by Stuart Moulthrop
WITCHER III at Lunch Zone – June 19, 2019
Impressions of Witcher-world: lots of horsing around on linear plunges through a dusky, Hieronymous-Bosky landscape… truly gigantic map… gibbets and lynchings as regular design motif (hard to take on Juneteenth)… odd splashes of color in the desaturated landscape – all those sheaves of what look like hollyhocks outside the cottage yards; visually attractive/distracting… light and weather change, though we never seem to get full daylight; or is that just a trick of memory? Does this game just seem crepuscular?
Above all, the FLUIDITY of life in the Open World, reminiscent of Read Dead Redemption, or “Grand Theft Horse,” as Justin Schumaker calls it. Just keep amblin’ on, or mount on up. Story will find you eventually, podner. Er, Witcher.
A generation is going to grow up thinking all of Europe had an English Midlands accent in the Dark Ages. (I know, Witcher is actually post-apocalyptic.) Also, that you can mount a horse from port or starboard or even abaft — where I grew up, coming from anywhere but left could get you a kicking.
On the never-ending Reflection Quest, Kelly and Nathan started an interesting discussion of games that do or do not promote off-quest exploration (one of the Final Fantasies was mentioned). Eventually this morphed into consideration of the balance between narrative objectives and banal realism… e.g., the need to get our sword fixed so we can smite a bunch of wolves and ghouls on the way to disposing of some inconvenient bodies. There was also talk about economies of savepoints and the differences between Sierra adventure games and those from Lucas Arts, where you were less likely to suffer playdeath.
What you do suffer in Witcherworld is a barrage of incoming information/stimuli – game imitating life, at least that unpleasant part of life I think of as email, though folks these days may think instead of social media. I seriously expected a dispatch offering Sword Enhancement. Or an encounter with a Nigerian prince. The world is awash in datapoints. Hey mister, have this creepy doll. Look, a dumpling!
For much of the hour we found ourselves in a curious zone where (as Kelly noted) we were neither advancing any narrative nor racking up experience points. Ludonarrative limbo, but also maybe a little-understood aspect of open-world play: that half-aroused, lingering dwell state where there’s nothing to do except wonder about our relationship to this world and its game. In a way, maybe, this experience is cognate with the long takes of Slow Cinema. O the banality! Are we falling out of love with narrative?
When you’re lucky, as we were today, there’s also the miracle of eventual coherence, or closure. Just at the hour, Nathan found his way to an ACTUAL BLACKSMITH… well, an amateur Blacksmith, but hey. At least the dude didn’t have one of those salad-bowl haircuts. You have to appreciate a game that gets us reliably back from Limbo, and right on the stroke of one.
Just yesterday, during one the various Dungeons and Dragons games I have found myself a part of, we were talking about the concept of the open world. One of my current DM’s created a world that mildly resembles Dragon Age: Origins, which some of us happen to be playing through at the moment. This of course led to a discussion of large world video games generally, and particularly a conversation comparing Dragon Age to Skyrim. I have yet to play Skyrim, but the other players at the table preferred Dragon Age because it was less open. The openness of the Skyrim world made the story seem less important. “If you can walk away from an NPC as its in mid-sentence,” one player said, “then what they have to say is not being prioritized by the game logic, and if you don’t have story why bother?”
This is a debate, or difference in play-style preference that I have noticed in analog gamers as well. Some prefer a heavy-handed Dungeon Master, one who takes you along for a ride in their story. Others prefer to feel like they have some say over what happens or at least have the ability to impact the main quest line.
As a DM of DnD, I know I can’t give my players to much freedom, or we end with a game that seems to have no purpose. If you can explore everything, then where do you start? How do you move forward? Why are your characters even on the adventure? You have to provide a hook, and then you have to provide another hook and another and another, or players often lose interest. And these hooks have to be intelligible. More than once in Dragon Age: Origins, I wander around the world, knowing that I have to do something and having no clue how to do it. Eventually I give up and move on to the next quest line, growing tired of walking in circles looking for the right style of green dot. This experience has been mirrored in analog TTRPG campaigns I have both played in and DM’ed. The players know there is a plot hook somewhere, but damned if they know where to find it, and so they are left wandering amorphously about the world attempting to find the story, getting into spats with each other as everyone becomes frustrated.
This entire conversation falls into the age old agency vs structure debate, in anthropological theory, which asks the question, how much freewill do we actually have as human beings? In game design the question seems to shift a little to, how much freedom should we give our players? Or at the very least, how much freedom should the players think they have? And maybe this all comes back to a conversation we have had many times particularly as we have played through queer and indi games, not all games are made for all people. When game isn’t fun, find a a new game.
What interests me here, more than anything else really, is that I seem to be having the same conversations in both my digital game play and my analog game play. Game theory often sees digital and analog game spaces as deeply disparate, but the farther I get into my observations on digital games, the more I realize just how similar these worlds really are. Maybe the digital and the imagined aren’t so far apart.
“A generation is going to grow up thinking all of Europe had an English Midlands accent in the Dark Ages.” Loved that line – and it points to how potently game environments can shape our dispositions toward imagined pasts (and futures) – gaming architecture is written by the winners? 🙂
Similarly, the comment on playdeath directs us to remember how variable the expectations of game developers (Sierra, LucasArts, Rockstar, etc) can be on questions that are simultaneously ethical, artistic, and economic. Great stuff, Stuart!