GW2/IF: Back on the Narrative Hunt – Emily Short and Fractured Fairy Tales

The terse, evocative beauty of words...

One of the things I started missing while enjoying Guild Wars 2 was narrative. Huh? Doesn’t GW2 have narrative?

Well, yes, and while I don’t mind the later personal story as much as some, and I appreciate the branching choices involved in creating that personal story, one of the things I did feel about it was that it was very… fractured. You’re not meant to go on it non-stop, you’re encouraged to take time out for hearts and DEs and what-have-you.

As a result, I feel a little less story continuity than say, in GW1, where you get to go on a nonstop story mission ride until you get bored, then you go off looking for trouble with side quests and back alley zone exploration and vanquishing. It’s nice enough, for what it is, and I appreciate seeing some of my chosen allies along for the ride in the higher level stuff (though I really miss my first NPC companion Maverick, whom we never see again past level 30.)

Ditto the dungeon stories. I did them completely out of level order and it’s a bit… hard to put them back together in any semblance of plot order. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Destiny’s Edge fights and squabbles a lot in the earlier dungeons, then they kiss (ok, not really) and make up and learn their lessons in the later dungeons, in time for the final big fight.

The world stories are okay, when you talk with the NPCs, it’s pretty entertaining, but there’s not much of a “me” story when wandering the world. Or rather, nothing terribly interesting to relate.

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

I guess it’s a narrative, and it’s a player-engendered one, which is sorta kinda sandboxy but not quite, but it’s also the same as what most people are doing, just not in that precise order. It’s a bit more meta-gamey than roleplay-ey, I guess.

There’s perhaps more unique diversity of experience in more sandbox games like Eve, where folks can be isolated in one tiny corner of the universe and have their own special adventures brought on by their self-chosen goals, but for myself, I’ve never really liked the idea of being just a small insignificant cog in some vast machinery understanding only a little part of the overall big puzzle. Fun for a little while, maybe, but I don’t have the patience long term for it.

No, the kind of narrative that will offset the lack of it in GW2 nicely would be short, bite-sized stories where I can take on a role and immerse in a world given to me by the author, and make meaningful choices to drive the story forward, and possibly have it branch out into significantly different endings and consequences based on what I chose to do.

That kind of narrative is best found in interactive fiction (IF) games.

And since GW2 does so wonderfully visually, the perfect yet different complement is literary elegance.

Every year, around this time, I start getting an itch for IF, because of the anticipation of Ifcomp, a yearly competition of interaction fiction (or text-adventure games) where you get to play a bunch of them for two hours and vote on your favorites. I’m about two weeks early, as the voting starts October 1st and authors are just submitting their games in September.

So I decided to check out a bunch of games I haven’t played, and my go-to author for IF is Emily Short, a true master of this medium.

If you haven’t played text-adventure games in a long time, or at all, do give them a try. It’s moved on quite a bit since the stilted unfriendly two word parsers which make trying to solve the game an exercise in authorial mind-reading and walkthrough following. The best of the lot are very well-written, technically clever and conjure up fantastic worlds and characters and dialogue in text.

I first fell in love with Emily Short’s work playing Metamorphoses, which I don’t really recommend to start with for IF newbies, but heartily do for those used to the genre. It’s mysterious, literary, figurative, symbolic, and very very well-coded. The puzzles involve transforming objects into different materials (hence the name of the game) and there are alternative solutions for each puzzle and stuff reacts in a way very consistent with the materials they are made of. It’s very impressive for what it sets out to achieve, and demonstrate what IF can do successfully.

Instead, for newbies, I’d suggest something I just tried a couple days ago and found quite doable. Bronze, part of her Fractured Fairy Tales series, is a story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s notable for having a novice mode, which explicitly helps out those new to the entire genre. It’s anything but a simple story, though, as you explore through the Beast’s castle, you will learn more of the history of its inhabitants and form your own opinions and emotions up to the point of the ending(s) where one can choose to have vengeance on or save certain characters (for whatever reasons or morals or ethics guide your hand.)

