Friday, March 21, 2008

Guild Wars: Why I Stopped Playing

The other day I mentioned, in a fit of uncharacteristic brevity that I will now try to overcompensate for, that I had quit playing thanks to Sacnoth Valley. Really, the whole Charr Homelands region. Because when I'm finding reasons not to log on instead of hunting through there to track down yet another copy of Tryptophan Signet or reporting to the Ooze Pit, well, that's about when I need to give up the ghost.

You see, I think we can all agree that Sacnoth Valley is an evily brutal place but my ennui goes so much further than that. I hate the Charr Homelands. I don't simply not like them. I don't sigh and shrug my shoulders as I grind my way through them the way I can with the Crystal Desert or the Frozen Sea of Jade. It's not just a zone that doesn't work for me. It's a zone that bothers me. And fills me with a deep weariness in my bones whenever I have the misfortune to venture there. The place irks me.

Which I find really odd because if I had set out to design a Guild Wars region it would look terribly not unlike the Homelands. It's all right there.

There's a connection to past chapters, past stories, a deep immersion in the game's lore. An attempt to build on that lore, to use it as a springboard for new stories, new adventures, rather than simply retreading the same old ground. Familiar faces, old friends, past enemies, taking another turn on the stage and not just for old time's sake. Creating a sense that I'm part of a living, breathing world.

More than that, a world that changes, that grows and adapts. A place that relies on the power of instancing to alter itself in response to my actions. Where my past impacts my present and unfolds into potential futures. It's a mutable place. One that constantly surprises you with a new spawn or quest.

And those quests are strung together, pearl-like, on a string stretching from start to finish. Together composing a cycle, an adventure. One completely optional, but one that draws you into the setting that's been established.

You even get to ally with and explore the experience of one of your former foes. I always thought it should be the Centaur but you get a chance to see what the Charr are really like when they're not trying to chop you into little bits. Either way, it broadens and expands the scope of the game, casts everything in a new light, folds in needed moral ambiguity while opening up fertile new story ground.

And in a mechanical sense, it's a region that forces you to adapt to it, even as it adapts to you. One where you'll need to slot new skills, perhaps for the first time in a long time, to struggle and try and fail to understand it. Because it's also a place that cranks the difficulty up and does away with some old familiar strategies - those SF spammers I'd been rocking since NF just wouldn't cut it against the fire immune critters of the burning woods, after all. I needed to come up with something else. And that means maybe coming up with something better.

It reads like a laundry list of the features that I've long asked for and even longer wanted. But those very features are what bother me about the place so much.

I don't know, maybe it's because I'm overly sentimental about the past to which this new zone ahas attached itself. I'll cheerfully admit that I spent so long caring so hard about Ascalon that I have huge rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Pre-Searing. Even though, perhaps because, I haven't played there in years - I devoured the place during the beta and the months both before and after release. And that's what the Charr Homelands are, for me, Bizzaro Pre.

The monsters are similar, you have the Charr and Elementals and even the pathetic Grawl, just amped up, tougher versions, suited for a high-level zone. Those mobs have, well, character. A pedigree born from having been there from the very start. A familiarity that buys a certain fondness even in the scripted things like the Charr rank flashing you after they score a kill.

The NPCs are similar, familiar characters from Ascalon now years past the cataclysm and settled into new lives. Lives that you get to catch up with and, once again, improve. Even the music is straight out of Prophesies.

But that's just it, I think, I'm too invested in that forgotten region of the game's primordial past that I wander around this new zone, this continuation of what came before, going, "Wait, that's not right. That character wouldn't do that. This one wouldn't say that. This is all wrong."
While the story of the ragtag Ascalonian resistance that is the Ebon Vanguard and the Charr rebellion war you help them ferment is many things, for me, it's not interesting. It doesn't mesh with what came before.

