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.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

Take your time, the Wild Hunt is not going anywhere.

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.

I didn't want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

I didn’t want to complete that level 4 quest anyway.

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.

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Posted on October 6, 2015, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I like how Skyrim (and most TES) handled this; most areas were open, and you could ‘skip ahead’ on quests if you found the item or killed the monster early, while the key areas were usually behind a locked door or something else that was more believable than ‘invisible wall’ or ‘monster simply hasn’t spawned yet’.

    Given how important story is to The Witcher, I can’t imagine open world fits it very well. It sounds like its almost two games; the story bits that are driven, and the open-world stuff that is more random.

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    • I was actually thinking about Skyrim while writing this post. During my original playthrough, I had read about how past a certain point in the main story dragons started spawning. So… I didn’t complete that part of the story for like 30+ hours. And it was amazing. Moreover, I never second-guessed myself when I discovered a random cave somewhere – I just went in and cleared it.

      It’s funny, I almost think I’d prefer these open-world games to be treated like D&D campaigns: the quest points of interest simply don’t exist on the map at all until they are needed. But then I suppose we’re back to the linear style of game.

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  2. The more open world games I play… the less I like them. Though I really enjoyed Witcher 3, I would have enjoyed it more if it was structured more like 2. I totally agree about the exploratory nature of the game being congruent with the story. Though I thought many of the secondary quests were great (the treasure hunts and monster hunts less so), many of them felt at odds with the main story or how I was exploring the world. I found the evil tree quest before I got anywhere with the crones and felt like I missed something because of it.

    Sadly, since I have such a completionist mindset, I often ruin my own gaming experience in these games. Does it make sense for me to run off and find an armor recipe when I’m supposed to be saving Ciri from a rapidly approaching Wild Hunt? Nope. But the quest is there, I need to do it.

    I felt this was worse in DAI than Witcher 3 though. Possibly because the DAI sidequests were mostly grindy MMO garbage and the Witcher ones were more interesting, but there was also just too much open space, too much travel time and I spent too long trying to find paths up mountains to gather some stupid shard.

    I really need to learn to just follow the main questline and ignore the rest.

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    • It gets bad for me too. I don’t consider myself a completionist… but I also know that the odds of my actually replaying a given game is zero, so I feel it necessary to see everything the first time around. Which is, of course, exactly what a completionists would do.

      It’s particularly rough in Witcher 3 precisely because of everyone telling me all the side-quests are well done. It’s like, “Welp, I suppose I’m doing all the quests now.”

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  3. On the false urgency thing, it’s a trope:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TakeYourTime

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