The Witcher 3. It just won't leave us alone. It won't get out of our heads.
While most of us here at Kotaku have at least dabbled in the game, four of us have been playing it regularly, and just can't stop talking about it. So we sat down yesterday to discuss just what about the game is making it so hard to put down, even months after its release. This should be a game that everyone has burned through by now, but nope!
Note that while Kirk and Patrick have finished the game, Nathan is still in Velen and Luke only just hit Kaer Morhen. So while there won't be end-game spoilers, there are still going to be plenty of spoilers if you're still early on in the game (which many of you still are, which is kinda what we're talking about!).
Luke Plunkett: The Witcher 3 is like nothing I've ever seen or played before. I've never seen a game this DENSE. Normally, when you play through a big singleplayer adventure, like Skyrim or Mass Effect, there's a short pause online (in forums or sites or whatever) before everyone can start blabbing about the story and the ending.
Whereas with TW3, the game came out, everyone loved it, then there's like this...void. Like everyone playing it was sucked into this darkness, and now even months later loads of people aren't finished, because the game is so damn big, and so damn good.
Kirk Hamilton: I do think that Dragon Age was kind of like this. But yeah, that "pause" has been noticeable.
Patrick Klepek: Man, I think that's because the side quests are SO GOOD. The "content," to use a crass term, is memorable. You want to see everything the world offers. Typically with these game, I hit a certain point where I realise I'm playing padded quests simply meant to fill the world, and I start hitting the gas on the main storyline. I never really hit that point with Witcher 3 -- I forced myself to skip most of what's available in the last main area so I could see the game's ending.
Nathan Grayson: Yeah, I've been doing *everything*, so I'm nearly 60 hours in, and I haven't even made it to Skellige yet.
Luke: Right, and that's what I wanted to lead into. I think that's exactly the thing. In other games people can blow through the "campaign", get the meat off the bone, then spend weeks dicking around and finishing off side-quests. Whereas with TW3, the writing and design of the sidequests is SO GOOD that people are afraid to leave any of them on the table. They're spending 30-50 hours before even leaving the game's first area.
Kirk: Yeah, I've now played the game in two very different ways. The first time through, when I was reviewing it, past a certain point I just started blowing past stuff since I felt like I "got it" and I wanted to finish. On my second playthrough, I've seen just about everything, and it's ridiculous how much I missed on that first playthrough. I mean… I just did the Wolven Armour treasure hunt, and wound up exploring Kaer Morhen. Did you know that the Kaer Morhen map is huge? There is a ton of stuff to find there!
Patrick: You could say "did you know that the [blank] is huge? There is a ton of stuff to find there!" for everything in the game. I constantly find myself genuinely surprised how many tiny secrets are hidden away.
There is not much bullshit in Witcher 3, and it's part of a genre known for it.
Luke: Think of the Bloody Baron, and the precedent it sets. It starts off like a bullshit fetch quest, like any other fantasy RPG. Travel here, kill something, travel there, kill something else. In terms of gameplay, there's little new or interesting there.
But what I think CD Projekt have done that's so amazing is to spend their time and effort on the padding around that gameplay. With the Bloody Baron, what you THINK is going to be this boring trudge through a swamp shithole actually sets the tone for the rest of the game. "Hey, there's some serious shit going on here, and what happens in terms of characters and narrative is going to haunt you, so soak it up and choose carefully"
What Kirk said about blowing past stuff is actually the LAST thing you want to be doing!
Patrick: And I think you point to what makes everything so memorable: the writing. What you're often doing, gameplay wise, is not that interesting. But it's the context it's wrapped in that's everything.
(I am not saying the gameplay or combat is bad, however!)
Luke: (oh, no, the combat is great!)
Kirk: The game's story has a propensity for taking extreme narrative left-turns, to the point where you're saying "is this shit really happening?" to yourself as you play. For example: If you recap the events of the Bloody Baron quest, as Nathan did in the article he wrote about it at a certain point you start saying "wait, this is a real thing that is happening in a video game in 2015?"
Luke: It's absurd. It's all absurd. But because the world as it's presented is so real, and dense, and lived-in, you actually take all these turns in stride. Sure, OK, there's an aborted baby demon we've got to play nice with, why not, let's roll with it, everyone else seems cool about it.
