Interest show this Friday that will give us a first glimpse of some of the places where players will interact with the Nuhoch and Itzel as well as some of their combat moves. Points of Interest will air on the Guild Wars 2 Twitch channel at 12 p.m. PT. Read on for the mammoth full interview, but be careful if you are worried about spoilers!
Massively Overpowered: Thanks very much for agreeing to talk to me today about the new Hylek tribes. The Hylek were actually my Sylvari’s chosen research topic in the Priory, so I’m very happy to see more of them in Heart of Thorns!
Scott McGough: Let me ask you, were they the secondary race you chose to sympathise with?
Excellent, all right! I worked on that quest in the Personal Story, so I’m happy to hear that.
Ahh, brilliant! So first of all, I just wanted to ask you about the Mordrem presence in the Maguuma jungle. Can we expect some more exotic permutations of the dragon spawn based off the new threats that the Jungle will house?
Ooh… if the question is, “are there Mordrem we haven’t seen yet in the new jungle?” then yes, there are — absolutely!
Any hints on how they’ll look, or the inspiration behind them?
None that I can say right now. We’ll focus on that in a future blog post or a future interview when the time is right, but the short answer is there’s going to be some cool new stuff to see for certain.
Will we find out more about the lore behind the Mordrem as Heart of Thorns unfolds? I feel that we don’t really know too much about the Mordremoth spawn and how they came to be.
Yes we will. As we go forward, certainly as players play through the content in Heart of Thorns, they will learn more about the Mordrem and how they operate. In the lead up to the release of Heart of Thorns, we are going to explore the Mordrem creatures and the lore behind them in a series of blog posts and probably interviews like the one we’re doing now about the Hylek. So that’s certainly going to happen in the future; we want to make sure everyone knows what the score is before going into it and then once the game starts and you start playing there’s a lot more to discover.
So the Itzel Hylek tribe: They have been described as physically similar to tree frogs. Will we see some key characteristics intertwined in the narrative that brings that resemblance out even more?
Yes you will! They live among the trees and make their villages there, and we had our environment artist create whole Itzel societies there up in the tree canopy. We sort of based how they live and how they thrive in the Jungle partially on how they live in the trees. They have to come down to hunt and to harvest, but they’re safer in the trees from the predators and the other threats the Maguuma Jungle holds for them. We are also — just given their skill with poison — tracking back to how they’re portrayed in-game with the actual combat skills they use. They fire bows and arrows and they use daggers. A bit of lore we came up with is that because they are tree frogs and tree frogs on earth are highly poisonous, we determined that the tree frogs of the Maguuma Jungle would also be very good with poisons and have a facility with poisons, especially the ones that they organically get from themselves. So they can envenom their arrows, daggers, and use that in combat.
OK. The nature goddess Ameyalli sounds really interesting. What can we expect in terms of noticeable traits of her worshippers, and how will that affect the Heart of Thorns story?
Well right off the bat, the Itzel are the most adherent worshippers of Ameyalli. The Nuhoch worship her, but they came into the party a little bit later, and they’re characteristically a little bit different. The Itzel, in terms of their openness (and that acceptance of whatever shows up and trying to find a good use for it) — that ties into the story almost immediately as soon as you meet the new Hylek. In the first story mission in which you encounter them, they’re delighted. They pride themselves on their hospitality, and they love meeting new people because that’s an expression of their philosophy, that the Jungle provides everything we need and we just have to find it and figure out how to use it. So when someone new shows up, it’s a question of what can we do for this person, what can this person do for us, and everybody benefits.
