I haven’t been much of a video game player since my teenage years, all things considered; my partaking of the form has been occasional and not nearly as comprehensive as the way I keep up with roleplaying games, literature, comics or even boardgaming or cinema. The last time I played a PC game made this decade I was less than impressed, so that didn’t start any new era of computer gaming for me.
I recently got a new computer – a rare event for me, as despite my tech support duties I rarely get new equipment for myself. As a matter of curiousity I took another stab at a considerably recent game with the new machine, and have thus been playing Witcher now for about four days, all told. Let’s talk about where computer RPGs are going, here.
Witcher is an adventure game (computer RPG, that is – an adventure game with character development and competitive combat elements) based on a Polish fantasy novel series, made by a Polish game development house. It’s from a couple of years back, practically recent by my measure. I have no idea how it ranks in terms of writing, production and design against recent western competition – the freshest CRPGs I’ve played have been awful Japanese console games, which is only nominally the same genre.
The topic of the game is this enchanting fantasy archetype the author paints about “witchers”, sort of reverse paladins in a more or less typical post-Tolkienist fantasy world. I enjoy the character concept here a lot – witchers are humans who go through a dangerous alchemical mutation to become cool monster-killing machines; their mutated physiology allows them to get inhuman powers by consuming all sorts of alchemical concoctions. While witchers are feared by the common folk, they have their own code of honor, although not one that matches well to the chivalric notions of the upper classes of society. Well-written modern fantasy literature as the basis of the game, in other words – I don’t remember offhand seeing the idea of an arcane warrior being done in as lifelike manner, as something more than just a wizard who wields a sword. The actual plot centers on one of these witchers as he tracks some bad guys who stole the witcher-creation process in an effort to create their own outside the control of the witcher brotherhood.
At this writing I’ve played the game about 80% through, I’d say – end of the fourth chapter out of five if I’m any judge. I’ve been playing in 6-10 hour periods over a couple of weeks, perhaps 4-5 days so far. Basically a chapter at a time.
My overall experience with Witcher has been intensely positive: its writing is miles ahead of those Japanese games I’ve played now and then through the decade, so far so that it is comparable with actual literature – a feat that used to be possible only for the most visionary games, usually made in a very minimalistic manner so as to not let the writer mess up the overall aesthetic. The writing doesn’t happily come in the way of the actual game, which is largely about the combat subgame – a real-time affair combining some coordination skills, tactical decision-making and a bit of resource-management.
Overall the game has managed to make me nostalgic for PC gaming – this game is created by my sort of gamers, I well might have ended up making similar ones had I not abandoned the digital platform. I’ve even learned a thing or two about what’s possible in a real-time player controlled combat game in terms of character development.
That combat system really works
I needed to give this its own caption to emphasize it sufficiently. I really like Witcher’s combat system, which is strange considering how I usually am pretty derisive about real-time combat in character development games. Here, though, the character development options are interesting and impact the combat system heavily, and more importantly, the combat itself is quick and tense, especially earlier in the game. It’s not usual in my experience for a CRPG to offer the same sort of rush you get off a tensely built shooter game, but here life and death are often a matter of hardcore performance in tactics and technique, which pleases me. CRPGs traditionally suffer for bland and slow combats, but here a fight can end in 10 seconds – and not always with the death of the enemy.
The problem of CRPG
Although my general experience with the game has been very positive, I doubt that I’m going to become a sudden CRPG convert and quit my tabletop group altogether. While I and Witcher flowed well together for the first 10 hours of game-time or so, at the current stage the flaws of the underlying game model start showing through: I like the combats and I enjoy the writing reasonably well (it’s baseline genre fantasy – nothing to actively recommend, but perfectly passable as a read if you enjoy fantasy literature, and easily better than most of what you get in gaming), but the logistical crunch involved in progressing in the game starts to get exhausting, and it gets more so once I progress in the game and get used to its particular tricks of pacing and plotting.
Logistical crunch? The reader doesn’t necessarily know what I mean, so better explain. A sandbox CRPG is a game without set order of progress, the player can do different things in a freely chosen order. (Witcher is a sandbox, essentially each of the five chapters presents a new playing field for the player to crawl over.) A typical way of doing the sandbox is to create the playing field and then introduce a bunch of “quests”, game-mechanically supported activities for the player to engage with.
