Games of the Decade - The Witcher III
At any given time, if you take a look at the Nielsen ratings, there's a decent chance that at least one of the top shows on television will be a police procedural (e.g., CSI, Blue Bloods or Numb3rs). I can remember when I was studying film a discussion arose regarding their popularity.
There are some obvious reasons: people are fascinated by crime; people like to see good guys versus bad guys; missing an episode or two doesn't matter; and even the pleasure of seeing the criminal get punished. One of the reasons that I found more interesting, however, was the idea that the formulaic nature of the procedural allows people to find some comfort in their hectic lives. It allows them to pay half-attention. It allows them to predict outcomes, something much more difficult to do in real life.
One of the reasons I stopped playing RPGs as I got older was because they had become so formulaic. It makes sense to want to detach when you get home after a long day, so you put on one of the countless iterations of CSI and relax. Video games are an interactive medium, though. They aren't meant for you to sit back and have a story given to you while you are passive. Video games are meant to engage you, and too many RPGs weren't doing that for me in the late '90s and early aughts (at a time, television was killing it with interesting shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, The Sopranos, The West Wing and The Wire).
Many RPGs follow a formula. In fact, there are a lot of jokes about how so many RPGs start out with you cleaning a floor and end with you killing a god. To some extent, Persona 5 is like this, and it still made my top ten list of the decade, but it did so for reasons I will unpack elsewhere. Western RPGs in the '90s and early aughts fell into similar predictable storylines.
Within the larger storylines, you would have your predictable side missions. Fetch quests are the worst culprit when it comes to adding a large dose of tedium to a game. They are the "go there, get that, go here, do that, go there, kill that, go back where you started for a reward" quests. These quests are tedious, but they are important for generating experience points. (And for padding the length of a game. At some point in the late '90s gamers began to feel that if the game didn't take at least fifty hours, then the cost wasn't worth it, no matter how much work went into making a great game). Without the almighty XP, you can't level up. And if you can't level up, how are you going to kill a god (or a king or emperor or evil so-and-so)?
So, you do the tedious quests. You get the XP. You still enjoy the game because you enjoy the science fiction or fantasy aspects of it and the deeper lore you find, generally in recordings (science fiction RPGs) or books (fantasy RPGs). But the gameplay itself isn't that great really. The story is great, but the gameplay isn't because of the tedium.
Police procedurals don't generally win awards. They are popular with audiences, as discussed above, but they don't win Emmys unless they spin the genre in some way, as with The Wire*. And, in the end, that show is great because it is a sort of anti-procedural. Why? Why aren't the popular shows the ones that win?
The answer isn't because critics are snobs (although many are). The answer is that the shows just aren't really that good. You can replace the characters from one procedural and put them in another, and you wouldn't really be able to tell the difference. The dialogue is often very cheesy. The plots are recycled endlessly, so it isn't as though they are blowing you away with their cleverness.
Okay. So I guess by this point you're beginning to wonder what does all of this have to do with The Witcher III? (Who am I kidding? You probably started wondering that a long time ago.) Well, The Witcher III is to RPGs what The Wire is to police procedurals. That is, it is certainly part of the genre, but it also transcends the genre through attention to detail, depth of character and plot depth. Oh, and it won a whole lot of awards.
I am not interested in writing a review of The Witcher III. There are plenty of them on the web, and they were written by professional game critics. There is also a great chapter on the game in Jason Schreier's fantastic Blood, Sweat and Pixels.** I am interested in general game design and why the game impressed me so much. So, here goes…
I picked The Witcher III up close to when it released in May of 2015. I heard about The Witcher and The Witcher II when they were released, and I thought they looked cool. At the time I wasn't gaming on a PC, so those games weren't available to me. When the third instalment arrived, I decided I'd pick it up for Xbox.
It sat on my shelf for a month or so, and then I played. I played for about ten hours. I enjoyed the game. I was a little confused at the beginning as to who everyone was, but the game did a decent job of providing a who's-who in the menu, so it was easy enough to get up to speed. By the end of the game, these characters would seem like old friends. I didn't hit the end of the game for almost five years, though.