When you first encounter the Itzel, the counterpoint to this is how they view Mordremoth. Mordremoth is not part of the jungle, is not part of Ameyalli, and is not part of their world view. This is an outsider, an invader, or an adversary who has come to take from the jungle and give nothing back in return. There’s a really sharp contrast: The Itzel in their daily lives love the jungle and love living; they’re happy-go-lucky types who live in a very dangerous place but have learned to manage it. Now that Mordremoth has risen, it hasn’t shaken their faith, but it definitely is testing their faith. This is something that is not part of Ameyalli, and so we have to figure out what we’re going to do in response to this. Almost as if on cue, the player shows up with the exact same overlapping goal of confronting Mordremoth and containing the Mordrem threat.
The Itzel are quite happy to see the player, though there are multiple Itzel villages throughout the jungle region that are not all unified, so befriending one village doesn’t necessarily mean you befriend the others. The Itzel are a lot more friendly and a lot more likely to welcome a newcomer than the average jungle predator, certainly more than the Mordrem and even slightly more than the Nuhoch. While they do worship Ameyalli and they do share this belief that the jungle will provide everything we need and we just need to figure out how to use it, the Nuhoch in general are a little bit more pessimistic, a little bit more dour, and a bit more reserved. You have to work a little harder to win over the Nuhoch. When you do, you’ll find that they are formidable allies to have, much as the Itzel did when the Nuhoch first showed up. When the Nuhoch first showed up, that’s what the bullfrogs brought to the table: They were able to help the Itzel, who had been there for generations, deal better with the jungle predators and the other dangers that they encounter there. In turn, the Itzel helped the Nuhoch figure out which plants were safe to eat, which creatures were safe to hunt, and so they form this kind of societal symbiosis where they take care of each other and watch each other’s backs.
Again, it’s not universal across the board; there is friction sometimes between the Itzel and Nuhoch individuals and sometimes between whole families or villages. But as a rule, the two jungle Hylek tribes are working in very close connection and are very close allies.
Moving on to that relationship between the Nuhoch and the Itzel, I have to say I really enjoy the humour that’s employed between the two tribes in reference to their differences from each other. They’re kind of like chalk and cheese, so how peacefully can two tribes with such different outlooks really coexist? Do you think that’s permanent?
I think it is relatively permanent, unless there’s a schism that comes up that sharply divides them — and we’ve had some ideas on the table; we’re always planning ahead. But for the short term, we wanted to introduce them and get this idea across that they are allies. Every comedy team that’s ever existed has had the skinny guy and the big heavy guy, and they work together perfectly as a team: Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, etc. It’s not that unreasonable to think they’d get along. In specific Guild Wars 2 terms, as I said earlier, they kept each other alive, the Itzel see the Nuhoch as of benefit and vice versa. They work together and they both mutually profit from that relationship. Just in practical terms, it’s a good idea to maintain this alliance and this relationship. We could certainly see something go awry in the future that would cause more friction between the two tribes.
One of the things that’s sort of a nice segue, if you don’t mind my seguing, is the relationship between the jungle Hylek and the existing Hylek from the main core release of the game. We’re exploring that through the Zintl Hylek, whom I mentioned in the blog. Now, the Zintl are not a discrete tribe of Hylek: They are a fanatical group of sun worshippers. They’ve come to the jungle to convert the jungle Hylek back to the worship of the sun god. The jungle Hylek all worship Ameyalli, the jungle, but the Zintl want them to worship their god. In the core game, the Hylek have kind of a blunt personality — I would stop just short of saying brutal. They occupy a place until they fill it up population-wise, and then when there’s no more room they fall into conflict with one another until a sub-group splits off to find new ground. It’s your basic migration/evolution, taking new territory, spreading out to take new ground.
As we saw in the Hylek personal story — and this was one of my all-time favourite moments for the Hylek — one Hylek is saying that his brother who was chosen as Champion was killed and resurrected. The rest of the Hylek are saying that he’s crazy, but that’s not the case. So that first Hylek goes and confronts the undead brother and cuts his head off; he brings it back to the tribe and says, “See? Told ya he was undead!” Characteristically, that’s just on the edge of crazy! “Look how dead my brother is! I’ve got proof: Here’s his head in my hand”
I got a real kick out of carrying that head on a stick!
