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December 21, 2015

PS4nukkah: The Witcher 3

All right, cards on the table: is The Witcher 3 a good game?  Yeah, obviously.

Really, you could leave it at that.  It’s a good game that’s both fun and intriguing; there are thrills to be had, but you only have to play for an hour or two (if that) to realize that this isn’t your standard-fare adventure.  That’s kind of a given, since I’m guessing that The Witcher 3 is one of 2015’s biggest games both in terms of popularity/hype and the actual scale of its world.  I had my doubts beforehand because open-world games have lost their pizazz in the wake of an industry that’s trying to run the subgenre into the ground (should we blame GTA5’s success for that?  Who knows?), but CD Projekt RED’s latest deserves whatever praise it gets…even if it’s not exactly ZOMG BESTEST GAEM EVAR material, but whatever.  You’re in good hands with it.

But you’re not here to see me give my blessing, are you?  So let’s get in deep with the game -- and try not to develop a Gwent addiction.  First off…

Once again, the theme of this miniseries is “elements”, inspired by my beloved Stratovarius and the song of the same name.  Bloodborne was all about the fear, and MGSV was all about the anger.  So, next in line is -- you guessed it -- sorrow.  That’s not to imply The Witcher 3 makes me sad in the same way that, say Watch Dogs does.  I’ll explain what I mean, but first I have to go on a pretty big tangent.

Like I said, open-world games are pretty common these days.  In an age where console generations can no longer be counted on to have huge graphical leaps, developers need to find ways to prove that they’re evolving the game (figuratively and literally).  And how have a lot of them chosen to do that?  Make their worlds as big as possible…and beautiful, by extension, but the scale’s a top priority.  The problem, as many have noted, is that the worst of these open-world games -- or in some cases, even the best of them -- can’t justify the size of their stomping grounds.  There’s breadth, sure, but it’s pointless if there’s not even a sliver of depth.  I’d say that stuff like Watch Dogs is treading water, but that’d imply there was water to tread, and not just a dried-out pothole.

It’s not as if open-world games are an evolutionary dead end, though.  It’s just that there’s a big caveat determining their success: there has to be something, anything that justifies the breadth.  It opens up the question of whether or not I (or anyone, for that matter) wants every game out there to be some 100+ hour endeavor (I don’t), but let’s set that aside for now.  The important thing is that a game should create a situation where a player will at least want to keep playing, and not just because of some Pavlovian hamster wheel.

Just like with any creative outlet, there’s no wrong way to do it.  The golden rule is “whatever you do, do it well”, and I’d like to think that if games are making it to store shelves with millions of dollars invested in them, they should probably have the hows and whys ironed out.  Well, ideally.  But in any case, it’s the mission of the devs to offer up meaningful content, whether it lasts for a few hours or a few months.  Chalk that up as the other golden rule -- when it comes to games, at least.  Unfortunately, that golden rule ends up getting broken again and again, for any number of reasons.  Lack of foresight, hubris, complacency, and more can turn what should be a masterpiece into a miserable little pile of data.  Potentially, the tides are turning against mediocrity (assuming that you’ve got at least 80 million dollars burning a hole in your pocket); Metal Gear Solid V has long since shown people how to get the most out of a big world.

But its mechanics are its own.  The same goes for The Witcher 3 -- and it offers up something just as good.

As you can guess -- especially if you read my post on it -- MGSV skews very heavily towards the gameplay instead of the story.  That’s not to say there’s no story, but it’s downplayed for the sake of letting the player become the greatest soldier in the world on their specific terms; all told, it’s an approach that works.  At least, it works for me -- which is strange, because I’m usually the guy who screams into the night about the stories in games.

It’s not like I’ve turned my back on storytelling, though.  It’s just that these days, it seems like a lot of developers are more than willing -- if not eager -- to toss out narratives for the sake of gameplay…the quality of which is debatable.  Titanfall famously axed a full campaign for the sake of multiplayer, which didn’t work out too well for it in the long run.  Same goes for EvolveStar Wars Battlefront and Rainbow Six Siege have both taken heat for lacking campaigns, and haven’t replaced the missing content with anything more than a mere diversion.  Okay, sure, the alternative is usually that we get stuff like Call of Duty or any given Halo, but that’s no excuse.  I want game devs to work on their stories, not drop them entirely because “no one cares about the story” or “it’s too haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard”.  Like, these guys understand that maybe people don’t care about the stories because their stories are kind of shit, right?

