Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

Witcher 3

So I've finished the Witcher 3. It's a fantastic game with a lot of issues that I had a really hard time getting into.

The Books

There's one thing I struggled with that most people will not hit at all. I'm a huge fan of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher (Wiedźmin) books. They're among my absolute all time favourites. The name of this blog comes from the books and has been my constant guidance. Point being, the world, the characters, the writing and everything else related to the books is of a huge importance to me.

So when someone craps all over it for cheap entertainment, I have an understandably hard time. While the first two games were a little annoying in this regard, they were much less so than the third one.

The fact that they included all the characters (even the tragically dead ones!), gamified them and twisted them into a world that (unlike the canon) makes no sense at all was almost too much.

What helped me let go was the realisation that this is a fanfiction. It's a story inspired by the source, it has nothing to do with its continuity, written by fans who loved the characters too much to make up new ones. It is quite possibly the most expensive fanfic ever created, but a fanfic nonetheless.

In that regard, it misses a good Geralt/Cahir pairing, but oh well.

Still, I wish they abandoned the book characters and made their own. They're clearly capable of doing that. On a related note, I'm very much looking forward to their Cyberpunk 2077 game which won't have this issue for me.

The Fiddle

Let me pile up the nonsense first so we can get to the great stuff.

The game is extremely fiddly to control (both with the keyboard & mouse and the gamepad). It is ridiculous. I don't remember any reviews mentioning this.

It's hard to move precisely, because when you start and stop the motion, the character gains/loses momentum. That makes more physical sense, but it also means that you'll keep overshooting the extremely sensitive prompts for picking up items etc. I've commonly had to go back and forth several times in order to interact with something in the game.

The combat is hard to understand and not particularly well explained either. Eventually, I had to watch some guides online to get it (and then it's turns out decent).

The most recent comparable game I've played is Dark Souls and the basic gameplay interactions (movement, items, combat) are much better there (though Dark Souls has its own control issues in other areas).

When you start, you get dumped into basically everything the game has to offer (combat, crafting, alchemy, witcher senses, monster tracking, the card game) all at once and it's overwhelming. Plus the tutorial is also quite fiddly. Sometimes it doesn't let you leave until you've done what it wants, but it's not always clear what that's supposed to be. So you end up frustrated and confused.

Saving the game is often frustrating as well -- especially during the story development, you often want to save right after a cutscene so you don't have to replay it every time you fail. But the game will greet you with a "you cannot save at this time" message. Except you can, if you press the save button 4-5 times in a row.

The World?

So that's control issues. Now for the world building.

The entire world is presented as a real believable place where people live their lives.

And then all the gameplay works hard to convince you that's not the case at all.

So, Gwent. It's a collectible card game played throughout the world. A lot of the cards feature actual characters in the game. Except, these characters are nobodies who mean nothing unless you're the player of Witcher 3.

Who the fuck is Geralt? Some infamous witcher who literally goes out and randomly kills people? Okay, whatever. Ciri? That's a princess of a country which doesn't exist who died when she was six. Nobody knows she's alive. One could make a case that these cards show folklore legends (and therefore Geralt and Yennefer may well be represented), but then still: what's Ciri doing there? Falka (Ciri's bandit pseudonym during her time in Nilfgaard) would make sense. Not Ciri.

More to the point, it features literal nobodies: Zoltan Chivay and Yarpen Zigrin? Some random dwarfs. Unlike say Geralt, they are literally not known by anyone. Cahir? Who makes these cards? That guy is only known to the Nilfgaard high command and putting it as a hero on a card would likely get your head chopped off. And the list goes on.

Gwent as presented makes absolutely zero sense in the world.

Similarly, this is a war-ravaged land where everyone struggles to find ends meet, but people have random priceless stuff in their home. You walk into a widow's kitchen and she happens to have a lump of Dwimeritium (extremely rare ore that prevents magic use -- Kryptonite for witches and wizards). Why hasn't she sold it to feed her children? Why hasn't anyone robbed the house? Why does she let a random Witcher (who are generally feared and despised) waltz in and just take it?

When it starts raining, the game shows actual droplets of water hitting the screen. I guess this is not a game, but a movie instead? One where they can't even afford to wipe camera off?

Everything in the game is painstakingly obviously there to serve the player. No subtlety, not even a hint of pretence otherwise. Completely at odds with the obvious huge amount of effort that went into making the world seem real.

The great bits

Despite all that, this is a fantastic game. With great world building, character design and writing. Basically, as soon as it departs from the fanfiction aspect and starts using its own ideas, it shines.

The world has a great potential for storytelling. It's dynamic, full of magic, politics, monsters, bandits, secrets and treasures.

Even Gwent (the collectible card game that everyone plays) is pretty fun.

And more to the point, going out and exploring feels great. I've never been much for open world games, but I've very much enjoyed this one.

While the quest list can seem like all of world's troubles are resting on your shoulders (which of course they are), the quests are helpfully separated into the primary (for when you want to advance the story), secondary (folks' personal problems) and the witcher contracts (you are a monster-killer-for-hire after all) sections.

These show you the recommended level at which to go at them. This is quite helpful in deciding what to do. It's also great for knowing whether you're ready to progress in the story.

I've also found the quests to be of higher quality than your typical fetch-and-deliver stuff. The game has a "Witcher Senses" mode that shows you clues a human eye would miss (tracks, scratches, scents, etc.). So you often end up investigating something using your senses and that brings a variety to the whole process.

Just like everything in the game, the Witcher Sense mode is fiddly, but once you get used to it, you'll start using it even in places where it just feels it could reveal something (even though the game doesn't tell you to do so). And you often learn more about a given place or situation. Cool.

There's also a really neat tie-up with the books but only if you play with the controller (sorry keyboard & mouse folks). See, Geralt wears a necklace that vibrates when there's magic nearby. As you can imagine, this can be really handy in his line of work.

And the game implements this using the controller's vibrations. So you can be just walking about, not suspecting anything and suddenly your controller vibrates. So you use your witcher senses and look around. And find something you wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

This works great and it's a perfect fit for the overall fiction.

Now, it's diminished somewhat by the fact that the controller also vibrates when you run out of stamina (because you've been running for a minute) or when your stamina is full again (5 seconds later), or when you stumble on the stairs (Geralt is apparently really clumsy when going down a staircase). But it's great otherwise.

And I love the character interactions. All of the characters clearly have their own minds and attitudes and this seems to be more pronounced than in most other games I've played.

Plus, they often have a ton of history together. And not all of it great. So you may say something that seems like an innocent concern to Yennefer, but it actually re-hashes an argument they've had over and over again for as long as they've known each other. And it ends in a row.

There's still a lot of dull "let me interrogate you about everything ever" conversations with the other NPCs. But when you talk to the recurring characters, it often gets much more interesting and personal.

Wrapping Up

Witcher 3 is a fantastic game but it has deep flaws. Despite them, I've had tremendous fun with it.

Tomas Sedovic on 15 February, 2018