This is the kind of thing that happens in The Witcher 3, because the characters and world make me believe it's actually "normal".
Kirk: "It's absurd. It's all absurd." - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku. Now that's a box quote for ya.
Nathan: If I have one complaint, though, it's that some of the things you end up doing over and over do kinda grate after a while. Basically, I agree with patrick. I'm tired of following footprints in witcher vision
Patrick: There are too many question marks, though.
I do not want to blow up another monster nest -- ever.
Nathan: I took to using them as something to do while travelling between bigger quests
I tried to minimise fast travel, and enjoy my rides across various areas.
Kirk: Also, witcher vision gives me a headache. It's just not pleasant to look at, on the screen.
Patrick: The question marks are interesting because they're basically just a way for the game to dole out some cheap experience, but even though I followed Kirk's recommendation to play the game on a harder difficulty level, about 20 hours in, I was blowing through the game like nobody's business. I wish I could have just paid a vendor for those things to get identified on the map.
Kirk: I'm looking forward to New Game + for that very reason. Even on Blood And Broken Bones, the game is too easy.
Luke: I think the "easiness" is part of the game's overall approach, though. From the fact they call the first difficulty level "story only" to just how much stock is put in the cutscenes and narrative, I think they were very careful not to alienate people from progressing through the plot just because they couldn't beat a monster.
Kirk: Which: Fair enough. And I should say that even at level 34, I still can't just snooze my way through high-level fights. It's still fun. So… back to the sidequests for a second. Everyone's talked about The Bloody Baron a lot, but I'm curious what actual sidequests you guys liked. I really liked "Of Dairy And Darkness," the one where you explore the lair of the Tyromancer -- Cheese Wizard -- and get the Cheese Sword. The whole thing cracked me up.
Luke: I...don't even know what that is.
Luke: My favourites so far are the one with the ghost girl in the tower, who was eaten by rats, and one on Skellige that we might talk more about later once Nathan bails.
Patrick: That girl, holy shit.
They just quietly gloss over how she died, and it took me a second to realise what they were saying.
Luke: The ghost one just haunts me. A few sidequests have had a real profound effect on me, sticking with me long after I've put the controller down, but the rat one especially. There's just something about the way she breaks down talking about how rats ate her alive, and she couldn't scream because there were rats in her mouth....ugh, just so fucking gross, so bleak, so heart-breaking.
Kirk: Yeah, that was hardcore. How did you resolve that quest?
Patrick: I brought the girl back to the guy. And she…well, she promptly killed him and then went to venture into the world.
Luke: Yeah, me too. big mistake.
Nathan: I (accidentally) let her have ghostly rat vengeance. But when I realised what happened I was like, 'eh, I'm kinda alright with that.'
Patrick: I like how there's no resolution. Just…yep, she's out there being a fucking ridiculous ghost killing things.
The game does a really good job of that all the time, honestly -- dangling resolution.
Luke: I think the "no resolution" thing is what makes so many of these so special. Bloody Baron is obviously the same: there's sadness and emptiness in that plotline regardless of how you decide it. This isn't a game that's going to give you "good" and "bad" results very often.
Patrick: One of my favourite quests was the one where you come across the false god under the temple. Who's been secretly telling people to bring him shit through a hole in the ground.
Kirk: Oh THAT one.
Luke: Oh, he was GREAT. And the two morons up top worshipping him. Again, such a simple little quest, but so memorable for the design and writing.
Kirk: Yeah, that was a great one! Ha. I think I talked him into pissing off, didn't have to fight him. I don't think I've seen another of that type of monster in the entire game.
Patrick: I loved how I resolved that one, too: you tell them to maybe check around sometime. Or, at least, I did. So I know that one day they will find him.
But that's for my imagination to wonder about. (Or maybe the expansions.)
Kirk: Yeah, I bet the expansions will have all sorts of easter eggs referring to the ways you've resolved quests. Or at least, I hope so.
Nathan: I can't even imagine what they will do with the expansions. all the opportunities for choices to tie back in. I hope they take full advantage of that
Kirk: Maybe instead you'll just play as Roach, and it will be a standalone adventure.