So, what does The Witcher 3 have that other games don’t?  Well, it’s got a sincere commitment to a story, for one thing -- and ostensibly, consistent themes.  If MGSV is all about the gameplay, The Witcher 3 is…about the story and the gameplay to a lesser extent, but screw it.  This post’s about the story. 

The key thrust of the game’s main story is that it follows Geralt, the titular witcher (read: bounty hunter, monster-killer, and sell-sword sorcerer).  His mission: to find and protect his not-quite-but-might-as-well-be-daughter Ciri, who’s been missing for who knows how long.  More specifically, he’s out to make sure she and her unique powers don’t fall in the hands of the Wild Hunt, a fabled band of marauding horsemen who spread death and desolation wherever they go.  That circumstantially means that Geralt is also hunting for Ciri, playing detective and trying to follow her trail (both for his own satisfaction and the completion of a job he takes on in the early hours), but what’s important is that he’s got a wide world to search.  A wide, wide, wide, wide, wide world.

I “jokingly” said that I would tap out of The Witcher 3 if it had more of the piddling chores-in-disguise sidequests that made Dragon Age: Inquisition borderline unplayable.  And while I’m sure that those sorts of quests are still in the game, they don’t appear in the form of some towering tidal wave.  You’re not destined to collect X number of items or kill Y number of monsters; again, they’re still in there, but the saving grace is that there’s still context for what you’re doing.  

The things you do matter.  I mean that in the long-term sense, as the game promises, but in the short-term sense, you can still get the feeling that there’s some level of importance to what you’re doing.  Even if the quests don’t necessarily contribute to the main story, they at least create the sense of progress and accomplishment.  Simply put, it’s one Sidequest Trap that I don’t mind ripping into my ankle.

The trick to the game’s sidequests -- the best of them, at least -- is that they actually manage to make you care about what’s going on.  It’s not just about getting loot or EXP rewards, but about being an active participant in the world laid out before you.  One of the game’s earliest instances has you running into Lena, a young lady who as left in critical condition after a bit of bad luck.  As Geralt, you have two choices: you can put her out of her misery since she has virtually no chance of recovery, or you could take that chance by brewing a special potion -- one that works on witchers, but guarantees agony for the average Jill or Joe.  I opted to give her the potion, because it seemed right (or right enough) at the time.  So the quest was tentatively completed, with Geralt saying it would take some time before anyone would know the results.

I made sure to visit Lena a few times during my travels so that I could hopefully have a conversation with her -- you know, see how her recovery was going and such.  But when I saw her again (and again, and again), she was still on the same bed, still as a statue.  Why?  Well, as it turns out -- which I discovered via the quest’s description in the menu -- I’d effectively made sure she would never make it out of that bed.  Not under her own power, at least.  Whoops.

A quest like that goes a long way towards establishing and codifying the main ideas behind the game.  The world of…uh…The Continent (no, really) isn’t one powered by ideas and optimism, and it’s sure as hell not going to be saved by them.  Courage and hope didn’t save Lena from a miserable fate, which serves as a reminder that despite its breadth, and despite its beauty, Geralt’s world is ultimately a sad one.

It’s pretty easy to make sweeping assumptions based on Geralt’s look and air.  I’ve already done so; even now, I think his default design is kind of dumb.  White hair, scars, dark armor with lots of belts and metal bits, golden eyes…if he was in an anime (or a Japanese game at large), then I’d bet most people would laugh him off the PS4.  But he’s actually an all right guy, proving that you shouldn’t judge characters based on the way they look.  Yeah, he’s got the standard gruff anti-heroic voice, and he’s one of countless other fictional bounty hunters who are only bounty hunters for the sake of having a cool title, but there’s more to him than that.

Pared down to basics, Geralt is a cynical, aloof, sarcastic asshole.  But it’s entirely justified in this world because look at the world he’s living in.  You basically can’t trust anyone, up to and including the quest-givers strewn about.

It’s not often that things are as simple and clean-cut as you’d hope.  For example, you can take on a quest that eventually has you tracking down a werewolf (and eventually fighting said werewolf).  But the more you play detective, the more you realize that the full details of the story haven’t been given to you.  Basically, you get involved in a love triangle that ended very poorly, wherein the werewolf is actually an innocent guy who went all monster-mash on his wife.  Said wife had a sister who loved Mr. Sabrewulf, and engineered a plan to have him scare the missus away -- buuuuuuuuuut it ended in the wife’s death, and the wolfman barely in control of his actions.  He’s still got just enough sentience to realize what he did, though.

