Developing the Aetherblades

Hi everyone. My name is Connor Fallon, and I served as the Story Design Lead for Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons™. We’ve all had a wonderful time seeing your reactions to the campaign. So much love and effort went into making this story—the culmination of years of Guild Wars 2 storytelling—a satisfying one. And it seems people have been really enjoying it! After working on this thing for years, that means more than you can possibly imagine. I want to thank you all for choosing to spend your time in Tyria.

We thought it might be interesting to share some deeper dives into the thinking that went into some of our decisions—and I figured I’d open with one of the elements that grew near and dear to my heart.

SPOILERS AHEAD: I’m generally assuming you’ve completed the Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons story.

Enter The Aetherblades

Early in expansion brainstorming, we knew we wanted to bring a returning faction to Cantha to connect our story to the larger world of Guild Wars 2 and to provide enemy variety among all the humans and tengu. Various possibilities were floated—from the Inquest (they never go away) to Frost Legion escapees—but it didn’t take long for a clear favorite to emerge: the Aetherblades.

I’m not going to lie to you—the first thing that jumped out about the Aetherblades wasn’t the potential for a particularly deep storyline, or an answer to a grand lore problem. It was a kickass option for an opening sequence. We’ve had multiple moments in Guild Wars 2 where you and the Pact deployed airships against Elder Dragons; what if instead you took on a bunch of airships with an Elder Dragon? We story folks love our thematic resonance and character arcs, but sometimes you gotta put on your cool explosion hat!

That sequence was actually one of the first things prototyped for the expansion. We placed a bunch of existing ship assets in the sky and let the player leap between them, moving the pieces around dynamically and seeing how far we could push that moving platform tech which has been slowly improving over the years. (The answer is “pretty far,” and we got a ton of mileage out of that tech in general this expansion.) It was dang fun, and much of that prototype was carried into the final version that shipped.

But while the crazy set piece was fun, the value of choosing the Aetherblades extended far beyond that. As we explored the reasons to use this group further, elements kept naturally snapping into place for a compelling narrative with roots throughout Guild Wars 2 history—elements that could make the whole of Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons stronger.

Mist Connections

We last saw the Aetherblades WAY back in Living World Season 1, fleeing back to the Mists after the completion of Scarlet’s planned attack on Lion’s Arch. There have been quite a few fascinating stories set in the Mists in the years since. Rytlock returned from there with new powers and Glint in his ear. Kralkatorrik broke in with god magic and started eating everything he could. And then there are the Fractals of the Mists, which have their own twisty lore. (Look at the Arkk…arc!) All of those provided compelling narrative seeds for us to work with when filling in the gaps.

Reviewing these stories, it was clear no one could spend extended time in the Mists and remain unchanged. Even identifying Kralkatorrik’s rampage as the point when the Aetherblades made their exit (losing a ship in Elona in the process), that still had them surviving in there for years longer than any other major characters. Add in the fact that the in-game fractals—often echoes of the Aetherblades themselves—would be the natural place for them to go to get the resources they needed to rebuild… It made sense that the experience messed them up a little.

We tried to reflect that experience in everything about them upon their return. We created new airship models that looked like the Aetherblades grafted parts onto ships they found—because they did. We added new units to their armies: scrappers, cobbling together whatever they could; revenants, channeling the echoes of their fallen comrades. And we added a real subtle Mist effect to all of them…a touch of the Mist Stranger look, if you will. Some additional aether for our Aetherblades.

We also did a general pass of their appearances to represent their evolution over the years. While we maintained the iconic clockwork elements, a lot of the more “aristocratic” armor pieces were replaced with scrappier or more militaristic ones. These made good use of the new armor sets we’ve developed since the Aetherblades last appeared; the Warlords Armor from PvP and WvW wound up featuring pretty heavily. Hey, maybe they were playing those modes as well!

And of course, while they all changed, some of our key characters changed more.

Ankka. Ank-ka.

At some point before Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons, someone said to Kwan Perng, the Narrative Lead for the project and my partner in crime, that asura are too “goofy” to be intimidating villains. Well, Kwan took this as a challenge. From the very start of the expansion, he really wanted to have a “creepy asura” antagonist.