For the ultimate in super-short entertainment, A Day for Fresh Sushi is what is known in IF as a “one-room” puzzle, apparently solvable in three moves. As far as I understand it, this was a speed IF, coded in two hours, so it’s not as comprehensively parser foolproof as most of Emily Short’s other works but it’s amusing five minute entertainment to read the snark of the titular evil talking fish character while you’re trying to feed him. Low investment entertainment, worth trying, just don’t expect anything resembling perfection, but pretty funny.

Eg.

>x fish

Even if you had had no prior experience with him, you would be able to see at a glance that this is an evil fish. From his sharkish nose to his razor fins, every inch of his compact body exudes hatred and danger.

The fish notices your gaze; makes a pathetic mime of trying to find little flakes of remaining food amongst the gravel.

Best of Three is a very interesting simulation of a conversation, as a girl meeting someone you once had a crush on in high school, realistic to the point of awkwardness. It’s amazing how differently you can choose to react. I spent one game just gabbering on about anything under the sun, barely shutting up once. And another where I was silent through most of it, leaving the old flame doing most of the awkward filling in of the gaps until he eventually gives up and takes his leave. And I don’t think I’ve seen all the possible endings yet.

Bee is also realistically interesting. It’s different from the others in that it’s not in Inform format, but in a web form called Varytales. You play a girl who sets out to win the National Spelling Bee, but will lose, someday, somehow. But the reasons and motivations for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this story, about home-schooling, about parents, about work and play – friends, homework, school and siblings. How you define success, and how you define learning. Oh, science and religion. Big themes. Very worth a read. Or two.

(And it’s in web format, so you just click, rather than typing, if you’re scared of the IF parser.)

For those not impressed by overly flowery words, I’d recommend something not-Emily Short, but hilariously funny. Lost Pig, in which you play an orc, who has lost a pig and must find it. If you get through this one without laughing or liking it, you are beyond saving.

Eg.

Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.

The whole thing is written from Grunk’s POV. It’s crazy fun.

There are a lot more good ones that Emily Short (and others, not mentioned here) have written, Galatea, Flashpoint, Savor-Faire, City of Secrets, etc. that I’ve played ages past before, but I mainly wanted to cover the four less-known ones I just played, Bronze, Sushi, Bee and Bestof3, in this post. The other two are classics that have etched themselves into my brain and must recommend.

And how do you play IF, you may ask?

Well, in all the games I just linked, in the top right hand corner, there is a little button that reads, “Play Online” which you can just click and the game will start and you don’t have to do any more worrying than that.

If you’re more of a hardcore fanatic and develop a taste for this sort of thing, there are interpreters and clients that you can download (click on “Show Me How”), and the game files from that archive, and then you can play the things offline. Z-Code and Inform games run off something called Frotz, there’s a bunch of variants.

And there’s an app in the iStore called Frotz which works for iPad and iPhone, more or less. This is my preference these days, as it’s more portable than sitting in front of a desktop (which dangles Steam and other MMOs oh so temptingly.) It has a bit of a tendency to crash or stall in mysterious fashion with bigger, more sophisticated games on my ancient iPad 1, at which point, I just switch to online play versions, but works all right for 75% of the games I’ve tried.

The basic conventions for IF are as follows:

EXAMINE everything. Just type ‘x’ followed by a noun. Eg. ‘x cat’ ‘x cupboard’ ‘x drawer’ etc.

Moving is usually via compass directions. North, south, etc, and shortened to N, E, S, W, NE, SW, NW, SE, etc. and there ‘s occasionally up and down, in and out.

To see what you’re carrying, INVENTORY or ‘i’

From there, just try anything and everything. Push, pull, touch, feel, hit, kill, whatever verbs shake your boat. And you can always try HELP or HINTS if the game provides for it.

GW2: A Light in the Darkness

Fear Not This Night, indeed.. Hope is just a sunrise away...

Wow. Just… wow.