So halfway into a shockingly-difficult boss fight, you have a choice to make.  The sister rushes in with tears in her eyes to protect her wolfy love, and apologizes profusely for creating such dire circumstances.  Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending where everyone gets what they want; the wife’s still dead, and as Geralt you get to choose whether to let Jon Talbain Jr. tear apart the sister for the sake of his revenge, or if you spare the sister and put her love down.  That’s a level of extensiveness you don’t really get in sidequests -- and in some games, the main quest.

What I’m getting at here is that there’s a point to the quest, and plenty of others throughout The Witcher 3.  It’s one thing to have a world that’s expansive (and expensive) as all hell, but it’s another thing entirely to make it feel alive.  The quests are a good way to establish that, as well as to cater to some important ideas and themes.  Everyone has a story, both in games and in the real world; if you want to get involved, however, you do so as an outsider.  A neutral third party.  A judge.  In the game, you pretty much have to judge people and see their foibles laid bare -- their lust, their greed, their envy, and most of all, their dishonesty.  Bit by bit, you have to crack them open and reveal every last shred of their story if you want to proceed.  It puts Geralt in an interesting position, but it ultimately makes sense in terms of deciding his character’s trajectory.

There’s something very snide about the game’s main witcher -- a holier-than-thou, smug sense of superiority.  But again, it’s entirely justified, and even makes for a more interesting character.  Geralt’s more than a hundred years old thanks to the experiments/treatments that made him a witcher in the first place (God, everything about this guy sounds like it comes from the bowels of fanfiction.net).  Inevitably, that means he’s been in “the biz” for a long time now.  He’s seen it all, up to and including the worst of what humanity has to offer.  Its capacity for sin, violence, decay, and of course stupidity has long since been noted, no doubt; in a sense, he’s numb to the cries of the idiots who often ended up in a bad place because they didn’t have a little common sense. 

The only thing Geralt can trust for sure in his world is money.  That’s an incredibly sad thing to say, but the evidence has certainly piled up.  Seemingly nice people have all these dark secrets that only get exposed by his witcher senses and the tied-in detective work he has to do.  When it’s time for the confrontation, suddenly even the innocent can look like massive crooks.  Meanwhile, you’ve got the run-of-the-mill assholes strutting around, be they enemy bandits, crusty mercenaries, corrupted nobles, or (of course) other quest-givers.  If you deal with that on a daily basis, you’d burn out within a month.  Maybe a week.  And Geralt, potentially, has been at this line of work for decades. 

How is this guy still sane?  Or…is he sane?

Now, it may seem like I’d be diametrically opposed to what The Witcher 3 is offering vis a vis its story.  It’s a world full of anti-heroes, assholes, and secret assholes, where treachery and depravity rule!  Who needs likability and charisma when you can have malaise at best and misery at worst?  And in all honesty, the game can get pretty exhausting at times.  Am I fighting for a cause I believe in?  Or am I just going through the motions?  Do I care about the world so lavishly rendered around me?  Or is it just a heartless slog from A to B as I build my strength and money?

Who knows?  It’s not as if there’s some ironclad answer here.  But if you ask me, there are two saving graces at play -- and they’re what make The Witcher 3 fascinating.

This is where the player comes in.  Like a lot of games, The Witcher 3 lets you decide what sort of character you want to be.  Granted the choices aren’t as clear-cut or binary as good karma/bad karma (as the Lena quest proved), but you can still make a push toward a paragon or renegade if you want -- though Geralt will still keep his general personality intact.  In any case, witchers have a reputation for being heartless sell-swords only out for the money; bit by bit, you can repair that image on a small scale. 

You don’t necessarily have to take rewards -- the biggest ones, at least -- from people you do work for, and you can still show some semblance of kindness throughout.  It’s a minor thing, but it helps create the sense that you’re trying to do the right thing in a world that, for one reason or another, has lost its way.  Even if you can’t count on others to have virtue or reason, that shouldn’t stop you from doing what’s right.  Well, in theory, at least; if you don’t take rewards every chance you get, you’ll eventually start hampering your inventory -- and your fighting ability as a result.

Something tells me that The Witcher 3 is not the game for people who willingly proclaim that they’re the Eternal Optimist. 

