Like most sane RPG enthusiasts, I’ve been delving into the world of the Witcher 3 over the past week. Though I’d never played either of the other two Witcher games, that’s rarely a concern with video games. What I’m finding is a game with such a wonderful sense of detail that it asks me to revisit my expectations on the entire genre. This is a game that understands the slogs and trouble spots that fantasy RPGs get lost in, and, rather than flinging themselves headfirst into them like lesser games, manages to actually find a way around them. To put it simply: it’s a smart game, whose developers understand the genre through and through. One of the core examples of the successful nature of the Witcher is its quest system. Most games of this scale are filled with quests. Few are even decent. The Witcher 3 has managed to keep me interested in even its mundane quests. That’s a feat. So, today, I’d like to look at the Witcher 3’s quests and contrast them against other fantasy heavy weights in order to see why they are so good.
RPGs, like all major genres, are skewing towards the large open-world epic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the fantasy WRPG genre, which has always been rather large in scale thanks to Bethesda’s The Elder Scroll series. With a large world, however, comes a need to fill it with things to do. As an RPG, this means quests – the silly fantasy term gamers use for missions in many genres. The problem RPG developers run into rather quickly is that making good quests is difficult. A good quest requires writing, an interesting setting, and fun combat. A perfect quest would be its own self-contained story hidden in the main storyline. This is not the path most games tend to take. Below, I’d like to highlight two different approaches: Dragon Age: Inquisition and Skyrim.
Inquisition is a fun game, but the fun parts will only take you about two hours to complete. It is the most gluttonous representative of bad questing in an otherwise good game I’ve seen recently. It took me a long time to figure out what was wrong with Inquisition, but it finally came to me: the game is packed with boredom. There is so much to do in Inquisition. Every few minutes, you are encountering a new quest in some form or another. Content is great, so this should be a good thing, right? No, actually. Inquisition is the opposite of the Witcher 3 in terms of questing. Nearly every single quest is a chore to get through. I found myself not reading anything and skipping the dialogue because the entire thing bored me so much. And those are the quests with dialogue. A good portion of Inquisition’s quests were just collection quests, which are the laziest thing a developer can insert into a game. Collection quests aren’t fun. They’re simply padding, stretching out a game that simply didn’t have anything else to say. In total, Inquisition put out a ton of content, but next to none of it was good. It is the epitome of quantity not being as good as quality.
Skyrim handled things quite differently. There is plenty to do, but it’s more organic with almost every discoverable location having a mini-story around it. This was the most effective part of Skyrim, in my opinion. You never knew what interesting place and story you’d find around each cliff. Unfortunately, Skyrim was plagued with Bethesda’s on-going issue of having terrible, terrible writers. There is not a single remotely decent character in the game and the scripted quests are laughably bad. This is a shame because the attention to detail in the various caves and ruins really came alive. It’s too bad that things such as the Mage’s Guild questline were so boring and insultingly vapid.
The Witcher 3 takes more of an Inquisition approach to gaming, as it generally lacks the great location-specific stories of Skyrim. However, its developers clearly understood that filler quests are the bane of gamers. There is nothing worse than having an NPC ask you to fetch them some flowers, only to find that the flowers were growing in the NPC’s backyard. Why would they do this? I understand developers want to take it easy on gamers near the beginning of games, but the fact of the matter is that I rarely feel like I’m necessary in the questlines of most games.
*Spoilers on a minor, non-story quest below
With the Witcher 3, you’re a supernaturally strong monster hunter, something that is quite rare in the game. In one quest, I was tasked with finding a missing woman, and all of the peasants were pointing at the forest. In most games, I’d be whining “so why don’t you check the forest”. But the peasants were terrified of the forest. There was a pack of wolves that had been devouring all those who entered. It made sense. They weren’t super soldiers, and the enemies are quite tough even for a trained man like your main character. Then you realize that you’re enhanced senses are necessary to solve the mission. I found the body of the woman early on – easy quest, everything’s done. Except it wasn’t done. I then had the option to take some extra money from her sister, who seemed strangely upset. I pressed on, deciding to find the killer. It turned out to be a local hunter, who’d been turned into a werewolf. After tracking him down and beating him, it was revealed that the missing woman’s sister had let there werewolf eat her sister because she was in love with the hunter, but the hunter loved the missing woman. At the end, you have the option of killing the sister or the werewolf. I chose the werewolf. I don’t know what would have happened otherwise.
That’s one quest. Not an important one, in fact. What I’m finding with the Witcher 3 is that every quest has some sort of twist, a bit of moral ambiguity where everything isn’t so simple. In the rare events that things do line up nicely, it takes a lot of behind the scenes work from you to avoid things blowing up in your face. For example, multiple quests have different endings depending on the actions you take and the clues you unravel as you play. It’s easy to skip through to bad endings, but a good player, who’s on top of the situation will end up with a better story and better rewards.
Story has to be touched on briefly in order to explain the effectiveness of the Witcher’s quest system. In most games, NPCs are about the most boring and lifeless drones you’ll ever find. In the Witcher, the writing and voice acting goes a long way in making you care. This isn’t just some idiot with an exclamation point over his head – it feels like a real person. This helps the moral ambiguity and branching choices. You want what’s best for them and yourself. Lifeless characters and writing such as what we see in most RPGs would diminish the impact. There are no heart-wrenching decisions if you don’t care about the people you’re working for.
Boring quests are so much the norm in our industry that you don’t even notice them anymore. It took Dragon Age: Inquisition’s over-the-top level boring quests for me to even turn my mind to it. Fortunately, the same what Fallout: New Vegas taught me that an open world RPG can have interesting characters, the Witcher 3 has taught me that these kinds of games don’t need to be bogged down with endlessly boring lore and no substance or heart to back it up. Games like Dragon Age and Kingdoms of Amalur have tomes of backstory in their games, but without a delivery system for their most fundamental service – gameplay – there’s nothing. Quests can fuse gameplay and story in interesting ways. Few games understand this; the Witcher 3 does. If that’s not a good enough reason to play the game, then I don’t know what is.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer