The Witcher 3 and Narrative: Choose-Your-Own-Odyssey

 

After finishing up The Witcher 3’s prologue, which covers the relatively small zone of White Orchard, you’re thrown out into the wider world of, according to the wiki, ‘the Continent’, which is sectioned into several kingdoms. Arriving in Velen, riding your immortal dunce of a teleporting horse named Roach beside a gnarled tree that’s filled with noose and skeleton like fruit, it’s a moment that’s deliberately overwhelming.

Well, the moment you see your map, at least. That point where you crack it open and scroll out, out, out, and then you realise later that there’s another entire zone about the same size. Where you scan across the horde of exclamation points, which spread across the giant map like a staff infection over the course of the game, and your eyes suddenly glaze over.

This experience isn’t really new in gaming (especially when The Witcher 3 is almost three years old at this point), and a number of games last generation were criticised for this exact scenario (Assassin’s Creed games come to mind). But where these games were criticised for aggressively padding their games with ‘content’ that rarely went beyond straight-up busywork, The Witcher 3 (for the most part) goes a different route. It transforms this moment into something experiential, a moment of scale that balloons that initial impact of a detailed, believable and gorgeous dark fantasy world into something profound.  It’s an otherwise normal action – just opening up your in-game map – but the player is immediately confronted with the world’s size and their sudden, seemingly-endless direction.

It’s a moment that lingers as you continue; a compounding realisation of the game’s scale, of its content and its world.

Part of it is the sheer size, definitely – other games are comparable (Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an obvious call-out) but The Witcher 3 ‘feels’ massive. For a long time, too: it took me a while, working through most of the game’s major content, for the game’s size to sink in properly. Where I felt I had a grip on its overall scale, an idea of the its overall size. Though you have a clearly defined map at your fingertips at any moment, there’s the sense that The Witcher 3’s world is almost endless with every new town. Where even the smallest locales suddenly flourish into a barrage of new quests and hunts.

Which brings us to one of the game’s most celebrated aspects: the amazingly consistent quality of The Witcher 3’s writing and quest design. How so many of those little marks that litter the map help to amplify this scale and its impact on the player. But all these quests and hunts rarely come across just as ‘content’ (though technically it all is), but as detail – as world building and as exposition.

It would depend on the player I suppose, but that was the realisation I’d have every other quest – how so many quests, from the smaller to the larger, would be such fulfilling experiences. They’re not exactly life-changing, revolutionary or innovative in any fundamental way, but that such a massive RPG with a huge world to fill up with ‘stuff to do’ could be so consistently rewarding is new, to me. Where so little of my time feels wasted over dozens of hours. It took a long time to pin it down, but what The Witcher 3 does that’s so distinct, what its phenomenal writing and sense of scale accomplish, is create this feel of a personalised quest and adventure.

It’s different from your Skyrim’s, where you create your character and are thrown into a genuine sandbox to play around in. Where your experience is, for the most part, wholly your own. From your class and race and the quests you choose to do (and don’t do), how you level up and so on, games like Fallout play out uniquely for each player. The quests themselves rarely change, but there’s so much content that individual players can spend entire playtimes with entirely separate experiences.

But they rarely create unique narrative experiences. Fun and memorable anecdotes, sure, but a player’s experience with the central story is rarely not the same. ‘Story quests’ in these games aren’t much different to the campaigns in multiplayer shooters: they can seem tacked on, or barely more than a long-winded tutorial, compared to all the other side-content most people would spend most of their time on. That doesn’t mean they can’t be decent, but they’re never really the star of the show.

Compared to these games, the side-quests and Witcher hunts of The Witcher 3 actually inform this central narrative. Even the most mundane and small of them – like helping an old lady find her frying pan for a few minutes – adds further dimension to the world’s lore or politics, or to Geralt as a character, or even make some direct connection to the main narrative. And these smaller adventures accomplish this in ways the grander, more dramatic central story doesn’t have room for.

It’s different to Skyrim and other games of its ilk: in those games, they almost expect you to ignore the main story junk in favour of doing whatever the hell you want in the sandbox they give you. But The Witcher 3 doesn’t operate like this. Technically you can go do whatever you want, roaming the lands and running through every map marker you can find, but the player is, sooner or later, expected to return to and be motivated by the game’s central story – and the array of sidequests serve to reinforce this central guiding narrative. They can serve as exposition, as character development, as light-hearted distractions, but ultimately they all feed back into this central story and experience. They feed back into this epic fantasy story that The Witcher 3 is dedicated to telling – of Geralt’s quest to find and save his daughter Ciri.

All of The Witcher 3’s sidequests – found absolutely everywhere – means that the average player can have entirely different journeys through the game’s mostly-linear central story. They can travel from one major locale to another using a completely separate route and discover entirely different sidequests along the way.

Also worth pointing out: Simply due to the massive (massive) number of sidequests and hunts, The Witcher 3 seems intentionally designed to barely be finished by most players. The major branching choices are a more obvious example of this, but the specific sidequests that an individual player complete accomplishes the same thing: again, just down to the sheer number of them, an average player would play through dozens of different quests to another player. Their version of Geralt’s Wild Hunt will be unique.

The consistent quality of individual quests means each playthrough, player to player, will be of a similarly high quality. Most sidequests are distinct in their own right, but when there are so many of similar quality, this distinction is mostly lost to anyone but whoever’s playing. While one player could fondly remember a certain hunt for its characters or story, another player could love an entirely separate quest and neither would feel they lost out on anything especially spectacular if they never found them. They simply experienced their ‘own’ version of the game’s story.

It took a lot of words to say it, but The Witcher 3 is an experience I haven’t had in a game before. It’s unique in that it’s built on both quality writing – a rarity in games to begin with, at least quite on this level – and massive scale to match. It’s a choose-your-own-Odyssey where you fill in the gaps between the central story beats with whatever you happen to take interest in to create an experience that’s your own. This changes a little when you aim to play through as much of the game as possible (which I am), but even then, your journey will still be unique to another’s. Which quests you hit first, the choices you make, how you build your Geralt as you level up, and so on, those initial hours will still be fundamental in your experience of The Witcher 3’s story and world.

Through its writing and sense of scale, The Witcher 3 manages to both tell its own story while legitimately incorporating the player’s role, using side content – often seen as filler or padding in these sorts of games – to elevate this story and the detailed world of Polish myth it’s set in. It’s a new take on videogame narrative that could only come about with an extravagant AAA budget and years of back-breaking development, but it’s a genuine progression for the videogame medium nonetheless. Cyberpunk 2077 has a ridiculous height to match, or even touch.


John Reeves writes stuff sometimes, about games or anime or other junk. Find him at his blog (right here), Twitter, and Tumblr.

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