A Non-Gamer Takes on The Witcher 3

Witcher 3 Welcome

In March, I finally built a computer for the first time. I think this qualified as a seminal moment in the life of a young geek. I’ve enjoyed programming on my new “rig” quite a bit, but I also felt like it would be a waste not to try gaming on it.

So in early June, I pulled the trigger on a nice GPU (an EVGA GeForce GTX 1080) and, on the advice of a friend, purchased The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I’m not a gamer, so this was my first foray into the world of PC RPGs (Role Playing Games, for all you n000000bs out there). It was a glorious, incredibly high-definition experience.

Witcher 3 Fighting

Before launching into my thoughts, some quick background might be useful. The Witcher is an adventure game based on a series of seven books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In the books, witchers are basically monster slayers for hire in a medieval era. But because of their careers and power, they are rejected by society and live life wandering from town to town. Sapkowski wrote the books in the 1990s and they gained a cult following. From 2007 to 2015, a studio called CD Projekt Red released three PC games based on the stories. Chronologically, the games take place after the ending of the original books, so – as I understand it – Projekt Red had a lot of freedom in steering the plot.

The game I played was the most recent of these. Even though it was about three years old, the graphics were outstanding. Not only did I have the advantage of a high-end GPU, but I was also using a 27-inch 4K monitor. My previous experience with modern video games, largely from the PS3, paled in comparison to the game quality in this setup. Despite some flaws in gameplay itself, I found the game experience incredibly immersive.

Witcher 3 Forest

So as you’ve probably gathered, my reviews of “gaming on a gaming rig” are glowing. In fact, I think the experience of an RPG on a setup like this is so unexpectedly engrossing that almost anyone would appreciate it. What I’ve spent more time considering recently is the the prescriptive nature of plot design in games, the way battles and challenges are designed, and the atypical ways I found myself approaching those things.

I should point out (again) that I am not a normal gamer: I consider difficult fights to be tedious, I’m not all that interested in maxing out my alchemy or blacksmithing skill, and I get bored very quickly if it becomes clear that I’m completing quests that fit a template. Basically, I’m here for the plot. To me, great video games are just movies, but more interesting and with interactivity that keeps me actively engaged in the story. The last game series I enjoyed – outside of sports franchises – was Assassin’s Creed, games that incrementally reveal to you a complex conspiracy that only your character can help defeat. In fact, I think I am particularly attracted to stories that depend on a mythology surrouding the plot, because I find that I can easily get lost in the legends surrounding the game itself (think of the companion lore to the Lord of the Rings, or the mysteries of the Lost TV series).

And the Witcher 3 really met my expectations in this department, developing a complex story that made me feel like my actions mattered. This is probably where having a book series as a base most helped the game; the world comes complete with a whole history of men, elves, dwarves, and monsters. For anyone that has played Skyrim, you’ve seen where storytelling can go wrong. Skyrim is a game with a similar setting to the Witcher, but its lore doesn’t really make sense and its main character is the nameless “Dragonborn” who has no backstory or particularly compelling choices.

In the Witcher, your character (Geralt) has an established tale. He has love interests, an adopted daughter, a mentor, and a career. His career, of course, is witchering, and that provides a reason for you to have adventures throughout the world. Your choices, even in seemingly routine dialogues throughout the story, have real consequences later in the game for Geralt’s life and relationships.

While this is a good idea in theory and I appreciated it for most of the game, it led to one of my major frustrations: I found the final results of my choices to be dissatisfying and honestly not in line with how I felt I had played the game. I don’t want to spoil anything, as the Witcher 3 is definitely worth playing, but in short I found that despite trying to play the “good guy” throughout, I stumbled into a bad ending. Maybe this would matter less to others, but I really only play games to immerse myself in the story, so this negative turn really soured my feeling on the Witcher.

Along with this critique of the game, I also have some concrete advice for other players like me: if you’re only here for the story and you find battles annoying, don’t feel guilty activating God Mode. Early in my playthrough I got stuck on a very difficult quest. Out of necessity, I opened the console and enabled God Mode (a setting that makes you immune to damage). I finished the quest easily, but before returning to the mortal defaults, I had a moment of introspection and realized I was actually having a lot more fun rampaging through enemies and never having to replay pieces of the game. So I left God Mode on and never looked back. I had a great time not worrying about dying (unnecessary stress, in my opinion) and pulling fun stunts like jumping off mountains. I highly recommend it.

I didn’t really plan any flow into this post (you probably noticed), so before I close I’ll summarize briefly.

I’m sure my experiences are atypical in a number of ways, but I also think that some aspects of gaming culture – intense fighting, seeking challenges over interesting plots, limited storyline beyond the actual game – keep away many people who might really love video games if they had a chance to play their way. You might be one of those people, and I’d encourage you to try gaming with an open mind if you have the time and money.