Storytelling in Heart of Thorns

I had a moment in an abandoned city where I was thinking, I’d gotten ahead of the “official” story and I was now making it up as I went along. There is jargon for this but it’s terribly boorish so let’s skip that part. This is about the story in Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns.

An Asura Gate in Rata Novus
Asura Gate

Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is available here.

Spontaneous Storytelling…

I know I’m playing a great game when I actually care about this stuff. My character is an Order of Whispers spy after all, and here I am in an Asuran city surrounded by forgotten secrets. This is Rata Novus, a place I’d never even heard of, evidently evacuated of citizenry due to that wonderful combination of mad science and monster invasion. Poring over discarded reports and log entries, the tragic history of this place filled itself in.

A Hidden Facility in Rata Novus.
Hidden Facility

This is the sort of experience that hooks many gamers on role-playing games: Firstly there’s a need to know your character, to have some history with them that allows you to wear their skin. Their persona slips over your own like a second face, and for a time, you are this person. Secondly, your character is anchored in the world through relationships with other characters, organisations and a shared history. This is what makes the world feel like home. Thirdly, there is a sense of agency, that your being in this world matters and makes a difference. This is what puts you in the moment.

With an experience like that, which is so personal as to be unique, I sometimes wonder how the official story can compete with it. After all you can always look up spoilers for the official story. The story that you tell yourself however isn’t even written until you play the moment and actually experience whatever it is that you experience. It’s that unpredictability and spontaneity that makes it addictive. At least, that’s my personal experience of it.

The Dragon Lab in Rata Novus
The Dragon Lab

… versus the Canon Story.

The next day and with the previous adventure fresh in my mind, I took a Priory character though the proper story missions. The Durmand Priory are “practical historians”, a blend of Oxford professor with Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. It felt apt that this character would come to Rata Novus second, after the spy had already been without leaving a mark.

ArenaNet’s version of the story up to standing in Rata Novus has certainly been laced with a few dramas. Let’s say I’m in a place of mind where I’m not sure who’s going to be alive when the credits roll. There’s a hint of Game of Thrones here, which is alright by me. Where this really impacts my own internalised version of the story is to add punctuation marks to my character’s history. The canon story provides a certain essential structure to my own haphazard adventures.

Chak in Tangled Depths
Chak in Tangled Depths

Like Salt and Pepper they Go Together

The conclusion one has to make is clear: there has to be a strong canon with space for personal ownership. An odd metaphor that comes to mind is a colouring book in which the lines are set but the colours are what you make of them. While the starting point is the same, and many reference points are the same, the journey is different for each and every person. There’s a lot of fun that comes out of comparing your own stories to those of someone else.

The Lost City of Rata Novus
The Lost City of Rata Novus

If you have any thoughts or comments, please leave them below!

Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is available here.

~Cirian.

22 Replies to “Storytelling in Heart of Thorns”

  1. Interesting article. I’m not particularly a fan of Guild Wars but learning about the spontaneous story telling did cause my interest to be piqued. It wasn’t the most exciting article to read but it was very informative. My only critique would be jazz up the article a bit, other than that good stuff.

  2. Hey, I always wish to get involved in an online game as there is such a wealth of choices. But I get really invested in my games and bounce right out as soon as another player does something silly, like tea-baggin. So I always end up sticking to singleplayer games.

    How does Guild Wars stack up on this front? Are the other online players able to do dumb things or do the game’s mechanics help prevent that?

    1. GW2’s a very co-operative game by design so no, people can’t do anything particularly dumb. Other players are beneficial to have around.

  3. Hi, thank you for your sharing.
    I played GW 2 before when it just came out. I enjoyed playing at that time because its story telling was amazing! However, due to some private reasons, I stop playing it for a long time.
    After reading your post, it seems that the GW2 expansion is finally out. So, is the Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns worth to play now? Does ArenaNet improve the Necromancer class in this expansion?

    1. Hi Anthony,

      The necromancer is a total beast in Heart of Thorns with its reaper specialisation, so absolutely yes it’s much improved. There’s even a legendary staff with a strong norn necromancer theme that went in at the same time, which was great because I have a norn necromancer and so I was very happy.

