Monday, June 22, 2015

Why I won't finish The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.

Last week, I walked into a GameStop.  Next to the PS4 rack, a pair of... I hesitate to use the term "bros," but they were certainly a pair of cool-looking, athletically-toned gentlemen, given to hyperbole and glowing tans.

Let's go with bros.  The two bros were browsing games and talking about The Witcher III, and how it was indisputably the greatest RPG that's ever been made - that it was perfect.  They used that word.  "Perfect."  I said nothing, went to the counter and requested a fifty dollar PSN card.

"Are you an Edge member?" she asked.

I am an Edge platinum member - arranged a week before the PS4 launch in 2013, for the sole purpose of permitting me to skip the line at the console's midnight release, and get home before one in the morning.  She ran my card, and a list of recent purchases popped up.

"How are you enjoying The Witcher?" she asked.

My eyes darted back to the bros.  Tall and cocky and perhaps violently certain that CD Projekt's latest opus was the beginning and end of role playing games.  So, it seems, was almost everyone else who played it.  The reviews were all so confident and glowing.

But she asked, and I had to admit,

"I'm not."

And I'm in the minority on this.  If you have a Review Guy or Girl you trust, and they tell you Wild Hunt is the bees knees, you should probably listen to them.  The Witcher III clicked, for them.  They were able to glean pleasure from it that I cannot, and I'm jealous.  The game I read about in all those reviews sounds wonderful.  

It's very beautiful.

Even on PS4 - a far cry from a maxed PC - it's lovely.  Picturesque.  Artful.  It's beautiful, well-rendered high-grit fantasy, with filthy villages and crowded army camps, dense woods guarding hidden secrets and sopping swamps where demented hags straight out of Army of Darkness rise from the dark waters to flay your flesh.

Its graphics are excellent.  Nine out of ten.

Its stories are... intimate.  Touching.  Affecting, thoughtful and human.  Your quest-givers never feel like a pip on a map.  They feel like flesh-and-blood people who are weathering the savage storm of war, and driven to desperation - desperate enough to ask the help of a reviled Witcher - and honest enough to give earnest, genuine thanks when the job is done.  Helping people in Wild Hunt feels good.

Once, I needed the help of some orphans, but they refused to assist until I played hide and seek with them.  In any other game, that event would feel forced and kitchy, but here it comes across as honest and a bit sad and funny when you - Supreme Badass that you are - cover your eyes and begin to count as the children scatter.

It's charming.

Its writing is excellent.  Eight-point-five out of ten.

Its world is rich.  The game is utterly dense with lore and detail, and each hour or so will reveal a bit more of that fine, toothy grit.  Even when hunting standard fantasy fare, there's nothing simple or two-dimensional about your quarry.  Each monster has specific behaviours, specific strengths, specific weaknesses and a brief but nourishing write-up in your bestiary, explaining the subtle differences between Godlings, Bucca and Lutins - and the player is encouraged to take their time.  Plan their approach thoughtfully.  To dive into the nearby lake, touch the bottom and retrieve some very special aquatic herbs which will create a potent anti-ghost oil to rub across your silver blade.

Its world-building is excellent.  Ten out of ten.

It does an exemplary job of casting the player as a monster hunter for hire, and ensures there's enough grit to it - enough to plan for, weigh, consider and strategize with - to make the minutia feel meaningful to your quest.

Almost everything Wild Hunt does is remarkably well-done - the writing, the setting, the creatures, the characters, the tech - but I'm not interested in playing it.

Because playing it isn't fun.

Every aspect of how you negotiate its world feels awkward, distant and sluggish.  Awkwardness can be overcome with practice.  Sluggishness can turn to satisfaction, when tactics and timing are key, but the distance...

You feel it, as soon as you're given control.  Commanding Geralt to walk around a room is a fumbling, almost-comical series of oversteps, geometry traps and mis-translated motive - but one hopes it will prove meaningful, when one steps outside, and draws their blade.

It doesn't.

Every swing of Geralt of Rivia's blade feels inconsequential.  You've played games, surely, where there is no tangible sense of your strikes, and no tactile touch to grow to love.  There is a massive disconnect, here, between the push of a button and the onscreen result - between the player's intention and the onscreen action - and thus even its most challenging fights glean no real satisfaction, or pleasure.

Wild Hunt's combat is designed with a slower pace in mind, where cautious viciousness and thoughtful, practised, well-researched tactics win the day, and it does an excellent job of permitting you Geralt's full (impressively varied) repertoire of skills, tools and toys during any given fight.  This is a game in which you fling a grenade into a group of bandits that explodes into swamp gas, which you then ignite with a blast of your fire spell before tapping L2 to deflect an incoming arrow with your sword and send it flying back at your attacker - and how cool that sounds illustrates a big part of my difficulty with enjoying Wild Hunt.

