I jumped into Guild Wars 2 on Saturday afternoon, re-creating for myself the Human thief I'd been missing since the first beta weekend back in May. But then I remembered my earlier promise to myself: I needed to step outside of my comfort zone. That's where the Asura engineer came from.
Engineers aren't too far apart from a certain kind of rogue, though, and I've played gnomes, which the Asura strongly resemble, in other games before. I needed to step even farther out of my safe boundaries; that's where the Sylvari mesmer came in.
By the time I'd created the third character, I'd already realised that what hooked me most about Guild Wars 2 was seeking vista points, exploring as much of the world as possible, and looking at the view. I wanted to see all the cities. The Norn warrior and Charr guardian were therefore not far behind. As far as Guild Wars 2 is concerned, I have a serious case of alt-itis.
Five characters, five stories, and five cities. And for all that all five characters are on the same server and in the same guild, in some ways it may as well be five different worlds.
Character creation, with its careful selection of traits and history, tells the player a great deal about the culture from which that character has come. The opening cut-scene, too, with the character narrating what brought him or her and his/her people to the point where the player comes in, also fills in the back-story. But where Guild Wars 2 is excelling and drawing my attention is in how the art of every region truly shows the story at hand, rather than just telling it.
Each of the five starter areas has the player arrive, then fight something low-level on the way to a massive boss fight. After these huge-scale level one enemies, players are booted into their first overland area, full of vistas to admire and hearts to collect. Those first 10 minutes of the game, though, and those bosses, give a tremendous visual summary of every culture in Tyria.
The Asura are scientists, tinkerers, and inventors. They are tiny and live in a world surrounded by the golems and constructs they build to do their bidding. Things frequently go comically, explosively wrong with this kind of setup. Theirs is a story of politics, sabotage, and industry. An Asura's worst enemy, before leaving home, is a construct gone amok. It's angular, geometric and clearly made, rather than natural.
So, too, are the Asura lands. Their main city, Rata Sum, is astonishing. Of all the places I've visited so far in Guild Wars 2, it's the only one I keep getting completely lost and turned around in. Full of labs and learning, and made entirely of sharp angles and vivid colour, the cityscape says more about the Asura than any amount of dialogue ever could. They are tinkerers to their souls.
The Charr live closer to nature than the petite Asura do. (Actually, every other race lives closer to nature than the Asura do.) They are a large, predator race — in appearance, they clearly draw resemblance from canine and feline species.
The world of the Charr is clearly the story of a society in transition. The natural world around their industrial one sits in autumn tones, and with the jagged black rough industrial lines of the Citadel sitting in it, calls images of rust to mind. The Asura look comfortable with industry and have moved on to electronics, but the Charr exist in a world of bold strokes and enormous machines, evoking the early 20th century.
But they have to be bold: their enemy is the undead. Ghosts and monsters show in vivid, bright blue, nebulously-edged tones, striking against the rust-covered reality of this proud and ferocious people.
Tyria's Human population exists at an interesting nexus of pastoral and industrial. The monster a low-level human faces is made of both earth and human tools, mingling the two.
So, too, does humanity's largest city, Divinity's Reach, mingle influences. From a castle straight out of Walt Disney World to neighborhoods wealthy and poor, inspired by everything from Morocco to Germany, humanity gets to be an interesting mix. A dam that makes the Hoover Dam look tiny, placed next to an apple orchard complete with half-timbered farmhouse? That's a humanity drawn from every corner of history, fighting both the natural world and also the power of their own creations.
But early on, they're mostly fighting centaurs. Somehow, that makes the Disneyesque nature of the castle at the heart of their bustling city make even more sense.
The Norn are totally not Vikings. Any resemblance to Nordic mythology, or to Britain circa the 9th century, is totally coincidental. Right? Sure.
The threat to a newbie Norn is an Ice Wurm. The Norn proves his or her mettle to join the hunt and bring down the great beast, and earns the right to brag of their glory in conquering the monster. After the battle, ale and song are meant to follow.
The Norn build to last, and to survive the harsh winters of their home. Everything about them speaks of tradition and a heavy sense of permanence. Their city is made of wood, but feels as permanent as the stone it's nestled neatly into. They are an enormous people, standing head and shoulders above a human (to say nothing of the Asura) and yet their home dwarfs them. The walls are open to the elements, which they face without fear, and yet Hoelbrak feels like a fortress, safe for those who seek shelter within.
The Sylvari don't simply dwell in nature; they are nature. Tree-people, lithe and elegant, wearing bark and leaf, they arise from a shared dream rather than being birthed like mammals. But the Sylvari dream has nightmares, too. The nightmares take root and take form in organic curves and long lines, rising from the fog and mist of the dreaming.
Everything about the Sylvari speaks of their nature as plant people. Every hill, every building, every stair-step and fence and piece of decoration feels drawn up from the natural world. There is no Faerie in Tyria, but if there were, it would be here. Every colour a flower can blossom in has a representation somewhere in the Grove.
I had been impressed by the art in Guild Wars 2 from the first moment I tried the game. I love it more now that I see it used to tell so many different stories. I might not focus on every piece of dialogue or every cut-scene, but the world I move in shows me the stories of the cultures in it. And I want to see more.