The Witcher 3 and open world storytelling

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thatthereitalian

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Edited By thatthereitalian
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(Light spoilers from the first ~4 hours ahead)

Throughout my nearly 100 hour playthrough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I couldn’t help but constantly recognize ways in which the game continued to make the story of the main quest feel compelling. A surefire way to break the immersion, sure, but it felt like something truly worthy of recognition. After all, often my least favorite parts of open world RPGs are the main story, yet The Witcher 3 manages to make its main questline feel important and consistently interesting despite the dozens of hours of other content also vying for the attention of the player. This is, of course, a natural extension of the game being all around really damned good, but there’s definitely more to it than this.

It certainly helps that the main objective at any point in the game can be boiled down to a single line without feeling meaningless. It starts off as “Find Yennefer.” It’s pretty clear from the game’s opening moments that Yennefer is a person of great importance to Geralt and that their relationship extends beyond one of mere intimacy, especially since his dream initially depicts a fairly simple and relatively mundane version of their lives together. A lazy and beautiful morning at Kaer Morhen with some of the people Geralt cares for most. Geralt the character clearly feels compelled to find Yennefer but why would the player controlling Geralt feel the same?

The dream continues on to depict his relationship with Ciri, a young girl who takes the role of his protégé but perhaps somewhat of a daughter figure as well considering their apparent closeness. Everything then goes quickly into nightmare territory with Kaer Morhen coming under siege by The Wild Hunt, a force of overwhelming power that Gerald clearly fears, and Ciri being attacked directly.

While those with knowledge of the past games, or perhaps even the books, will recognize all of the shit that Geralt and Yennefer have actually gone through together, these details are unnecessary thanks to the game’s presentation of the dream and Geralt’s brief discussion with Vesemir afterwards, should the player choose to let Geralt open up about it. Geralt even states that he dreamt of he and Yen together at Kaer Morhen despite the fact that she had never even actually been there, making the beginning clearly idealized. In this conversation it also becomes readily apparent that Geralt is worried by the dream although fails to go into much detail about why. One thing is certain though. It seems as though Yennefer is in danger and that danger may extend to Ciri as well.

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While the player may not feel the need to meet with Yennefer to ensure her well being as Geralt clearly does, especially if the player is not familiar with the particulars of their past together, the player at this point no doubt has a lot of questions they would like answered. Who are the Wild Hunt? What do they want with Ciri? If Geralt, Yen, and Ciri were so close, why are they no longer together? Clearly rejoining with Yennefer is the best way to get answers. A need to progress the story is now clear to both Geralt and the player.

This is where the difference between Wild Hunt and other open world RPGs becomes more apparent. The character of Geralt has an existing structure without any input from the player. He has a past, personality, and relationships that are all pre-determined. Some of the fine details may differ if a save is imported from prior entries but, for the most part, Geralt is the same guy regardless. This idea is more akin to something like Red Dead Redemption if it were an RPG, or, to a lesser extent, Fable without the Good and Evil morality business. Compare this to Skyrim where the player has created a character entirely their own, whose only past is that they clearly did something to end up on the execution block. As objectives are given to the character in Skyrim, like go to Whiterun and talk with the Jaarl, it is up to the player to conceive why their character would be interested in doing this objective at all.

This is, of course, the point of Skyrim. To give the player options and allow them to play whatever character they wish. This is also why it took me roughly two years of on and off play and numerous character rerolls to even begin the main quest in Skyrim. And once I did I found it very difficult to come up with enough reasons to continue. Without any context in the game as to why the player character might want to undertake such a daunting task as “saving the world”, its difficult to come up with a reason why the player would also care enough, aside from the idea of gaining more power. Skyrim is a great game and one that excels at creating seemingly infinite options for the player. Why then would I choose to save the world when I can do anything?

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In The Witcher 3, all sidequests and exploration are in service of, not in opposition to the main narrative. Geralt is a Witcher by trade and would therefore be compelled to hunt monsters in order to make money. Money then affords him additional resources that could aid in his search for Yennefer and, later on, Ciri. Geralt completes honest work for honest pay and does nothing that would be considered out of character or a potentially large waste of time during his search. Compare this to Skyrim where one might choose to become an assassin, get married or build a house while the world ends and you begin to see why it is comparatively easy to feel like you are staying on task in Wild Hunt.

I suppose that’s what makes the main quest in The Witcher 3 such an enjoyable experience to complete. In addition to just being generally well written and chock full of interesting characters, the game structures itself in a way that just about everything you do feels tangentially related to the primary quest somehow. Be it gaining additional resources, making connections, or just helping someone in need, everything seems to just be another stop on the path to rescuing those you care for. All of these factors ensure that the player is continuously invested in the story and never distracted from the main goal. There may be some roadblocks along the way, like needing to kill a Griffin for a guy so he’ll cough up information about Yennefer, but each small goal met has an immediate narrative payoff. This allows The Witcher 3 to feel well paced regardless of its open world and certainly creates a more compelling version of the standard open world main quest.

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Tennmuerti

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#1  Edited By Tennmuerti

Your blog resurfaced some of my old musings.