We had a clear purpose and philosophical goal for such a character. Given that Joon existed, and was going to represent the most successful effort yet to harness dragon magic, we wanted a counterforce—an accelerationist, tired of all these efforts to control and delay the inevitable. Based only on this, Chelsey Shuder, Cinematics Director, drew this “concept art.”

The final character turned out… a little differently.

The question we had to answer, of course, was “Why would someone wind up having this outlook?” We wanted to avoid having a character believe something just because we needed them to, narratively—it had to feel natural. Luckily, our story is full of examples of failed attempts to shape the world, and filling out that backstory allowed us to naturally connect to even more elements from Guild Wars 2 history.

By starting her career in Thaumanova, then working for Scarlet, witnessing Kralk’s rampage (that we caused) and finally winding up in Cantha, Ankka’s life became full of countless examples of people trying to alter the course of the universe and failing—a throughline connecting the start of Guild Wars 2 to the present. And with that context, when Ankka looks at Soo-Won, who had such an enormous effect on the world, conspiring to prevent the end… Who would she see but another “meddler”?

And of course, the whole thing was colored by having killed her echoes over and over again in the Mists. Oh, and messing with Zhaitan magic. Eeesh.

Ankka may not be the “final obstacle” of Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons, but she is the catalyst for all that happens in the story. She became one of my favorite villains in the game, and Sarah Sokolovic’s memorable performance sealed the deal. Congrats, Kwan. You made your creepy asura.

The Haunting of Mai Trin

Way back during the Kralkatorrik arc of 2018, Associate Designer Jonathan Blunden prototyped a side project: a stand-alone encounter in which the commander could go into the Mists and intercept the Aetherblades as they tried to escape the rampaging Elder Dragon. The encounter even had a fun twist to it: Mai Trin had become a Scarlet-channeling revenant! But her cool Season 1 flavored attacks were not enough to stop the commander—you beat her up, arrested her, and the story of the Aetherblades ended there.

There were a lot of cool things about this idea, but in the end it was a little out of scope for a side story, and ultimately it didn’t ship. The team’s attention moved from Season 4 to The Icebrood Saga, and the world moved on.

Fast-forward two years. We’re plotting the arc of Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons and leaning towards the Aetherblades as a central faction. Someone mentions that this prototype exists. I go to check it out, and, well, I fell in love with the Mai Trin revenant angle. Because it’s freakin’ cool, sure, but more importantly, it enhanced everything we wanted to do with her. I even Photoshopped some amazing concept art during the initial pitch presentation to sell people on it:

We already knew that Mai Trin’s story was shaping up to be one of someone trying to escape her past. Her time in the Mists involved reliving her mistakes over and over, so when an opportunity to reinvent herself was presented by Joon, she took it. For years, she lived in a place where no one knew what she had done; instead of confronting who she was, she ran from it. But of course, her past caught up to her, in the form of an angry commander and an Elder Dragon.

Now, adding in the revenant powers she gained in the Mists and channeling Scarlet as her legend, her wrestling with her past becomes not just an internal conflict, but something we can manifest in lore and mechanics. As Marjory points out in the story, Joon and Scarlet have a lot of parallels: Mai Trin definitely attaches herself to world-shaking inventor types. But Joon brings out the best in Mai Trin, and Scarlet brings out the worst. The fact that Mai would fall back to “her inspirational ex-leader” Scarlet at her lowest moment, when her crew had left her and her new mentor disowned her, made a lot of sense.

There was some concern that Scarlet would overshadow the story if she was included in any fashion, so we knew we had a careful line to walk—the rule we had was that the story wasn’t about Scarlet, but about Mai Trin, and her relationship to her past. I think in the end we did a pretty good job walking that line. Mai Trin breaking down at the end of the first act and losing control of Scarlet is one of my favorite moments of the story—a wonderful confluence of character, world lore, and encounter design.

Can’t Trust a Pirate

So we had a great intro for Mai, and a good reason for her to want to team up with us: she’s betrayed by Ankka and trying to salvage what she could of her new life. All of that was received well, from the very earliest versions of the story. But here is where I will confess we struggled: how should the other characters treat Mai?