I did the level 55 Personal Story quest: A Light in the Darkness a day ago or so, and it is one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had so far in not just this game, but my MMO history. Crazy good level design. Huge kudos to all the folks involved in creating this.

If I weren’t already a die-hard alt-holic, this would make me take quite a few characters up high enough just so that they could go through it too. I’d classify it along the lines of the sort of rousing heroic storytelling sort of on-par with the Nightfall ending and the Eye of the North finale, so you can have an idea of whether you’d like it or not, if you’ve played the original.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me feel “oh no, I’m getting near the end of this great story, and I really hope GW2 comes out with another chapter, another sequel, another expansion soon, cos I want MORE, dammit.” (Yeah, barely one week into the game’s launch, realistic, much?)

Some spoilers follow, so be duly warned:

When you see such a grand painting on the loadscreen for the mission, you know you’re in for something really special.

Essentially, A Light in the Darkness sets up foreshadowing for (I presume) the eventual moment that you hit level 80 and get to go to Orr and Arah and (maybe) confront Zhaitan.

Just as the Ringbearer seeks out Galadriel for a vision of the future, you seek out the Pale Tree for a vision of the future by entering the Dream (which is ever so slightly more hazardous than looking into a bowl of sacred water.)

There’s some wonderful storytelling and voice work. The NPC companion whom you would have met in an earlier part of the story narrates the history of Orr as you progress through the map, mentioning key characters like Vizier Khilbron’s reading of the Lost Scrolls to stop the Charr invasion (which caused a Cataclysm that sunk Orr) and it immediately made me want to run back to Guild Wars 1 to see the Vizier again in the missions where we meet him, and check out all the references in the first game.

God, I love GW lore. Those of you coming into GW2 completely new to the world don’t know what you’re missing. (Take some time to work through GW1 later, if you can.) The lore bible is thick and goes back way more than 250 years in history and there are all kinds of references all over the place, ArenaNet pays so so much attention to immersion.

Speaking of which, this was the first time my Charr, who has been primarily staying in human and Charr zones working to help the peace treaty to stay more or less RP background and lore-appropriate, got to the Sylvari areas. And got to see Ventari’s tablet. (Screenshotting it was not easy, the stupid camera still needs some work done on it.)

It looks like the real deal, all right, and if you bothered with a New Krytan translation, you’d see that someone took the trouble to inscribe the tenets onto it.

I only bothered to check the first two lines, “Live life well, and fully, and waste nothing” and “Do not fear difficulty. Hard ground makes strong roots” so the rest of it could be an ad for dish soap as far as I know, but I doubt it, GW loves their lore. (The rest of the tenets can be read by referring to the Ventari Tablet wiki page.)

When you’re in the Dream, Arah looks glorious. Golden foggy and far away, but glorious. I can’t wait until I can get there for real, and see what has happened in the wake of the Elder Dragon, which I guess, is the point of setting up the foreshadowing.

There are a couple more optional conversations with Dream reflections of Destiny’s Edge, which allude to the storyline in the book, and explains a little more on why they’re all so screwed up now.

In a way, it’s very clever. One needs signature characters in an MMO in order to have some lore, but the signature characters, if too heroic, are always in danger of overshadowing the player character, making the player feel like Gandalf’s errand boy or playing a second-string story alongside the real protagonists’ stories.

GW1 lucked into avoiding this when players developed a fondness for Gwen, a happy child who hero-worshipped the PC in the tutorial (so we still feel important) and a general tragedy befell everyone, making folks wonder about her fate. Then the clever writers decided to revisit her and screw her up a little by the time we meet her again all grown up. A good story is all about characters who change, in significant ways.

In GW2, we have a merry band of adventurers, who, opposite from stereotype, are no longer all together and one big happy family. Quite the opposite, they’re all at each other’s throats, and while it would be a pretty grand culmination to see them working together to defeat the dragon -based on you, the exceptional hero actually managing to resolve their differences – some days, it feels like you’re never really going to get to that point. We’ll see. (I attempted Twilight Arbor storymode a while ago and -somebody- ran away again. My Charr bias is showing.)

