The Witcher 3 is the first role-playing game I’ve played that makes me feel like I’m role-playing. For the first time in a very, very long time, I’m playing an RPG that is not about saving an entire world.
The Mass Effect series, the most recent Dragon Age: Inquisition, Oblivion, Skyrim, even the more action-oriented titles like Diablo III all feature some cataclysmic event that threatens the existence of all the things. It is so seldom that we’re presented with an RPG that focuses on something more mundane; something more character driven and less doomsday-narrative driven.
In The Witcher 3, we’re off to find people that Geralt loves. That’s it. Where’s the world-ending catastrophe poised on the threshold? It’s kind of there in the form of the titular Wild Hunt, but even that group of other-worldly bad guys (that have all the trappings of the Horseman of the Apocalypse) seem to exist in order to speed up the urgency of finding Ciri – Geralt’s sort-of-daughter. This all creates a fantasy RPG that feels at odds with what contemporary RPGs always seem to be about. And I’m fine with that.
For the first time ever, The Witcher 3 has allowed me to not give a s**t. In previous RPG titles that unceremoniously dump Tamriel’s / Thedas’s / Sanctuary’s / The Galaxy’s continued existence on my shoulders, I’ve felt morally obliged to pursue the path of the selfless hero, ready to take on all the world’s problems. I take on every single side quest because that’s what world-saving heroes do, and I’m role-playing The World Saving Hero™. In games that feature a morality system, I’m forever airing on the side of goody-two-shoes, because that’s what world-saving, selfless heroes are, surely?
In The Witcher 3, I feel no obligation to be that character. I can just be Geralt: a monster-slayer for hire and a man in search of the people he loves. This allowed me to do something I’ve never done in an RPG before: I told an NPC to sod-off with her stupid side-quest. The NPC in question was a balmy-as-hell old woman who could not get to the point, and I’d just been told the location of where Ciri was last seen. So you see, I really could not have given a Botchling’s left testicle about this woman’s frying pan. I felt Geralt’s urgency in needing to leave the area to advance the main quest line. It was one of the more visceral moments of role-playing for me, and a decision that felt closely aligned to the character of Geralt at that given moment. For that brief encounter, Geralt became instantly more relatable than any of my characters in previous RPG titles.
I’m yet to finish The Witcher 3. In fact, I’m not very far at all if one considers the game’s enormity. Geralt has just hit character level seven and I’m undertaking the so far spectacular “Bloody Baron” series of quests. It’s early days for me, but so far the game’s main plot has me intrigued. It keeps offering moments of extremely focused narrative and almost deliberately restrained scope, but the result is something that packs quite a wallop in terms of engaging with its audience.
The smaller, personal plot also has an interesting side-effect of making the game world feel more alive. There is a lot happening in the game’s world of The Continent: the Nilfgaardian Empire is enforcing its dominance and there’s still war, disease, racism, and political upheaval everywhere. All of that, however, seems to happen in the background as we become more and more invested in Geralt’s personal goals. Geralt and I are quite happy to let the world continue without us, and this, oddly, makes that world feel more alive. It’s almost like it’s saying: “Ok you go off and find Ciri et al, and if you want to get involved with all the turmoil that’s currently making everyone so miserable, then that’s cool too. No hard feelings. Thanks, bye.”
There’s quite a startling juxtaposition going on here: CD Projekt has created this staggeringly vast open-world, and yet The Witcher 3’s plot feels very contained; almost deliberately prohibited from becoming too overwhelmed by the usual deluge of fantasy RPG plot clichés. We’ve gone from sweeping, epic plotlines in The Witcher 2, which take place in confined game-world spaces, to a more intimate, personal plotline set in a sweeping, epic game world. I think what makes the open-world of The Witcher 3 feel so alive and believable is because it hasn’t been created to contain a bloated, over-the-top RPG story. A deliberate subversion of standard RPG fluff seems to have paid off for CD PRojekt.
As I stated earlier: I’m not very far into the game. I’m hoping (praying) that The Wild Hunt doesn’t suddenly pose a world-ending threat to The Continent. I like being able to actually role-play a predefined character on his own mission, and breaking away from that to save yet another RPG world is a prospect I find a little exhausting right now.