Story in an online space is apparently a difficult thing to get right. Even when you feel involved in a conflict, it's rare that your actions have a feeling of permanence. "Our philosophy for Guild Wars 2's personal storyline," says Ree Soesbee, the Lore and Continuity Designer for ArenaNet's upcoming MMO, "is that most MMOs today look at the world in broad strokes. They don't look at the individual player and the contribution they make to the world." WithGuild Wars 2, the sequel to the extremely popular almost-MMO game of 2005 and its expansions, Soesbee and ArenaNet want to change that, and they plan to do so through a system they're calling the 'Personal Story.'
The personal story is, in a nutshell, the central plot of Guild Wars 2 (you can read in great detail about it in today's update to the Guild Wars 2 website). In your standard single-player RPG, you're typically a character who encounters extraordinary circumstances and has to rise to the occasion and save the planet. Along the way lots of stuff happens probably involving a meteor or a robot. In a JRPG it's usually all crazy and and then you find out that your enemy is also your brother and also the planet and/or a god. Sure, it's an acquired taste, but even for all the camp storytelling, you get to know your characters, and the story takes you somewhere interesting.
Somewhere between having a single player and having thousands of players, story usually falls by the wayside and becomes little more than a backdrop. You've seen it before – an evil tyrant has taken over the realm, turned thousands into zombies and slain thousands more, so it is your solemn duty to go and collect some eggs from some birds next to that hill, and then deliver a package. Only on rare occasions do you ever have any true contact with the story of the game, and it almost never leaves a permanent mark. The personal story hopes to do away with tasks that have no impact on the world and no ties to your character by shaping itself to fit your actions and choices.
"The personal storyline starts at the very beginning," Soesbee tells us. "The minute you create your character, you're faced with questions about your history, your personality, the hopes your character has. As you play through the game, your answers to those questions unlock stories that you will encounter and be able to play through." The idea is to from the very start give your character a reason to adventure through the world that synchronizes with the character you endeavored to create, and for the story to feed off of your choices throughout. "By the time you've reached the end of the game and are fighting the epic villains you have a personal reason to be there – personal things that you are protecting or vengeance that you're seeking – that have come about as a result of this personal story."
There are not an infinite number of story options, but there are, we are told, plenty. They don't just stem from the questions at the start, either, and even those that do can differ greatly depending on various factors. "We tried to build unique questions into each race to ensure that racially each story can be different."
Then there is the choice of who to side yourself with in the struggle against evil. "We give the players the option to join one of three factions in the game and the storylines you will encounter from them will be very different." The three factions – The Order of Whispers, The Durmand Priory and The Vigil – each have very different ideas and methods when it comes to dealing with the threat of the Elder Dragon Zhaitan, and your choice will be reflected in how the story ultimately plays out. "In each storyline we've made sure to include at least one significant choice that you will make."
So how does it work? As best we can tell without seeing it in action, the core story-component of the game, or at least the important parts, is instanced. The things that occur for you won't necessarily occur for others. "We didn't want other players to be able to influence your personal story." Soesbee tells us. "The storyline areas are a little different from the open map areas in that way." That doesn't mean that you can't have your friends with you, of course. Party members can enter your personal story instance and help you overcome challenges, but their actions in your story-area won't influence their story at all.
How varied can one player's story be from another's? "They'll branch pretty wildly." Says Soesbee, citing that even the way players go about defeating the final villain – or even whether or not there will be a final villain, will vary depending on your choices.
On the topic of choice, while you will have some morally grey options at times, you won't be able to go all-out evil a la Bioware's standard morality meter. "Guild Wars is very confident that our players are heroes." Soesbee says. "Now that said there are a lot of ways to be a hero. Some of the choices in the story have different ways of handing it." Examples she gave included saving a close friend and ally, or saving a village, and evacuating a town full of civilians from the possibility of a dam erupting, or trying to fix the dam yourself."
Another aspect that sets this system apart from that of a traditional MMORPG is that the personal story has a definite ending that persists. By that we mean once it's over, the story is over. There will still be hundreds of dynamic events to experience, or you could create a brand new character of a difference race, give different answers, make different choices and experience the same game in a completely different way.
Every time we hear something new about Guild Wars 2 we get more and more excited. We really hope ArenaNet can take all these elements and merge them into a coherent, fun game, and that it's not all just talk. We'll keep you up to date as more Guild Wars 2 news develops.