Personal story in SWTOR and GW2: A look at the similarities and differences
Hey everyone, one of the big movements within the MMO sphere we have seen in recent years is the focus on storytelling. One aspect of this, personal story, hit mainstream with the release of Bioware’s SWTOR back in December. Arenanet’s Guild Wars 2, scheduled to be released sometime later this year, also have a big focus on personal storytelling. The idea of this article is to look at the two games and examines the similarities and differences. Hopefully this should give SWTOR players an idea of the GW2 system and vice versa. Please note that this article is not to argue the superiority of one game over another, or who copied who; it is merely an examination of the two different systems.
A bit of background
SWTOR, released in December of last year, revolutionized the way many players look at the existing storytelling system within MMOs. Reading paragraphs of text from the questgiver is no longer the way to go; instead, everything is now voice narrated and interactive. Cutscenes are no longer just static movies, they are now communicated via cinematic design (using cinematic presentation to facilitate narrative and gameplay) with the focus on your character.
One of the best examples of Bioware’s storytelling techniques can be found in the individualized class quests. Every class have a story that continues from level 1 to 50 and lead you through the various planets. By going through the storyline, you gain permanent AI companions that will aid you in various PvE endeavors out in the persistent world. Choices are made via interactive cutscenes and you gain/lose companion affections and light/dark side points as the result of your actions.
While a lot of choices you make tend to not have any lasting consequences (light/side points and companion affections can be regained easily later on), and most of them tend to not affect the later parts of the story, you do get the feeling that you are actively developing the story. With most choices, you get to see the consequences right away, which can sometimes be quite satisfying. Some of the choices you make can make a major impact on your story and even result in different endings (the Imperial Agent story is a very good example).
Guild Wars 2, scheduled to be released sometime this year, also put a heavy emphasis on storytelling. A big component of the game is the personal story, which will actively accompany you from level 1 to 80. Unlike SWTOR, the personal story is initially based on your race and the answers to three biographical questions you were asked during character creation. The choices you make as you progress through the personal story further modify the later parts of your story, resulting in potentially upper thousands of story combinations.
A major feature of GW2’s is immersion and that can be seen as you play through the personal story. Whereas SWTOR excels at the cinematic design of its cutscenes, GW2 excels at the immersion factor of its storytelling. Put it in another way, SWTOR guides your attention via intricately designed cutscenes while GW2 create an immersive environment that rewards those who pays attention (aka a little less hand holding).
SWTOR’s storyline is determined by your choice of class. Four classes per faction makes a total of eight vastly different storylines. The story is deployed across 3 Acts over the course of 50 levels, with each act having their own mini-conclusion and the final act having a grand finale in the end.
GW2’s storyline is determined primarily by your race (5 races in total) and your answers to three race specific questions during character creation will determine the initial portions of the story. For example, as a human, I answered that I was a noble searching for my unknown parents. My story in the early levels unfold exactly as the choices I made – I was ushered into parties, socializing with the other nobles. Later on, as my story continue to develop, it became a tale of searching for my lost parents. It has being estimated that in the first ten levels of your character, there are about 30 different storylines one could experience based on your race and your answers to the race specific questions.
SWTOR’s Cinematic Design and GW2’s Immersion
Cinematic Design: One cannot talk about SWTOR’s story without referring to its cinematically designed cutscenes. These cutscenes are scripted interactions between your character and NPCs where not only stories are relayed across but you also get to make choices (although limited) in both conversations and physical actions. The cutscenes really make you feel like you are actively involved in an interactive movie, told from your perspective.
Here is a video showing you what a typical SWTOR cutscene looks like.
Immersion: GW2 also feature cutscenes but these rather plain in comparison. They are like puppet shows, with animated characters against a flat background. You do not get to make any choices or interact with any of the NPCs. However, if you are just focusing on the cutscenes, you are missing out!
One of the things that GW2 really excels in its the immersive environment, which is how GW2 delivers its stories in addition to the cutscenes. You are not told that there is an attack, you get to see it from your environment. Houses are burning down, NPCs are crying for help, etc. Much like events in real life, your brain is piecing together details from your surroundings to make sense of it all. It feels a lot more natural than just being fed the information from a cutscene. Of course, if you are not paying attention, you may be missing out. In the image below, I am part of a team that is planning an ambush from a position up in the hill. If you try to talk to the NPCs, they tell you to shh; it is little details like these that really immerse you into the action.
Here is a video where you can see an example of how a segment of your personal story plays out, from start to finish (some spoilers).
To see some really immersive content though, try this NPC I met while doing one of the missions for the personal storyline. NPCs like these are easy to miss if you hurry through the content but if you take the time to admire your surroundings, they can really bring out the flavor.
Storytelling is a two way street, you are telling things to you audience but to really engage the audience, you have to let them affect how the story unfolds. This is where choices come into play.
SWTOR’s choice come in two varieties: conversation choice and “physical” action, all of which are experienced through cutscenes. Conversation choice allow you to really express your personality onto your characters – you can be a total jerk and pick all the “jerky” responses or be a nice guy/gal and show your concerns. Choices involving physical actions (i.e. to kill or not kill a NPC) tend to have more consequences attached to them – some superficial (i.e. getting companion affections or light/dark points) while others can involve some plot twists.
In most cases, you get instant feedback on your choices. If you decided to be a jerk, the NPC may act defensive; if you choose to kill someone, you get to see it in action. One complaint that some fans express is the idea of “Illusion of Choice”. While the choices you make can result in some minor plot turns and twists, fans felt that they are not significant enough to impact the plot in a major way. There are some exceptions of course, such as the Imperial Agent story, which can have many endings based on your action throughout the story, and the Sith Warrior storyline, in which one of your companions can turn either dark or light side based on the choices you made.