There’s a rousing general’s speech and a grand melee involving the three combined Orders of the land and a couple of undead giants (remember giant of Nageling? Corrupt it, then x2, but scale it down somewhat for being on your lonesome.)

This is not the whole vista of what happens, just a small portion I cropped, so as not to completely spoil the effect. Just x2 to get a little closer to what happens.

I never fail to be awed by the number of NPCs, friendlies and enemies, this game can put out at any one time. And really, why not? I’ve always thought more MMOs should give a player more NPC allies. If you’ve a support or healing focused build, this may give you more a fighting chance, and the downed/defeated/revival mechanic means that even if smashed into the dirt, you can still get the NPC up again and it’s not the end of the world, game over, repeat escort mission and curse the NPC AI.

Some of the Orrian mobs also reminded me of Enchanted Weapons of GW1 fame. That’s all you see of them, their weapons. Egads, so you sort of end up guessing their class/skills, moving out of their attacks and prioritizing through guesswork based only on that. On the bright side, they drop heavy bones. I haven’t seen much of bone chips and bone shards and their ilk, it’s probably the zones I’ve been staying in, but I really want them to craft armor with stats I want.

And at the very end of the entire vision, you see this,

as the most spectacular Jeremy Soule music begins a triumphant heralding as you finish one last conversation with the Pale Tree’s Avatar, who tells you, it is time to face The Gate Guardian.

Ascending more steps into the golden glow, and it really is like Ascension in a sense, where you’re symbolically confronting some manner of guardian being (though not a doppelganger in this case,) you see It as a silhouette in the distance as the music swells to a crescendo, leaving you charged with maximum awesome.

It was one of the most spectacular fights ever, thanks to all the buildup. Also, thankfully, not too difficult, as it would really have ruined the whole experience if I had to keep restarting from a checkpoint. Just watch for the queued up big attack, avoid it, and one should be fine.

And just when you think it cannot get any better than this and the Dream ends and you’re back to “reality” in the Pale Tree’s Grove, they give you the absolute kicker of a choice.

Big big spoiler warning in the following pic, watch out:

Oh god. Your metagaming self knows -exactly- what is going to happen. Your worst fear is the one that is going to come to pass. That’s what choice picking in this game does, after all, it sets up the branches of your storyline.

It’s beautiful storytelling. How can you be a hero, a proper changed hero with a character arc and all, if you do not confront your fears?

There is no best choice. They’re all bad, in a good way. Potentially devastating to the character, but awesome roleplay story potential and sets up crazy anticipation waiting for the shoe to drop.

Immediately I want to make more alts so that I can see all the branches of the storyline again, dammit. I hope their maximum number of character slots is a really high number.

For the record, I’m playing a paladin-like goodhearted compassionate Guardian on this playthrough (he even helped the Skritt cos they’re so cute, even though most Charr must think of them as little thieving pests), so I went with the first choice. It’s going to set me up for tragedy later, I’m sure.

I’m dreading the arrival of that fate already. (But in a really good way.)

GW: Of Nostalgia and Shared Reverie

I wonder whose face is etched in the pillars of that arch?

ArenaNet has to be the cleverest game company there is. In the wake of the ever-so-successful Hall of Monuments (the best tribute to lateral progression and over-achievement there ever was) and the build up to Guild Wars 2, what do they do but give Guild Wars 1 its last hurrah, so to speak?

Or rather, one final celebratory encore (since GW1 is not going away, even as the great beast of GW2 at last slouches around the corner,) inviting all of its players to revisit and pay its beauty a respectful toast?

To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists…

Moreover, they are so clever, that they’re making it a shared experience with the excuse of the festival/event of the Wayfarer’s Reverie. Without it, surely some of us would still have made our way in trickles to say farewell (for now), but by making a quest out of visiting some memorable scenic sights, what better way to make sure that more people are able to follow the structure and see what they might have missed (having not seen it for years, or perhaps even, not seen at all.)