That’s a very characteristic moment for the old Hylek. I don’t think you’d see Itzel cutting off each others’ heads to prove a point. The old Hylek are a little more… I don’t want to say brutal as that has a negative connotation, but they’re a lot more pragmatic. They’re a lot less concerned with the niceties, and they like short, direct, blunt solutions. The Itzel are more inclined, when a problem comes, to try to ride it out. They try to figure out how to deal with it by asking, “What do we have around us that could help us deal with this problem?” The Nuhoch are similar to that, although they also have more of the traditional Hylek, “Well, I could just crush it flat with my hammer and then the problem would be solved.”
Can you give us a wee taste of the sort of dialogue and playful insults that might be bandied around between the two tribes?
There’s one exchange that I don’t know whether it’ll make it into the game, but we had this exchange that one of the designers helped me with where the Itzel and the Hylek were arguing over the best way to eat this bug. The Itzel, of course, were saying, “You just slug it right down, the way Ameyalli provided this bug is delicious… you crunch it up,” and the Nuhoch says, “I actually prefer them more with drawn butter!” This starts this whole thing, with the Itzel saying, “Only a Nuhoch would ruin a perfectly good bug with drawn butter” and the Nuhoch saying, “Only an Itzel would eat a raw bug off the ground without doing anything to it first to make it taste better!”
These are more friendly disagreements, kind of like a brother or a cousin where you know which buttons to press and you don’t hesitate in doing so just for a laugh every now and then. I mentioned this in the blog: It’s their core philosophy, the Itzel are more optimistic and the Nuhoch are more pessimistic. When the Itzel are teasing the Nuhoch, they’ll say those guys don’t know how to have fun; when the Nuhoch are teasing the Itzel they’ll say that they don’t know how to get the job done. Between the two of them they manage to cover all the bases, and that’s enough of a reason why they’re good allies as a pair of tribes.
The tree frog poisoned arrows sound like a very interesting battle mechanic. Do you think the player will get to mess around with some of the products of the Itzel’s alchemy and affinity with toxic potions?
I think they will, definitely. We have some plans for some of the story missions where you need Itzel input to get the job done, and then out in the open world outside of story-related instances there’s lots of Itzel-related content where you’re helping them get a handle on their problems and helping them get established or fight off an enemy. Some of the objects you can use, the bundles you can carry, are Itzel weapons. I don’t know if players will have access to them as a main or offhand weapon, but within these certain regions where the Itzel are you will have access to Itzel-style bundles, items, and poisons.
About the Nuhoch: They make more general potions than their Itzel cousins. Can you tell us what those concoctions might be like or what use they might be put to?
They use more of the traditional alchemy we’ve seen from other Hylek. There’s going to be potions that will buff your character, heal your character, or harm the enemy. Across the entire spectrum of alchemy, when the Nuhoch arrive they find a whole jungle filled with unfamiliar plants and they dug into it. They started researching what works and what doesn’t. They called on their Itzel friends to help them make smart decisions from the outset, but once they got their legs under them they began to explore the different aspects of the jungle and the different plants and animals they could use for their alchemy. I think of it as the engineer-based elixirs: They have a wide range of impacts in-game. They can buff you, they can debuff the enemy, they can restore your health, they can poison people, they can set things on fire… there’s a wide range of things alchemy can do in terms of potions, whether you consume them or throw them at the enemy.
While the Itzel are more focused on poisons and combat-based applications of potions, the Nuhoch have a more broad range in the way they use their alchemy to help them survive in the jungle. One of their society’s main goals at this point is to establish a permanent foothold in the jungle. They’ve been there for generations but because they’re pessimistic and recently arrived, they saw how tough it was and so aren’t comfortable yet saying, “This is our permanent home.” That’s just an aspect of their pessimism: They’re sure something’s going to come along and mess this up for them. The longer they stay, the more they learn and the more secure they feel, but they’re not quite as happy-go-lucky and installed as the Itzel are. Not yet anyway!
