It's Easy To Kill Monsters -- Fearing Or Respecting Them Is Another Story

It's not often I respect my enemies in a game — how could I? They're just a target. A bundle of HP. An obstacle. Something to conquer. But when you're a legendary Witcher, your (equally legendary) enemies demand respect. Monster hunting is not for the reckless; approaching creatures in the world of Temeria with an unsheathed sword can only get you so far.

You must educate yourself on your enemy. In this case, it means scavenging for information — you can ask townfolk what they know, you can pick up a book, sure. But the best way to learn is out there, on the field.

In this case, out in the middle of the Floatsam forest; that's where I'm at right now. I'm playing the Witcher 2 for the first time, actually — a couple of us here at Kotaku have (re)picked it up in anticipation of the recently announced The Witcher 3.

I'm a bit in awe of the sense of setting in this game, the forest in particular. It's bustling, it feels alive — like a creature onto itself. The paths wind further and further in, the foliage rustles in the wind. Frogs croak in the distance, beckoning me forward.

I can't see it, but I can hear the Endregas crawling down the trees as I navigate my way through the forest. Loathsome creatures, those ones. They look like giant reptile scorpions. Reptile scorpions that can spit poison: tell me that doesn't sound awful.

I learned about the poison first-hand — and learned that, given enough of them, an Endrega can take down a novice Witcher easy. Of course the villagers want these things gone.

Nekkers (another creature-type) on the other hand like to burrow in the ground. Until you get too close, that is. Then they'll burst out of the ground and attack. But finding their nests in the forest is no easy task — knowing the nests exist in the first place takes a few encounters and sharp eyes. It's a game that actually expects you to pay attention.

I can't look at them as just an obstacle in my way, because I know that without them, the world wouldn't need me, either.

I wasn't prepared for that, not at first. I've been babied! Games just tell me where everything is now. But the map in The Witcher 2 isn't much help, not that it denotes where my marks are anyway. I'll just have to find them on my own.

It feels like playing a game that respects me — respects my choices, respects my ability to figure quests out, respects my ability to scavenge for things. It's also remarkable how well the game builds the world up — in this specific case, the ferocity of monsters and the utter necessity of people like you, the monster-hunting Witchers.

I can't look at them as an obstacle in my way, because I know that without them, the world wouldn't need me, either. Also, they're terrifying and, initially at least, kind of a mystery to me. Both of these together creates a sense of respect and fear.

If only I hadn't undermined that all. As fearsome as, say, the Endrega queen is (think a much huger, much more difficult Endrega), it's still just AI. If I played by 'the rules,' it would destroy me with ease. So what did I do? I abused its attack radius by going way farther than its AI would let it, and I also made sure it got stuck on stuff so I could wail on it easily.

I'm ashamed. The queen deserved more, I know. My gaming neurosis — the one that does look at enemies like bundles of HP — won out.

Thankfully, The Witcher 2 put me back in my place. This was my next contract, the Kraken-like Kayran. Look at it:

You have to defeat that thing. It's huge. And, admittedly, how you go about killing it isn't clear — what preparations do you take? And once in battle, how do you damage that thing?

Normally that would seem like obtuse game design, but in this case, again, it's really just a game that requires you to pay attention and deduce. You have to ask yourself, what would a Witcher do? A Witcher might ingest potions, might set traps, might learn more and observe the creature. And those are all things you can do, obviously, but the game leaves most of that up to you.

I'm nearing the end of act 1 now, but I'm looking forward to (if not dreading!) what other creatures the game throws my way.

Like Return To New Vegas, we're doing a series that looks back on an older game — in this case, The Witcher 2. Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks.


    Lovely, good read but soon after this part there's a really bad checkpoint (or lack of) where you fight two difficult bosses one after the other without warning. Can't wait to see more!

    That was a great boss. One that I was pretty puzzled how to beat and ashamedly looked at a guide for. There is definitely a line of logic that I should have considered but I guess a lot of other games have trained my habits.

    I hated that boss and I uninstalled the game soon after. Just way too obtuse and needlessly difficult. Why can't you use a potion in combat? You just can't. So unless you hit the potion BEFORE the cutscene, that you have no warning is about to appear, you don't get too.

