Category Archives: Races

[GW2] Sylvari: Not so new, not that bad

I haven’t made a secret of my disinterest in GW2’s Sylvari on this blog and it seems overall I am in good company. I never liked the nightelves much in WoW either – the ethereal and detached thing they got going on, praying to Elune and generally living in pink forests. It’s not even that I dislike elves or any variation thereof per default; there are some awesome, badass elves and drows in fantasy literature, from complex and grim fighters to more merry and flamboyant characters. Much rather, it’s an issue of how elves are represented in many MMOs as these peace-loving, self-indulgent hippies who care more about their flower garden than the rest of the world. That is a general concern for all so-called friendly and pacifist MMO races: how am I supposed to choose any of them for a competent errr….fighter? Like it or not, you’re killing stuff in MMOs and lots of it. You are also quite meddlesome.

So, already from that point of view the Sylvari aren’t very appealing. As an aside, I didn’t particularly like their starting area either – it is pink and lush Teldrassil all over, just with a lot more shine.
What I will say in their defense though, after having played one for maybe 30 minutes this past beta weekend, is that ANet achieved a little more than just copying the MMO elf archetype. For one thing, there is the whole plant people concept; Sylvari ARE plants (sorta) which creates all kinds of interesting implications that have been discussed elsewhere. And although I wonder why they still need to hide all their “sensitive parts” in the character creation, the race design and customization achieves to transmit a genuinely unique and alien feel for this race. Their hair is straw, leaves or gnarly twigs, the shape of their limbs and body texture consequently fulfill the botanic premise.

What sets them apart from your staple elves too is that they aren’t ancient but in fact the youngest of all Tyrian races (I believe 25 years old). This “freshness” is even reflected in their looks, the way they move or stand still and their facial expression; it’s as if they beheld everything around them for the very first time. The Sylvari are noobs.

Alas, none of that will entice me to play one, but I feel ANet deserves that much: they’ve put some thought into their last race (which got completely re-designed very late into development) and the thematic coherence in design. Not that the plant people idea was actually so new either – in fact I’d bet my little finger that there was at least one lead designer among ANet’s “Sylvari camp” who happens to have enjoyed a very old RPG by Capcom!

Enter Spar – The plant creature

Once upon a time there was a very classic JRPG on Super NES called Breath of Fire. I remember this with fond nostalgia because its sequel, Breath of Fire 2 was the very first RPG I ever bought with my own money and played through. That was endless painful hours of grinding levels, excruciating random encounters and praying for a save-point….and oh, did I love it! It was also a time when I didn’t have English classes yet in school and so I ended up playing the game with a dictionary in my lap. Yes, here in Europe we actually often had to deal with imports (or else stare at ugly PAL bars on our TV screens). Breath of Fire 2 opened the world of RPGs to me – the rest is history.

It so happens that one of the most awesome characters you can recruit for your party in BoF2 is Spar, the plant creature. You meet him (/her) the first time at a traveling circus where he is actually up for display. Later on, he sends you on a quest to wake the Wise Tree (figures) from an unending nightmare, which is when you recruit him. Spar is generally indifferent and devoid of emotions. He has grown from a sapling and looks forward to becoming a tree himself one day. He’s a weak fighter, his best abilities revolving around support and use of environment; his Nature spell will actually grow a flower bed or sprout cactuses depending on where you are. Then, there are his shamanistic alter egos: the onion sprout, the leafy drake…..and a girl wearing a mushroom cap.

….Sound familiar enough? Well, Spar also looks like this:

If this is not the direct Sylvari inspiration, I don’t know what is (I c wut u did thar, ANet)!

[GW2] Asura: The most badass "MMO shorties" ever?

Gibberlings / Gnomes / Taru-Taru

Most traditional MMORPGs with a classic race palette feature them – just as much as they struggle with them, too: short folk. Put in to create racial and character diversity which is usually lacking in customization menus (you cannot create seriously short characters yourself), many MMOs still fall horribly short (!) with their portrayal of short races. In fact, heavy cliches will often overpower the whole purpose behind racial diversity, completely.

Let’s take Allods’ Gibberlings as a first example. One of the most original attempts ever made in an MMO, namely to make the player character appear as a group of three with individual customization and name for each, falls flat on its nose by serving every conceivable stereotype associated with short and therefore less intimidating people. Or as the Allods Wiki describes them:

The Gibberlings are creatures from a destroyed part of Sarnaut. Due to their curiosity, peacefulness and friendliness, they quickly adjusted to the new conditions. They are trusted, reliable friends for their allies and a dangerous foe for those that don’t take them seriously. However, unlike other races, they have no ambitions for this world. Their greatest desire is to return to the times of Isa, when the whole world was open to them for exploration. Will the Gibberlings find a way to be as happy as they were before, or will they think of something new?

