Transparency: The Witcher 3's Open World Vs. Linear Storytelling of the Past

The Witcher 3 has amazing open-world storytelling, but does that mean we won't see compelling linear stories anymore?

Hopefully, you are all playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by now. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but this game lives up to the hype it was given, and the reviews are not misplaced. In fact, after this game, I’m not exactly sure where CD Projekt Red can go from here. It might have peaked.

But what’s most interesting about The Witcher as a series is that the second and third installment told the story in very different ways. The Witcher 2, which was a surprising hit, gave us a kind of choose my adventure type of storytelling. Although the basic playthrough was mostly linear, there were ultimately 16 potential endings.

The Witcher 3 takes us out of the linear storytelling and allows us to explore and do the quests that we would like, when we would like to do them. In a single-player RPG, we called this open-world. I’ve known people who spent hours more in the tutorial area than they had to. (By the way, The Witcher 3 is said to have 36 different endings.)

If we take into account the success of each of The Witcher titles, it would seem that the more open the story is, the better the game is. However, gamers have argued this for decades. One camp giving arguments like the more freedom that you give a player the great the investment he will have in a game. Or the more linear the story, the richer the story can be. Although there are some amazing middle grounds, I’d like to take a moment to contrast the two different kinds of RPG storytelling and weigh the pros and the cons.

Linear: Concise Narrative

Bioshock InfiniteAs a complete narrative, linear stories work the best.

The arcs are complete. The acts don't waste as much material on extra quests. And the pursuits of primary characters can be fleshed out without the risk of the player never seeing them.

Although there are many examples where games have told a strong story in a linear format, but I think it is most exemplified in Bioshock Infinite. Ken Levine had a story that he wanted to tell. Infinite could have been a movie, or better yet, a series on Netflix.

But he made it a game partly, I’m sure because that’s what he was familiar with, but also it put the viewer in the place of the main character in a way that a movie couldn’t. The narrative had a clear arc, and although there appeared to be a choice at the beginning of the game, there really wasn’t. The game was simply a shooter with a great story drawing the player forward.

Linear: In-depth Main Character

Many open-world games rely on the player to develop the character. Overwhelmingly, Skyrim is touted as a wonderful tribute to the open-world RPG genre. However, everyone will agree that Skyrim is less about the your character becoming the Dragonborn, and more about the people around him or her. Skyrim is a great game, but it’s clear that the main character has no depth.

When you compare that to the linear main characters, like with the Last of Us or LA Noire, the primary protagonist is much stronger.

Linear: Simple Execution

Linear stories have one story to tell. This allows developers to concentrate on other parts of the game, like level maps or combat mechanics. It’s not that open-world games can’t have good or complicated mechanics; it’s just that more resources have to be thrown at the game in order for that to happen. Simply put, I’m saying that linear games can be made with less money. Or it allows for a greater opportunity for the mechanics of the game to be more polished.


Open world: Character Ownership

I know I’m making large generalizations when it comes to these storytelling devices. There will be any exceptions to the rules, but most of the time in open-world games, we have to sacrifice the personality of the main character to tell the story.

However, that’s not always bad because that means the main character essentially becomes the player. The choices that he or she makes becomes the story. Although it lacks some of the depth that a single linear story could have, there is certainly more ownership of the protagonist’s actions.

Open world: Freedom of Choice

That freedom of choice becomes the primary focus of non-linear stories. Explorer-type players get to do whatever they would like whenever they would like. Monster hunting in The Witcher 3 becomes more compelling when I get to choose which monster I get to kill and when. I get to pick my enemies and my friends. If I want to go left on the fork in the road, I can because this is my world.

Open World: Complicated Execution

Unfortunately, an open-world dictates that a game developer must create something down that left fork in the road. Hell, it has to make the left fork in the first place. The more that a developer has to do in the name of choice means the less complicated other parts of the game have to be.

That means more characters have to be made, and some of these characters might never be seen by the player, potentially wasting developer time. In the long run, it hurts the bottom line. A developer then has to rely on the intellectual property or the publisher more to bring in the money that it needs to make the game.

Personally, I don’t want either of these types of games to stop being made. I believe they both have merit and strong, compelling reasons to continue to be developed. Both also have strong reasons why it is better than the other way of telling a story through a game.

Open-world seems to be the bandwagon at the moment, but eventually, someone will spend a lot of money to make a bad open-world game and the studios will go back to making games with stronger narratives for less money, and the cycle will continue. As long as good games in both arenas keep getting made, I’ll keep buying them. Now, let me get back to playing The Witcher 3.

Published May. 22nd 2015
View Comments
  • Shadow_6279
    To the guy below me... those seem like pretty petty reasons not to enjoy a game...
    You can't steal every knick knack off of a table (I found there is more than enough to loot in people's homes as it is.) and every npc in the game doesn't have something intriguing to say?

    From what I've played of the witcher so far there is already more dialogue and more dialogue options then virtually any other game I've played

    The sheer number of npcs in this game is astounding probably numbering in the thousands if not tens of thousands, it simply wouldn't be economical or feasible to give them all something unique to say.

    What it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in scale and realism. (Again though I think this game makes skyrim look like a kiddy pool in comparison.)
  • JesseYohe
    Okay. I'm recanting on 90% of my previously negative vibe. After my first emersion day of playing I am going to say that W3WH is a fantastic game, tho I am not budging on the untouchable majority of physical objects and the 'loot' icon (maybe I can turn that off?) and I have encountered another oversight or perhaps I'm missing it - when choosing to take a quest from the poster boards in towns why aren't you able to see the suggested level before adding them to your log? I am kicking ass 5 levels below the suggested levels but I'm walking around with a shit ton of quests well into the high 20s and mid 30s and I am a paltry 14 after a full day. So anyway, me thinks I was a tad hasty and premature and probably shouldn't have sought the keyboard out so quickly. Love the gameplay: the signs, the escalation pace of weapons and magic and am totally awed by the awesome soundtrack - def a 10/10 for that - could be the best track ever to grace a game.
  • JesseYohe
    I'm beginning to warm up to W3, I was hoping for a better Skyrim but instead got a better DragonAge Inquisition (which I bought, played very little as I wasn't impressed so went back to Skyrim for my 2nd go)
    I guess I got spoiled in Skyrim. I want a game that doest have a little icon with loot and a bag over your kills. Don't want everything painted on a table or bookcase except for the one thing that glows. If its a door it should open. if I want to pick up every dinner plate and basket I come across then I should - its very realistic - such was my disappointment with DAI.
    Very few of the NPCs have anything at all to say they only shriek or grunt and that may be explained off by the fact that people don't like witcheries, but it could also be laziness from the developers wrapped up in a cop out.
    Trying very hard to like the game but everytime I snatch up a bag of 'loot' I long for the day that Bethesda announces Elder Scrolls VI

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