After the ten hours, I fell off, probably because that was a time when I was very, very heavily entrenched in Destiny (more on that in another GotD essay). It was a game that I always intended to get back to, though, as those ten hours made a positive impression on me. The game's developers obviously knew what they were doing (even if the combat was a little repetitive).
So, late in 2019 I finally got back to it. Open world games were completely changed for me by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, so it was hard to know if The Witcher III was going to feel fresh. I was pleased to discover that the game was aging well. This time I didn't give the game up.
I played through the story as well as almost every side quest, treasure hunt and Witcher contract. But I said I hate all of that tedium, right? Here's the thing: The Witcher III isn't tedious. Every single side quest has its own storyline, and while not all of them are extremely deep, they are all more than just checking a box on a list of things to do. All of the different side missions include characters with spoken dialogue and clear motivation for why you are the one to do the thing that is required. No one asks you to go find an apple so they can bake a pie. If they did, there would be an in-universe reason for why you had to be the one to get the apple. Maybe because the apple can only be found in a forest grove that has become the territory of a terrifying Leshen or something. No matter what the reason, it always made sense that Geralt, the Witcher, would be the one to do it.
Not only do these side missions contain stories; the stories are actually interesting. Sure, some of them follow traditional RPG tropes, but they all feel like they matter. They also don't feel like the type of thing that a man on a mission would ignore. Most RPGs set you up with a very specific quest, and it isn't really clear why you would be doing other things during that quest; Geralt's quest feels a little different, as he is looking for information on the whereabouts of a person with whom he has a deep connection, but it isn't always clear that the next step will get him to her. As a result, interrupting the quest with side missions makes sense.
The minute-to-minute gameplay includes crafting, combat (which became far more interesting when I opted to build a very magic-centric character) and exploration, but, at its core, this game is simply a story in which you play the role of the protagonist. This is what roleplaying games are supposed to be. There are few games where you feel this deeply engaged in the story of the main character. Geralt of Rivia is one of the most interesting characters in games, and it's all because of you, as you're the one who is making him that interesting via the dialogue choices you make. In the end, the game is mostly about those dialogue choices.
There is a lot of political intrigue and, as I have already said, you have to make decisions, both romantic and political, that will impact the way in which the game plays. The political and romantic depth is aided by the fact that the game is built in a world first developed in novels by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The game's writers do an amazing job of building up that world and making it feel real and lived-in. The towns don't seem like empty shells for you to visit; they seem like places where people are working and living, and you just happened to stroll into town when someone is in need of your particular skills. The enemies you fight have motivations, both personal and political. Even several of the monsters have complicated stories. I remember a particular one where you have to decide whether to kill a being trapped in a forest. Freeing her may be just as bad as killing her. This is complexity. This isn't the good-and-evil of the police procedural. This is world-building at its finest, and as Schreier points out in his chapter on the development of The Witcher III, world-building at this level will take its toll on developers.
We as gamers are often either unaware or dismissive of the human aspect of game development. The people that build these games pour everything they have into them, all for our entertainment. I hope that we, as gamers, can appreciate the level of artistry that goes into a game like The Witcher III. The developers at CD Project Red went through all the tedium of building and testing this amazing game so that gamers could experience a game without tedium.
While most RPGs are like the average police procedural, every now and then someone makes a The Witcher III and you remember how deeply a game can pull you in, while simultaneously reminding you of what this genre can be at its very best. It is a game in which outcomes aren't easy to predict and where paying half-attention is doing yourself a disservice: the exact opposite of a police procedural. In short, like The Wire on television, The Witcher III is a sort of anti-procedural. It is one of the very best games ever made, and for that reason, it is easily one of the top ten games of the decade.
*If you haven't seen The Wire, do yourself a favour… **Anyone with more than just a passing interest in games must read this book.