The logistical crunch comes into the picture when the game is thoroughly scripted like Witcher while also involving logistical issues in quest completion: the thorough, experienced gamer will approach the sandbox as a project to be cleared systematically: first run over the area to find the available quests, then check all the nooks and crannies for hidden bonuses, then start priorizing the quest completions by time of day (Witcher has a day-night cycle), location and necessary combat. This latter introduces an extra wrinkle in Witcher, as it takes some resources (drugs, basically) to buff the witcher into the semigod of monster-slaying he is, and the buffing lasts long enough to be useful in several battles if you know where you’re going next.
The outcome of the above sort of game structure is that the game is not actually just about following the plot and fighting some tense, exciting combats – the majority of the game performance equation is actually about running from point A to point B (by the way of C and D so you don’t need to go to those separately later), collecting quest items and using your memory and search routines developed through years of computer gaming to manage a full coverage of the sandbox in an efficient time-frame and in such a way that you yourself actually know that you’ve covered everything, so as to enable you to move on without missing anything interesting or important.
I won’t claim that this is somehow a bad core content for games, and I’ve entertained myself successfully off it for several days now, but this logistical crunch is actually the part that makes me slowly tire of Witcher despite its considerable virtues. The last chapter I played, the fourth one, actually felt like one huge hamster wheel in how much time I ended up spending running around after quest items. I don’t think that this is because, or solely because, the individual chapter’s scripting compared to the earlier game – more likely is that I’ve just grown used to the game’s tricks, so there’s not as much uncertainty and surprise in what the game does; I just run around, trigger NPCs, collect some herbs to keep the drug factory running and overrun even the intended atmospheric set-piece encounters almost without noticing because I’m so deeply engaged by the issue of what I’m supposed to be doing next. I start playing and suddenly notice that I’m actually skipping dialogue because I don’t need to read it to trigger the mechanical hooks – I even grow bored with the combat system due to the over-exposure of the random monsters that get in the way – I’m basically rushing towards the end.
This is probably not that profound, but I suspect that the reason for why the logistical crunch starts weighting on me is not in the nature of the logistical crunch itself, but rather in that thing I said at the end there – I’m rushing towards the end of the chapter, or even the entire game, and that’s why a mechanical structure that’s intended to pace things and offer a vehicle for narration starts seeming like the enemy instead of a friend. While a certain amount of logistical efficiency is probably normal in playing a game like this (“I might as well take care of this other thing while I’m in this part of town”), when it overrides enjoying the atmosphere and following the plot and even fighting the fights as a concern (“I need to get this fight done with so I can get to the next one without my buffs lapsing”), that’s probably not the intended experience.
When I’d played the first episode of the game I actually told a friend that if the game had ended there, I’d have given it extremely high marks; everything so far had been nigh perfect (even the writing of the first episode is of higher caliber than the later ones), and even the plot was fundamentally done. A 10-hour game would have been quite suitable for my preferences, but instead the game is 50 hours long, and what could have been a perfect experience turns into something that I’m not quite sure I’ll even finish; I could be playing Witcher right now, but instead I’m writing this blog post. I have no better explanation for this than to talk of how boring and empty of meaning that logistical crunch feels, especially as I know that I have another new chapter ahead of me after I finish the fourth, which means a whole new cast of NPCs to interrogate and another dozen stupid “fetch me an item” quests. Could be that this is just because the inventory is so small (a considerable additional source of running from point A to B later on), but I suspect that it’s because I somehow want the game to already be over.
It’s an interesting question of production logic whether games like this could be made shorter; I suspect that the model of production a top-level game studio engages in becomes inefficient with games that use less content than the norm; most of the work in making the game comes in the form of engine, graphics and game design, which all scale easily for a longer game – so why not make a 50-hour game instead of a 10-hour one when it’s not that much more expensive?
It’s also interesting to ponder whether I could somehow reboot my experience of the game so as to enjoy it freshly while it’s still unfinished. The logical way would be to take a month’s break, but then I’d have forgotten what was going on in the game, and it would be difficult to get back into it. Tricky. I suspect that the game would be better if there were no mechanical venues of influence in between the different episodes so that they could be genuinely separate game experiences; an anthology of stories instead of a boringly long yarn, if you will. This would lighten the logistical load and keep the whole phenomenon of hurrying towards the end of the game under control – you could approach each new episode as a stand-alone story, and not feel obligated to push through just to get to the end of the whole game.