Experienced Points

Experienced Points
How Witcher 3 Breaks all the Rules

Shamus Young | 21 Dec 2015 16:00
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One of the things we've come to accept in video games is that we're never going to get another big-budget, dialog-heavy RPG like we used to get in the old days. Planescape: Torment was all text, and nobody could afford to make something that large in today's world of mandatory voice acting. Even if you could somehow afford the voice actors (which would be ridiculous) you'd still have the problem where you'd need to spend months in the recording booth with them all. The logistics of writing all that dialog, casting that many actors, recording all those lines, and scripting all those cutscenes would be a nightmare.

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Actually Shamus, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does exactly this. It's got tons of dialog, just like in the old days.

I'm sure they had to make sacrifices in other areas. I mean, if you're going to have that much dialog, then you have to take away a lot of player choice, since you can't afford to have multiple versions of every cutscene. Or if you do have choice, it has to be short-term and limited in scope.

Except Witcher 3 has loads of choice. It arguably has more choice than your average BioWare game, and certainly more than a Bethesda game. And the choices can remove characters from the story, change romantic pairings, save lives, and break or create alliances. Many choices impact scenes hours later, and several even alter the ending. They even carry over big branching choices (like important characters being dead) from previous games!

Okay, but there are tricks you can use to make it look like you've got a lot more voice acting than is really there. Bethesda games will often have 90% of the characters speak in the same five or so "neutral" voices. This cuts down on the number of voice actors they need to hire, and allows different characters to share spoken lines.

Witcher 3 doesn't do that. In fact, different regions of the world have their own established accents and culture, making it so each region requires unique performances. Often different factions within a region will have their own unique words or verbal tics. Everyone feels different and unique.

Sure, you can have characters with different voices shout combat messages at each other. What I'm saying is that games can't spend that much time on complex, nuanced worldbuilding, because developers are afraid players won't want to listen to all that politicking, exposition, debate, and character-building.

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Witcher 3 does exactly that. Every region has its own story. There's tons of politics, religion, history, culture, flirting, and even really shitty puns! The game keeps this up for over 100 hours!

Well, you have to understand that developers have certain tricks they use to pad out their games to 100 hours. In Dragon Age: Origins, you've got long sections like The Fade and The Deep Roads that are purely combat for hours and hours. I mean, it's not like you can give players 100 straight hours of plot!

The Witcher 3 does! There's no grind at all, unless you think "having long conversations" is a grind. The game actually contains many different stories, each of which is larger, more complex, and more reactive to player choice than than your typical AAA game. The Island of Skellige contains more characters, plot-points, cutscenes, and story beats than the entire plot of (say) Dishonored or even BioShock Infinite. And that's just one area of the game!

Well, it's not fair to compare a TellTale-style dialog game to an action game and then claim the action game is short on dialog. The Witcher 3 developers probably saved money by leaving out the combat...

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Nope! Witcher 3 has a robust, fun, visceral combat system. It's fast and it's brutal and it's full of variety. You've got dodging, blocking, parrying, power attacks, and a variety of enemy types with different attack patterns. And on top of that you've got a magic system full of fun spells that can be brutal once the player learns when to use them.

Yeah but when you compare it to something like a Mass Effect game...

Witcher 3 has an upgrade system that allows you to customize your character to your playstyle, and ties in nicely with equippable items to unlock various powers and abilities.

Okay, but what I'm saying is that developers have to make compromises somewhere. If they go overboard on dialog and the combat system, then they will have to make cuts in other areas like environmental design.

Witcher 3 is a gigantic open world, and every village and town feels unique. Different places have different architecture that's informed by their economic class, building materials, and culture. The game also lets you (spoiler) travel briefly to other worlds, and those other worlds look unique and strange.

Well maybe if they cut corners on graphics...

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The graphics in Witcher 3 are actually top-notch. They're absolutely pushing the new generation of hardware to the limit. You've got rich detail, vast draw distances, subtle mood-setting effects, and scenes full of dynamic elements.

Well shit. Why don't I just make Witcher 3 my game of the year, then?

Actually, you did!

(Have a question for the column? Ask me!.)

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and survivor of the dot-com bubble.

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