What’s good for a video game is often not good in a greater artistic and cultural context. So why, when we’re judging games, do we only compare them to other games, instead of drawing on our knowledge of other art forms and the world at large? Case in point: The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 is a very good video game. Its Metacritic score is sitting at a lofty 92, a rating that could very well secure it as the best-reviewed game of the year. It may even be the best game of the year in truth. But if we were to view this game in the context of the greater cultural canon, it doesn’t hold up as well.
Though The Witcher 3 is good for a video game, it’s also inarguably mired in design clichés established by games that have come before. For a game to stand out as a work of art, it would have to transcend those clichés. The Witcher 3 merely uses them well.
As a role-playing game, The Witcher 3 has plenty in common with Dragon Age: Inquisition, the much-ballyhooed 2014 Bioware game that received the same sort of praise from game critics in November that The Witcher 3 is getting now. They’re both very long, featuring upwards of 100 hours of “content;” they’re both story-heavy “role-playing games” with a focus on characters; and they’re both visually striking, even among their new-generation peers in blockbuster gaming. I half-jokingly refer to The Witcher 3 as “Dragon Age: Inquisition 2,” by which I mean it felt constructed in the same vein as Bioware’s game.
Except The Witcher 3 does everything better.
Inquisition was built to be as freeform as possible, to a dramatic fault—there were a handful of core mission the player had to participate in as part of the narrative, and outside those missions your priority was to level up and gain “power” by doing side quests and mindless busywork activities like setting up campsites. Those extraneous activities are beyond dull, feeling hastily and haphazardly tossed into the world, devoid of any character or real stakes.
Structurally, The Witcher 3 works in a similar way, except its side quests are of higher quality, well written and thought-out and featuring characters who are meaningfully drawn. But they’re just as problematic.
The Witcher 3 tells the story of a man, Geralt of Rivia, who’s traveling the world searching for his adopted daughter Ciri, who’s being chased by an army of specters called the Wild Hunt. It sounds urgent, right? Yet Geralt is constantly distracted by dozens of side quests that range in importance from almost crucial to totally and utterly trivial.
These quests are nearly always interesting and compelling, but most end up contributing to that fatal problem: they distract from Geralt’s main goal (finding Ciri) and they go in circles for so long you forget there’s even a greater purpose to what you’re doing.
On a few occasions you’ll find someone who’s met Ciri as she passed through the area, but who won’t tell you anything until you carry out some completely irrelevant quest for them. In the city of Novigrad, around the middle of the story, you start out looking for a former flame to help with the search, and she sends you after someone else, who helps you figure out that you really need to find this other old friend of yours.
Said old friend is missing, so you have to figure out where he is, and once you do you have to find a different person who can help actually get to him. And along the way these people will try to draw you into yet more quests that are actually optional, but presented in a way that’s so organic that it feels right to do them anyway.
Granted, doing some of those sidequests does feel necessary in the end, as late in the game you can call in favors from the people you met earlier, even those met during non-essential escapades. But the fact that they do manage to eventually be relevant doesn’t make it any more believable that Geralt would put his personally urgent and potentially time-sensitive search for Ciri on hold for days at a time to help them out.
And then there are the dozens of other side things that don’t even have the pretense of mattering. Can you imagine why anyone, searching for the person they care most about in the world, would stop to help random unimportant strangers with their monster infestations? Yes, Geralt is a monster hunter by trade, but his need for petty cash can’t possibly be so great. It’s a ludicrous thought, and yet the world CD Projekt RED has constructed is full of random strangers with the exclamation points above their heads that let you know they want something from you, and the game expects you to answer at least some of those calls. They wouldn’t be there otherwise.
At its core it’s nonsensical, yet The Witcher 3 is a really good game—at least when compared with other, similar games. By those standards, the things I’ve been describing here are all positives: it’s good that it’s a substantial experience, well written and meaty; it’s good that the side quests are fleshed out and compelling and thus give us reason to do them beyond the gamer’s compulsion to check every item off a list; it’s good that the $60 we spent on it was a good value because it’s long.
But when we examine this with standards established by other storytelling art, we can’t help but see cracks everywhere. If The Witcher 3 were a TV show, we would accuse it of “spinning its wheels” for a lot of its run. If it were a movie we’d compare its self-indulgence to the Hobbit trilogy. If it were a book we’d call it a bloated guilty pleasure. Since it’s a game, the fact that its execution of every RPG trope it could get away with was better than most other games that have used those tropes is enough for us to give it a 92 score on Metacritic, signifying that it’s among the best we have to offer.
And maybe it is the best we have to offer. But it doesn’t ultimately matter so much that The Witcher 3 is a paragon of games that are overly long and unfocused and full of things that distract from what’s important. What does matter is that game developers one day stop using these tropes as crutches and start making games that are confident enough to forego them altogether.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.