The only bone thrown towards the Gibberlings’ prowess is that they’re “a dangerous foe for those that don’t take them seriously”. Oh, wicked! That aside, they are everything you can expect from a friendly, inherently good and physically weak civilization: they have no ambitions, are great pals and wanna explore the world in peace. Ahem…too bad you’re also supposed to pick them for your alter ego in a game mostly revolving around war and combat! Who feels like picking the Gibberlings for battle when they also happen to be all furry cuteness, big eyed with a goofy gait? Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re adorable but that’s about it.

Next up, World of Warcraft’s gnomes. While directly ripped off the awesome gnomish races of engineers established in classic D&D storytelling, I’ve never been a fan of the presentation of gnomes in WoW – despite the odd crazed and power hungry NPC persona among them. Gnomes are no doubt cunning and smart a people, but they’re also awfully cute; freaky hairstyles and colors aside, they come with the classic baby-face effect, a-sexual bodies and childish voices. They appear as infantilized humans when they should be an original race in their own right.

To complete a trio, let’s consider the Taru-Taru of Final Fantasy XI online. A race of powerful magic users, Tarus live in a peaceful and lush Forrest town, deeply devoted to their studies. Unlike other races, they are unable to age physically, they look and move like children, come with a cute button nose and have been referred to posses “chipmunk-like” attributes.

…I think we are getting the picture. No need to continue with Hobbits or other races from the classic fantasy genre. Obviously we are dealing with a stereotype that could be called positive racism – at least as far as the magical or intellectual capabilities of all these races go. And while we do get a degree of stereotyping for most races in classic MMOs, I still need to ask why in fictional, magical worlds especially, small statures must equal a cute, friendly and nerdy personality?

Enter Guild Wars 2: Asura

To follow up my question, I am not opposed to cute or peace-loving characters in MMOs (paradox as it may seem in places…), or even entire races/cultures. What I do object to however, is that the great majority of these characters are also short folk. Surely in a world of powerful magic, body size is not exactly a limiting factor? And how come that traits like being nice and cute are automatically associated with being little? If you follow that train of thought, you’ll end up at the underlying suggestion that having a tall, athletic physique leads to aggressive or evil behavior, whereas a lack thereof takes that choice away and somehow forces short people to be friendly people.

Can the MMO genre not outgrow the idea of small folk as human children already? Add to this that in most games, the short race is always on the good/alliance side if such exists (in WoW too goblins were a neutral faction a long time before getting added to the horde). Why should short races not be inherently evil? Badass, scary and intimidating? Aggressive and combative even? Well, a first and second look at Guild Wars’ Asura has me filled with hope in this department. Already briefly featured in GW1, many players like myself currently waiting for GW2 will not have encountered this unique race before. By no means innovative on every account, a few aspects stood out to me when checking beta reviews and footage. The Asura do come with the same associated knack for technology and study as gnomes in WoW, but that’s where the similarities end.

For one thing, the Asura are not your standard aww-inspiring staple shorties; there is something very uncanny, almost creepy about their facial physiognomy. Indeed, the Asura are about as cute to me as the tooth fairies in the Hellboy movie. It is remarkable character design that evokes such feelings despite the small stature, big eyes and floppy ears. The pointy teeth undoubtedly play a part and then there’s many arrogant looking or grumpy stares to be found in their character creation. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like pinching an Asura’s cheek!

Spot the cute Asura!

Naturally, there will still be some cute asuran faces, especially for the females (shocker) which is why I included one in the above picture. However, these appear to be a minority. It gets very obvious that cuddliness is not the standard overall theme for this race. Many Asura look angry, superior or plain ugly – and unlike some players have commented on GW2 Guru, I happen to love it!

I also welcomed the information in an article on Talk Tyria (which beat me to this topic!) that introduces Asura as a very competitive culture, haughty and dismissive towards everyone else to the point of plain racist. There exist dark ambitions within special factions among them (called Inquest), displaying amoral and cruel behavior. The entire article is a very interesting read, especially if you happen to love your lore and roleplay. I also quite enjoyed reading ANet’s developer commentary where Heron Prior talks about the challenge of creating a less boring and fresh look for their shortest race – and how difficult a task this was considering the overall more realistic character design of GW2.

He also mentions that the Asura were given a clumsier movement style to counter their arrogance with an overall “more endearing” feel. I can understand how this choice is unpopular with some GW1 players. From their point of view, the original Asura have been softened down or goofed up to appeal to a wider audience in GW2. Having not played GW1 myself however, they are still one of the most refreshing races in the game, the most badass short race I’ve personally come across and at the very least, the most well-balanced one compared to other games!

For the very first time ever in an MMO am I actually considering playing a shorty; they’re a very close second to my already announced Norn crush. I will definitely spend some time on creating an Asura alt when GW2 finally launches, they are pure win!