design thoughts:

Thoughts on finishing The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt [1/21/16]

I recently finished playing through The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. I haven’t been this thoroughly obsessed with a game since Pokemon:Blue. There are a few things that I find extraordinary about The Witcher 3, and that both kept me coming back to it to complete the lengthy main storyline and to hunt around for cool gear and side-quests (and produced a series of 3am ‘holy-shit-I’m-still-playing-this-game’ episodes for me well into the start of the spring semester).

  1. The Witcher 3 combines several different modes of gameplay in such a way that they amplify each others’ effects. As Geralt, master witcher, you sleuth, you negotiate, you prepare, and you fight. Each of these gameplay modes has its own visual language and logic.
    1. By using your ‘Witcher senses’ you can see, smell, and hear things that no one else can–clues that you can use to track down missing persons or objects crucial to the storylines and to uncover evidence of foul play and/or monsters. (Also handy–when you engage your ‘Witcher senses’ objects that are gettable are highlighted, as well as the presence of doors–useful when you’re trying to escape a complex environment or when you need a little hint as to how to proceed. Throughout, using your Witcher senses is a reliable way to get information from the game about how to engage the current context.) This ‘look around for clues and click to discover info’ approach might seem shallow at first, but when you consider that the entire walking sim genre is essentially built around this mechanic, the storytelling possibilities begin to make themselves clear. It was fun and sometimes challenging to discover the clues seemingly hidden in plain sight, as Geralt slowly builds a forensic picture of what must have happened in this particular place. Often these scenes transition into a ‘follow the trail’ action, which might lead you to an NPC conversation, or more accurately, a:
    2. Negotiation. I think it’s fair to term almost every NPC dialogue interaction that Geralt has as a negotiation. The dialogues present you with meaningful choices, where there is no clearly correct answer. Sometimes it seems clear that one choice will lead to a fight while another could result in a diplomatic solution; at other times the likely results are much more ambiguous. I’ll talk about this more below, but often in these interactions you’re faced with choosing between an option that seems bad and an option that makes you feel bad. The writing is really great–the NPCs are vividly drawn and specific, and you feel like you have the ability to shape what kind of a person Geralt is by your choices. Your decisions are consequential, and are often informed by what you’ve discovered through your sleuthing. Sometimes there are missable clues that mean that your negotiations go differently. If you decide to push your negotiations in a more aggressive direction (or even if you don’t intent to, sometimes), your negotiations may escalate into a fight.
    3. I’ve played a number of games with fun sleuthing/exploration mechanics, and sometimes those games also feature good writing and consequential decision-making (TellTale’s The Wolf Among Us is maybe my favorite example of a game like this). Prior to playing TW3, I hadn’t come across a game where the high quality of the writing and exploration were matched in the combat mechanics. Combat in TW3 is awesome. The animations are great (sometimes you slice enemies’ limbs or heads off with a single stroke! It’s cool!), the controls feel intuitive and fluid, different enemy types present distinct and diverse challenges, and there’s enough going on in terms of types of attacks and defense that battles are never boring or rote. At the same time, I gradually became more confident and fluid with the combat tool set that choosing attacks and defensive moves on the fly and in real time became a pleasure and thrill. Moving from negotiation to combat gave the fights narrative weight and importance, elevating hack n’ slash fun to battles with real emotional stakes. Having done some sleuthing in advance might mean that you have helpful information about how best to battle these particular enemies. Putting this information to use is in and of itself a whole other mechanic.
    4. Preparation is an aspect of the game that at first I paid little attention to, preferring instead to attempt to blast my way through the story as quickly as possible, most ignoring cool gear/crafting/alchemy/grind-y stuff along the way. I found it to be confusing, complicated, and kind of boring. After struggling through a few boss battles, I decided to give this whole preparation business another look. And… it turned out to be super fun. While short of the storytelling juice appended to cool gear in, say, Destiny (which gives gear neat little epigrams), the gear in TW3 tends to have distinct looks, neat names, and fairly variable stats and abilities. Preparation (by which I mean the processes of getting cool gear, accruing XP, and tweaking character stats) is related most fully to fighting, but there are also reciprocal relationships to negotiation and sleuthing. Sometimes having a specific item would enable a negotiation to go a certain way, or a negotiation would yield you XP and/or an item. By sleuthing around, you could uncover cooler gear and run into situations that would enable you to gain XP. Sometimes preparation would enable the sleuthing. Overall, optimizing stats ended up being way more fun than I had anticipated. In part this is because in order to do so, I had to get off of the main storyline path and grind on some sidequests. I’m glad I did, because those experiences are what made the game go from great to fantastic for me.
  2. As above, so below: recurring over and over again in TW3 are situations of moral ambiguity in a world of selfishness and racism. It’s hard to make decisions that feel entirely good. This is reflected not just in the main storyline but in countless minor side quests. The iterative nature of these quandaries across scale created a sense of immersion, that it wasn’t just me or my story but the whole world that was fraught with complex moral calculus. I didn’t just have to choose whether or not to help assassinate a potentially lunatic king (major storyline), but also whether or not to lie about a dwarf’s arson, landing him an execution and validating a racist warehouse-owner (three-minute side quest). The persistence of these situations led me to form a game-specific worldview, and that is a powerful thing. (Which perhaps I’ll try to examine further in my next post.)
  3. Finally (for now), TW3 is just dripping with quality. The balance, the controls, the navigation, the environments, the animations, the writing, the voice acting, the music–it’s all just… so good. Having the execution across the board operating at such a high level made the game feel not just engaging and fun, but… special. (I have only two complaints quality-wise: that the difficulty curve didn’t quite keep up with me at the end so that I ended the main storyline feeling significantly OP, making the final battle feel a little less significant that it could have, and that there were a few key cinematics that suffered from particularly unimaginative cinematography.)

It definitely says something about the game that, 80 hours later, I’m ready to get the DLC expansion packs this weekend and head right back into the saddle.