As usual, the difficulty level of the quests in Guild Wars has an interesting structure. The more you’ve played, the more you’ve explored, the more places on the map you’ve unlocked with a character, the easier the quest is to get to, generally speaking. Newer players (or a not-so-much played character) tend to find cross country quests more intimidating, as there are so many towns and outposts that aren’t unlocked that one could shortcut from. So it ends up a quest to get TO the outpost (fighting through however many necessary zones or story missions), before the actual quest.

Then there’s the additional layer of player set difficulty. For ultimate face roll, go on normal mode, dump in as many heroes as you can, and presumably all your characters have uber PvXwiki builds like Discordway necros, SoS rits, panic mesmers and what not. Or wander around solo if your build is strong enough. Hard mode generally ramps up the time taken and challenge factor. If you want to min max on time, it’s probably possible to equip a running build and just runrunrun like hell to the quest spots.

I popped in to work on the Wayfarer’s Reverie: Tyria quest. I’m not in a blinding hurry to rush through quest completion, I hit 30/50 some time ago and pretty much decided I’d scraped the ceiling of what I could do without insane grinding, so I experimented with a number of those difficulty levels as my mood took me. A Tormented weapon would be nice if I manage to make it to the end of all four quests by the 25th or 30th, but it’ll only give me 1 more point, fairly meaningless in the larger scheme of things. The true goal was nostalgia.

My wannabe Imbagon paragon was the main of choice, though I was still halfway through getting all the Old Ascalon areas unlocked and accessible for him. My original Prophecies character, a ranger, has been sadly shelved for a long time. I just couldn’t get my head around how to play at long range and he just seemed weaker than the paragon at keeping the whole pack of heroes alive.

I don’t recall how much of Factions I’ve unlocked on him, I may use the Factions warrior when the time comes. Ditto for Eye of the North, which was both attempted on the ranger and the paragon. (Oh, what utter confusion it is to try to have a native character per campaign. In hindsight, should have stuck with one, but how was an altholic supposed to know and resist?)

The paragon didn’t have Serenity Temple unlocked, so I ended up tromping my way through Pockmark Flats and hit the crystal first, before making my way to the temple. I did this one solo, on normal mode, and got pretty good drops of the Wayfarer’s Reverie token while 2-3 shotting every teeny lowbie mob that crossed my path.

The Searing Crystal – 2012

I also found some really old screenshots while preparing this post, so old, they were saved in .bmp format, which was an extra nostalgia hit. They were taken in January of 2005. Which presumably means taken during the beta preview weekends, since Guild Wars launched in April 2005. I’ve only edited out my character’s names, since I wasn’t smart enough to remove UI then. Everything else is as it was, lower monitor resolution and graphical setting, no henchman names or levels in the party UI, etc.

The Searing Crystal – 2005

Shrine of Melandru in Serenity Temple

I get huge hits of emotional resonance whenever I look upon a Shrine of Melandru. I figure this has to do with my first character being a ranger, and the pre-Searing ranger quest which has you go up to a Shrine and tame one of Melandru’s stalkers as your first ever pet.

That said, mad props and huge respect to Guild Wars for creating such a believable pantheon and putting those graphical touches EVERYWHERE in the game. One look, and you know which altar belongs to Grenth (the Death dude), Balthazar (warrior, sword, fire), Dwayna (blue, angel wings, air), Lyssa (twins) and so on. The lore seeps into you, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Shrine of Dwayna opposite Melandru’s

And I’ve always thought it such an awesome touch that you can /kneel before the altars and to reward that tiny bit of roleplaying, an avatar of the said god will actually pop up. In some special instances, they’ll offer buffs (but they’re not adverse to you paying them first!) or transport you to really special places, and so on.

I had a fair bit of trouble getting to Flame Temple Corridor for the next landmark on the sightseeing trip, mostly because everything was a big patch of fog in that area. A long time ago, I’d started the paragon on the Great Northern Wall mission, intending to work on the Young Heroes of Tyria book in hard mode, stopped at Fort Ranik and happily dropped everything the moment I hit 30/50 on the Hall of Monuments.

