During my recent visit to ArenaNet, I was able to chat with Continuity and Lore Designer Jeff Grub about his work on the story and lore for Guild Wars 2. Grubb is a veteran of RPG writing, having co-founded the Forgotten Realms setting for Dungeons and Dragons and worked on a large number of shared universe settings for companies like TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and now ArenaNet. He began his Guild Wars work with the Nightfall expansion, and moved on to become one of the head writers and lore experts for Guild Wars 2.
I started by asking what the difference was between designing lore for pencil 'n' paper and online RPGs. Grubb suggested that it was a matter of scale. He called himself the "traffic cop of the Forgotten Realms" back in the day, and there are even more contributors to deal with on the 200+ person team for Guild Wars 2. He also noted that the team's main lore goal for Guild Wars 2 was to grow the game universe (consistently with previously established lore, of course) rather than establishing a singular vision for the world that must be adhered to at all times. This allows for the organic addition of new stories to the world.
One example that Grubb provided of how the entire company comes together to create lore is the story of the kodan, a minor race of polar bear people that is encountered in the frozen homeland of the norn player character race. The idea for the kodan came from the art team, starting when an artist drew an amazing piece of artwork featuring an iceberg ship and asked if there were a way to work something like it into the game. The lore team looked at that picture along with a few other pieces of concept art, one featuring a cool-looking bear-man and one depicting a Buddhist-style temple. They combined these together to create the kodan, a stoic race of polar bear people who, like the norn, have moved south to escape from the wrath of the dragon Jormag. The kodan weren't planned from the start, but came about due to a collaboration between artists and lore designers.
As comparisons between the recently-released Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 are inevitable, I next asked about the general lack of dialogue choices in Guild Wars 2 compared to BioWare's MMO. For reference, while there are dialogue choices in Guild Wars 2, which are generally linked to players choosing between dignified, charming, or aggressive responses, they aren't nearly as plentiful as those that players encounter in The Old Republic. Although Grubb hasn't had time to play TOR himself, (something about being rather busy this winter for some odd reason) he explained the philosophy behind choices in Guild Wars 2's personal story.
Character personality in Guild Wars 2 is meant to be somewhat flexible and adaptive to a player's moods. Players begin by choosing between dignity, aggression, and charm and a base personality, but can decide to act in other ways as the game progresses. There is no visible bar that tracks personal alignment like TOR's Dark Side and Light Side bar. Instead, players choose from dialog responses, and the game quietly keeps track of lifetime choices in the background. Players who are frequently charming and aggressive, for example, may end up with different possible dialogue choices appearing than players who are largely dignified and aggressive. Since these calculations happen in the background, though, the differences may not be immediately obvious to the player.
Guild Wars 2 certainly has its share of personal ethical choices, such as the decision between saving a close friend or taking an action that will help the local populace. The consequences of these choices are meant to be lasting, and are reflected in the player's home instance. Thus, saving a friend means that person will hang out in the home instance and help out the player, while choosing to act for the greater good means that the friend's grave will appear in the home instance, but the player will reap other benefits from his or her heroics. To me, it seems that the difference will be that Guild Wars 2 has fewer overall choices than TOR, but the effects of those choices are far greater.
One of the things I loved about Guild Wars was how the developers took inspiration from real-life cultures around the world when developing the game. African influences such as were found in Nightfall are particularly rare in video gaming, and I wondered if we'd have a chance to see that kind of global inspiration with Guild Wars 2's focus on fantasy races. Grubb acknowledged that the diversity found within the fantasy races is different from that found in the various human cultures in the first game, but he thinks players will enjoy the direction that the team took with the human race.
As a race that has been beaten down and is now struggling for survival, the human race has become more cosmopolitan and has blended its various cultures together. He also noted that the team knows what's going on in Cantha (the Asian-themed continent) and Elona (the African-themed land), but isn't talking about it right now. The less the team talks about these unavailable areas, the less they have to keep track of in terms of what they've stated in public if players have the chance to return to these locations from the first Guild Wars game.
As we had mentioned Cantha, which has expelled non-human races, Grubb added a hint about an area reserved for a possible future expansion. There's a large walled area in Tyria that players can't enter, and there just might be a civilization of the birdlike Tengu behind that wall. I stated that the wall must have been built to keep players from going in, and he mysteriously hinted that it was more about keeping people from getting out.
Finally, I was able to get a general sense of how the game's storyline will play out throughout the eighty levels of story that ship with the game. Every ten levels bring about a new episode in the player's personal story, during which the character transforms from local hero to global leader. The overall story is like a three-act play. In the first act, characters transition from solving local problems specific to their race to learning about the bigger threats that face their world. In the second act, all the major races come together in the city of Lion's Arch, and characters face the challenge of bringing many diverse races and factions together in order to confront the common foe of the Elder Dragons. In the third act, players will travel to the ruined city of Arah and challenge the Elder Dragon Zhaitan on his home ground. Exciting!
RPGamer would like to thank Jeff Grubb for taking the time to chat with us and share his enthusiasm for lore design and Guild Wars 2.