The Nuhoch tribe sound like fierce combatants. How easy is their brute-force approach to apply in a dense jungle setting, and does that make them feel less at home as you were saying?
It does make them feel a bit less at home, but I think you’ll find once you see them in-game that they’ve adapted really well. Their abilities work well with having a smaller space to fight in, and some of their high-impact moves just have more impact. If it’s an area-of-effect, your enemies can’t get far enough away to avoid it. I believe we’re going to be showing off some of this stuff in a later blog post or podcast, actually the Points of Interest coming up this Friday.They’re going to be showing off some of the animations and the skills. I’ll spoil a bit for you: One of the Nuhoch’s key attacks is a belly flop where they jump really really high in the air and come down belly-first. It makes a huge impact crater and a shockwave, and if you’re in a confined space, it’s going to crush you. There’s just nowhere to go! As a player, it’s fun to take a step back and watch, thinking, “Boy, am I glad I’m not underneath that frog who just came down that hard!”
The Zintl worshipping Hylek also threaten the two new tribes, as you were saying, in their fanaticism to convert them. How do you see that ebbing into the story?
It has a major impact in the first few Hylek regions you encounter because that’s where the Zintl fanatics are most active. They’re not just riding in on their beetles and rounding people up Planet of the Apes style, and they’re not just throwing nets over people and dragging them off into cages. They’re trying a much more sophisticated strategy in some cases where they’re trying to lure the Itzel Hylek into a situation where they can say, “See? Your jungle can’t protect you, but our sun god can. Come with us.” They’re conducting a sustained campaign that’s effective on many levels: It’s physical, it’s martial, it’s political, and it’s spiritual. They’re determined and they’re very very invested in the idea that it’s their holy duty to bring these frogs back into the fold, to make sure they worship the sun god. They are led by demagogues that are using that fervent belief to gain and maintain political power.
It also helps us compare and contrast the two Hylek races: You have the existing Hylek who worship the sun and who are fairly severe in their approach to life, which is direct contrast to the Itzel who are very laid back, friendly, and open. That doesn’t mean they’re pushovers because the Itzel do know how to fight, especially with the Nuhoch backing them. We took the existing traditional Hylek, the Zintl who are invading the jungle, and made them villains. They’re an antagonistic role and that gives us the friction we need to compare and contrast the two cultures. We’re going to have the invasive, colonial-minded Zintl, who are looking to capture territory, hearts, and minds, versus the Nuhoch and Itzel, who are much more open, much more trusting, and much more about coexistence. The Nuhoch originally came to the jungle region because there was no more room for them in the grounds they had settled in in old Tyria. They came here looking for a new start and they found one, and they’re determined to hang onto it. The Itzel love their jungle home, they love their jungle goddess, and they love having visitors. The old Zintl Hylek fanatics could not be more distinct in terms of their society, spirituality, and in terms of how they handle themselves.
So both of the new tribes see Mordremoth as an unnatural and unwelcome invader in the jungle. They both burn their dead to prevent them being carried off by the dragon minions. How else will we see that hatred of the dragon and the Mordrem play out in the Heart of Thorns jungle?
First and foremost, there’s going to be extreme hostility. Whenever a Hylek, Itzel or Nuhoch, see a Mordrem, combat starts. They’re competing for the same resources and territory, and the Itzel see Mordremoth and his minions literally as a disease that’s something that needs to be cut out, burned out, cauterised… bury it and salt the earth so it can’t come back. They see this as the ultimate evil, taking from the jungle and giving nothing back, destroying the gifts Ameyalli has provided and giving nothing in return. They’re basically just consuming so the jungle Hylek have zero tolerance for Mordrem. They see them, they kill them: If they die in combat with the Mordrem, they have a Viking funeral instantly to be sure Mordremoth can’t claim their corpse and use it as any kind of resource.