So I made myself cleave slow and steadily through Fort Ranik and Ruins of Surmia missions on hard mode – not that they’re hard, mind you, but they’re time consumingly tedious to roll through – a million and one ‘trash mob’ fights, back and forth to finish the bonus and to wind one’s way around paths one cannot jump down and purposefully placed to make one loop around in circles wondering when one’ll ever get to the end, each eats about an hour just jogging from fight to fight.

It was surprisingly nostalgic to go through them though. At the time, it all looked brown and barren and depressing and filled with endless charr and scorpions and neverending. Now, it still looks like all of the above, but with a little extra spice to the grim bleakness.

The Great Northern Wall – shattered by Charr invaders

Hey, look, it’s the Wall. The one you spend so much bloody time climbing and jumping and clambering over in Guild Wars 2 to get a skill point! Likely not the exact same section of it, but there’s that link, that connection.

And then there are the Flame Effigies. These don’t move, but the family resemblance is there. And it’s amazing how Guild Wars 1 manages to light and make these things look like they’re burning away in such an old game.

Siegemaster Lomar and Catapult – 2012

Same catapult – 2005

I was quite amazed to realize I’d taken a screenshot of the same thing 7 years apart, without prior reference back to the old one. I guess I really like shooting siege machines and wanted to remember it.

Prince Rurik in the Ruins of Surmia. Ah, the horrifying thrill of escort NPC quests as you chase them down screaming, OMG DON’T DIE DON’T DIE, WAIT FOR TEH HEALZ. His redeeming quality, that beautiful flaming dragon sword everyone covets. Wish we could have let him die and then picked up the sword.

Despite better behaved AI, having his hp bar in the party UI, three discordway necros – two sporting rit heals and one with prot monk aegis and stuff – and my paragon’s “there’s nothing to fear,” he almost contrived a successful suicide when I had gotten too comfortable with him behaving and following my party and took a right turn to begin working on the bonus. Then I suddenly realized he’d taken the left turn, towards a closed drawbridge with two Charr and no one else following him except maybe another NPC. Mind you, hard mode, so I couldn’t trust his level 20 self to finish them both at lvl 23 without a scratch. I credit my heroes being able to cast spells through the cliff wall for saving his bacon as I raced back around and up to pull his arse out of the fire.

Ruins of Surmia bonus – Follow Ember Bearers to Flame Temple

Now this really brings back memories. The confusion of trying to find “Flame Keepers” to follow, while the Ember Bearers troop down the hill behind you. The ignorance and impatience of youth freely aggro’ing them on purpose and by accident (aggro radius, aggro circle, what the heck are those? See red dot means KILL!) before they can even get to the gate they’re supposed to unlock. Finally, slowly working out that you can indeed let mobs remain alive for 15 or so seconds longer, long enough for them to pull open the gate before you charge.

But now, of course, piece of cake. And all the previous pain of Charr fire elementalists throwing around meteor shower, gone, the only real uncertainty is whether you’ll kill them normally through a steady spear barrage while your heroes discord them, or whether pain inverter will recharge fast enough to watch them blow themselves up by meteor showering the minions swarming them.

I eventually got to Nolani Academy, and then sidetreked off to find the Flame Temple corridor. Now this one I don’t really have memories of. I didn’t even know the place existed until it came time to do the Titan quests, which was only a few years ago, fairly recent. I suspect I must have just gotten pasted by the massive packs of Charr, and hurried away, unwilling to explore a bonus zone without any quests pointing me that way. Or maybe I got there but pushed into Dragon’s Gullet without ever looking backward because it was just a halfway zone.

Not bad looking, but no nostalgia value for me. I poked my head into Dragon’s Gullet long enough to get a screenshot of a rock painting that held distinctly more nostalgia value and remembrance. It’s probably meant to depict Balthazar.

Up next, looking back on the absolute ultimate nostalgia quest of Prophecies – the Villainy of Galrath.