Yesterday I wrote a piece loosely arguing the importance of narrative to an MMO experience. With that in mind, I thought today I'd talk about the successes (and failures) of Guild Wars 2's latest Living World episode, Escape From Lion's Arch.
Having shown her hand in previous episodes, The Origins of Madness and The Edge of the Mists, arch-villain Scarlet Briar has finally set out to completely dismantle Tyria in Escape From Lion's Arch. She's chosen her target well, Lion's Arch being Tyria's multi-racial center of maritime power. The city's emergency has made all of its citizens, whether they be Charr, Sylvari, Humans, Norn or Asura, put old grudges aside and join forces to protect their collective interests. I too have joined the war effort many times in the last week and a half, braving the deadly miasma that pervades the city in order to save men, women, children and dolyaks from certain death. The fights I've experienced have been utter madness—giant, roiling masses of fire and sparkly effects so dense I can't even see the targets I'm attacking.
At its best, the Lion's Arch experience does a fair job of simulating what I imagine real combat might be like: disorienting, taxing and horrifying as death strikes you or your comrades-in-arms seemingly without warning. Within the chaos, you're constantly faced with the choice to stick with the group (a much safer choice) or set out on your own to find people who need help. It's all pretty exciting. Except when it's not.
The first time we entered the city, I was pumped. My group fought its way past waves of hostile Aetherblades and Krait, past rampant destruction and citizens overcome by smoke and poison to the center of the city. There we encountered a group of Black Lion Traders just...standing around. An urgent mission message appeared: “Protect the Black Lion Dolyaks!” so we raced to defend the ungainly beasts. Meanwhile, the Black Lion guys just ambled slowly around us like they were on heavy medication. What the hell?
Similar weirdness existed among the Aetherblades themselves. We'd be pounding individual pirates into jelly, and their blasé compatriots would loiter ten feet away, seemingly without caring. Yes, perhaps this was to keep the invasion from becoming too overwhelming but, shouldn't it be? If this was odd, it was hardly the only instance of End of the World inertia. Within the refugee camps. things were suitably urgent. People were wounded, anxious, expressing despair. Military commanders stressed the importance of rescuing as many refugees as possible. Outside of the camps however, it was as if Tyria hadn't gotten the memo.
To break up rounds of fighting in Lion's Arch, we'd go back to adventuring in other areas of Tyria and among the residents of those places, it was like, “Scarlet who?” We continued to repair bridges, collect artifacts and enter drinking contests, just like we did before Scarlet came to town. Imagine L.A. was being fire-bombed and people in Anaheim didn't react. It stretches credibility a wee bit, doesn't it? Related to this, the Lion's Arch happenings had zero effect on our personal stories. Having become Guild Wars 2 somewhat recently, my personal story's still going and I admit it was odd hanging out with Sieran and getting scolded by Gixx with the apocalypse going on right next door.
To be fair, altering every area of the game to recognize Scarlet's attack on Lion's Arch would be a tremendously tall order development-wise. Still, if you're trying to break the MMO mold by creating such a world-altering event, that's what's needed to really sell it. Till now, ArenaNet's done a better job than most, of making me feel as if I'm a part of its game world and creating the illusion that what I do within it matters. That's what makes Escape From Lion's Arch feel so half-baked. Then again, what I'm looking for is nothing less than the MMO player's holy grail: a multiplayer game world wherein time moves linearly, my actions have meaningful, permanent effects, other people are prevented from affecting me negatively in any way, and everything cool is always accessible to me. Right. Is anyone really surprised that no one's found a way yet, to make that happen?
Anyway, even if we're still a long way from such a game coming to pass, Escape From Lion's Arch could have come a bit closer if it had affected more than just Lion's Arch and environs. In order to feel that the fate of Tyria really hangs in the balance, we need to see everyone in the world reacting to events, and it's just not happening. That makes it hard to predict what will happen to Lion's Arch once the current Living World episode is done. Will it remain forever a ruin or will the staunch citizens regroup and rebuild? And whatever happens, will anyone outside the city's immediate radius even care?