Finishing video games can often be quite bittersweet—melancholic, even. It’s one of the reasons I took my sweet time with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s final few hours, putting it off for days just to delay the wistful inevitability of its conclusion. When you become so wrapped up in a game’s fiction—so enraptured with its characters, their trials, and the world they reside in—it can be difficult to leave it all behind and move on to pastures new.
As an open-world game, The Witcher 3 is never truly over; one can argue that even after the final credits have scrolled by you’ll still be dropped back into its open-world with all the freedom to do as you please, perhaps tying up some nagging loose ends, or simply picking a direction and running until you find something that piques your interest. It’s an enticing prospect for sure, and one that certainly enamors the genre to its audience. Yet the pervasive sense of loneliness that creeps in once the story has wrapped up and you’re once again left to your own devices is surprisingly poignant.
Open-world games are often designed with freedom in mind, with many now focusing much more on player agency than they ever have before, implementing the tools for people to experiment and eke out their own rousing moments of unpredictable storytelling. But even when this is the case, traditional storytelling is usually the glue that binds all of these variable systems together—providing the player with motivations, dramatic tension, and characters to love, hate, care about, and exact revenge upon. When these aspects vanish at the story’s conclusion, the vast open-worlds can feel empty and soulless, no matter how organic or lively they previously appeared to be.
For many, these loosened shackles are titillating, granting the freedom to let them do as they please with a whole world of possibilities stretching out before them. Some players sprout creative wings, soar through the open world and find ways to break and manipulate mechanics, construct their own haphazard games within the game world, and plaster their lunacy all over YouTube for the whole world to see. But what about those of us inescapably bound to the narrative?
The author has essentially left you alone—bereft of any new tales to tell—and so the game world forgets all about you or, even worse, simply doesn’t care. Where you were once the center of attention—the center of an entire universe—you’re now just another cog in a never-ending machine of leftover collectibles and meaningless, optional skirmishes. The narrative has resolved and yet the world remains unchanged and the protagonist is still present. It’s an odd disconnect, and one that can’t help but make the world you’re immersed in feel inherently lonely.
It’s why I was so hesitant to finish The Witcher 3, beyond just not wanting my time with it to end. The world CD Projekt created is so richly detailed and crafted—not to mention dauntingly mammoth—that it feels like a real place. It’s alive and lived-in, populated by all manner of people, roaming wildlife, and the ghastly creatures that lurk in its deepest recesses. It feels as though there’s a deep-rooted history embedded into every person you meet and location you visit, from some nondescript shack in the heart of an eerie forest to the bustling courtyard that surrounds the Bloody Baron’s castle and all the anguish stifled within. When you combine this sense of place, discovery, and world building with the wonderful fiction and writing, it’s incredibly easy to succumb to the charms of the war-stricken land Geralt of Rivia inhabits. But this is why going back after the credits have rolled is so disconcerting. The structure may be unchanged—everything appears as you left it—but upon closer inspection it’s clear that the foundation has crumpled away and the heart removed.
TURN IT OFF
I know I could solve this issue by simply turning the game off at its conclusion. I could stay put on the edge of that cliff at the end of Grand Theft Auto V, or keep Geralt confined to the walls of Kaer Morhen. But when you become so invested in these worlds and their fiction, you’re eager to spend more time in them, with these characters you’ve learnt to love and places you yearn to visit. And by plopping you right back into the game world, the game gives you the illusion that you can do just that.
You can pay a visit to familiar characters in The Witcher 3, seeking them out in their grandiose castles or in the homely comfort of a local tavern. But then you face the stark realisation that they’re no longer the people you once knew. Your dialogue options are limited; you can’t talk about recent events or engage in some nostalgic banter as you once did. The best you can hope for is a friendly game of Gwent, and that’s only if they haven’t already vanished off the face of the earth, never to be seen or heard from again. No, the illusion has been well and truly broken. These characters you once loved are no longer people, but simple props leftover and intended to be ignored. They’re the last remnants of a story already told.
Red Dead Redemption’s desolate world is already lonely to begin with, beautiful as it may be. By setting its western opus in 1911, Rockstar romanticizes the sparseness of its sweeping landscape with the impending threat of rapid expansion lurking on the horizon, threatening to begin its destructive path of modernisation and bring the old west to a contemplative end. I fell in love with this solemn theme, and with the world’s scarcity and appreciation for silence and serenity.
In a lot of ways Red Dead is about the plight of the gunslinger, soon to be a relic for the history books with just a few bullets left in his revolver. Jumping back in when all was said and done just didn’t feel right, as much as I wanted to hop on my horse and roam from the bear-infested woods of Tall Trees and into the sweltering heat of Perdido on the Mexican border; José González’s “Far Away” complementing my steed’s every gallop.
Playing beyond the credits would halt the foreboding march of time that’s etched into every fabric of its design, and with it the expansion of technology and romance of this derelict frontier. You end up frozen in an exact moment in time and history, where no more roads will ever be built, and the gunslinger will live on for all eternity, his revolver cocked and fully loaded. The sun may set and rise but everything stays the same, cultivating an air of futility. It’s the same in Far Cry 4, where you can topple Pagan Min’s tyrannical regime only to find his troops still relentlessly patrolling the roads and attacking rebel fighters. Kryat never gets any better. For all your efforts, nothing will ever change.
Even Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and its Nemesis System—one of the most accomplished examples of open-world design—suffers the same plight. The system gives each enemy a ranking within a complicated hierarchy that shifts as you take out high-ranking orcs and their subordinates get promoted. Dissonance creeps in once the story ends. You can continue toying with the Nemesis System: manipulating captains, interrupting feasts and hunts, or resuming a continuous back-and-forth against a particularly pesky adversary; but it’s an endless grind with no meaningful reason to exist. Talion’s tale is over, so staying in Mordor to continue an inconsequential campaign against the Uruks feels meaningless. Where this was once an organic and engaging open-world, it now only feels empty and incomplete.
It’s a conundrum I would imagine is mightily difficult to solve. The denizens of Los Santos aren’t suddenly going to hatch a plan to rob a bank, just as Nazdûg the Brain Damaged won’t ascend the ranks and rule over Mordor with an iron fist. Maybe in the future we’ll start seeing emergent moments like these crop up, perhaps with automatically generated missions ensuring an open-world never stops being interesting.
For now, I’ll continue my lonely trek across the treacherous terrain of Velen, the western Border States, and Sauron’s backyard, recalling fond memories of a time when my every footstep actually mattered. Maybe I should learn that “the end” means just that, but maybe I don’t want to. Maybe it’s fitting that the narratives of open-world games should resolve into the bathos and isolation that their mechanical systems naturally arrive at, a felicitous conclusion to a grand adventure, and a time for reflection and nostalgia, as you wander through familiar places full of memories. In that moment, perhaps loneliness should have its place. Maybe it’s just as much a part of video games as anything else.
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