    Yes I wasn't man enough for the witcher 2. I bailed as I play games for fun. If it's not fun, I uninstall.

    Doesn't Sile shout advice at you when you're fighting the Kayran? It's really not that obtuse.

      Indeed. If you understand RPGs, (talk to people in town, level up, stock up) figuring out how to defeat it is pretty hand fed, actually doing it is a bit more difficult on the setting I played (hard). After this I had no troubles with bosses though one bruiser was fairly tough.

      Even the 9-headed dragon crab thing was pretty easy by comparison.

      Incidentally , said bruiser is my favourite character in this game.

    I played the Witcher on the hardest difficulty, like all self respecting gamers should. If you play games on normal you WILL see enemies as obstacles or bundles of HP. On normal difficulty, games provide you with a laughable illusion of danger, on the hardest difficulty you will learn to fear creatures. On normal you see a particular enemy and you walk up to it and make it dead, on the hardest difficulty the very sound of a creature somewhere up ahead will give you chills and raise your heartbeat. On normal difficulty you walk into a cave like a cleaner, ready to clear it out. On the hardest difficulty walking into a cave makes you genuinely afraid of what lurks within.

      You might fear them on the hardest difficulty. Me? I would fear them the first few times. After a few deaths, I would hate them beyond all reason. After a few more deaths, I would stop playing and miss out on the rest of a truly magnificent game. I honestly can't comprehend why some people see added difficulty settings as valid ways to add replayability or extend playtime. Is it a 'test of skill' thing? The sense of elation when you beat the thing that's been killing you for the past hour and a half? I'm not trying to be antagonistic, I'm genuinely curious.

      I just want to immerse myself in the story and the setting, which is rather difficult if I'm dying every five minutes to things the mythos of my character says I should be able to take down with little risk.

        Most gamers seem shot scared of a challenge. Most gamers think if they turn up the heat, even one difficulty notch, their game will become a controller throwing nightmare. Most of the gamers I know have been playing for at least a decade and still run straight to normal. In my opinion most gamers are selling themselves short of an extra measure of fun.

        Do you want the holodeck? Or do you want a Disney ride?

        Let me explain. The holo deck, from Star Trek makes you feel like you're there, you can actual fail, the danger feels real and it's up to you to win the day.

        The Disney ride however is the opposite, there's no danger, an animatronic looms forward and the host yells into the microphone 'watch out' but you smile and laugh cause you know the ride will turn and let you pass. At the end the host thanks you for saving the day but you just sat on your ass and let the ride run its course.

        Easy video games run the course, they don't really try to stop you, they shoot back, but they eventually take a fall and let you pass and like a Disney ride you know you haven't really done anything amazing.

        When you play a hard difficulty you are challenged, you improve and get sharper and learn to beat your enemies through actual cunning. Your enemies don't give up easily so when your topple them and your sweaty hands release the controller you actually feel like you've accomplished something. When someone rewards you with some lot for deleting a boss you cherish it more when you had to better yourself as a gamer to earn it.

        That's the key word. Earn. Playing on normal is a guaranteed victorious voyage on the un-fail-able Disney ride. Conquering something on hard mode earns you a genuine feeling of beating something that pushed you to get better.

        It's nothing to do with manliness or bragging or being an Internet hero, it's all about getting more out of your game. I insist you crank your next game up a notch, just one. Like a fitness freak that gets joy out of the burn and stretching you just might enjoy it.

          Definitely true words of gaming wisdom @shadow.

          Though one problem with Medium/Standard difficulty is that for some games, like Ninja Gaiden, the standard difficulty is the equivalent of 'Hard' for other games. While many more modern games, 'Standard' difficulty feels like 'Easy' - which also means 'Easy' is actually 'Very Easy.'

          My rule is 'Medium' or higher for it to Count. though I will always play a game on 'Medium' on the first playthrough for a reasonable challenge Vs Story Experience, and also to gauge what the Developers have decided as the 'Standard Balance' for their game.
          Then work my way up the difficulty 'Tiers' - Tiers is the definitive word when I think about it...

