- Most engrossing open-world RPG ever made
- Player’s choices have hefty consequences for the world
- Still falls into open-world genre tropes
The Witcher 3 is probably the best open-world RPG ever made, but it still falls prey to some of the genre’s worst traps.
The Witcher 3 is a masterpiece. It is without a doubt one of the best open-world RPGs I’ve ever played. It is bigger in scope than almost any singleplayer game I’ve played (except maybe Baldur’s Gate II). It offers the freedom of Morrowind, the story intensity of Planescape: Torment or Fallout: New Vegas, the atmosphere of Fallout 3—it’s nothing short of a landmark achievement in open-world RPGs.
It is also, without a doubt, flawed. The best open-world RPG ever produced simultaneously proves that the entire genre is, at its core, broken. Can it be fixed? I don’t know. The Witcher 3 certainly takes some steps in the right direction. But for every open-world trope it skillfully sidesteps (and it sidesteps a lot of them), it falls into another with the same headlong stupidity as Dragon Age: Inquisition, as Assassin’s Creed Unity, as Watch_Dogs.
The Witcher 3 is best-in-class, a genre-defining game, a landmark achievement. But landmarks don’t just show you how far you’ve come. They show how much further you’ve left to go.
Best in class
Everything Witcher 3 does right comes back to a central theme: World-building. The Witcher 3 justifies its open-world format. It’s not the first game to have done so, but it certainly works the hardest at it. The Witcher 3 is full of life, full of people commenting on your actions whether or not you pay attention, full of tiny stories and tiny details many players won’t even notice. It rewards exploration while maintaining a strong core story.
Contrast that with some other open-world games. Dragon Age: Inquisition artificially gated approximately fifteen hours of main story with forty or fifty (or more!) hours of pointless filler. Fallout 3 and New Vegas justified their open-worlds, but only because you expected a post-nuclear wasteland to be…well, mostly empty and devoid of life. Baldur’s Gate II built a world of enormous size and scope, but it wasn’t very flexible or reactive. Assassin’s Creed just throws icons at a map as if that makes for a compelling world, when really it just highlights how dead every unplanned encounter feels.
The Witcher 3 is not an “open-world.” It is a world. Do characters always react appropriately? No. Do some of the programmed reactions get old after a while? Sure. You’ll undoubtedly notice that early on, when you enter the town of White Orchard for the dozenth time and run past the same damn kid singing the same annoying song for the dozenth time and getting grounded for the dozenth time.
But in general, The Witcher 3 does a remarkable job mimicking a living world around the titular witcher (read: professional monster-hunter) Geralt—and does so without making Geralt conspicuously the focus.
The RPG is an old and entrenched genre, and at its core is the idea that the player is the character. To make a good RPG, conventional wisdom says strip away as much “character” as possible and let the player impose his or her own personality.
The Witcher series undermines this by forcing you to play as Geralt, and some people will understandably be driven away by this. “I don’t want to play as some growly old white dude,” you might say.
But the tradeoff is that you get history. You get motivations that extend beyond the simplistic “save the world” crap every RPG falls into. Ironically, The Witcher 3 is centered around saving the world—but not to Geralt. Because we’re seeing these events through his eyes, it reduces the stakes to something more human. “Save my daughter.” “Save the love of my life.” “Save my friends.” “Get the emperor off my back.” “Live long enough to retire.”
Not every person in the world knows or cares who Geralt is. Some outright despise him without even meeting him. He’s neither the most powerful person in the world nor the most renowned. He’s a freak. A mutant. He’s a burden. He’s a savior. However you play Geralt, life in these villages goes on. Sometimes the most valid response to a situation is to stand back and do nothing at all, although the old tenet still holds true: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
Nobody will “remember that,” though. The game doesn’t call out what you did. It doesn’t pass judgment. You either did something you feel comfortable with, or you did something you later regret. Most times you’re stuck choosing the lesser of two equally terrible options. Sometimes there are consequences. Sometimes there aren’t. Either way, the game proceeds.
Take this trivial one-off encounter, for example:
Early on I was riding my horse down the road—flanked on both sides by hanged corpses—when I came across a group of angry peasants surrounding a lone soldier, part of an invading force. The peasants insisted the foreigner be lynched. I told them to back off. The peasants attacked. I killed them all.
“Thanks so much,” said the soldier. “So lucky you stopped by.”
“If I hadn’t stopped, only one man would’ve died here today,” said Geralt.
And I felt bad. So bad that I succumbed to the perennial video game advantage—I reloaded. This time I let the soldier die. When the peasants walked away, there was one more corpse hanging by the side of the road. I looted the soldier, only to find a letter from his wife desperately begging him to come home.
I reloaded again. I killed the peasants.
I don’t know if there’s a consequence to either action. I don’t know if it’s ever revisited. If it is, I missed it. But that sort of morally-gray choice is rare in games, and in The Witcher 3 it’s a feature of nearly every quest, nearly every random encounter. It’s what makes even simple “Go here, kill this” quests a bit more complicated (and thus more engaging) than games like Dragon Age where the “kill this” part of the quest is literally your only motivation.
