The open-world game is the new frontier for developers pushing hardware, but it's rarely the breeding ground for memorable storytelling. Maybe I'm old-fashioned — I cut my teeth on Deus Ex and Final Fantasy VII — but Bethesda's celebrated open-world RPGs (Skyrim, Fallout 3) left me high and dry when compared to more guided experiences.
Five Things Bethesda Can Learn From The Witcher 3
When I heard the next Zelda would take place in a large open world, I imagined Twilight Princess' large, lifeless plains but even bigger and got shivers. The same thing happened when I heard CD Projekt Red's plans for Witcher 3. The first successfully threaded impactful player decisions around a captivating and mostly linear world. I worried focusing on increasing world space and side activities would detract from the main story and pacing.
To my surprise, Witcher 3 grabbed me in a way no open-world game has before and sold me on this open-world future. If Bethesda (and Nintendo) pay attention to what CD Projekt Red did right, their games will be stronger for it. Here are just five examples of innovation and improvement within the open-world sub-genre that Witcher 3 confidently displays.
5 - Recognize Player Choice in Small Moments, Not Just Big Ones.
Being scolded by your boss for walking into the women’s restroom minutes prior may not be a great moment in anyone’s work life, but it was one of the most memorable early instances of world interaction in the first Deus Ex. Open-world games tempt us to see where we can go and what we can we get away with, but for all our silly crimes and antics it seems these virtual worlds rarely recognize our curiosity.
Deus Ex is one of my favorite games of all time, and it’s because of the incredible amount of dialog, areas, and items that will go missed even after multiple playthroughs. I figured this would never be replicated again, as Deus Ex was lightning in a bottle caused by less demanding technology and less demanding publishers when it comes to putting in optional content. Yet, The Witcher 3 — a title by a relatively small Polish studio and featuring state-of-the-art graphics — brings this back to the open-world game.
I’m not talking about characters mentioning whether you sided with the elf or human in Witcher 2. We see major story moments recognized by characters in Mass Effect and Skyrim. It’s expected at this point. What’s unexpected is a character sending me on a mission to an area and my character commenting I previously went there — even though I did this out of my own curiosity with no attached mission. The game noticed my curiosity and included it in the dialog. Another memorable moment early on came when I returned to the herbalist in the first town (long after completing her quests) to buy some herbs and found new dialog options that discussed the findings I came across on another unconnected, optional quest.
We are not immersed in our reality because of the major decisions we made years ago. We are bound to reality by all the tiny threads that remind us of who and what we are connected to on a daily basis. It’s near impossible to replicate that in-game, but doing this in small, selective moments is a neat trick that Witcher 3 repeatedly does. Doing so, it makes so many other things in the game feel player-specific, even if they may not be.
4 - Give Enemies a Variety of Strengths and Tactics
Bethesda has come a long way from the stiff combat of Arena, but the developer still struggles to provide combat that remains engaging from a game’s beginning to end. Witcher 3’s combat is not perfect. Movement and controls are clunky, leaving improvement for the Dark Souls' open-world RPG dream to still be realized. What Witcher 3 does well, however, is provide enemies that force the player to change approach, equipment, and item management throughout the adventure.
After 20 hours in Skyrim, I was on autopilot. I figured out the exact way to win every battle hard and was never pushed to change my approach. I’d freeze, wail on an enemy, heal, and repeat. It became dull. New equipment and upgrades didn’t matter, and enemies didn’t mind either.
In The Witcher 3, you’ll be forced to face enemies that will demand you use spells you might not regularly use or play in a defensive style that doesn’t suit the aggressive one you used on ghouls early on. Players who only care about the story can breeze through the game on easy, but for those who want to be challenged by combat and continually surprised by encounters, Witcher 3 provides a satisfying difficulty curve that isn’t eager to fade away.
3 - Pace the Journey; Don’t Frontload the Most Exciting Moments
Bethesda has a habit of providing the most memorable moment of its games within the first 3 hours and never having an equal moment again. Whether it's blowing up Megaton or escaping/battling a dragon, Bethesda seems more interested in bringing in players via a press-conference-friendly opening than giving a narrative with an ebb-and-flow.
The Witcher 2 is guilty of this itself with its explosive castle siege opening. In contrast, The Witcher 3’s opening is quiet, subtle, and true to the focus of the game: letting the player explore the countryside at a leisurely pace and make discoveries off the beaten path. When major events happen in The Witcher 3, they are preceded and followed by quieter moments that allow the game to slip back into a smooth pace.
Not only are the big moments more impactful because they come after quiet ones but they are spread throughout a lengthy campaign. Whether it's a budget or writing issue, Bethesda needs to get away from front-loading its most cinematic, exciting moments and offer a campaign that peppers them in for increased impact, variety and surprise.
2 - Give Romance Sub-plots Nuance and Depth
Witcher 3 is one of the best-acted and written RPGs I’ve played. It seems unfair to tell Bethesda: “Hey, dummies, why don’t you write better?” So, I rather focus on a specific example of where Bethesda can improve. That’s right: I’m talking sexy time romance!
The Witcher series has come a long way from the controversial collectible sex cards in the original that limited romance to a crude novelty. Despite what occurred in past games, the Keira Metz subplot in Witcher 3 is one of the most charming, complicated romances I’ve seen in a game. It starts simple enough with a witch doing a favor for Geralt the Witcher and her asking for favors in return. Each character wants something from the other, while suspicion of ulterior motives and sexual tension linger below the surface.
Once Geralt does favors for the witch, it becomes clear that she wants to use him, and — depending on the player — Geralt is okay with being used if it means a good time by the lake. In the end, there is never a clear sense of whether Keira has good intentions or whether Geralt wishes for the relationship to be more than “mages with benefits.” The entire subplot is a messy journey that involves witnessing a man french kiss a wraith and fighting a healthy amount of drowners. In the end, Geralt and Keira’s feelings and motives toward each other remain murky and complicated — as these things often are in life. Keria is neither Geralt’s sexual conquest nor is he her boy toy. They continue to want each other’s friendship while suspecting what hidden agenda may one day conflict.
It’s a nice contrast to the dark, gory subplots found elsewhere in the game and a definite improvement over Skyrim’s approach, which boils down relationships to exhausting a dialog tree and — dah-dah! — marriage.
1 - Gating World Exploration by Difficulty
As the market for open-world RPGs grew, Bethesda decided to make games more accessible by easing the difficulty and letting players explore its game worlds freely without higher-level enemies getting in the way, with few exceptions. Fallout: New Vegas improved a bit with the terrifying Deathclaws funneling players into certain areas of the world map, but that game wasn’t developed by Bethesda, and even it is a far cry from The Witcher 3.
It’s humiliating to charge into a small group of bandits in The Witcher 3 and die without even getting a hit in. It’s something I’m not used to in open-world games. I kept trying to fight them, but — as the red skull above their heads indicated — it was a near-impossible task (especially on the two highest difficulty levels).
It can be frustrating to be guided away from certain areas when we’ve become accustomed to having free reign to explore and conquer in open-world games, but I came to appreciate this aspect of Witcher 3 in time. From Metroid to a classic adventure game, immersion, and satisfaction can be gained from recognizing an impossible area that we will return to with a certain skill or item later and explore. It’s details like this that bring the player into a game’s world, feeling like a small part in a much larger, living story. CD Projekt Red tells its player to respect the world and its obstacles, while Bethesda prefers to provide a sandbox where the world must respect the player’s incompetence and naivete. Maybe with Bethesda's upcoming title, we can have both. For now, I'm happy to have the Witcher 3 to explore.
Can you think of any other lessons the Witcher 3 provides?