          Another interesting note, on your point, is that many games do not come into their own until you raise the difficulty to the highest levels! Many games are actually better on the highest difficulties, and you really get to see how Smart the AI actually is (or cheap - stealth games where the enemies run straight to where you are hiding even though they haven't "seen" you...), and which generates true respect for the given world.

          A few examples are Bioshock, Thief, Metal Gear Solid and Fallout: New Vegas' survival mode.

          And if you stick to the "Medium or Higher or it doesn't Count." Your friends will feel ashamed and will stop playing on Easy and expecting Kudos for doing so ;)

            I can respect a game's setting an characters without having it beaten into me. In fact, I find that respect comes not from the other trying to prove it is superior to you or vice versa - that just seems extremely immature. If anything, it would be the game gaining respect for you as you overcome its increasing challenges.

            And I don't expect Kudos for beating games on lower difficulties; I don't expect Kudos for beating a game on any difficulty. That's not why I play games.

              Ah, that was a generalised reply with my view on the subject - not a personal jab :)

                My mistake, I didn't mean that to sound so antagonistic. :3 I was just a little flustered by that concept of gaining respect for the game world through hostility. If someone hits me in the face, I don't respond with praise for their strength; I ask them to not do it again, and leave if they continue. I respect them less, not more. My attitude towards games is the same.

                However it was precisely comments like these that I've received in the past in response to these enquiries, and they have always generated more questions than they answered. There's always a gap in the logic that I can't seem to fill, and it irks me... But, again, not your problem, and no excuse on my part.

          Although I understand and respect your point of view I also think there are other mitigating circumstances in someone's decision to play on "normal" or "hard" etc.
          One of these is time. The harder the game the longer it is more likely to take for you to finish it. The longer it will also take between save points etc. And for many of us we simply don't have the luxury of being able to spend that amount of time on a video game. We may be able to squeeze in a couple of hours a week (if that) but that's it. So we want to be able to sit down and play a game for 30mins and feel like we are getting somewhere. Not just getting dead a lot. And we also want to make sure we have a chance of finishing the game in a respectable amount of time.

          The other thing to me is it depends on why you play games. For some, like it seems to be with yourself, it's the enjoyment of the challenge. That feeling of accomplishment you get from doing something difficult. Actually, that's likely to be the case for many gamers. But for a lot of people it is also about buying into the world, the story. It's a movie where they have direct control and can affect the outcome of. For people that play for these reasons they may play it on normal simply because they are more interested in seeing how the story plays out then in that sense of accomplishment. I put myself in this later category. Although there is a sense of accomplishment in finishing the game.

          Actually I will throw in a third reason as well. I like to play a game on an easier difficulty to get used to the controls and how the game feels. This is especially the case with games on my PS3 as I came very late to console gaming (as in my PS3 was my first console) so I am still getting used to the control mechanics. I like to give myself time to get used to it before upping the difficulty.

          However, you have done one thing. You have at least made me think about upping the difficulty on the next game I play. Just to see how this feeling of accomplishment thing works out. :)

          Thanks for taking the time to respond. I ask this question every now and then, and every time I get a slightly different answer, that gets me close to something I can understand. Most answers I get encourage me to try it, and I have - after all, what justification do I have to ask about something if I'm unwilling to do some preliminary investigation myself? I have tried it repeatedly over the last decade, yet it still baffles me.

          I think I understand what you're talking about with respect to "earning your progress"... I played Dark Souls for a month or so. I felt that I earned every victory, and every death taught me something - a certain pattern in enemy movements, which enemies to simply avoid, which I could sneak up on. I enjoyed it immensely. I think it was a special case, however, as the general way it handled death made sense - the world didn't just go back to what it was before your last save, it persisted, and it didn't break the rules of the world. Death was not immersion-breaking in that game.

          However when it took me half a day to get past one boss, and the only way I got past was through sheer luck, all I felt was relief that it was over. Beating that boss was no more rewarding than winning a raffle - I made an investment, and my skill level allowed me a certain chance that I would succeed; it was only a matter of time until statistics landed in my favour. The first few deaths gave me knowledge; the next forty did not. I didn't feel I'd earned it, I felt I'd got lucky, and that came back to bite me when I was standing outside the area for the next boss fight a few hours later, knowing I'd only repeat the experience.