And that’s apart from the side quests that do have consequences. There are plenty of side quests in Witcher 3 you would swear were part of the main story, were it not for the fact they’re categorized under “Secondary Quests” in the menu.
You could honestly spend days picking apart The Witcher 3 and discussing what makes it work so much better than other open-world games. It’s the fact the game doesn’t highlight every single location or quest on the map, thus rewarding off-the-beaten-path exploration. It’s running through town and hearing two characters wondering where someone from their village disappeared to. Someone you know for a fact is dead. It’s blowing Geralt’s cover because you never bothered to play the card-based minigame Gwent in the preceding twenty or so hours, and as a result you’ll need to kill your way through a house instead of bluffing your way to the boss.
It can even be as simple as Geralt getting drunk with old pals, spending the night rehashing old brawls and talking about what they’ve all been up to. This living world—this sense of a past and a future—is what makes The Witcher 3 a genre-defining game.
Taping over the cracks
On the other hand, The Witcher 3’s excellence casts the genre’s stupidest flaws into stark relief. And I don’t just mean the fact that all open-world games (including Witcher 3) are incredibly buggy.
It’s the same old garbage we’ve seen time and time again. You’re dealing with an end-of-the-world crisis, but first you’re going to spend five hours becoming the international boxing champion of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. Your daughter Ciri could literally die at any moment—Geralt says this over and over—but for some reason you’re determined to make some side-cash taking care of petty monsters for random villagers. The stakes have never been higher, but…well, is there really any harm in taking a few days to participate in horse racing?
Make no mistake—for the most part, CD Projekt’s side quests are better written than any other open-world game I’ve played. Geralt’s motivations are well-explained. Many of them put a twist on the go-here-kill-that formula, as I said. The characters involved are by-and-large interesting and worth meeting. I have no complaints with the content of these quests, for the most part.
It’s the existence of these side-quests that’s baffling. It destroys the pacing of the main story. Every time a character says how “urgent” something is you can laugh, safe in the knowledge that there will in actuality be no consequence to puttering around the countryside for ten hours killing bears. Or spelunking in empty caves because, I don’t know, maybe somebody dropped a sword in there a few decades ago?
Here’s the catch-22: You can’t have an open-world without filling it with side content. You can’t have the side content without devaluing the stakes of the main story. It is a genre that is at its core fundamentally broken. For every step The Witcher 3 takes towards rectifying this—fleshing out those side stories, giving Geralt a purpose—it simultaneously proves the industry’s whole approach to the genre is wrongheaded.
Another example: Loot. There are multiple moments in The Witcher 3—supposedly poignant moments—where a friend rewards you with a priceless item. For instance, a sword that has “been in the family for generations,” or “a one-of-a-kind sword made solely for you.”
In real life this would be a huge deal. Can you imagine if you helped someone and they were so emotionally overcome by your grace and humility that they offered you a one-of-a-kind family heirloom?
In The Witcher 3, the item in question drops into your inventory and becomes one more piece of useless loot cluttering your saddlebags. The family heirloom sword? I walked down the hallway and sold it for about 300 gold. The sword that one guy made me? I literally sold it back to him. “Yeah, thanks very much for making this piece of garbage for me. Now if you could just give me money for it. I don’t want it.”
These are genre tropes. You can say it doesn’t bother you. You can say “Well I don’t even notice that,” and that’s fine. But it doesn’t change the existence of said problems. In a game the quality of Witcher 3, where so many stupid, stupid tropes have been sidestepped, it exacerbates the issue. The lazy garbage open-world games get away with becomes all the more apparent when someone actively tries to fix some of the genre’s most egregious issues.
The Witcher 3 is maybe the best open-world RPG ever made. I don’t say that lightly. This is my favorite genre, and my history with it stretches back nearly two decades.
But my patience with the genre wears somewhat thin. The promise of the open-world is more natural (and more engrossing) stories. Rather than being shuttled place to place, we’re allowed to live a character.
In reality, the open-world genre has made linear narrative hooks even more obvious, while exacerbating the issue by undercutting any sense of stakes, of pacing, of the things stories typically rely on. The Witcher 3’s main story is padded by hours of riding a horse across fields, of playing cards and participating in backroom brawls and running errands for villagers. And that (excellently-written) filler serves a purpose—it grounds Geralt in the world, lets us identify with him and his lifestyle as a player.
It’s a masquerade, though. At the end of the day there’s still a “main story,” regardless of how much CD Projekt tries to weave the various strings of Geralt’s “life” together. And those strings just don’t want to weave together—the stakes set up by one half are directly at odds with the leisurely pace of the other half.
The result: I’m convinced The Witcher 3 is near the top of some sort of plateaued curve. Like, at some point based on the amount of resources a developer can conceivably throw at a game, the amount of man-hours that can go into its creation, et cetera, we will have a “best open-world RPG.” The Witcher 3 is near that point. It does so many things better than its predecessors.
But there are still tons of issues, and the issues left over are things inherent to the way developers approach the genre. There is no “fix.” Not if we keep trying to reinvent a square wheel.