Opinion: Breaking down the success of The Witcher 3's open world
There is little doubt that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a very accomplished and impressive game. The critical consensus has been exceedingly positive, praising the success with which it realizes its fantasy world as well as the breadth of experiences on offer.
Continuing the tradition of The Witcher series, it offers a deep story that is colored in shades of grey, presenting you with multiple choices that are defined by the obfuscation of their effects, rather than the clarity of their morality. The difference between Wild Hunt and its predecessors, however, is that here CDProjekt RED has offered an open world to rival the likes of Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed and Rockstar’s library of GTA games along with Red Dead Redemption.
Excepting that last example, Wild Hunt offers the most accomplished, convincing, and perhaps most importantly fictionally and mechanically consistent open world I’ve seen rendered in games. Even alongside Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 3 has far more depth in terms of what you can do and how you can do it, which only makes it more impressive that CDProjket RED has managed to do what it has. After the better part of a hundred hours with Wild Hunt, I can attribute this success to a few key factors from the perspective of a player.
One of the inherent difficulties of presenting a convincing open world to a player is in creating a cohesive whole in terms of the people, geography and activities that the player perceives. Even if you are able to create the cohesive whole, you then need to be able to incorporate the game experience into that whole, which may not necessarily be compatible. Skyrim has difficulties here in wanting to allow the player to be simultaneously leaders of every major faction in its world, some of which are logically contradictory. So instead of trying to work around this problem, its either ignored or some contrivance is created to explain it.
Through playing it, the primary difference between the feel of that kind of design against the feel of Wild Hunt is that in the latter the experience comes out of the world, rather than being pushed into it. One of the most immediate ways this is felt is through the ubiquitous notice boards that stand proud in the center of each settlement in its fictional world. In the previous games these were essentially quest hubs, somewhere to pick up tasks rather than needing to go around looking for giant exclamation marks above NPC’s heads.
"There are constant and consistent reminders that this is a world with a life of its own."
In Wild Hunt these retain that purpose, but they also serve the less obvious task of world-building, with notices to kill monsters surrounded by innocuous information about the village you’re in, such as offers of mundane services or general queries. Some of these are entirely irrelevant to you as a player, while others hint at the larger themes of the area you’re in, but instead of feeling irrelevant they start to push the message that Wild Hunt is eager to communicate: you are not the center of this world, just moving through it.
That doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant to it, but instead that it persists and exists beyond your needs for it. This is a counterintuitive notion when looking at a single-player game, but it’s a commitment to the illusion of the world’s life that works incredibly well. It’s not just the notice-boards, but the geography of the world, from the little clusters of houses that make up the hamlets on the barely-discernible paths, to the claustrophobic cobbled streets of Wild Hunt’s largest settlement, Novigrad. This even extends to the NPCs, with them regularly mistaking you for someone else, mostly because they have no reason to expect you in the first place. There are constant and consistent reminders that this is a world with a life of its own.
Novigrad itself offers a significant testimony to this idea, as it is the central hub of the second quarter of Wild Hunt. It’s a stark contrast to the rolling hills and general wilderness of Velen, the first area, and as poor countryside gives way to the bustling city so too does the experience for the player change. Instead of being always at the ready to fight with bandits and drowners, instead Novigrad offers a criminal underground and a more nebulous idea of civil unrest. Fights are far less frequent, conversations start to dominate the experience, and you have to essentially retrain your expectations for a good dozen hours.
When you marry this commitment to coherence with the already established narrative systems of The Witcher series, that of choices and consequences, and the persistence of characters and your actions towards them, it creates a world that doesn’t feel dependent on the player to exist, no matter how untrue that is in reality.
Mechanics match the theme
When looking for commonalities across open world games, it’s easy to see that breadth of experiences almost always trumps depth of a single experience. The idea of offering something for everyone is most egregious in last year’s Watch Dogs, which had its protagonist Aiden Pearce being able to do so many different activities that he ended up being simultaneously completely undefined as a character and completely unlikable. The problem of mechanical and fictional consistency is one that has plagued the GTA games throughout the series, with GTA V coming closest to offering a protagonist that matches the commonly psychotic behavior of the player in Trevor, but even then that is diluted with the characters of Michael and Franklin, offering an escape from that uncomfortable reflection.
Geralt, the titular Witcher, remains a point of contention among RPG fans. He is a reasonably well-defined character, with a long and storied history, most of which you as a player haven’t born witness to. That means you encounter characters that you do not know but Geralt does, and there is plenty of knowledge that he has about the world that you aren’t necessarily privy to.
"CDProjekt RED do not have to offer a game experience that is all things to all people, but instead an experience that is all things to Geralt of Rivia. "
However, it does offer one huge advantage to CDProjekt RED that allowing you to create your own character would not, and that is a tailored perception of the world. They do not have to offer a game experience that is all things to all people, but instead an experience that is all things to Geralt of Rivia. Nothing that you can do in Wild Hunt feels incongruous with your understanding of Geralt as a player, with the closest to a genuine diversion being horse racing. There are no abstract collectibles, no expectation that you’re suddenly going to be anything other than a Witcher, a profession which is certainly appropriate to base an RPG around, what with it being a monster hunting adventurer.