          I've tried a number of other games, and in almost every case, it came down to the same experience - feeling I had won through perseverance and playing the odds - and it cheapened the whole experience for me. Very early on in my gaming days, when I was playing Pokemon on an old Gameboy brick, I learned that I could lose as many times as I liked, but I only had to win once to progress, and a win through luck held the same outcome as a win through skill.

          I can understand the Holodeck vs Disney Ride analogy, although I don't like either extreme. I do have a horrible tendency of deconstructing analogies, however, so forgive me if I miss the point... I don't enjoy CoD (or similar) because they are like Disney Rides - no interaction barring the most elementary FPS mechanic, and no story to keep you interested. The idea of being able to reach the conclusion, however, is far more appealing than being forced to stop halfway through a good story. The Holodeck, on the other hand, is just a recreation tool. It can create challenging experiences (which really are just as harmless as the Disney Ride, when you think about it), but it can just as easily create immersive, story-driven experiences (Picard's Dixon Hill program, for example, or Geordi's Holmes). The Holodeck only illustrates the same point that baffles me - Warf likes combat simulations, because of his upbringing, his position in the crew, and his need to feel ready for any eventuality; Picard likes to relax in the 1920s and immerse himself in the role of another that he finds more interesting. The skills Warf trains are transferrable to his daily life. The vast majority of skills required to beat higher difficulties in modern games are non-transferrable; such skills exist only for their own sake. So why bother?

            Would you believe that I didn't really like Dark Souls?

            I really appreciated what the game was trying to do but I found it unpolished and the controls weren't very tight. I hold a platinum medal in every Trials HD and Trials Evolution track and skill game so I'm obsessed with perfecting controls and Dark Souls on the Xbox 360 seemed sloppy. And the problem with the bosses was that most of them were cheap and didn't reward skill as much as they rewarded finding almost glitch like ways of beating them.

            I love a challenge. but I can't stand a cheap obstacle. When I played Assassin's Creed 3 I found it hard to get 100% synch cause the game was so cheap and unpredictable but something like Trials rewards practice. So the situation you're describing with Dark Souls does sound pretty crap and I wouldn't really feel much satisfaction from raffle-like victories.

            But to me it's having some consistency between the story and the mechanics. Take Skyrim for example. I cranked the difficulty straight to Master and the world came alive. When NPCs talk about the tundra being a dangerous place they're suddenly not wrong. On Master difficulty you feel genuine peril and fear. You make sure to pack for a journey like your life was genuinely in danger making sure to have provisions for every situation. The game become like an episode of Man vs Wild. I once found myself frozen with fear at the sound of a dragon's screech overhead and took shelter under a large rock until it moved on. You find yourself paying attention to EVERYTHING. Every swaying plant catches your eye. The world is SO much more alive, the colours seem so much more vivid and you notice more of the details of the world when a harder difficulty demands you be 100% aware and present. When you play on easy you can go into auto pilot and take the world for granted. you come across a corpse and srug at it's contents but on Master you can find provisions that could save your life. When you play on harder levels the game often forces you to participate in the world and it's systems more fully than you would on easier levels because you need to suqeeze every last part out of it to thrive or survive. And when you get to the point where you can cross that tundra without fearing everything that moves you feel like you deserve it. Becoming powerful feels better when you don't just start of as Conan the Barbarian.

            Basically when you play on harder levels the game is genuinely trying to thrawrt you and on easier levels the game is virtually letting you win, it forgives your mistakes and turns a blind eye when you let your guard down. To me, playing a game on easier levels is like playing something like chess or darts with someone who is letting you win. You never feel like you've really won unless you know they were actively trying to beat you and you bested them.

            That's not to say I don't love a power fantasy. I love the days of putting God mode and unlimited ammo on and haveing a good laugh. It all depends on what mood you're in.

            But I will say that when I see my friends, many of whom have been gaming for 25 + years, throw in a game and play on normal I know without a doubt they are better than that.

