November 28, 2008


It's difficult to remember a time when I ever thought I would like the Witcher. I might have hoped once that the game's Polish and allegedly literary origins would result in a new and lively take on a very specific, very conservative sub-genre of diminishing relevance: the PC fantasy RPG. Instead, you play as an amnesiac, part of an elite order of monster slayers who wage war in dungeons and taverns against mysterious and evil wizards trying to take over the world, and it turns out the creative forces behind the Witcher played D&D when they were kids like everyone else in the game industry.

If I'd played this game when I was a kid I can imagine liking it. Medieval fantasy was so much more palatable back then, and the frequent cameos by forbidden profanity and women in undress probably would have sealed the deal. But the real reason I'm so currently unimpressed with the Witcher is because I don't have the patience for this kind of thing anymore.

The Witcher is extensive in the worst way. It's a long and repetitive thing, with lots of sidequests, lore text, inventory management and vaguely-interactive scenes of two people standing and exchanging exposition. I have found as I get older that I have less time for such an uneconomical and encumbered method of experiencing content. Being able to afford other games means I usually can't afford to immerse myself so completely in something as unjustifiably long-winded like this. It doesn't do well in comparisons, either: whatever pathos the Witcher can wrest from the story of a family tragedy as recited by stiffly-animated characters in cutscenes and dialogue trees is easily topped by a one-room tableau of creatively arranged art assets and 15 seconds of audio in Fallout 3.

There's something very archaic about the Witcher, especially in contrast with Fallout, which rewards exploration by scattering its best moments way off the critical path. With the Witcher, you learn very soon what to expect. Quests, whether side or main, cover extremely similar ground and being told to go kill ten monsters will never be an inspiring objective regardless of the fictional stakes. Witcher players are forever compiling one amorphous to-do list rather than exploring interesting diversions from their urgent and vital mission. Unless the player is a compulsive fixer -- admittedly a core RPG demographic -- there's not much reason to endure all these small variations on the main quest is to improve their character's stats and make the progression through all the mandatory content slightly easier. (Who hasn't always wanted to role play that emotion.) Either that, or because they want to get a look at a playing-card-sized painting of a naked renaissance fair barmaid while hoping their wife doesn't walk in the room.

The Witcher is either so enamoured of its central gameplay -- or so unimaginative -- that faced with the design challenge of extending the player's experience beyond the main quest, it just gives them as much of the same thing as possible. The developers were too concerned, perhaps, with some ill-conceived minimum length requirement and padded the game out in the easiest way. It stands to bizarre reason that if the player enjoys the basic dungeon crawling and escort missions then they should enjoy doing those things over and over again with less reward. I would have been fine with this if I was younger and if the game was all I had, but even back then there were alternatives to designing side content.

There's a line that can be traced from Monkey Island through Anachronox to Yakuza 2, and their side quests which existed as accessible and surprising alternatives to the main game. You could always entertain yourself with absurd dialogue options and non-essential content, and, when you were stuck, the game would endear itself to you again. They required little investment and paid off almost immediately. From the melodramatic estrangement between a son and his father; the burgeoning career of a street rapper; testing a litany of pick-up lines on unimpressed women to the environmental vignettes of Fallout 3; they were slight distractions, quickly resolved and comparatively so sophisticated in their brevity.

Whereas the Witcher, like every game of its type, casts you in the role of the hero unlucky enough to walk into down the day that everyone needed their problems solved and it took exactly the same thing to solve each one. It's too familiar. If there's an NPC with a unique name, I know, then it follows that there's a heirloom he lost in the swamps and I'll need to clear an hour from my schedule to venture through some caves fighting off packs of wolves and then one big wolf. I'm not thirteen anymore, and I've done this before.

At thirteen I would have exhausted the Witcher. I can decide now, however, faster than I could then, if I'm going to like something. It's a snap judgment based on years of experience and learned design preferences that tells me I shouldn't waste time screwing around in the Witcher or anything like it. It's instinct which comes with age, although the downside, it seems, is that there's now less out there for me to like.


qrter said...

I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to say here - I mean, all of us make constant snap judgements on which games we'd like to play or not and what we think we like to play does change over time.

Duncan said...

Yeah I don't really know either. I regret this post, quite frankly. At least there's a new one up now.

Travis Megill said...

Sorry that I read this! I actually liked the post, it made me feel better about not playing more of the Witcher.

I think you're right, I would have played the crap out of the game if I was younger, but now, with all the stuff I have to do and want to do, I don't have time for a game that's pretty generic, both in story and gameplay.

What's with all the negativity about this post?! If this is bad I might as well delete my entire blog!

qrter said...

Sorry, I wasn't trying to be negative, no need to put up a disclaimer!

I'm used to your pieces being quite thought-provoking, this one was a bit less so to me, perhaps, is all I was saying.

Duncan said...

Don't apologise! Oh man, "Thirteen" is the screw-up that keeps on screwing. I didn't really like it to begin with and getting called out on it felt worse than usual since I agreed with you.

Putting up the disclaimer might have been shitty of me though. Sorry if that came off passive-aggressive; ir's really because I don't like this post very much and feel uncomfortable that people are reading it thinking it's the best I have to offer.