Game-related ramblings.

Some Witcher 3 Nitpicking

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At long last, I have finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Although I still have two DLC story packs to play through, so I’m actually very much not finished. But I’ve done the main story, and I was waiting for that to conclude before posting about the game again. I’ve already written about how good it is, and celebrated its variety of faces, but now that I’ve spent more time with the game, I’ve found a few problems. It’s time for some complaining.

The first thing I want to complain about is the writing, which is a weird thing to say. On the one hand, the writing is really good: the quests in The Witcher 3 are so much more interesting than those in other role-playing games, each a little story with its own twists and surprising details. The game was rightfully lauded for this. But at the same time, a lot of the writing in the game feels like bad Witcher fan fiction.

When I played the first Witcher game, I’d never heard of the short stories and novels on which it was based. The only story I’d read was the one that came packaged with the Enhanced Edition version I got, and English translations didn’t exist yet for much of the rest. I played The Witcher 2 for the first time without knowing much more, and when I returned to replay it, I was finally reading the books at the same time. The Witcher 3 is the first game in the series that I’ve played after having read all the books, which is good, because it also has the most direct ties to the events of Sapkowski’s novels. But it’s now much clearer to me just how much of the games — which take place after the books — are simply rehashing those events.

Remember that pivotal moment in the novels, when a betrayal sends events spinning off in unexpected directions? Why don’t we just… do that again? So many moments in the first two Witcher games turn out to be like this: technically new stories, but clear homages to Sapkowski’s works. I can almost see the writing team giggling with excitement as they write copies of these scenes they love so much. But the impact is lessened when players have read the original scenes before, and frankly, Sapkowski is a better writer. The games capture the feel of Sapkowski’s world really well, but a lot of what actually happens comes off as an inferior imitation.

The Witcher 3 is no exception to this, and its stronger connection to the events of the books exacerbates the problem. Lots of characters from the books show up, even when it makes no sense for them to do so. But, weren’t they cool!? Don’t you want to have them in the game!? Sure, they had a full story arc with a great conclusion in the novels, but forget that, we can have them come back for our game! Many of these are people who protagonist Geralt doesn’t really like, but readers did, so now there are awkward scenes where Geralt can make friends with them instead of, I don’t know, punching them on sight. Oh actually, remember when Geralt actually did punch that guy? Let’s give players the option to do it again! Just like in the books!

This also mixes very badly with the game’s sexism, which I’ve hinted at already. Sapkowski does not always handle female characters well in his books, but the games fare much worse. At one point in The Witcher 3, a woman from the books makes a cameo appearance. Geralt never met her in the books — she was in a completely different part of the world, in fact — but Sapkowski emphasizes her beauty and skill at lovemaking, so the writers of the game decided to have her show up so Geralt will have a chance to sleep with her. I wish I was joking. It’s optional, but still left me wondering what the writers were thinking.

The problem isn’t limited to minor characters either. In fact, it’s a bit strange that The Witcher 3 is the first game to feature Yennefer and Ciri, who are by far the most important women in the books. Ciri is actually handled reasonably well, all things considered, and in many ways the story is more hers than it is Geralt’s. But I regret to say that Yennefer is not written as well as I’d hoped. In Sapkowski’s series, Yennefer is Geralt’s love interest, and the two have a long and tumultuous relationship, spending long periods apart but always returning to each other. Aside from Ciri, who is the main protagonist of the novels, Yennefer is the most interesting and best written female character, and I was happy to see her finally appear in The Witcher 3. But it seems that writers of the games are not fans.

The first two games heavily feature a different sorceress, Triss Merigold, who is a relatively minor character in the books. Mostly, she lusts after Geralt in a frankly problematic way, before being relegated to the background as other events unfold. Yet the writers chose her, not Yennefer, to be Geralt’s love interest in the first two games, and I can’t help but think it’s because they prefer her romantic devotion to Yennefer’s strong-willed independence. Triss is in The Witcher 3 too, and now that Geralt has fully recovered his memory, he must choose between her and Yennefer (or neither). Naturally, I opted for Yennefer, but boy, this prompted all sorts of trouble. First, Geralt was soundly ridiculed for letting Triss go. Then, random characters would berate Geralt for being subservient to Yennefer’s every whim, when actually he’d been riding around the countryside on his own, doing his part of the plans he and Yennefer had made together. Yennefer herself became bizarrely hostile, ordering Geralt around and refusing to explain herself. Finally, a quest appeared that seemed specifically designed to give players an excuse to break with Yennefer.

I chose to stay with her, but I sure felt like the writers were mocking me for it, and indeed many characters in the game continued to do so. This was one reason I wanted to finish the main story before writing about it, to see how Geralt and Yennefer’s story ends. And the ending is actually pretty good, so I have to give some credit to the writers there. Someone, at least, on the writing staff knew how to write a satisfying ending for her and Geralt. But it doesn’t erase all those scenes that came before, or the suspicion that on some level the writers simply disapprove of Yennefer, that they feel she’s not how a woman should be. It soured me on the game a bit.

