Pay attention, Bethesda: What RPGs need to learn from The Witcher 3
We seem to be in a mini, awesome RPG renaissance.
We have had Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and The Witcher 3 all released in a relatively short time span. All of these games have received acclaim and have lessons future RPGs would be wise to learn from, but I want to specifically focus on The Witcher 3 today because I believe it to have some truly important lessons developers could learn from.
I’m looking at you especially, Bethesda.
The Living and Vibrant World
The world of The Witcher 3 is not a hospitable place. The world is in turmoil with kings clashing for dominance, and monsters roam the land slaying innocents left and right. As if those weren’t bad enough, there are also witch hunters who are doing horrible things to witches, mutants, and anyone deemed non-human all in the name of the king.
This place will surely not land on your top fantasy vacation destinations list, unless all of this turmoil is up your alley, you brave soul you. Despite all the death and chaos occurring in the world, it manages to feel more alive and vibrant than many other worlds of recent RPGs.
While other RPGs have plenty of NPCs in the world going about meaningless tasks, NPCs in The Witcher 3 can give you more insight into the world and its goings-on. For instance, at one point in the game I stopped to listen in on a conversation between two peasants. What had made me stop to listen to this particular exchange over many others was their mention of a blood-sucking monster. The peasants mentioned several bodies had been recently found, drained completely of blood with strange bite marks on their necks. One proceeded to say it was rubbish, and monsters don’t exist while the other fervently tried to convince his friends it was true and to be wary of danger.
Within the hour, I found myself in the sewers and guess what I encountered? Indeed, a vampire! While normally meeting an enemy would not be particularly noteworthy, the fact that NPCs in the world gave me a heads up to expect this enemy helped immerse me in this world that truly does feel alive. What other clues and hints might I find out about if I keep an ear to the ground?
The Memorable Random Quests
Exploring the gorgeous world of The Witcher 3 also yields some of the best quests you will not find without simply wandering around the vast land. While other RPGs are filled with random quests you find scattered about the world, they are usually not memorable and are throwaway in nature. However, as I stated, some of the random quests I have discovered in The Witcher 3 are just as memorable, or even more so, than the main quests.
Once I was exploring the world and happened upon a village. Upon noticing an older lady with a quest for me to undertake, I stopped to hear her tale. She gave me a ring and told me she wanted me to place it on her husband’s grave. She informed me she lived with her granddaughter in the nearby village, and for me to find her there after completing her request. After finding her husband’s grave and placing the ring, I set about finding her in the village.
Upon locating the hut, a grown woman greeted me and asked to my purpose. It turns out the grandmother had been dead for some time now, and the granddaughter had grown up. The granddaughter informed me her grandfather had a history of affairs and upon her death, the grandmother had requested to be buried elsewhere from where her husband was buried. However after spending some time in the afterlife, she wished to be reunited with her husband, hence the placing of the ring on the grave.
This random quest was surprisingly moving and has resonated with me more than many of the other quests I have completed. Including more meaningful and memorable random quests would entice players to explore the world even more than usual.
The Use of Color
In stark contrast to the muted colors of Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins, The Witcher 3 has bright, vibrant, and contrasting colors. While colors are used in many modern RPGs, the Souls series especially, The Witcher 3 uses the color effectively to make the illusion of a living word more convincing.
Trees and shrubbery are a bright, lively green. The skybox has lovely sunsets and sunrises. The game is just gorgeous, but the liberal use of varying degrees of color has as much to do with it as the cutting-edge graphics. CD Projekt RED also applied color in more subtle ways as well.
Most of the peasants you encounter will wear different outfits with varying colors to boot. However, the peasants dress will have muted colors, in direct contrast to the nobility and wealthier people whose clothing has bright colors and is eye-catching and flashy. It’s the explicit and subtle use of color which other games would be wise to take notes from.
Just look at Triss’ hair for crying out loud! This is what “kissed by fire” truly looks like.
The Dynamic Leveling and Skills System
The Witcher 3’s leveling system shares a lot in common with the Souls series. Each time you level up, you receive one point to invest in one skill of your choice.
There are a wide variety of skills to invest in allowing players to strengthen their prowess in combat, their magical abilities, alchemy, or general abilities. Investing points in a particular branch allows players to unlock more powerful skills in that particular area.
This all sounds like normal fare, but there are some differentiations that make the system stand out. Once you unlock ability, you must equip it to one of a limited number of slots to use it. What makes this system great is you can opt to make two alternate builds rather than your main build. You can invest in skills that increase your combat prowess, but you can also invest into the alchemy tree and swap abilities when the combat ones are not needed. Rather than limiting players to a set build, players can instead have a fluid character build to better face whatever obstacles they may face.
The Strong and Witty Writing
The writing in The Witcher 3 is some of the best writing I have encountered in an RPG of late besides Wasteland 2 (not including Pillars of Eternity since I have not yet had to pleasure to play it). The dialogue between characters always maintains the proper tone and compliments what is occurring at the time perfectly.
You will have some humorous banter with some characters. Some discussions will be filled with threats veiled and overt. Others still will be packed with wishful reminiscing and emotional longing. Not only do we see these things, but we are hearing them as well. It’s show and tell rather than one or the other.
The writing also extends to the lore, quests, bestiary, and objects you find in your journeys. You can find books, letters, and notes to read which are all written in various styles depending upon the author. The bestiary will provide some intriguing background to what a monster is as well as its weaknesses you can exploit.
The quest page presents the quest in a narrative form such as a storyteller is delivering some time from now as you are currently deciding the outcome to the story. It makes the game extremely engrossing and easy to immerse yourself into. However, the characters are arguably where the writing shines the brightest.
The Nuanced Characters
Ah, the characters. I have yet to meet a character in The Witcher 3 I have not found appealing on some level. While some of the characters are little more than gutter slime in humanoid form, they are nuanced and engrossing, despite being repulsive and committing atrocious deeds. Even though there are characters that do unquestionably bad things, some end up becoming characters you can truly empathize with because, like real people, these characters are flawed but not always defined by their flaws.
My personal favorite so far has to be The Bloody Baron. Your initial impressions are of brash, drunken louse whose boisterous tales are matched only by his sizeable gut, yet the more time you spend with character, you see his softer, fatherly side as well as his truly dark side. One of the main quests revolves around him being a bit heavy handed, and the misfortune and consequences of his actions that lead to an emotional climax.
I was truly spellbound by his entire quest line and when it came time for me to depart; I was reluctant to leave because I still wanted to flush more of the character out of hiding.
A character in a game is more than black and white, stark good and evil. Complicated and nuanced characters like The Bloody Baron, among others, keep us from judging characters based on first impressions and just by a set of deeds they may do. More interesting and complex characters make for more memorable characters, which in turn makes the game more memorable.
The Witcher 3 is a perfect example of what a modern RPG can achieve and should set a precedent in some areas for future action RPGs, and all RPGs in general. While there are many lessons to be learned from the game, I believe these to be the ones most deserving of a developer’s focus. If we had more refinement in these areas, maybe we will find ourselves in another golden age of RPGs. Divinity: Original Sin, Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2, and The Witcher 3 have shown it is possible. All we can do now is hope other developers follow their lead.