How The Witcher 3 changed the way I approach video game immersion
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Just...wow. This is a game that I will proudly declare as one of my all time favorites in the years to come. And I haven't even finished the game yet!
I remember the first time I saw the trailer for this game. I had never heard of The Witcher games before. but the gameplay elements and a story of massive proportions had me hook, line and sinker. It also didn't hurt that I thought it was by far the prettiest action-RPG I had ever come across.
After sinking more than half of my life over the past few weeks into this game, I've arrived at one conclusion. This is one of the only games in recent memory that made me make choices where I personally feared the consequences - to the point that I was often reluctant to make them.
The reason why I have yet to finish the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is that I'm afraid of not getting the 'ending' that Geralt and Ciri should have. Why? Because somewhere down the line, I've managed to sort of adopt Geralt of Rivia as part myself. His triumphs are mine, his defeats are mine, and his ending when Wild Hunt is over will also be mine.
The Witcher 3 introduced me to a kind of immersion I'd never experience before.
I always thought the pinnacle of immersion in a video game was making my own character, modeling that character based on myself, then making choices based on my personality. ButThe Witcher 3 has shown me an alternative kind of immersion - adopt the character I'm playing as into my persona instead of trying to instill bits and pieces of myself in them.
So how did I manage to get so invested in this purely fictional character?
The Hunt for Lore
I knew I needed to catch up on the lore before playing this game, so I went ahead and played the previous titles in the months prior to The Witcher 3's release. By then, I was more than just interested in the world of the Witcher. I wanted to know more about Geralt and those around him. Why I was doing what I was doing? Why is this world in such turmoil?
So it was onto the written novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish fantasy writer and the man who created Geralt of Rivia and the world he inhabits.
By the time I was done with the first book...that was it. It was like discovering Harry Potter all over again...only this time as an adult (on paper at least). It didn't take long for me to read all of the books I could get my hands on.
The Lesser Evil
This is one of the only games in recent memory that made me make choices where I personally feared the consequences - to the point that I was often reluctant to make them.
Reading the books gave me far more insight to who Geralt of Rivia was than the previous installments of The Witcher ever could have. Which is understandable, of course, due to the story elements (Geralt having amnesia and all that). The questions I had...why Geralt is the way he is, who Ciri is to him, why he fell in love with Yennefer, how he regards those around him...they were all answered and more.
Most of all, I came to understand Geralt's insistence on choosing what he calls "The Lesser Evil". All of that combined gave me a sense of connection to him that I never could've had before. And this completely changed the way I played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
CD Projekt RED deserves a lot of credit for trying to stay as true as they could to the source material. The choices you make in Witcher 3 are almost never black and white. Each and every outcome had its own positive and negative aspects to it. When I started making those choices, I realized that I had internalized Geralt's mentality of choosing 'The Lesser Evil' .
[Note: Spoilers ahead.]
For example, there is a quest in which Geralt holds the fate of a group of orphans on one hand and an entire village (with perhaps more untold casualties) on the other. Had I not had the idea of lesser evil stuck in my head, or if I'd have been playing as myself, I know I would've chosen the orphans.
But I didn't.
My actions allowed the village to be spared, yet I couldn't shake the bitter taste of knowing the price that had been paid for it. Still, I'm positive I chose the lesser evil.
[End of spoilers.]
I'm not going to say that this was the first time I had been forced to deal with the far-reaching repercussions of actions I'd taken in a game. I have played the Mass Effect trilogy and witnessed the consequences of my actions there. But there was something missing in that game. Something that prevented me from fearing those consequences.
The Missing Piece
In Mass Effect, despite playing as Commander Shepard, I never felt like I was him, so the impacts of the choices I made failed to hit as hard as they should have. Despite the illusion of freedom the in-game choices offered, I didn't feel like I was making the choice I wanted. I was always looking for that 'other' option. You know...the one you just cannot have.
Could I feel a connection to Shepard? No. Why? Well, just who is he? Me? No...his choices were way too limited for that. Is he his own character? No, we determine what he's supposed to be like. It's a catch-22. I felt like the only thing I really determined was just how much of an a**hole Shepard was.
We could make a character in a game that looks like us or even talks like us, but in the end we cannot make them a true persona of ourselves. We can react to things in many different ways, but unfortunately the technology we have right now is not enough to make a truly player-driven game where only we as individuals determine the outcome. If I'm being honest, that's actually a bit too much to ask. That game would have to be massive.
The Witcher 3 presented a simpler, more elegant solution.
We could make a character in a game that looks like us or even talks like us, but in the end we cannot make them a true persona of ourselves.
You roleplay as Geralt of Rivia, an already established and well fleshed-out character. You play within the rules of his world and you uphold the code he lives by. It's far easier than having to compromise on limited choices given to you in a game where you're supposedly roleplaying yourself.
Though it feels simpler to me, I know this could be difficult for other players. I was only able form such a connection to Geralt because I took the time to read through the books. But even that doesn't guarantee a connection between you and the character - we all come from different walks of life and are each unique in our own way.
Besides, being forced to spend extensive amounts of time reading up on lore simply to enjoy a game may not be some people's cup of tea. Turns out it just happened to be mine.
Do you have any games you've felt this way about? Do you have ideas on how best to make a player driven game truly player driven without having to do what I've done here? If you do, please don't hesitate to share!