There’s extreme hostility and you’ll see that — the phrase really is zero tolerance. They’re almost universally hostile to the Mordrem themselves as they are the most direct threat the tribes face. They were doing all right against the natural jungle predators, but as soon as Mordremoth rose and started bringing in more and more minions and the hordes grew, the Itzel and Nuhoch realised this is a fight for their lives. Everything they worked for in the jungle is at risk now, and if they can’t stop the Mordrem expansion, they are either going to have to find a new home or die there. Neither one of those tribes is ready to accept that, so they’re very willing to dig in and fight for everything they’ve worked for in the jungle.
As a sort of learning process, what should your character take away from his or her experiences with the two tribes?
Hmm… my hope would be that these are good allies to have on your side! As I said, we’re going to be exploring a bit more of their combat abilities later this week, but having seen the skills in action, the Itzel jump in, attack, and jump out, so the enemy doesn’t have a chance to fight back… they’re very affective at this sort of hit-and-run style of combat. When you see the Nuhoch in combat, whether they’re wielding a giant warhammer, leaping high into the air and crushing the enemy flat beneath them or literally knocking enemies off their feet with a giant swipe of their tongues, they’re fun to play with. They’re fun to have on your side and they’re effective: When you’re in a tight situation and Mordrem are pouring in on all sides, if you have an Itzel and a Nuhoch at your side, you’ll be in much better shape. We’re hoping that if players don’t fully convert to the worship of Ameyalli, they appreciate her! The jungle does provide, and when we need allies in the jungle, the Pact has been wrecked, and the fleet has been destroyed, we find the Itzel and Nuhoch.
In terms of inspiration, apart from the two specific frog species they’re based on, what other references did you have for the characterisation of the two tribes?
For the Itzel, as a gross oversimplification we went with that laid-back surfer mentality, and that’s not a joke in any sense! A surfer rides a wave; whatever comes, the surfer needs to react and change the way they stand, the way they balance themselves. It takes effort to stay on that surfboard and whatever comes the surfer rides it out, and that’s sort of how the Itzel handle things. For the Nuhoch, nothing in particular springs to mind, but we had this idea of a refugee culture, a pessimistic ethos and the need for a home. The first place that comes along that welcomes them. They’re going to try really hard to establish themselves there. They’re in this for the long haul yet they are out of place; the jungle wasn’t made for them so they don’t blend in as effectively as the Itzel do because the Itzel are tree frogs that can go up into the canopy. Nuhoch of course can go that high, but they are built to live closer to the ground. It was very much about them moving into this new territory and finding their niche in a place where they could make a home for themselves. With the Itzel’s help they’ve been able to do that; I would say they have a toehold and are working towards establishing a foothold so they can stay longer.
I’ll wrap it up there with asking you what your favourite thing about the Maguuma Hylek as a whole is.
That’s a tough call! I’ve been working on these with an enormous amount of input, and I do want to call out the designers who are making the skills, the artists who are drawing them, their societies, and homes, and the animators who make them perform the actions we see them perform. I’m going to lean toward that! For the moment I think my favourite thing about them is the way they fight. For example, when you see the Itzel fight, they literally put arrows in their mouths to envenom them. He takes that arrow out of his quiver and puts it in his mouth, only then putting it in his bow and firing it when it is more dangerous. For the Nuhoch it’s when they swing their warhammers. There is such a sense of substance, everything they do is heavy and has a substantial feel to it. The Nuhoch plants his feet and gives a big overhead swing of that hammer and when that hammer hits the ground it shakes. Your camera shakes, the bass sound effect goes off, and you really feel like you’re standing there next to a 14-foot high frog with a giant warhammer. It really puts you in the world, and you feel like you’re a part of the game and this culture where frogs can fight like this.
Thanks so very much for your time, it’s been a blast chatting about the new tribes with you!