Tyria is a Place—Azeroth is a Game

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The Henge of Denravi, a location in the original Guild Wars, was my spot. My friends and I considered it kind of our place, a marker that you’d arrived. There were the purely numerical reasons: the Henge provided a major armor upgrade and you hit the hub at roughly midgame. There was the dramatic reason: the Henge served as a breathing space after a series of challenging, fast-paced missions.

But mainly, the Henge of Denravi was beautiful. A multi-tiered fountain dominated the surroundings. Varying shades of greens, from olives to jades, made your visuals slightly hazy. It was like a dream, a visual oasis after the madness of being chased by fanatical villains and monsters in the rapid fire adventures immediately preceding your arrival.

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All of Guild Wars was beautiful. It still is, despite years and years of graphics advances. The environmental art was—and is, because the game is still going, of course—nonpareil, carrying a rather low poly game for a decade without any graphical overhauls. Despite the sniffing at the time of its release that it wasn’t a “real” MMO, with its reliance on session-based gameplay and towns as game lobbies, the world cohered better than most of the more open world stuff it competed with. Tyria felt like a place you could visit. My friends and I at the time of release simply got lost in the game for months, this despite the fact that World of Warcraft was still relatively new and shiny.
So when Guild Wars 2 came out, I wanted to see the Henge. What I figured was that there would be big, blinking lights ushering me toward the spot. A quest giver, an escorted NPC, something. Instead, I got nothing. Silence. The Henge was nowhere to be found.

Until, of course, I found it. The only outward marker on the map were the words “The Shattered Henge” and a skill point marker. The Henge of Denravi was cast down, ruined, overrun by the surrounding jungle, in keeping with Guild Wars 2’s recovery from cataclysm storyline—a by now almost eye roll inducing escape for fantasy books, games and movies anytime there’s a need to advance the storyline in reboot fashion.

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The only text involved in the entire thing was a simple bit of lore at the site of the skill point. It read, “Once a sacred place for the druids of Maguuma Jungle, the Henge of Denravi has long since fallen into ruin. Those who venture to this mystical haven can sense the ages of reverence and power that infused the earth.”

Time after time in Guild Wars 2, I’d run across locations from the first Guild Wars only to find there was no fanfare around them. They simply were. Natural parts of the world and its history. If you wanted to know more, you had to poke around offline or—better for ArenaNet—go play Guild Wars.

There was something delightfully arrogant in this approach, as if to say, “If you’re a fan, you’ll be delighted by this, and if you’re not, you’ll go find out why you should be.” The designers were that confident in their worldbuilding.

Because the overall effect was that, on my first exploration of the new Tyria, I got lost all over again. You go into a real world forest and there’s no sign telling you where the oldest tree is. You climb a mountain and there’s no poorly written NPC chattering the history of the place to you.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that mystery is key to making a game world feel real. Mystery is bigness. It’s the way our world, the world of meat and thoughts and emotions, actually works. The story in Guild Wars 2 and how we moved from the first game to the second are all secondary. The story is finite; the world lingers.

This is all a contrast to the other big post-cataclysm MMO world of the second half of the genre’s lifespan, World of Warcraft’s lava and earthquake saturated Cataclysm. Once more, it’s a game world filled with iconic locations sprinkled throughout an expansive fantasy world. I’ve spent more time in World of Warcraft than in any other game. The places in Azeroth are every bit as memorable to me as Tyria’s. The Crossroads, Gadgetzan, Orgrimmar, the forests and plains.

Blizzard’s approach with Cataclysm was the polar opposite of ArenaNet’s with Guild Wars 2. Instead of turning you loose in their world, Blizzard held your hand while shouting in your ear. You’d go to a place you’d remember, a place devastated overnight by the titular cataclysmic events, and you couldn’t take the changes in. There would be a goblin screaming at you, a quest forcing tragedy and change in your face, daring you to look away.

Where Guild Wars 2 got bigger, World of Warcraft felt immeasurably smaller after Cataclysm. Not that there aren’t deep differences in the games, not least in that World of Warcraft has always relied on a theme park ride of quests and reputation grinds, but the blinking lights struck me then and strike me now as the mark of a development team deeply unconvinced of the changes underway. There’s an insecurity underpinning the complete lack of subtlety in the “new” Azeroth, as if they’re terrified that your attention will flag if they don’t fill every ounce of space with something.

The dichotomy in MMOs is usually presented as sandbox versus theme park, where complete freedom is pitted against the ABC progression of quest based gameplay. Certainly in the early years of MMOs this was probably true. But viable sandboxes have left the MMO world behind in favor of the smaller scale survival games of Steam’s Greenlight. The quest game won, even if the definition of what a quest is has morphed and expanded since the early days of exclamation points over heads.

The current choice is in how worlds are built in the waning MMO space. It’s no longer what we do in the game worlds but what those game worlds are like. Given that choice, the natural feel of expansive solitude in Tyria points toward a more interesting design outcome than the brazen loudness of Azeroth. With Guild Wars 2’s first expansion, Heart of Thorns, due out soon, ArenaNet has the opportunity to further explore this open ground.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.