Like Nathan, I played a good four or five hours of The Witcher 3 the other week, and like him I’ve been oddly preoccupied by it ever since. Its rhythm of exploration was very absorbing, alternating between calm periods of admiring the countryside on horseback and sudden bursts of (usually violent) activity. The quest structures were familiar - go here, kill that, investigate this for me please - but I kept getting drawn off the quest-paths by things that caught my eye by the side of the road, which is really what open-world games are about. To bastardise a John Lennon quote, open-world games are what happens when you’re busy avoiding the story quests.
The thing I found most encouraging about The Witcher 3 is that it treats you like an adult. As in, like a real adult, not like a teenager who wants to be an adult. Instead of waving boobs in front of your face and looking smug, the nudity-heavy opening scene feels like a genuine moment of human intimacy between Geralt and his lover-of-the-moment Yennefer. Instead of offering you patronising binary choices where you get to be A Nice Chap or A Bastard, it puts you in morally ambiguous situations where you can’t be sure what the outcome of your actions will be. And instead of pandering to your ego and trying to make you feel powerful and important, it’s set it a world that’s largely indifferent to your presence.
I’m sick of games that spend their whole time trying to make sure you’re having a great time, and whose entire story and universe revolve around precious little you. Geralt might be a central figure in some of the political events of the Witcher series, but he’s not a hero. He’s an outcast, a freak of nature; his word is hostile to magic, and to him. As a protracted war ravages the various kingdoms and their peoples, Geralt is on the periphery, and that gives him (and you) a much more interesting perspective on what’s happening in The Witcher 3.
The story, for instance, is complex and uncompromising - it doesn’t really care if you understand, or if you remember this or that character. If you don’t know what happened in the previous games, or you’re not familiar with the surrounding fiction, it trusts you to either research it yourself or just get on with it, rather than obsessing over making sure you understand every little detail or dumbing down the plot for the sake of expediency. That doesn’t mean you have to be deeply immersed in the Witcher fiction in order to enjoy it, though. It’s like watching Game of Thrones without having read the books: you’ll still really enjoy what’s going on, you might just get more out of it if you’re familiar with the background material.
The subject matter is adult, too, and not in the puerile X-rated way. Though it’s heavy on the sex and violence, it’s also heavy on politics, racial tension and human darkness. That’s another thing it shares with the Game of Thrones TV series - plenty of people came to that for the boobs and blood and ended up staying for the characters, plot twists and gnarly political wrangling. The Witcher is grimy, pessimistic low fantasy that approaches things with the assumption that everyone’s a murderous craven when given the chance. It’s so much more interesting than altruistic heroes and straightforwardly evil villains.
The morality, too, deals in shades of grey instead of black and white, often giving you the choice between two bad options that will both have unforseen and often unpleasant consequences. The first game I ever played that did this was the original Fallout, and I’ve gravitated towards that kind of morality ever since - real-world, adult morality, in which people frequently make terrible mistakes.
One Witcher 3 subquest sees you searching a battlefield strewn with corpses, seeking out the body of someone’s brother - only to find him alive, having crawled off to find shelter with another soldier from the other side. He then insists that his family look after his newfound, injured friend, even though he’s a deserter. If they don’t, he dies, but if they do… well, they might all end up dying for harbouring a fugitive. There ain’t no clear-cut decision to be made there. Geralt is usually on the edge of these decisions that other people are making, rather than at the centre of the matter; that usually means that the consequences fall on the heads of other people, rather than on him. It imparts an uncomfortable sense of responsibility.
There’s the challenge, too. The combat expects you to learn and respect a new system of combined swordplay and spells, if you weren’t already familiar with it from previous games - this is a long way from “wait for attack, press X to parry, repeat”. Enemies will attack Geralt all at once instead of patiently waiting your turn. Creatures don’t scale to your level, so near the beginning of the game you will be doing a lot of dying. If you encounter a strong monster out in the wild, it will probably kill you - then it’s back to your previous save. (Haven’t saved in a while? Well, maybe you should’ve.) It doesn’t worry that you’ll throw a tantrum if you don’t win all the time. Because, y’know, it expects you to be an adult about it.
I always look forward to games that don’t make me feel like an overgrown child. Some things about the opening few hours evoked a sense of fatigue, but it’s got the attitude right.