I have spent the last year and a half slowly picking away at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and now that I have finally sat down and finished it off I thought I’d take my time to collate my thoughts on why this game has been constantly on my mind for the last year and a half, even during the long periods between actually picking it up, and why it should be held up as the benchmark for open world games going forward.
The Witcher 3 is a vast game, but for all its miles and miles of open, explorable landscape it never feels empty or bland or characterless in the way so many other open world titles do. It focuses in on your story within that world, giving your character context within that world before you’ve even picked up the controller, meaning that interactions with the various characters have extra depth and you feel like a singular part of the world rather than the reason the world exists.
I am exactly the kind of person who loves dropping into an open world and wander around it ticking off the boxes. It is the reason I put days of my life into Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag without touching the plot, it’s the reason I put 25 or so hours into Fallout 4 despite being fully aware for at least half of that time that I didn’t really like Fallout 4. These are games designed for you to run around in, and the plots are secondary, they act as vehicles for you gaining special abilities or changing things about the world.
The Witcher 3 takes those aspects and makes them part of the story. There are caves to find, in which there might be a sword that comes with a stack of lore or a diagram for special Witcher armour, adding back story. There are fetch quests to do for NPCs you meet in towns, but the characters asking you to carry out fairly mundane tasks are interesting and charming to interact with. For example, there’s the troll that would like you to find some paint for a boat he wants to fix up as an apology to a nearby town for killing several of the residents. 20 minutes of game time that gives a whole new context to relationships between the inhabitants of this world. Equally important are the NPCs who have no interest in interacting with you. They’re busy, they have things to do, you are not the centre of this world.
Above the basic fetch quests you get contracts; a member of the public requires help killing a monster that is either killing people or stealing from them or damaging their farm, the list of reasons go on. Often, these can be fairly simple. Investigate the scene, work out what the monster is, prepare, go kill it. It can almost be quite boring at times, and that actually helps you get into character more: this is his job, it’s not meant to be fun. The contracts change up enough for them not to all feel like reskins. The characters presenting them all have backstory and incentive, and you regularly get drawn into some kind of dispute between people in a town, or having to decide the way to deal with the monster. A personal favourite was one where a man asks you to kill three trolls because they apparently made off with his friends. Upon investigation it turns out the dead men in question were actually trying to rob the trolls, and they acted in self defence. Here the game lets you choose how to end the quest; kill them anyway and get paid, or leave them to it and tell man his friends got what they deserved. I picked the latter, of course.
All of the extra stuff to do in the game world helps add to your experience, it’s not just there for the grind or to flesh the game out. Of course you don’t have to do it, and the difficult levels on offer here are flexible enough to either force you to do everything and read everything, or skip everything except the main story. By contrast, Final Fantasy XV seems to imply that a lot of its side content has greater game impact than just being fetch quests, but reality is the exact opposite. It pushes you to do that content, when there is very little gain from it.
The world of The Witcher 3 is one designed to help you tackle the plot at your own pace, and in your own way, within reason. Being a fixed character gives you context in the world; people know Geralt is a witcher and this knowledge impacts on what they ask of him. The choices you do get to make are the kind of person Geralt is. It regularly gives you the opportunity to judge people should you so choose to do so, and the quality of the writing is so high that these decisions are rarely simple good/evil choices. Yes, the Bloody Baron is a truly awful person who deserves all kinds of bad things to happen to him, but that doesn’t mean his daughter is, and it doesn’t mean him dying will make things better for the people in Crow’s Perch. Both expansions to the game add further moral decisions to make about people, underlining the fact that the characters you interact with feel like people. They aren’t just good or bad, they have complex moralities based on their experiences in this world. They have convictions about how they acted that they give reasoned support for. Sure, in Blood & Wine Syanna definitely got a lot of people killed, but she had her reasons and by the end of it I found myself almost siding with her, and doing my best to ensure it ended relatively well for her (I think I got the best ending here).
The Witcher 3 also does a fantastic job of turning the world on its head at just the right times, and it happens so rarely that the sense of wonder you get exploring these magic new areas is always fresh and exciting. The plane hopping to find allies towards the end of the main game and the fairy tale land at the end of Blood & Wine are the two best examples. Both are crammed with colour, with interesting mechanics that play off the rules of the new world and most importantly, with fun. The two hours or so I spent wandering around the fairy tale world looking for and helping Syanna were some of my favourite hours of the whole game: full of consistently funny and self-aware references, moving plot moments and interesting boss fights. I am a huge fan of games twisting their influences in unique ways and for a game expansion with such a fairy tale vibe to have me find Rapunzel having hanged herself because she got bored of waiting. For this to also work so well in the context of the story it is telling is true testament to quality and care put into the writing here.
In a time full of bigger and bigger games, the work done here by CD Projekt Red to ensure not only that their huge game is full of interesting things to find as you move through the plot but that those things matter is unparalleled, at least in my experience. Every little random fetch quest you do adds context for the wider story, and the way the environments shift as you move between areas helps you understand why characters in different towns and cities act the way they do. The first time you cross the bridge from war-torn Velen into the far lusher Novigrad, with it’s capital city full of culture and colour, it hits you quite why everyone you met in Velen was so miserable, and when you return you have a newfound respect for the people there.
The extra side content in many open world games is usually fun, if occasionally repetitive, but if you can take these elements and make them matter and actually improve the game, your game becomes something else. Not just a world you are exploring for the sake of it, or one that is huge for the sake of being huge and being able to sell your game based on value (a feeling I consistently get from Bethesda Studios games), but one that actually has to be huge and full of life for your game to make sense. The world building done by the small encounters with strange creatures in caves on the Skellige Isles is arguably as important as some of the major plot points, and it helps you understand how the grand stories you are taking part in will impact all the way down to these people. The Witcher 3 makes exploration and treasure hunting in a huge open world matter in a way that I’ve never experienced before, and for that it must be held up in the highest regard.