Nathan: That's my idea. I'm gonna make a twine game of it.
Kirk: Geralt is kidnapped! And Roach must save him.
Luke: Maybe you'll play as Ciri, and be constantly interrupted by annoying Geralt sequences where you can't loot stuff.
Kirk: Where you CAN loot stuff but… it just vanishes into thin air. What happened to all the pants and swords Ciri picked up? The world will never know.
Patrick: As an aside, Ciri's combat was really damn fun. I always wanted to play as her more. Some of the powers you get with her later in the game are so, so cool.
Kirk: Any game that lets me teleport behind enemies and cut them apart is cool by me.
There's a part right after that story where Geralt says he's worried about Ciri, and Dandelion is like "You've clearly never seen her fight!"
Patrick: Yeah, they made her really empowering, and I thought it underscored how much care the game took to make powerful, complex women for Geralt to play off of.
He may have been the main character, but it often felt like their story.
I mean, arguably, without getting into spoilers, it's really a story about Ciri.
Kirk: Yeah, there are even places where people say that explicitly. And I bought it, in the end. I mean, you do control Geralt for most of the game, but there were lots of little things that underlined the fact that you weren't actually making any decisions for Ciri. You were just defining Geralt's relationship with her. It was an interesting approach, and by and large a successful one.
Luke: That and Yennifer basically owns Geralt. Which, again, is constantly reinforced through your chats with other characters.
Kirk: I love Yennifer. I know lots of people don't like her, but… love.
Luke: I do too, like everyone else in the game, she's a lot more complex and imperfect than first seems.
Nathan: I'm so upset! I messed up my romance stuff with her, permanently
Kirk: It's ok, I promise. You'll get a cool ending no matter what. Though it does bug me that you can "lock" yourself into one lady or the other so early, without really realising what it was that triggered it.
Nathan: And like, what about expansion repercussions? This stuff matters a lot to me in these sorts of games -- for some reason. I think it's because I am deeply, deeply lonely.
Nathan: (it's a joke! suffering is funny). But yeah, it's frustrating. I'm still considering loading a save from, like, eight hours ago
Luke: I'd say start again. Seriously, you've got so much more to go, you may as well. Which brings me to: Skellige. Sorry, Nathan.
Nathan: No worries! I said my thing.
MORE SPOILERS AHEAD
Luke: Skellige! I was initially almost disappointed to land on Skellige. I'd spent so much time in Velen and Novograd that it felt like leaving home, that all those storylines and bonds I'd made had just been torn away from me.
Thankfully, Skellige is badass, and has its own memorable storylines and sidequests, maybe better even than those earlier in the game.
Patrick: Also, realising how BIG that place is. On the main map, it looks like an island. I figured Skellige would trigger the end game, you'd wrap up a few quests, bada bing.
Nope, quite the opposite.
Luke: Nope. Instead, you've got hours and hours of Norse madness ahead, as you play kingmaker, solve the Great Bear Mystery, kill a giant and throw a fucking baby in an oven.
Kirk: Skellige is the moment when the game goes from "huge" to "unmanageable." I skipped so much of it the first time through, and on my second playthrough, I'm finding it's RIDICULOUS how much there is to do there. Like… how about that mission on the cursed isle, where you help whatsisname defeat the giant? That would be a story mission in any other game.
Luke: It's great! A really cool instanced quest, from the giant itself to the crazy old guy boarded up in the ship below, forced to build the giant a boat to escape the flood.
Patrick: (Did you guys let the guy out of the cage?)
Luke: (I didn't, and whoops, sorry brah)
Kirk: I'm actually trying to remember… I can't remember! I think I did. And he fought alongside us.
Patrick: Yes, you did. You are not a monster.
Luke: If you leave him in there, he gets smashed into red paste, and everyone just shrugs and gets on with life. THE SKELLIGE WAY.
So Skellige, yeah, has some great sidequests. One more memorable than any other. While the rat girl and bloody baron quests as a whole were probably more enjoyable, there's a moment on skellige where I just lost my shit.
When you're tricking the spirit out of the Jarl, and you're asked to throw a live human baby into an oven
The game gives you one of those countdown timers for IMPORTANT DECISIONS, and you have to choose, on the spot, to basically incinerate an innocent human baby or chicken out and get a sucky quest ending.
