I have really liked Guild Wars 2’s story in the last few years. Quite honestly, I wasn’t crazy about a lot of the base game’s story; the way ArenaNet did dialogue cutscenes at launch was awkward, once you get to Orr the story really starts to drag, and a lot of the early Living World stuff felt rushed. But as the years have gone on, all of that has gotten progressively better. I’m a lot more attached to Taimi than I ever was to Zojja, for example, and I was a lot more excited by the buildup to Path of Fire than I was for Heart of Thorns.
The first and most significant problem is that Living World Season 1 is completely gone. It blows my mind that someone at ArenaNet said out loud, “Hey, we should do a bunch of important storytelling in temporary open world events that no one will ever be able to see again,” and then whoever was above that person greenlit the idea. It’s honestly one of the most frustrating things about Guild Wars 2. It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, except that those episodes introduced almost all of the new main characters in season 1.
Whenever this criticism comes up, someone invariably chimes in that everything you need to know about season 1 you can deduce from the first chapter of season 2. I’m actually making it my summer project to go back through the story from beginning to end, so I recently played these early chapters. Sure, you can figure out that there was a Sylvari named Scarlet who went crazy and smashed up Lion’s Arch and awakened Mordremoth. But what you don’t get to see is the introductions and backstories of important characters like Rox, Braham, Kasmeer, Marjory, Taimi, and Canach. I was taking a break from the game when the Living World was first introduced, and I’m actually still a little fuzzy on the origins of some of these characters — even after reading wiki articles and watching fan-made recap videos — because I never got to experience the story personally.
I also can’t believe that ArenaNet still hasn’t found some way to give players the ability to go back and play season 1 in some form. You can watch a short cutscene with Magister Ela Makkay in Lion’s Arch, but that’s hardly the same thing as actually being there. I realize that this would be challenging because season 1 stories took place over entire zones rather than instances, and there were a lot of group events involved that would have to be soloified, but it would be great if the game could give us some kind of flashback CliffsNotes version where we can at least play through the important events that we’re supposed to pretend our character took part in.
As for the seasons we can still play, a lot of players feel that the task of catching up is a chore. When Path of Fire came out, for instance, a couple of my friends who play Guild Wars 2 casually were excited to jump right in and play it, but the story picks up so abruptly at a point in the story that had been built up for a whole season that they felt as if they had to go back and catch up on all of what happened between the end of Heart of Thorns, the last content they played, and the start of Path of Fire. For them, and many other players, that was enough to push them right out of the game and never come back, even for an expansion.
Worse, if they didn’t log in while a given chapter was current, they actually have to pay money for what they could have gotten for free if they had just remembered to log in. Guild Wars 2 is generally an extremely casual-friendly game. Why punish casual players like this? I can’t imagine that ArenaNet is making enough money off of old Living World chapters to justify the number of people who shrug and walk away because the game has gated the story behind microtransactions.
So how do the devs fix this problem? Well, there’s not a lot you can do for existing episodes, except to have an optional catch-up cutscene at the beginning of each chapter/expansion, sort of like what you see at the beginning of each episode on many TV series (“Last time in Guild Wars 2…”). We don’t need every single detail, but enough to fill us in on the relevant details of why we’re now trying to not kill dragons, why the humans now have five gods, and why Braham is bald and Rox is dressed like a hippie. These cutscenes would definitely need to be in-game; if a casual player has to go to YouTube or a wiki to find your story, it might as well not exist. I know that fans have put this kind of thing together, and I think it would be great if ArenaNet could hire a member of Guild Wars 2’s wonderful creative community to produce in-game recap videos like this.
What could the studio do to fix this going forward? One option is to just get rid of the Living World altogether. A lot of games survive on an expansion every year or two with only a few patches in between. The problem with that is that regular, free, story-centered content updates has always been one of the best selling points of the game. There’s no level inflation and relatively little gear treadmill, so story really is the main thing that keeps people coming back. Dishing it out only once a year isn’t going to help with player retention.
I think the best option is to have the expansion and Living World stories be self contained. Each chapter of The Living World should start its own story, separate from anything that came before. Then, by the end, that story should wrap everything up and the next season or expansion should have a whole different, self-contained story. Teases and callbacks are fine, but nothing that will leave a player who hasn’t played the whole story feeling lost, or a loyal fan feeling talked down to. The fact that ArenaNet is creating artificial barriers to entry in a game that, for all intents and purposes, should allow you to do all post-80 content in any order, is just short-sighted design. Guild Wars 2 deserves better.