Open World, Closed Story
Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.
The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.
For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.
Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.
The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.
The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.
The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.
I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.