Patrick: Yeah, wow. Wait, did you not put the baby in?
Luke: No, i did. I YouTube'd the other ending just to confirm.
Patrick: Good, I don't want to be alone here.
Luke: Here's the thing: so we know later, in the end it turns out OK. You throw it in, Jarl gets sad, and then later it turns out the baby is fine, because it was all part of an elaborate trick and the baby got taken out a secret door and is alive and you're not actually a monster.
BUT YOU DON'T KNOW THAT AT THE TIME.
Patrick: You most definitely do the fuck not.
Luke: This game asked me if I wanted to murder a baby, and again, because TW3's world and tone was so ingrained in me, I looked at the decision and made it, with the expectation I was actually murdering a baby. I felt like complete shit.
Patrick: I mostly wanted to see what would happen, honestly. I figured that game might actually have the balls to kill a baby.
Luke: Right! I was almost disappointed in a sick way that it hadn't, because after the Bloody Baron stuff killing a baby seemed to be a very Witcher 3 thing to do.
Kirk: I loved that entire quest, for a few reasons. I cooked the baby but I was betting it wasn't for real, since Cerys said for me to trust her. I had it figured. What I really loved about that mission was the monster -- the Hym. It was so fucking cool!
Kirk: The Hym and Leshens, two monsters that are immeasurably freakier and cooler than the kinds of monsters we get in most fantasy RPGs. Did you guys fight the Leshen on Skelligen? Where you have to choose between the town elder and the younger guy?
Luke: What? I don't know this quest either!
Patrick: Nah, I skipped a great majority of Skellige, sadly. Are the Leshens the creepy wood deer people?
Kirk: Yeah, Leshens are the wooden relict monsters who control nature. They look like a nightmare I had after watching The Blair Witch Project.
Patrick: I had to start moving on from Witcher 3, which is why I fast tracked my way through Skellige. I cannot wait to see more of it when the expansions hit, and I have a reason to boot it up again.
Kirk: There is no "moving on" from The Witcher 3, Patrick. You just play it forever, and ever, and ever...
Luke: I really can see myself doing that, in the same way people still play Skyrim in 2015. I only just hit Kaer Morhen, and feel like I've been playing for 200 hours, and could play 200 more. I've barely touched the ! missions.
And then there's just so much more to this game beyond the scripted quests. I decided one day to go exploring in Velen, and ventured down the South-West coast, where the map said there weren't many towns or missions available.
I got down there and just spent hours riding around, and...there's stuff there! Unwritten lore and world-building. Turns out the area is full of cannibals and pirates, which was a nice change from the drowners and sirens I'd normally been running into. They had beach camps, they'd attacked and pillaged local towns that needed help...it felt like a user-made Witcher 3 expansion, in a way, and might be the moment I REALLY fell in love with this game. Just seeing how much scope and #content there was on offer for a singleplayer gaming tragic like myself.
Kirk: Yeah, I've got those northern Skellige islands on my list. When I reviewed all the DLC additions, I easily spent 10 or so hours just playing through it all. And that was moving really fast, and being significantly overleveled for most of it.
Luke: And what makes it "worse" is that, unlike most games, it doesn't feel like a shopping list going around and doing these. It's not just a completionist checklist. There's the potential that each empty spot on the map or seemingly random sidequest will be another super memorable storyline, full of weird characters and big decisions.
Instead of "oh god, more Witcher 3", it's "hell yeah, more Witcher 3".
Patrick: Whereas Dragon Age Inquisition felt like it was wasting my time with its side quests -- no, I don't want to collect another thing -- Witcher 3 gives you meaningfully world building and characters.
So many games struggle to fill their worlds, and Witcher 3 did it very, very well.
Kirk: Oh, yeah. It's not REALLY complaining, I know that. It's funny, though. When you get to a new interesting dungeon and it's like "Oh, fuck my life." But it's the best sort of reason to say that.
Patrick: I don't think it's necessarily something others can copy -- hey, write good shit -- but it's a start.
Kirk: Ha, yeah. "The most useful lesson other RPG developers can learn from The Witcher 3 is to write good sidequests and make everything feel well thought-out and interesting."