What you do in Wild Hunt is always wonderful - doing it is not.

Getting Johnny his voice back is awesome.  Solving the mystery of the Noonwraith is awesome.  Throwing a grenade, igniting the cloud and deflecting arrows are awesome, but the act of doing it is bland, distant.  Boring.  Tedious.

It's tedious enough that everything else Wild Hunt pulls off spectacularly well - its remarkable presentation, story, characters and world - can't overcome it.  And this is coming from someone who loves Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim.  Combat in those games is horrible, but it is at least firmly connected to both the player and the game world.  Connected enough to root the player in that world and make it supremely satisfying when you block a blow and land a heavy strike.

After twenty hours with Wild Hunt, I'm still waiting for it to provide that.  I kept driving myself to return to it - to let its world wrap around me to the point that I'd be more than happy to endure its finicky walk controls and distant, whiffy combat in the name of its wonderful stories and rich character.

But I don't want to.  I want to meet more fascinating creatures, explore its lush world and uncover the mystery of the titular riders.  I want to make hard, morally-gray choices and have the consequences come back to bite me a few hours later - but I want to enjoy myself while I'm doing it, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt can't offer that.  

It's not fun.


  1. I didn't know 'that guy' wrote for you, too.

    This requires thought.

    1. He appears once in a while - Watch Dogs, for example. Still no idea how that landed an 80 on Metacritic.

  2. I'm happy that you appreciated it's best qualities.

    I'm sad because you're absolutely right about everything else.

    1. >.< so much of it is awesome. Almost all of it is awesome. Le sigh.

  3. lol just lol, millions (+2 bros) beg to disagree. The problem is that your review is as pointless as it could be.No single valid argument and it's a couple pages long..

    Keep going..

    1. Oh well ^.^ If you enjoy it, I'm jealous - there's a lot in Wild Hunt to love, and I wish I had as much fun with it as the reviewers seem to.

  4. The game presents a wonderful world, but the methods of interaction can leave you feeling cold. Even basic mechanics, like movement or selecting objects, just feel awkward.

    I think those negative traits are left over from the previous games in the series on the PC. Those problems were only worse in the Witcher 1 and 2, which, ironically, may be the reason why I like the Witcher 3 so much. It's a noticeable step-up from what I've had before.
    While, for you, it's a step-down from Bloodborne, for example.

    1. Yeah I couldn't get past it for Witcher 2 either.

  5. Interesting read. Even more interesting is that your comments on the positives, combined with the beautiful screenshots you selected, makes me want to play it even more.

    1. It's intelligent and super-pretty!

  6. Hi from Brazil! :)

    I'm following your blog by sometime, and I really enjoy your posts.

    Well, i guess Witcher feels like that for you because, let's say, after several hours of Bloodborne gameplay anything else is subpar. Still I can extract fun from it... i just needed to get used to it after Bloodborne. But i agree that the combat really don't deliver on this game like the other aspects.

    Actually the impression I'm having now it's anything outside Bloodborne gameplay will be a pain to get used or fun... at least I'm feeling like that.

    Keep the cool reviews! Abraços.


    1. Hello Brazil! Yeah The Bloodborne Effect is not... a subdued one. Same thing kinda' happened to me after Don't Starve - when you come to grips with expressive mechanics that require the player to be so completely engaged, and systems that are so engaged with the player in turn, everything else feels... well, less meaningful.

  7. This is the same reason I've never been able to get into Darksiders, which you love! I came to the first Darksiders after devouring God of War 3, and the movement/combat combo in Darksiders felt remarkably clumsy after the (comparatively) effortless feelings of power I had with Kratos.

    I wish (not really) that I was back in college so I could do my thesis on this effect, and what parts of the brain cause it, and how it impacts different people playing different games in different orders.

    1. Darksiders is a good example! It was so pronounced when the first Darksiders happened (right around the launch of Bayonetta) that everyone who played one game first disliked the one they played second - to those who played Bayonetta first, Darksiders' combat was a tepid, stilted creature. To folks who played Darksiders first, Bayonetta was too linear, and one-note.

      Your experience with a game can really inform how you feel about the next one you play. Chamberlain pointed out on his blog the other day that, even if Wild Hunt's combat is meh, the game is more than worth experiencing for its fabulous story - and here's the thing...

      I liked Heavy Rain when it came out. That game's "gameplay" barely even qualifies as such, but I liked it for its presentation and pure dedication to narrative.

      Wild Hunt, by comparison, offers far more - and its gameplay is far better - but for some reason, I just can't overcome it.

      Maybe if I played Beyond: Two Souls before trying Wild Hunt, I'd be in love with it.