Essentially, what some people felt about SWTOR’s story is that it is a story on rails and the choices you make may cause some minor alterations to it but not completely put it on a different track.
GW2’s story seem to be that of a branching one. The most important choice you make in term of your personal story is your race, followed by the race-specific questions at character creation (i.e. your social status, your choice of warband, legion, and other backgrounds). These choices will guide the early part of your journey and make it different from others who may have picked different responses. Your story is then influenced by your choices of three Orders of Tyria as each Orders have their own unique perspective on the world story. Ultimately, all the different stories interwine and overlap to result in the final conflict against the primary antagonist of GW2.
There seems to be two kinds of choices that players will encounter: internal choices that produces smaller variations on the plot and major moment of choice that can produce major branches on the plot. These choices are made when you converse with NPCs via the standard dialogue text boxes (no cutscenes here).
I want to use the human storyline here as example to illustrate some of the things I have said. There are some minor spoilers here obviously but reading it shouldn’t give away anything.
During character creation, you are asked two questions that really have an impact on your story. One of them how your were raised (commoner, nobility, and street rat were the choices), and another was your biggest regret (unknown parents, dead sister, missed opportunity were the choices). You can think of these choices sort of as major moment of choice as they introduces major branches into the story.
During level 1-10, your answer to upbringing question influences the story plot, picking commoner, noble, the street rat will result in entirely different storylines. From level 11-20, your answer to the regret question then move the plot. Note the parts I have boxed in on the right – those are minor plot alterations based on your internal story choices.
To delve deeper into the internal story choices, I want to focus on the second box (The Sting/Name Unknown). In that specific part of the story, you are given a choice of assaulting the base head on (Name Unknown) or planning an ambush (The Sting). The video I showed you earlier is a result of me picking the ambush choice.
To summarize, GW2’s story is not exactly predefined. All the characters get a chance to fight the main antagonist at the end but how you arrive at that is molded by the choices you made at character creation and the choices you make later on as you journey further into the story. Put it another way, you can take two human Mesmers and there is a good chance that they each have a totally different personal story.
One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what choices you choose in SWTOR or GW2, none of them will give you a gameplay advantage. Your may get access to special cutscenes or gain special titles but none of them will make your character weaker or stronger as a result.
Companions and Home Instances
Companions are a major component of SWTOR’s personal story. They are a team of 5 AI characters that you acquire you progress through the class quests and they reside in your personal spaceship when not needed. Unfortunately, your personal spaceships are not customizable and do not reflect your choices or your story progression in any form. Instead, the number of companions, their affections towards you and sometimes their alignment will reflect the progress and the choices you have made in your personal story.
GW2 will feature companion like AI characters that aid you on certain stories but they are not permanent and do not exist out in the persistent world. Instead, GW2 players have home instances that will reflect their story progression and their choices.
Home instance is essentially a form of player housing inside your racial home city. Depending your race, your home instance could be either be a giant lab, a city block or a part of a giant tree. The home instance will also be personalized to your accomplishments and reflects the choices you have made, There will be merchants and buildings that exists because you made a choice to save them. An example of this is in the human storyline where you have to make a choice to save a orphanage or a hospital. The building you decide to save will be present in the home instance. Another example is your decision to save your best friend. If you save him from the bandits, he will move into your home instances and have conversations with you. If you choose to not save him, there will be a grave stone in your home instance marking his death.
Other players can also visit your home instance and you can show off your accomplishments, decisions you made during your personal story etc to them.
Alignment and Personality
SWTOR features good and evil choices and these choices wouldn’t be complete without an alignment system to track them. Making evil choices usually give you dark side points while making good choices tend to give you light side points. Getting higher ranks on light side or dark side are mostly cosmetic (exception is the recent legacy system which give some minor abilities to those who have reached certain ranks on either side).
NPCs do not seem to change their conversations based on one’s alignment – you could be a Dark V character get the identical conversation choices as a light V character. The only time alignment changes the conversion or affect the choices you make is when you actively choose the dark or light side option.
GW2 has something called personality. You initially get to pick a personality during character creation (choice of Charm, Dignity and Ferocity) which can be further modified via dialogue options with NPCs and develop into more personality types based on the ratios of these three (i.e. for the Barbaric personality, you need 100% ferocity and 0% charm and dignity).
These personality you develop are not permanent and can be changed around much like your alignment. Your personality may enable you access to some dialogue options or change the way NPCs act around you. One thing is certain though, no matter what personality you have, you won’t miss out on the rewards: there are always other ways to gain them.
Instances and the persistent world
Personal stories are personal and they wouldn’t be personal if they are interfered by other players. For this reason, both personal stories in SWTOR and GW2 are held in instances and can be only accessible by other players if they are in your group.
In SWTOR, other players can help you kill enemies in your private instance and get credits and xp for their trouble. During cutscenes, they can watch but are unable to make any choices. Unfortunately, this means that if you have two people on exactly the same step of their class quest, they would have to repeat it for the second person.
GW2 solves this issue abit by allowing group leaders to share progress if everyone is on the same step. The perspective is still from that of the group leader but group members have the option to opt out if they dislike the choices that were made. The fights also scale up according to the group size so players don’t feel underchallenged when grouped up. Players that help others with their personal stories are also rewarded with coins, xp and karma for their troubles. This also allow players to experience the story from another perspective (i..e with different choices made) without having to re-roll a new character.
With all the talk of personal stories, lets not forget that there is a whole persistent world out there. Both SWTOR and GW2 use the personal stories as breadcrumbs that lead you to different areas of the persistent world where you can participate in dynamic events, tasks or in the case of SWTOR – quests that are specific to the individual planets. There is a clear segregation between the personalized content and the persistent content such that you can choose to ignore the persistent world without having it affect your personalized story.
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