I don’t think I’m that far off-base with my assessment, though.  As proof of that, there’s the Bloody Baron, and all of the events tied to him.  The gist of it is this: Geralt finds out that one of the local warlords knows about Ciri; eager to make use of the lead, Geralt meets the Baron face to face to see what he knows.  Naturally, the Baron doesn’t give that information out for free; he wants Geralt to use his witcher skills to figure out where his wife and daughter went, under the assumption that some monsters got to them.  He’s not entirely wrong, but -- once again -- there’s more to the story.

As it turns out, the Baron got into a drunken fight with his wife, and ended up driving her away -- not to mention that she took her daughter along with her.  More pressingly, the Baron’s misbehavior led to the death of their unborn child; in the world of The Witcher 3, that’s the kindling for the birth of a new monster.  So basically, Geralt has to (or rather, can choose to) help the Baron by performing a special ritual to lay the unborn to rest…which involves the Baron carrying what might as well be an asset from the Fetus of God stage up to his home while Geralt fends off incoming wraiths, and the unborn has to be kept calm during the escort mission trek or else it’ll turn into a monster and the Baron will never have the closure he needs.

So yeah, that happens.  Also, I’m retroactively hoping that you didn’t try to see the Fetus of God if you haven’t before.  Shit’s nuts.  Also, NSFYS (not safe for your soul).

Even with all of that, the quest isn’t over; the Baron’s loved ones are still well out of his reach, after all.  More to the point, Geralt doesn’t exactly have an incentive to bring them back to the man who terrorized them for years on end (as alcoholics who commit to domestic abuse are wont to do).  But this is where The Witcher 3 gets another leg-up on the competition.  Yeah, the Bloody Baron’s done some nasty things over the course of his life, not to mention some of his more recent “accomplishments”.  But he’s not a bad guy. 

He’s boisterous, a little crass, and threatening when he needs to be, but he’s also willing to treat his guests with hospitality and entertainment.  He’s not to be messed with, presumably, but he’s also a big barrel of laughs and fun when given the chance.  And critically, he’s genuinely remorseful when the time comes to confess his sins.  He knows what he did was wrong.  He’s trying to make up for it.  He wants to see his family again.  He wants redemption.

And guess what?  Geralt -- and you -- can give it to him.

To be fair, it’s not as simple a task as saying “you’re forgiven”; the problem is that you have to get the Baron’s family to forgive him as well, up to and including a daughter who wants nothing to do with him ever again.  But the intent is there, and it means something beyond EXP or karma.  It’d be easy enough for Geralt/the player to write off the Baron when the truth comes out, but the two of them have a very intense, very sincere heart-to-heart.  Even if Geralt rightly has every reason to scoff at the Baron (and indeed, all of the other people he meets on his travels), he’s still more than willing to lend more than his silver sword to others.  His world may be full of sorrow, but on some level, however minute, he can make the people he runs into a little bit happier. 

All things considered, he has every reason to.  Despite his nomadic lifestyle (and an idealized one, at that), Geralt is still a devoted family man -- or at the very least, someone who’s more than capable of showing love, cheer, kindness, and all sorts of emotions.  You can interact with his magic-slinging lover Yennefer on whatever personal -- and physical -- level you want when you cross paths with her, but it’s not as if those scenes are there to let players gawk at her sweet baps.  They’re there to establish that there are still people he cares about (and before you ask, yes, that includes female and male characters).

I guess that’s the thing, isn’t it?  The Witcher 3 is a sad place, full of corruption and treachery.  That’s a given.  Even so, it’s the sort of thing that makes Geralt hold those that he can trust closer to his heart; because there are so few people out there he can count on, it makes him want to hold those near and dear to him even nearer and dearer to him.

In that sense, you could say he’s more motivated by love than money; he’s out to defend the happiness of others, as well as his happiness.  On top of that, the people he cares about are still alive -- so not only are there more opportunities for characterization, but it’s proof that you don’t need revenge as the de facto motivation for a lead and his story.

Ubisoft, are you taking notes?  I hope you’re taking notes.  And I don’t just mean “dump more money so we can render the highest-fidelity bricks the game industry has ever seen”.

And there you go.  That’s The Witcher 3…in terms of story, at least.  The gameplay’s solid as well, no question -- leagues above Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example -- but explaining its particulars would take another two or three thousand words, and I’m already a ways into this post.  So maybe I’ll talk about that another time.

Besides, Hanukkah’s over.  It’d be in my best interests to wrap things up, wouldn’t it?  So with that in mind, THIS…IS THE FINAL.

Hmmm.  I wonder if there’ll be dragons in this game.     

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