Our first pass at the script had characters reluctantly accepting that they needed Mai Trin’s help to track down Ankka. While Jory wasn’t warm to Mai in this version, they made small talk nonetheless. Mai was mostly trusted by the party as someone who had clearly been through a lot since we last saw her.

But early playtests quickly revealed this missed the mark. Whoever she was to Joon, to the people of Cantha, and however her story had played out in our heads, to many players who have been around a long time, she wasn’t just a pirate—she was a terrorist. And unlike our other terrorist-turned-friend-turned-profiteer, Canach, we had not actually witnessed her growth over the last eight years.

We actually rewrote and rerecorded most of the scenes surrounding Mai Trin to fix this. Because of their history, Jory was the natural choice to be the voice holding Mai accountable—taking her weapons, keeping her guarded, reminding her of the past she had tried to bury. When making these changes we knew some players would fall the other way, and think Jory was being too harsh, but ultimately it was truer to the characters and the story that she was mistrusted.

Oh, Mai…

Mai’s initial response also indicated we had to do more work to establish who she was, now, in the present. After all, the whole story about her struggling with her past only really works if the contrast with the present is clearly established. There was only one problem.

Here is an immutable production fact: cinematics need to be locked down early. For logistical reasons, Mai Trin’s maritime send-off was one of the first. Given how amazingly it turned out, it was a fairly fixed moment in our narrative. But that meant we really only had our time in New Kaineng to deal with her, and most of that was focused on the jade malfunction investigation. How could we establish what we needed to in the time we had?

It was Matthew Medina who provided the masterstroke here: a visit to her apartment during our open world section. This allowed us to show (instead of merely tell) a slice of the life she had built over the years: a little bit messy, but relatable, and filled with cats named after fallen crew members. Cat Horrik has an amazing mustache! If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that our players really care about digital cats.

*clears throat* …Anyway.

Based on player response, it seems like our final pass on Mai Trin connected with a lot of people, even in the limited time frame. Was she redeemed by her sacrifice in the end, though? We’re all happy leaving this as a thing that players debate—hell, we’ve debated it internally. It was a very deliberate choice that our characters don’t have a universal opinion of her when all is said and done.

Mai Trin couldn’t escape her past. It was always bound to catch up to her eventually, and it should’ve. But she did the best with the pieces she had. It may not be enough, but it is something.

(Random tangent: Kelly Hu voices both Mai Trin and Soo-Won, and she did a fantastic job of making them feel quite different. I would frequently say Kelly was “so nice we killed her twice.”)

Ivan’s Coming Too

I can’t wrap up this article about the Aetherblades without touching on everyone’s favorite mole person.

Ivan started as a small but fun bit character. We wanted to diversify the Aetherblades, and while quaggan and skritt may have seemed like fun options to some people, the dredge is the one who stuck. As a holosmith main, I had wanted to do a holosmith fight as well, especially as the Aetherblades had always leaned hard into holograms. From these two elements, we have Ivan. A fun mini-boss, but not much more.

But the way Senior Writer/Narrative Designer Alex Kain wrote the content surrounding fighting and defeating Ivan changed everything. The whole “key hunt” beat was his invention—and while small, it lent a ton of additional characterization to the dredge. That characterization, in turn, made people want to use Ivan more. So his role expanded. Ivan became the character to carry on Mai Trin’s legacy, to mourn her, and to finish her mission.

Ivan is a great example of how when you work on a longer form story like an expansion, elements can naturally rise to the surface and find ways to be included in the rest of the narrative. He’s truly one of my favorite parts of the expansion.

In Conclusion

I often say that working on a big ongoing game like Guild Wars 2 is similar to working in a big comic universe. Multiple people have spun multiple storylines, sometimes under different editors with different grand ideas. It’s a mix of careful planning and improv: every element of the world is a story that someone cared about, threads that can be picked up again. Sometimes, it may take a while.

With the Aetherblades, time allowed the ideas around them to mature and ripen, informed by the other stories that surrounded them. Looping them into Guild Wars 2: End of Dragons, in turn, brought all that history into play in our expansion in a way that made the whole thing better.

As the world of Guild Wars 2 presses forward into new horizons, I’m immensely excited about where future journeys might take us. There are still so many threads, both new and old, to wind together into meaningful tales.