The Ascalonian refugees, the people left behind when I scaled the Shiverpeaks and lost Rurik to cutscene permadeath all those long years ago, a group that I've wanted to catch up with for so long, well, they become nothing more than a footnote. Shoved to the side, passive and unimpressive.

And the Charr were the enemy. The great other. The destroyers. The defilers of the unspoiled Eden that was Old Ascalon. Enslaved its people, slaughtered them for sport, conspired with the dark forces that nearly ruined the world. I don't want to reconcile with them. I don't care what the plans are for GW2 or how many furry fans there are out there. There can be no reproachment with that. There can be no forgiveness. There never should have been. Instead, the game has me wandering around a Charr settlement in relative peace when I should be showering myself in heart's blood or unleashing fiery waves of destruction from my fingertips.

Which is really disappointing, that the game doesn't at least try to rectify that dissonance (Outside, I know, of a few cutscenes and some angsty posturing from Gwenny Bear, the World's Saddest Mesmer. I'm talking about me. I'm talking about the hatred, the fear, the game built up in me, personally for those promising early level foes that it then so quickly abandoned.) especially in a zone that's built around interactive feedback.

I was amazed the first time I retraveled the zone after having completed a mission to find that the towers I'd blown to itty bitty pieces were still burning husks. And would always remain so. In a game that's built around the instance, that promised to let you tear down bridges and change the course of rivers because you could, in your game, that's shockingly rare. And it's not just cosmetic either as the NPCs you quest for also float and shift around depending on what you've done and how much of their quest cycle you've completed.

But rather than being the awesome I expected, it turns out that such heavy use of instancing to personalize your gameplay isn't enriching. Instead, it's just annoying. Because it means I can never tell where, exactly, anything will be. I have to remember which NPC is where for each of my different characters. Worse, on the first go around, when I haven't dealt with them before, I have to hunt them. Trekking all over the zone, popping in and out of outposts, sniffing in obscure corners, when all I want to do is turn in a quest and get started on the next one. The fluidity, rather than serving to draw me deeper into the story, only serves to take me out of it by making me focus on the mechanics of the game and not the flow of the story.

As for those mechanics, in Scanoth, the game deals you a wild card, forces you, perhaps, to shuffle your formerly successful strategy back into your deck, by fiat. Not because the monsters in the valley are tougher or smarter or utilize a few key skills intelligently. But because they've simply had the "immune to fire/burning" switch turned on. And the "Increased health and attribute levels" toggle set. It pushes you but not to find a better strategy simply the broken one that works for that area as opposed to every place else.

Which wouldn't be so bad except it's the rare exception because those broken strategies - like SF spam or the old-school dual echoed Meteor Showers - work everywhere else. If the Sacnoth was one of a string of areas that forced you to deal with their gimmick, one of a series of places that had the mechanics and systems in place to thwart a single focused strategy rather than just a vague ambition towards difficulty it would be different. But it's not. It's one of the few places where you have to respecc to get past - and most of the rest of those are missions where you're already investing some time in preparation. So it becomes an annoyance because you have to remember to switch your stuff up instead of barreling forward the way you usually do. Not because it's doing something wrong but because, for once, by forcing you to delve - however lightly - into the wonderful depths of the game's flexibility it's doing something right.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that players often know how to ask for what they want but not what it is they need.

That I know very little about game design and should leave it up to the professionals rather than continue my armchair diatribes is, I should think, well established at this point.

Still, why does that place so drain away my precious bodily essence? It could be just that all I've long asked for was a mistake born of my misunderstanding. A colossal, fundamental failing to understand the principles of design and the ramifications of their implementation.

Or it could be that I've built the zone that turned in the Charr Homelands so many times, in my mind, that the actual product could never live up to my expectations. And by coming so close it manages to fall all that much farther. But, in my head, where I've written the story so many times, erasing and refining it to suit my own personal tastes, all I can hear is, "That's not how it should have been. That's not how it played out. This isn't right."

That, and Blisterbark and his pack of high-speed spike artists are a bunch of grade-A asshats.

No comments: