The Witcher 3 Is A Real Goddamn Video Game
Twelve hours into The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I came to the realization that I will probably never finish this game. It’s just in my blood- I don’t finish long games when they’re released, I prefer to let them age like a fine wine and savor them until years later. Having come to terms with the fact that there’s no chance in hell of me writing a review, I figure I’d put some of my thoughts on the game down here. Do I like the Witcher 3 a lot? Yes. But the real question is why do I like it so much? As I spoke to friends about the third installment of one of my favorite series, I realized what appealed to me so much: The Witcher 3 is a real goddamn video game.
You may be saying, “But Nick, don’t you consider everything interactive a video game? What makes this more of a game than anything else?” It’s true- I’m a firm believer that the art form extends to even the least interactive experiences out there- hell, I even consider Clickhole’s “clickventure” articles to be video games. But the thing about The Witcher 3 that makes me love it so much is, for lack of a better phrase, how it separates the men from the boys. Despite all its modern simplifications, this is a mature experience- not in the moronic “I showed you boobs so I must be for grownups” way, but how it treats you like an actual adult. Much like the Souls series, The Witcher 3 is an experience that rewards you for taking your time and paying attention.
This being the first of the series to launch on consoles as well as PC, there was a very real fear of the dreaded ‘consolization’ hanging above The Witcher’s head before release. And while certain things have been trivialized in this one- you can use health items whenever you want, signs are described in the combat wheel, and you don’t need to prepare all your potions pre-battle, for example- it feels like these were tradeoffs for even more hardcore mechanics, if anything. Geralt is still extremely fragile this time, able to get his ass kicked with about five well-placed hits from even the most insignificant monsters on the side of the road. There are more choices in combat as well, allowing dodging, rolling and active counters any time, making the combat look less like a weird cartwheel-fest, and more like an actual sword fight. The enemies seem way smarter, frequently dodging my slicing attempts and hitting hard enough for each mistake to really feel like it was my fault. Groups can be real trouble too, and this being an open-world game, dropping everything and running for your life is a legitimate strategy- one I’ve utilized much more than I would have expected. At the end of the day, the combat is no joke- the game’s not being a dick intentionally, but rather acting completely impartially, suggesting that if you want to win a fight it’s not going to tip the balances in your favor just because you paid $60 to be here.
Sometimes it’s not about the slam-bang action set pieces you show, but rather what you don’t show, that makes a memorable scene.
There’s also a maturity in the treatment of Geralt’s character- he’s a badass, but not always for the reasons you’d expect. You don’t actually get much experience from just killing monsters left and right, which makes it feel they’re downplaying the idea of heroism resting solely on one’s ability to kill efficiently. The world of The Witcher is so much more, and this game really takes advantage of Geralt’s ranger-like skillset, giving us many chances to do some hunting, tracking and mystery-solving. This has always been present in the series, but I feel the open world mixed with the Arkham-esque detective sequences in The Witcher 3 really puts the spotlight on the mental side of being a Witcher more than past games did. It’s interesting that the story opens with all the accomplished Witchers talking up the importance of book-learning to a young padawan, as if to indicate to the player that this is not only a big part of the lore, but will be a huge chunk of the gameplay as well. To me, Geralt was never more of a badass in my twelve hours with the game than when he was solving the ‘Devil by the Well’ contract, identifying dental records and calling upon his vast wealth of monster knowledge to piece together a story. Too many games (and modern movies, for that matter) forget that sometimes it’s not about the slam-bang action set pieces you show, but rather what you don’t show, that makes a memorable scene.
The overarching story is relatively standard fare, but what surprised me was the tact with which many themes within were handled. Even in the opening area, there are heavy political implications to the events of the last game and complex, personal accounts of the strife of living under a new rule. There is also the superstitious and contemptuous air that seems to follow Witchers wherever they go, which always adds a layer of complication to dealing with villagers. Sometimes it’s not enough to be a good person, people may simply not like you because of their own prejudices- the world can be a shitty place sometimes, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
In most games, the player is either the embodiment of good (read: martyr), apparently never accepting coin for fear of offending the people they’ve helped, or wreaking havoc as evil just for the hell of it. What’s interesting to me is that The Witcher 3 doesn’t really give a crap about how you conduct yourself, or whether you take money for your contracts or not- all it teaches you is that money is pretty hard to come by, and people expect to pay Witchers for their services. It’s up to you whether you accept a reward from someone or not, but don’t expect some tired ‘morality system’ to tick off a check box in the “good” column if you do. Similarly, the concept of stealing is handled in a novel way. I’m not exactly sure about the full rules governing this mechanic, but nothing is ever marked red to denote when it’s “OK” to take items from someone’s house. I looked at the contents of a barrel in a military camp once, and almost got my ass kicked for being a thief- essentially the game is saying, “If you take stuff from somewhere it seems like you shouldn’t, then you may have a problem. We’re not going to hold your hand and tell you exactly what you can take.”
Modern video games have lost an important value: they need to treat their players as functioning adults. There’s a case for making games more accessible so players will be more likely to finish them- hell, I admitted in the beginning of this article that I don’t finish most games- but it shouldn’t be at the expense of subtle or intellectually stimulating content. Games don’t need to be hitting the ‘fun’ centers of our brains at every possible moment by shepherding the us through a series of encounters- sometimes we want to think, and as only the medium of video games can accomplish, we want to be in situations where we actually need to think. Old gameplay paradigms aren’t always worse, and in The Witcher 3 I see a good mix of classic concepts sprinkled in with modern polish. That’s what I feel makes this game superior to its contemporaries- it’s a real goddamn video game.