My column this week is about how our usual metrics for the size of a game (hours and square area) are inadequate for describing the size and complexity of Witcher 3.
I wrote that column on Sunday. At the time, I’d just completed a massive siege at a castle, which was kind of like the suicide mission from Mass Effect 2. All the main characters were there, the bad guys were there, and everyone had gone all-in. The list of resources available to me was shaped by decisions I’d made over the last sixty hours of gameplay. The battle was a long, complex, multi-stage thing that kind of had a Helm’s Deep vibe. It was the perfect ending to a long and complex drama.
And then the game kept going. And going. And going. Days later, it’s still going.
I keep trying to fit the game into some sort of three-act structure, but it just doesn’t fit. Sometimes it feels like playing through a massive novel. Other times it feels like playing through several seasons of a long-running TV show.
But really, Witcher 3 is its own thing. It defies categorization because it’s not trying to be any of those other things. It’s dense and detailed in a way that other games simply aren’t. Let’s look at the plot of Arkham City:
Hugo Strange runs Arkham City, and somehow has Bruce Wayne arrested. During his gloating monologue, he reveals that all his plans will come to fruition once Protocol 10 is complete. So Batman needs to figure out what Protocol 10 is. He gets his suit, then stops by the courthouse to save Catwoman from Two Face. Then Joker takes a shot at her through the window. Batman figures the shot came from the church. Investigating the church gives him a radio signal to follow to Joker’s lair. In Joker’s hideout he gets ambushed and captured. Joker is dying of some kind of toxin, so he puts the toxin into Batman knowing that if anyone can get the cure, he can.
Batman goes in search of Mr. Freeze, who he suspects will know how to make a cure. But Freeze was captured by Penguin. So Batman has to break into Penguin’s lair, fight a ton of bosses and traps, rescue Freeze, and learn that the cure requires some magical Lazarus juice from Ra’s al Ghul. Batman goes deep underneath Gotham, solves more puzzles and traps, get whacked out on mind-altering drugs from Ra’s, and eventually defeats Ra’s and steals what he needs. Also his sometime girlfriend Talia is there, complicating things.
Batman returns to Freeze, who synthesizes the cure. But then Freeze picks a fight and Batman is obliged to kick his ass. During the fight, Joker steals the cure. Batman goes after him. They have a showdown. There is a screne which really doesn’t work for me at all, after which Batman ascends the tower, beats up Hugo Strange to put and end to Protocol 10, and saves the day.
Finally Batman has to go after Joker one last time to rescue Talia and recover the cure. There’s a fight with Clayface and some banter between Bats and Joker. Roll credits.
That’s actually quite a bit of plot. Like, if you were making a standard Hollywood movie you’d probably need to trim quite a bit of of that. My first time through the game, I frequently found myself in situations where I’d forgotten how my current task connected to the central plot and I had no idea why I was beating up the guys in my path.
And yet, all of that is a third or a quarter of the complexity of tracking down Dandelion, which is only a small part of the central plot Witcher 3, which is a tiny fraction of the content in the full game. Trying to explain the plot of Witcher 3 is like trying to describe a fractal.
Sometimes it feels like Skyrim, where you’re just wandering the wilds, stumbling over adventures, monsters, and treasures. Other times it feels like Telltale’s Walking Dead, where you’ll spend twenty minutes walking around, looking at stuff, and discussing things with your allies.
I’ve said for years that we can’t have games like Planescape Torment anymore, because voice acting is too expensive. But here is a game even larger than Planescape, and it’s all voice acted.
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