How lovely are thy (side/main) quests?
And warning: Here Be Spoilers!
At about the 186 hour mark–tracked with Steam–I finished The Witcher 3 including its two main DLCs. I’m a bit disappointed that it did not manage to beat Skyrim‘s 189 hours on record but considering that I started two games in Skyrim with one game getting like 20-30 hours, maybe I shouldn’t be so disappointed after all. Besides, I made a couple savepoints at times where The Witcher 3‘s story diverges so I could check out alternative story lines. We could still beat that record comfortably.
Honestly, I was not very sold into The Witcher 3 when I first started it a year ago. This is my first foray into the world of Geralt and I came there expecting to experience the ultimate male power fantasy but instead the intro gave me a bunch of cinematic cutscenes. What a way to be a wet blanket. It was nice the first few times but it wore its welcome fast. Please, I started thinking, more of those spinning sword sweeps and less talk! But, like many before me, I started to care. I found myself enamored with a faux-medieval world where the Conjunction of the Spheres happened and there are people with various stories all around.
And that on top of the fact that my computer could just barely run The Witcher 3. The experience isn’t horrible but the frame rate leaves much to be desired. Kinda leaves Geralt with a brooding stride especially when there are a lot of objects (wood splinters, people, etc.) to render in a scene. Also leaves most of the cutscenes with the sound going faster than the visuals. Gives it an almost pensive cinematic effect, like sometimes the characters take their time reflecting on what was just said rather than going for a quick retort. And at times when the scene calls for a bit more nonverbal language (like an impassioned movement of the arms during an argument) than a mutated witcher would typically be comfortable with, the delay makes it play out like a flashback, slowed down just enough so you can appreciate the details and featuring voiceless stretches of action. Times like this, the beautiful background music really saves the mood.
That is not to say that the brooding stride, the pensive mood, or the flashback feel is not at home with Geralt’s world. I like to think that this makes my Witcher 3 experience unique in a way.
The software engineer side of me, on the other hand, can’t help but marvel at how CD Projekt Red managed to make this game degrade gracefully. Even with a computer such as mine, the bugs I encountered are few and far between. Oh well there’s Roach…
…but I’d like to think that CDPR left that on purpose as some kind of joke. Also, there’s the fact that Geralt’s hair remains model-worthy despite spending hours on end outdoors, exposed to the sun, with an occasional dose of water hag spit, drowner blood, and all sorts of unsavory things. And have I told you I’m using an AMD GPU so there’s no Nvidia HairWorks to help Geralt’s case?
My co-workers’ endorsement aside, what made me buy The Witcher 3 during a Steam sale is the fact that it is labeled as choices matter, and in how this aspect of the game is told to be a great factor into The Witcher 3‘s emotional impact. Now, something that I haven’t talked about much, if at all, is in how Bioshock Infinite‘s ending left me in such an emotionally-tattered state. This deserves another blog post of its own but, suffice it to say, if what elevates creative output into the hallowed realm of being art is in how it can elicit emotions you would not otherwise feel, then Bioshock Infinite gave me an overwhelming conviction that games can be art.
And, like an addict looking for his next fix, against reason, against logic, I’ve been looking for another game that could trigger the same reaction I had with Bioshock Infinite. And I try to keep my mind open but such is my conviction that games can be art that I am pretty sure only a game, or generally an interactive medium, can achieve the same.
I’ve tried a few, constrained by my free time. Would it bother you to hear that I felt delight when, in the title screen of Life is Strange, there is a link to help you find support groups should you feel you need it so after playing the game? I have, unfortunately, not found another game to rival Bioshock Infinite, The Witcher 3 included. I have begun to fear that Bioshock Infinite is a one-time braingasm you could never feel for a second time.
But that is not to take away anything from The Witcher 3. While it did not give me the mindfuck fix I bought it for, it gave me something else. Against odds, a video game with obviously fictitious characters, made me feel empathy. As the best of fiction should do.
“Do I have to know her to feel sorry for her? Can’t you just help her?”
~ The titular character of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord
I would like to put it here on the record, before I rework through the choices I did not pick in my first playthrough. I got the good ending with Ciri, though I’ve had a few missteps along the way. I went with her to meet the sorceresses, not because I had no confidence in her but because I had no confidence our erstwhile allies against the Wild Hunt would play fair with her. Ciri’s fate had been pretty much sealed in my playthrough when I accidentally learned of my misstep and yet it bothered me. It bothered me that Ciri might think I had no confidence in her, that I did not recognize the strong spirit she undoubtedly has. I did not want her to think that she was just another damsel in distress I had to save. From what I heard, she is far stronger than that. I merely wanted to lend assistance because, by Lebioda, this is the fucking Wild Hunt we are up against. No one has a good chance against them, Elder Blood or no Elder Blood.
As Riley MacLeod quotes in his article about his Witcher 3 ending: “It’s bullshit arbitrary video game psychology”. I agree.
And yet…I find myself agreeing with CDPR at how this mechanic in their game actually reflects real life. No matter how contrived it may seem, The Witcher 3 asks you to empathize with its people. Actually treat them like people, not as NPCs that give off experience points. As with real life, it’s not your mere intentions which determine how people feel towards you. You put yourself in their shoes.
Another remarkable instance of this in The Witcher 3 is a very short interaction I had at Novigrad. It was so short, it did not even trigger a quest: So there I was, riding on Roach to complete the myriad of things required by the game’s derided Dandelion arc, when in my minimap I see that exclamation mark that is the game’s way of telling you, it’s Geralt-Jesus time! So I unmount from Roach in a manner just a little more impressive than Orlando Bloom doing Legolas fanservice and what do I find? A bunch of witch hunters harassing an Aen Seidhe woman because they are intolerant pricks. In Geralt’s rough tone, I manage to drive them away without a fight. I turn to the elven woman as a courtesy. It’s all fine now, I drove them away, I don’t like them either, you don’t have to pay me–when she cuts me off and berates me for stepping in uninvited. Tomorrow you won’t be here, she tells me, but they’ll be back, even harsher because of what you did today. I’d rather you didn’t make my problems worse as I can deal with them myself, thank you very much.
Short. Poignant. Powerful. Economy of storytelling right there from CDPR.
All these expressed and I feel I need to remind you that this is my very first foray into the world of Geralt. I had no idea who Ciri is until I got bored by the opening cinematics of The Witcher 3. And yet I cared about her, cared about how my choices affected her. And that elven woman? Game didn’t even give her a name and yet she did a damn good job making me feel sorry about my messiah complex.
I could maybe write a short book about everything I felt while playing The Witcher 3. Maybe in some other blog post I get to tell you about how enraged I was when Priscilla–yet another character I only knew recently–got attacked. So enraged I resolved not to sleep until I got to the bottom of it and solved it the witcher way. Or about the eerie beauty of Iris von Everec’s inner world. Or how I got the bittersweet ending for Blood and Wine because, despite having the hots for Syanna, I gave up on her at the last moment and called her a petty little viper. Or maybe, I like her precisely because she is a petty little viper and that clouded my better judgment.
In contrast, I do not like her sister Anarietta that much. Something about her accent and how she’s an uptight state ruler. And yet…that ending…she did not deserve that. I intend to make amends with the power of savepoints. Just wait for me, duquesa.
At this point, this blogpost has gone longer than I intended it to. It even kinda took the form of the usual review I do here. I just wanted to collect my thoughts (of which there are surprisingly many, and more!) before I wield the power of savepoints. All I want to say now is…
Damn it Witcher 3. Your quests have no business being that deep and good!