In the realm of open-world RPGs, The Witcher Wild Hunt is really as good as it gets.
The open-world RPG genre has become quite popular in the past decade, as technology has allowed for the creation of vast player spaces crammed with immense amounts of detail. But the genre suffers still from many limitations, fostered upon it by technical and manpower limitations. There’s only so much you can cram into an open-world game, and only so many ways you can shape that open world such that the player’s agency never compromises its integrity. A ludic sequence that goes A -> B -> C must still make sense if the player, for some reason, does it in the order B -> C -> A. The limitations of open world games result in tradeoffs. Sandbox-like games that allow for emergent gameplay, such as those made by Bethesda, sacrifice narrative coherence and verisimilitude. Carefully-crafted landscapes sacrifice interactability and destructibility. Narrative games become empty and bereft once the player is done with all the quests. And so on.
The Witcher 3 is a narrative-driven RPG with traditional main quests, side quests, and a playable character who has an established identity. Although player agency is maintained in the sense that they are able to shape Geralt’s choices, such agency is constrained by what his character already is – a male Witcher, a friend, a father figure. Frankly, it couldn’t have worked any other way. The many narratives of The Witcher Wild Hunt are so effective because Geralt is already an established character. If Geralt had been a blank slate, they would not have been half so powerful.
This is the difference between the narrative chops of a game like The Witcher and that of a sandbox like Skyrim where you shape your character from a single archetype – a “Dragonborn” or a “Lone Wanderer”. Geralt has a history, hopes, fears, regrets, loves. And as you play him, you learn of those motivations through carefully-written lore in the game’s journal and character entries. I also found it very useful, however, to read the Witcher books before embarking on the game (and I wrote about those books earlier in this blog). They helped me form an impression of Geralt and the associated characters in the mythos, and thereby made the game all that more powerful, because I already had a stake in these characters. (There are some minor continuity hiccups but nothing too major).
All this is important, because the narrative strengths of the game are its greatest virtue. Too often, open world games boil down to constant cycles of the same game mechanics over and over again – go here, fight this, obtain that, return to quest-giver. In open-world games, there must be volume, busywork to fill up the hours. The Witcher Wild Hunt isn’t too innovative in this respect – most quests are indeed variations of the travel-kill-loot-return cycle. But where the Witcher excels is giving these quests meaning, consequence, narrative heft. The quests aren’t put there for grinding or busywork for their own sake – you do them because to get the payoff, the reward, in terms of narrative content. And the wonder of the Witcher is that so many of these quests are worth playing just for that narrative reward. There are some filler quests – horseracing, brawling, treasure hunts – that are insubstantial and pointless, but for the most part, the narrative is its own reward, and that is something that many open world games fail to grasp. After a hundred hours of gameplay, things are bound to get stale in terms of mechanics. The only thing that developers can do to make you play is to offer narrative rewards at the end of the tunnel.
At the core of The Witcher Wild Hunt’s main story is the relationship between Geralt and his daughter-figure, Ciri. It’s a tale about fatherhood, about supporting your child, and giving them the confidence and support to do great things. The Witcher 3 doesn’t shrink back from showing you the consequences of failure. It is, indeed, quite a brutal game from a narrative standpoint. But that’s a good sign, because great stories make us care and hurt when the characters hurt. In the end, Geralt’s struggle is secondary to Ciri’s, and your game is merely to act as an enabler for Ciri to achieve her potential. The journey to that end is long but not without its own narrative pleasures. In an open world game like this, it is the journey that has to be its own reward.
All this set in a vast game world of surpassing beauty, size and verisimilitude. There is a real sense of scale here, very unlike the constrained landscapes dotted with toy villages that are endemic to Bethesda’s games (pre Fallout 4, of course – I’ve yet to play it at the time of writing). Its denizens, characters and resident monsters, taking inspiration from a wide variety of sources – including a large portion from Slavic folklore – are visceral, different, and at times horrifying. Skellige – that archipelago of mountainous islands – is particularly beautiful on a fine day, and the soundtrack that accompanies Geralt’s ramblings around the main island of Ard Skellig provide for the some of the game’s most breathtaking moments. The developers took great care in crafting this world, and although it’s not as interactable as the Bethesda equivalent, it’s hard not to fete the care that went into constructing this world. I am in awe of what a studio of a hundred can do in such a short timeframe to make all these environments.
That said, at the end of the day The Witcher 3 is still an open-world RPG with open-world RPG conventions that inevitably detract from its greatest asset – its narrative. It’s often remarked that the expository urgency of the main quest is at odds with the freedom you’re given to explore the world, complete side quests and monster contracts, and generally dick around at your leisure. Ciri, one of the most important women in Geralt’s life, is in danger and all Geralt is interested in is carousing in inns and playing random strangers for Gwent cards. A bit of dissonance there. And it doesn’t help that you need to complete side quests to gain levels to tackle the main quests. In terms of difficulty, Geralt starts out so weak he can get ravaged by a pair of mangy wolves, and this is a world-class witcher we’re talking about. To completionists looking to finish every single quest, Geralt’s becomes everyone’s errand-boy, doing random stuff for people that book-Geralt would never waste his time with. And of course, when the main quests and side quests are finished, there is nothing much left to do. Thankfully, the game has so much content that it’d take hundreds of hours to get to that point.
And yet, those flaws – and others that I’ll not mention, relating to game mechanics, levelling and looting – don’t detract from the fundamental virtues of the Witcher Wild Hunt – its ability to tell stories that are at points humorous, touching, pathos-filled, tragic, horrific, unsettling, or just plain exciting. The Witcher 3 is all about story, and as a gamer primarily interested in the medium for its capacity to tell stories in entirely new ways, the Witcher 3 is the zenith in our current capabilities in the medium, at least in the open-world space. I eagerly await the second DLC expansion, Blood and Wine, that is due next year, and everything that CD Projekt RED, the game’s developers, have in store for us in the future.
I give this game: 5 out of 5 Feline Armor Sets