The open world in The Witcher 3 also means the writing is less reactive than it was in the previous game. The Witcher 2 famously had a bifurcation in its story, with an almost completely different second act based on an early player choice, before coming together again for the ending. That was possible because it was structured in discrete acts taking place in small locations. The Witcher 3 still has plenty of decisions with different outcomes, but nothing that matches the scale of its predecessor, and the cutscenes that announce the results of decisions feel jarring when they suddenly appear, as if to reassure players that yes, there are Actual Choices in this game. We know, we just made them. With no act breaks to bookend everything, these are awkward and never quite fit.

But enough about the writing. I also want to complain about some of the game design. Specifically, the leveling. I touched on this already, but the way everything in the game (quests, items, enemies) has a specific level really got intrusive the more I played. The Witcher 3 has a wonderful open world full of interesting quests, but too often I’d venture somewhere to complete a level 15 quest only to find another quest nearby listed at level 30. There’s no way to tackle that at level 15, so eventually I’d collected all these random quests scattered around, and spent much of the late game traveling around finishing them off. By that point I’d forgotten what they were about, and trudging everywhere got tiresome and finally made me break my self-imposed “no fast travel” rule. Early on, I loved exploring on my own without using the fast travel system, completing quests as I found them, planning routes that would let me tackle several tasks in one trip. But that doesn’t stay viable for long, and it ended up discouraging me from fully engaging with the beautiful world. I was just hunting the next number on the map, even if it involved a trip to another area entirely. I was left gazing longingly at the mod that removes levels from the game altogether. If I ever replay the game, I’ll try it.

Because The Witcher 3 really doesn’t need leveling. Early on I was dismayed by how often I was changing equipment, but I soon crafted my first set of Witcher gear, at which point it became all Witcher gear, all the time. Everything else was worse, so why bother with it? I liked the idea of crafting specialized gear, especially since each set ostensibly catered to a different character build, but after trying a few different upgradeable sets (because they all have different level requirements) I could discern no difference between them during combat. For that matter, gaining levels as Geralt didn’t seem to make much difference either. I focused on his magic signs, since I like the extra tactics they add to fights, but leveling them up soon became boring. All the useful upgrades, like extra range on Geralt’s Aard blast or a chance to set enemies on fire with the Igni sign for some damage over time, come early. The alternate sign modes sound promising, but I never really found a use for any of them. Really, all that leveling does is boost Geralt’s “sign intensity”, a number that’s never really explained but presumably measures the overall effectiveness of his magic, and increase Geralt’s stamina regeneration rate so he can cast more often. Every time Geralt leveled up, I just got a little boost to these, and it never felt like it made a bit of difference.

So why have it at all? Why not just let Geralt explore, and fight, and craft better Witcher gear when he finds the recipes and ingredients he needs? Heck, why not transform the under-utilized mutagen system into something that lets him learn new combat moves or magic abilities? These could even be doled out as he progresses through the main story, so improvements come at a steady pace. The design we got instead honestly feels like it has levels because that’s what role-playing games usually have, rather than because it makes sense for this game. Which is disappointing, because one of the things that was so striking about the first Witcher game was the way it eschewed established designs and instead went for something that captured the careful potion preparation and acrobatic swordplay of Sapkowski’s Witcher. The result was a bit clunky and messy, but its mechanics were far more memorable.

I want to stress again that I’m only complaining this much because the rest of the game is so good. I loved riding around and doing Witcher business, getting embroiled in major events despite my best efforts to avoid them, and just reveling in this place that the developers imbued with such a strong identity. I even liked a lot of the main story, even when certain parts or character cameos felt off. But in such a huge, long game, the little things start to add up and hold the experience back from being quite as great as it could be. It’s still great though, and I still recommend it. There’s not much to be done about the problems with the writing, but at least there are mods to address the leveling issues, so consider those if you’re thinking of diving in.

As for me, I still have both the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine story DLCs to play through, so there’s plenty more Witcher ahead. I’ll be sure to write about those here too, so stay tuned.

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3 Comments

  1. seyda neen

    Yennefer is borderline abusive to Geralt in the Witcher 3, so it’s interesting and kind of relieving to hear that’s not how their relationship is portrayed in the books. You might be the first writer I’ve read that took umbrage with the way she’s written. I’ve seen plenty of arguments over which romance is better, but basically none that say a character is straight up written wrong.

    Agree 100% about all the rpg systems. Thanks for sharing!

    • Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship in the books is complicated. She’s pretty unpleasant when they first meet, but then there are several short stories — with large time gaps between them — to establish their romance, which is further developed over the novels. They butt heads often. I’m trying not to spoil anything, so let’s just say both characters grow over the course of the books, but that character growth seems absent in the game. Or perhaps the writers just weren’t skilled enough to show it. It’s hard for me to imagine that someone who has read the books would want to choose Triss over Yennefer, though.

      • seyda neen

        Yeah! From what you’re saying I really get the vibe that whoever lead the writing on the games was really just a huge GeraltxTriss shipper. Which, great, but if the games are meant to be a continuation of the canon, and that writer’s vision for the characters is so wildly different from Sapkowski’s, it would definitely feel incredibly incongruous.

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