More importantly, it colors your interactions with those who are strangers to Geralt. With his feline eyes and white hair, he’s instantly recognizable as a Witcher, who are mutated to better facilitate the dispatching of monsters, and so plenty treat you with fear or suspicion. What is more relevant to you is that, as a Witcher, there is an expectation that you will do your job, and you will get paid for it. It removes the strangeness of being expected to help anyone in need that pervades other RPGs, and turns most quests into either a direct trade or an indirect one. You need information, and before someone gives it to you, they want you to do something for them. It’s a slight contrivance, but an acceptable one.
This bleeds over into the main story, which is one that is drawn out of Geralt as a character rather than an attempt to create a power fantasy for the player. That’s not to say playing Geralt isn’t a power fantasy, but rather than move towards "save the world," CDProjekt RED instead chose to tell a personal story that also doesn’t put a significant amount of pressure on the player to rush through its world. You’re tasked simply to find someone who is fleeing through the areas that make up Wild Hunt, and that kind of search takes time to develop. It doesn’t mean you feel entirely comfortable leisurely taking your time, but there’s a certain amount of acceptance required that you aren’t going to immediately discover someone in a world this large. Red Dead Redemption did the same thing, and it worked very well there, too.
By restricting themselves only to what was relevant to their protagonist and their world, CDProjekt RED avoids rocking the suspension of disbelief in the name of offering more distractions and options to the player. There’s plenty there, but it all feels appropriate, with as little moving against the experience they’re trying to create as possible.
Placing the world’s needs over those of the player
One of the first monster hunts I went on outside of the main story was to kill something the notice had called a "Shrieker." Checking my bestiary, the entry merely listed the name and nothing else. Which presumably meant this was a monster that Geralt hadn’t encountered before. It also meant that before I even thought about trying to track it, I was going to have to talk to the people that had experience with it and attempt to figure out what I was dealing with. Talking to the villagers, it quickly became apparent through Geralt’s conversation options that this wasn’t some new monster, but merely one that the villagers didn’t know the correct name for.
On some level, this basically meant I wasted time that could have been spent engaging with the systems of monster hunting, which most involve following tracks, preparing traps and potions, and actually fighting the thing, all components for a compelling story and experience. Which means, on some level, I should be frustrated as a player by that kind of needless obfuscation of information, but instead I actually found the pursuit of the Shrieker more compelling because it was not only giving me the story of this monster, but also some insight into the villagers themselves and by proxy the world of Wild Hunt.
"It makes sense that a big portion of a Witcher's job is actually dealing with superstitious, uneducated townsfolk rather than necessarily monsters."
It makes sense that villagers wouldn’t know the technical name for a monster, especially if it isn’t a common one. It makes sense that a big portion of a Witcher’s job is actually dealing with superstitious, uneducated townsfolk rather than necessarily monsters. There are multiple occurrences of Geralt needing to counter ignorance rather than a blade, which often could be interpreted to be cheating you out of a combat encounter. Combat which itself is diffident to the world far more than the player.
On the surface it feels similar to that of Rocksteady’s Arkham series, with carefully timed counters and a very fluid movement while fighting multiple assailants, but where there’s a stickiness to Arkham’s combat that somewhat protects you once you’ve engaged, no such safety is offered you here. If you parry an enemy and then move in to attack, you’re still left completely open to another enemy attacking you, your rhythm be damned. It can be frustrating, but as you come to accept that as part of what you’re doing it raises the tension and the sense of accomplishment far more than if it had just aped what Rocksteady had done.
Similarly, there’s very little consideration of the player’s comfort made in terms of their relations to NPCs. You’re readily judged for actions you may have been totally justified in taking, or conversely those that you had no idea about. There’s no sense of the developers acting as an arbitrator to make sure all your actions are balanced by some sense of game design karma, so that if you act well you are rewarded, and if you act badly you are punished. Instead it’s just muddy, with miscommunication running rife, and quests collapsing into failure if you do them out of some unexplained perfect order.
Again, though, what should be frustrating instead just serves as evidence in an increasingly large pile that you’re engaging with a world, rather than a carefully laid out set of experiences for the player the enjoy. Instead of trying to sell you any one quest, or experience, or system, CDProjekt RED are selling you a world, which requires this breadth and depth, incorporating failure, mistrust, frustration and injustice.
If it wasn’t already clear enough, I’m entirely enamored with Wild Hunt, not purely for the reasons I’ve outlined here, but primarily because it creates such a convincing and enthralling world. But it’s also a world that stands up to scrutiny, and one that doesn’t require a huge suspension of disbelief to function as a convincing world. So often an open world is delivered as an excuse for excess, with hundreds of shallow experiences that are expected to somehow accumulate to deliver depth. Instead here there is an incredibly strong sense of focus in what you’re doing as a player, and while it might not be consistently amazing throughout, it never compromises on that focus. The world you move through, from Velen to Novigrad to Skellige, it all holds together as a cohesive, focused, realized whole.