While watching Nathan’s latest foray into the world of The Witcher III, I’m struck by the game’s expansive space. This last session opens with Geralt standing at a crossroads: a seemingly apt metaphor for the genre of open-world games. “What path will you choose? Where will you go, and what will you discover there?” Ostensibly, adventure lies ahead in either direction in this vibrant and living world.
What one may be forgiven for having at first overlooked (what with the trees and grasses dancing in the gentle breeze, the sky full of fluffy, white clouds hanging majestically over the mountains on the distant horizon, and the flock of pheasants taking flight while Geralt’s horse Roach approaches obediently) is the clutter of info occupying prime real estate in the screen’s upper east side. In addition to the basic function of a mini-map to display one’s immediate area, this HUD (heads-up display) tells us the time of day and current weather, lists the tasks to be completed, and even guides the player to the next objective with rerouting GPS complete with a pedometer of sorts that counts down the steps needed to reach the next thing. It turns out this world really is post-apocalyptic but in place of the Statue of Liberty and “Damn you all to hell,” the reveal is an iPhone and “Siri, how do I get to the witch’s hut?”
The result is one of mixed signals: the game is at once telling you through its spaces that you can go anywhere you want, but through its HUD that there is indeed a correct answer to this whole fork in the road situation. That is, the game consists of conflicting interfaces, each suggesting methods of interaction to the player that contradict the other. There’s a figurative fork in the road here, too, where to the right lies prescriptive, linear game design and down the left is a descriptive, sandbox playground (calling back to the terms Thomas used to describe the world’s “realist” aesthetic).
Maybe it’s an attempt to design around open-world fatigue, a term used in games forums to describe the feeling of being overwhelmed by the vast number of things to do in a world and, more to the point, the enormous amount of time it will take to do it. A concession, perhaps, to the demands of the real world. To narrative momentum? Is CD Projekt Red trying to have their apple juice and drink it too?
We’ve talked several times about open world games on the channel, and the ways in which it allows for an illusion of freedom while always also acting as a container. Freedom to a point, but you are never really outside of the game code or the structures created by the designers. As free as a world might feel, it is always determined by the minds that created it, designed from a certain perspective.
I find that when I am watching Witcher III I seem to be more aware that I am being led some place than in other games I have watched or played. I think Ryan really hit on the nose as he discusses the layout of the screen partially taken over by the ever present HUD. It doesn’t seem to fade into the background like it does for instance in Dragon Age Origins (which I am playing right now), I often forget I even have the mini-map in the corner.
Re: games with invasive minimaps — The newer GTAs’ use of GPS really takes me out of the world. I’m no longer looking at the “real” city, I’m staring at the flat (2nd) representation of the city. In the PS2 iterations, I enjoyed learning the city from experience (and I’m really fascinated by this feeling in real life — coming upon a place that you recognize and feeling that “fog of war” lift in a new city). In games, that sort of practice enhances immersion, imo, so when you’re just staring at the HUD, it takes you out of the game twofold.
I really like where you’ve taken this discussion, Ryan. One of the things that is most striking about the HUD is that little GPS-like “path” of dots. As Nathan was playing and following it, it felt like he/Geralt was being “reeled in,” as if by a garden hose or custodian’s key-wire, retracting him toward a place to the exclusion of other places. Poor Roach, being led by the nose rather than by his rider, or so the HUD would suggest.
My standard touchpoint game on this, Skyrim, perhaps notably requires that you cast a spell (Clairvoyance) to get this kind of “follow the bread crumbs” direction, but even then it is in the world before you, not the HUD, and appears as a trail of mist, not a set of bright, almost-ascii dots.