      The story is very interesting at the moment too, currently it’s picked up from the end of Heart of Thorns and has moved into what’s called Season 3 of the Living World. You might have played the earlier seasons with Scarlet and the Zephyrites. This new season features the White Mantle from the original Guild Wars game and I won’t spoil what they’re up to… but it’s very exciting if you like the Guild Wars story.

  4. Hey Cirian,

    Sounds like a fun game but im more into sports games. I like how you added a lot of visuals to your post. Do you do reviews on any type of game or is it just on the games you prefer. Nonetheless I think your site is filled with potential and wish you nothing but the best in the future.

  5. My first suggestion is try to get trailer of the game if possible because that gives people a glimpse into the game that somehow words can’t . another thing if somone comes they haven’t played this is this. It would be good to know what platform this is on PlayStation Xbox pc

    1. Hi Tabby, thanks for the ideas.

      Edit: there is now an About Guild Wars 2 widget visible in the sidebar of any Guild Wars 2 article with the requested features and more!

  6. This is quite interesting. The game actually looks quite decent and the graphics aren’t at all bad. Your review of the game was compelling and I enjoyed reading it. I wanted to read it all and when I arrived at the end I was almost sad! The way you write it great, because you can sense your enjoyment for what you’re writing about. Absolutely great work

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Yes it’s an interesting universe with a few really outstanding characters. Much of the story comes across in the actual game world and the art is exceptional. I’m really glad you liked my writing; I think I was inspired that day.

  7. Again, I am amazed at how well these games engage the user to create a truly interactive experience. I imagine the game player must, at times, feel as though they are in some kind of alternate reality that actually may seem to be reality for a time. I think this can provide a healthy break from the challenges of daily life here on Earth.
    I like your coloring book analogy. Very creative. I really enjoy reading your articles. Keep them coming.
    P.S. Is there a separate story that is considered to be the “canon” story, or are you referring to the core elements of this story as the canon?

    1. Hey bioelectrobot,

      You’re right about the immersive experience and of course it really helps that there’s a whole load of other real people playing the game at the same time. I certainly get a real sense of community with people I meet through the game.

      So the canon story is what the developers lay out. There’s only so much that they lay out though, deliberately leaving the players to elaborate on missing details and speculate among themselves. It’s a storyteller’s trick to engage the audience, I would say, and of course it works!

  8. so is heart of thorns a role playing game all throughout the game? Also, it’s kind of tight that they give the character such a background. Those different locations all look very cool too, looks like it’s a pretty dope game altogether! What other games are you into playing?

    Matt TheDopestMatrix

    1. Hey Matt,

      Yeah it’s a role playing game throughout, though massively multiplayer in all the open world areas. You get private instances to do the story stuff that you can solo or play with friends in a party of up to five. Actually the developer made some changes to parties recently so I wonder if you could take a massive 50 man raid in there now… that would be pretty funny.

      Aside from MMOs like Guild Wars 2 I’m into Path of Exile (which is where I get my Diablo 2 fix now), The Witcher games (dat story…), FarCry games (not just a cool FPS but sweet storytelling too), Elder Scrolls games (ever since Daggerfall! Love this series)… aaaand… that’s probably it at the moment. 🙂

      Oh wait, there’s Fallout as well… which I am behind with… too many! There’s tons of games I used to play too on the various PlayStations (Final Fantasy, Black etc…) and a few arcade cabinets too (Street Fighter Zero 3… R-Type 2…). Quite a few genres.

  9. Never played Heart of Thorns but you have a very good page and make you want to check out the game too. Images work well within your page and to access your page was very fast. Looking forward to reading more pages (maybe tips?) too? who knows?
    Yes great work and well done on some great content to your site.

  10. Interesting discussion of the storytelling of the Heart of Thorns expansion. I played Guild Wars 2 for hundreds of hours back in 2012 and 2013 when it first came out. It’s a really great game with a lot of interesting lore. Reading this article definitely brings back some nice memories and makes me want to fire the game up again.

    1. Then it sounds like you’d definitely enjoy Heart of Thorns. ArenaNet have added a lot of fun gameplay… particularly the gliding, which causes some funny accidents back in the core game. Each of the new areas has a meta-event, basically an overarching story that repeats itself every day/night cycle and I’m still discovering how expansive they are. It’s really good stuff.

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