In my video How to Write a Side Quest: Part 2, I used an example from the Witcher 3 and outlined the strengths of it and also a few weakness.
And for the most part, I was pretty positive about the game in my general thoughts and mentioned that I would not be doing a full story review of the game.
The main reason for this is the most obvious one for me – there was so much media saturation around Witcher 3’s release I didn’t think another voice screaming with/against the crowd would have been much good. It would be more like cashing in on the hype with limited information, since I did not complete the game a week after release.
And at this point, I think a short written post would achieve the most significant point I would be making in a video. I recently finished the main story (yes, it took me this long!) and there’s a couple thoughts that I wanted to monologue about. Also I understand quite clearly that what I’m about to say will probably sound like an anti-hype hipster rant. I hope you can look past that perception to what I’ve been banging on about in my videos for some time!
I think the Witcher 3 has some pretty good quests, decent dialogue and a few well written characters.
But the plot of the main story? That’s where it fell flat for me. What it boiled down to felt very simplistic and quite unfortunate. This gets pretty spoilery right now, so if you’re concerned about that then you shouldn’t be reading on.
You all have probably heard from me before I’m not a fan of world ending stories in games, because it seems to be the only story we want to tell, because huge stakes = investment right?
In many ways I imagined that the Witcher 3 might depart from a ‘generic’ storyline and go back to what makes Geralt, well, Geralt.
And I’m talking about the universe of the Witcher. Bear with me here and follow my train of thought. The emphasis in the Witcher books, or at least in the short stories were about a monster hunter. And those were always the strongest tales for me. Whereas the Witcher games are about an action-hero saving the world. Technically you can argue with me and say that Ciri was the one doing the saving, but the story by and large is told from Geralt’s point of view. Ciri may be the device used to save the world, but the getting there for us was through Geralt.
But he does a lot of monster hunting in his spare time right? And that’s the good part of the game for me. But that’s not what the story of the Witcher 3 is all about. And that saddens me.
That’s not to say that the main plot doesn’t include some pretty well done sections. The quests around the Bloody Baron and the Witches of Crookback Bog were two of the standouts for me.
Honestly the story is pretty good until Geralt finds Ciri mainly because before that, it was Geralt landing himself in various situations and having to deal with it. Once Geralt and Ciri meet around the mid-act the tone of the story changes. Instead of more personal problems between characters the emphasis shifts to global affairs and that I think is a shift that ends up hurting the story.
Let’s tangent off for a moment and think about the design of the game that may have put some pressure on how the story progressed. An open world game demands its space be used for gameplay and story. In some ways we can see this as a freeing experience. But at the same time, we are constrained to create a story and interesting experiences within a cohesive area. Instead of the well-crafted situations that lay geographically all over the place in Witcher 2 we are placed in a smaller region. Isn’t that funny to think about? That technically we see less of the world in an open world game?
I’m not saying immersion isn’t a big deal for a lot of people. Riding here and there seamlessly engaging with different people and places appeal to some. The fact that a stretch of land from quest point to quest point somehow makes us feel better about the game design does boggle me a little though.
Does that mean you can’t tell a good story within an open world? Not at all, but it makes the job a lot harder in my opinion. If I were to look at the recent Batman series, Arkham Asylum is probably the strongest story for me. And I think the reason for that comes down heavily on the design of the levels and the progression through them. Despite my problems with Dragon Age: Inquisition, you actually felt the pressure of the world and the impending threat on the continent because you saw a lot of it within large open levels.
Wait, I thought we are talking about the main quest? Indeed, and the quality of the main quest is quite dependent on how your game is designed and laid out, i.e Skyrim.
Let’s do an unfair comparison while we’re at it, shall we?
If they had just taken the short stories in Sapkowski’s book the Last Wish, produced levels for each story, have a few sidequests here and there and have a thread connecting the various stories while keeping to the heart of what the Witcher is, I honestly think it would have been a stronger and tighter story.
Instead the Witcher 3 plays it really safe. It doesn’t try and push the narrative envelope because its focus is on the ‘largest open world’ tag. It wants people to feel the sheer scope of the game by the ton of side activities, the gorgeous vistas and the explosive set pieces provided in the main story. The game is a marketing paradise.
And all this isn’t wrong to have it’s just that, for me, it was a great supporting cast of features that was missing the director.