              That's... an interesting way to put it. I've never heard of anyone comparing Skyrim to some sort of... well, the term that comes to mind is "fantasy-simulation". I can sort of appreciate that, and I can certainly understand it. I also know that I don't have the skills or time necessary to fully appreciate that type of game. :P

              I'm just after a good story; I play for the same reason I'd read a book or watch a (good) movie, to immerse myself in the story and the environment. Never really been into competition, so the concept of "beating" a game never really made any sense to me (and only added to my confusion), but give me a good story and an interesting, freely navigable environment filled with stuff to discover? I'm there. I never even thought about difficulty adding to that type of immersion... I still don't see how you can apply the same thing to a game where your character is pre-established as someone powerful (Geralt, for example), but I'll be stewing on this for quite some time.

              Thankyou, for that precious kernel of understanding. You've given me a lot to think about.

                The concept of 'beating' a game makes complete sense to me cause I'm 33 and I grew up with the NES amd arcades when games were experiences that could be failed, you could run out of lives and see game over and lose everything. When I got a new NES game I was completely accepting of the fact that I mightn't possess the skill to ever get to the end. Sometimes a game would take months on end of gradual progression, getting further and further each day. It was very satisfying. In fact I never beat Batman on the NES. But I did beat TMNT and Punchout, a feat that few people can claim.

                These days games are far more cinematic and narrative driven and don't get me wrong, I'm no nostalgia buff, I think games are better this way. I could never go back to the old days, I don't like pixel art games. I love new shiny stuff and voice acting and living immersive worlds. I guess that these days we no longer 'beat' games, we finish them, we arrive at the end, and we expect to. In fact if we get caught on a bit too long we start to say its poorly designed and not working properly.

                So I guess I like a balance. I don't want a game to just let me pass. Otherwise what's the point of playing it if it requires some arbitrary participation that can be passed with minimal commitment? But I don't want the brutal old school days where a games story took the back seat (well, sometimes I do, games like Trials are pure leader board competition play) and it was about technical skill and muscle memory. I too want to experience the story and have lived in the world. But part of that experience is enhanced by the difficulty and hardship of the experience. The fear of failing and the feeling of genuine accomplishment go hand in hand with narrative. For me, and not everyone is like this, the feeling of accomplishment is tied directly to challenge. Imagine two dials, as you dial the challenge down the accomplishment follows and the opposite is the same.

                But like you've said, you've tried it and I commend you for stepping out of your comfort zone. I like to encourage gamers to try going a bit harder, purely because I believe that they might be missing out on a better experience. I believe a lot of gamers have set up camp in the world of normal difficulty and there might be a richer experience waiting for them at the changing of a simple menu option.

                If someone else is reading this and want to spice up your gaming, I double dare you to play the next game you buy on hard.

                And that's interesting what you said about Geralt, I never thought about that. He IS supposed to be this powerful badass. I suppose it does go a bit against the nature of his character.

                I ran into an interesting glitch in the third and final act of The Witcher 2 on Xbox. I became invincible. I googled it and I'm not alone. For some reason I became immune to damage of any kind. The final few battles and boss fights were completely impossible to fail, all I had to do was swing my sword and kill the enemies but they couldn't damage me. I didn't have to consider what positions to brew and what oils to apply and what equipment to take. It really and truly deflated my experience. I felt robbed of what looked like some really difficult boss battles. It really broke the game for me.

                Strange glitch that one, never encountered a glitch that made me invincible!

            Oh, and the holodeck analogy was heavily flawed. I couldn't think of anything better. I was just trying to describe the difference to me that is actually being IN a world and having to make your way through that world or the alternative with just taking a trip through the world in which you're virtually a passenger.

    Hmm... I really should get around to finishing this sometime before TW3 comes out. Got stuck trying to get everything done about three-quarters(?) of the way through act 3...

    I just finished this recently. I would say one of my top 5 games of all time. It was a game that had such a great world and characters. I hope they maintain the same level of detail when moving to a more open world format in number 3.

    I found that by the game making even common enemies potentially deadly (on hard) it made the game more fun. You had to always be alert when in the wild. So it actually felt like "the wild".

    What is it these days with people who pick up a game like Witcher 2 and then QQ about how hard it is and how it's not fun?

    That's like getting upset that Sim City is a city management game.

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