The funny thing is that for all it's openness Skyrim has barely any meaningful choices, besides: doing a quest or not doing a quest.

I've argued at times, that if one were to sus out what defines a western rpg genre and separates it from Call of Duty's with progression mechanics or diablo like dungeon crawlers it's exactly that - choice in actions and behavior, and how your character is defined through them. By which in my eyes Skyrim (which I love dearly to be clear) is barely an rpg. But that's more of a mental gymnastics of my own making.

In that sense even tho Geralt is a preset character with his own memories, motivation and relationships you are still given a chance to define him in your own way through the decisions and choices you make on his behalf. Although I would say that Witcher 1 and 2 did a better, or at least a more defined, job with that role playing aspect then 3.

Where in Skyrim (much more so then in Oblivion and especially compared to Morrowind) there is no real way to define your character though their attitude, conversation or decisions. Aside from a few instances like say Stormcloaks/Imperials. All that defines your "character" is what are your stats (now prevalent in most genres anyway) and what selection of available shit did you do so far. And personally I just did all the shit anyway, mage, rogue, warrior who cares you can do anything and everything. You are everything, except a person with a character, beliefs and convictions. Unless of course you dream up those by yourself for yourself, independently of the game.

Which of course can be viewed as true role playing in effect, Skyrim gives you the framework, you do the role playing yourself in your own imagination. But then I'd say the same about Battlefield.

That's not me trying to convince anyone: grumble, grumble Skyrim ain't a rue rpg, while shaking my crotchety old man stick. Just shit that's been floating around my head for a few years now (since maybe that great rpg Alpha Protocol >.>). And despite me seeing Skyrim in that light, it's actually what enabled me to enjoy it to it's fullest for what it is, once I got past the idea that it has left those traditional rpg features behind and become something different, tho still fun.

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Veektarius

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@tennmuerti: Bethesda games are totally roleplaying games. By giving you all the choices in the world of how to play the game but requiring you to settle on one in order to succeed, they sort of indirectly funnel you into viewing the game through the strategic lens of the type of character you envision. This isn't the same as having a personality, but it's definitely a 'role'.

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Tennmuerti

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#3  Edited By Tennmuerti

@veektarius: What choices? Like I said 99% of your "choice" is do a quest or don't do a quest. There are very little actual choices themselves within quests. To be clear I am talking specifically about Skyrim. This does not apply to Fallout 3 or Morrowind as much for instance.

If the choice in question is gameplay choice. ie: what skills and abilities you use, then by that virtue these days like 9/10 games on the market are rpgs.

You are also not required to settle on anything in order to succeed at all. You can do anything and everything.

But anyway at some point I realize it's just semantics, what defines an rpg to me or to others.

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thatthereitalian

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@tennmuerti: I agree with you completely. It's a difficult feeling to pin down because, at one point in my life as a frequent player of games, I thought that any RPG that could deliver on the promise of true freedom automatically made it the ultimate of its kind. Around the times of Oblivion I wasn't really bothered by the fact that you weren't actually playing any role other than "Ultimate Jack of All Trades Guy". The role of someone who can do just about everything offered regardless of whether or not it made sense for the character. "Who let the leader of the Assassin's guild into the Thieve's guild even though a major tenet of the Thieve's guild is not killing?" By the time Skyrim was released, though, it started to bother me. Like, so much so that I couldn't even really enjoy the game on release.

I think it shed some light on exactly why Skyrim's world and story feel so dry and meaningless to me. There's plenty of interesting lore and decent enough writing to make it all interesting but your character just lacks a sense of place in it. Like you exist in a vacuum away from the rest of the world.

But, just like you said, once I finally came to grips with exactly what Skyrim, and much of The Elder Scrolls series in general, is trying to accomplish as an RPG, I was able to enjoy Skyrim much more.

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Veektarius

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@tennmuerti: Yes, I'm talking about skills, and I'm also talking about which direction you walk, and yes you can do all the quests, but how many people do?. And I'm not trying to get into a semantic argument either. I'm just telling you that the openness of Skyrim forces me to impose a structure on my character that is almost as close to a personality as anything I bothered with in Mass Effect or the Witcher. Maybe it doesn't for you, but I'm sure I'm not the only one.

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ShadyPingu

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I appreciated a lot of your observations, duder. For me, the remarkable thing about the Witcher 3 is the quality across the board. This is the first open-world game I've played in a while where I felt the quality of the content wasn't diluted by the amount.

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Macka1080

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Wonderful points made, @thatthereitalian. I felt like one of the things that makes The Witcher 3 so compelling is that every single thing you can feels like it carries weight. The impeccable production values across the board lend portent to every quest, with the cinematic dialogue and well-crafted context to even the least fleshed-out Witcher contracts providing real consequence to the player's actions. I never felt like I was doing something for the sake of it, knocking it off a checklist of XP-granting tasks. The content was worthwhile the effort in its own right. To me, there weren't any side-missions in the game; everything I did was part of Geralt's story in a meaningful way. No RPG has ever achieved such a lofty level of immersion for me. I honestly don't know how CD Projekt Red managed to maintain that peak from start to end across every component of the game. A true masterpiece in my eyes.

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