    2. What fascinates me the most about this is the story aspect. In so many instances, you experience little narratives in games that barely exist *in the game* -- they're created by organic gameplay moments that you infuse with meaning because of who your character is, the person they are to YOU, and the background that you give to them. I'm often jealous of you... there are games that are so rich and profound for you, built off of multitudes of these moments that I just don't experience.

      Then The Witcher 3 happens, and these moments are WRITTEN IN THE GAME. The little facial animations that speak volumes about character intention and thought that I've had to imagine for the decades I've been gaming are ACTUALLY THERE. I'm getting to experience a depth of story I've rarely if ever enjoyed in a game, and it's like I see a little window into how you encounter many other games.

      But the encounters you have like that seem to be pretty consistently born out of GAMEPLAY moments, and not things that are written into the game. The narratives that you're creating as the game progresses often seem to happen because of how fluidly the game plays. This game does exactly the opposite. Amazing stories and moments and narratives in spite of gameplay quirks and jankiness.

      I'm going to find an example in your archives and post it here. An example of you experiencing something magical and unique in a game that I didn't particularly enjoy. BRB

    3. Perfect example: this moment in Dead Island: Riptide... you have infused this encounter with so much more imagination, significance, and drama... it's something lots of other people would have blasted through, but the gameplay (which is what the Dead Island games NAIL) helps make this richer for you:

      "It works in the way you can find yourself confidently but nervously picking your way through a jungle trail - birds chirping, light filtering beautifully through the trees - listening for sounds of the dead. You pick up an apple off a bench as you walk, casually chewing on the flesh - your health meter jumps up - and keeping an eye on the road ahead until you turn a corner.

      Thirty yards ahead, a woman in a skirt and wide-brimmed hat stands in the path. She doesn't move.

      She's just standing there.

      But there's something... bent about her. The way her shoulders hang. The way her head sits at that weird angle, and, as you take a step closer, her attention snaps towards you, and you can tell just from her posture.

      She's an Infected.

      A chirp of excitement erupts from her throat, her legs spring into a taut, ready position and she raises her face to the sky to belt out a bloody roar before breaking into a headlong dash towards you.

      A long, single scream carries her down the path. Twenty meters.

      You pull up your favorite blade.


      Aim careful. That scream doesn't stop.

      Five. She hauls her arms back for the assault, but-

      -shinnng. Time dilates as the blade sings its way through the Infected's neck. During this brief second of slow motion, you tap square to loot $135 from the body before it falls, and the head tumbles into the bushes off the trail.

      You turn around to check behind you, just in case. The trail is empty, but there's a basket near where the body fell. You pick up another apple, bite into it, and chew the flesh as your health jumps up - keeping an eye on the path ahead as you move forward.

      That's Dead Island. And when you perfectly decapitate four Infected in a row mid-dash, it feels incredibly badass."

    4. A great, well-crafted story, all on its own, is meaningful - like, for example, in Wild Hunt - because great stories are unforgettable. Wild Hunt's stories are wonderful, and (to me, at least) are the game's principal attractions.

      A great story can take solid gameplay and make it far more meaningful (BioShock), or at least more entertaining (South Park: The Stick of Truth). A great story, all on its own, can be a main attraction (Quantic Dreams, Telltale Games, any old adventure game), if it is permitted to be the entire point of a game - but if you're going to try to throw in gameplay as well, be that platforming or shooting or melee combat, it will detract from the high point of your story, if it's not running at the same level of excellence.

      Gameplay, I feel, is at its absolute best when it achieves immersion - which is why Dead Island is a perfect example. There was a study, a year or so ago, that found that virtual adventures had the precise same impact on a person's emotional state as an actual, real-life adventure. It fires off the same pleasure neurons, and grants same sense of satisfaction.

      I totally experience those little gameplay-moment stories in Dead Island because despite its weapon-losing bugs, weird auto-saves, mediocre graphics and abysmal story, it's amazing to play. It's so damned good at letting the player feel like they exist within that sub-par double-A-production-values world because your movement, your strikes, your dodges, your jumps all feel less like the result of a button-press than the expression of your intention.

      Heck, Super Mario Bros. achieved that. When you can point to the screen, turn to your friend in the room and say "see what I just did?" When it feels like you did it. You took that zombie's head off, you pulled out of a 180 spin onto an offramp jump, you nailed a headshot from across the map, you ran up that wall, jumped the fence and dove into the ocean. That's meaningful - and I would suggest it's more meaningful than high-falutin' "artsy" games that like make us question the nature of gaming or have some mind-altering third-act story reveal, because such insightful reflections and shocking twists only work the first time.

      Super Mario Bros' platforming works forever.