So I did ultimately finish this game. Decided to take a little time to distill my thoughts. Have a sip of white gull, reflect on things past.
So. Witcher 3. Hoowee.
I've said many times that the measure of a game is what you take away from it after the credits roll. Judged by this criteria there is no way that Geralt and Friends can be considered anything other than a gaming masterpiece.
The Witcher series is in many ways the little engine that could. We are talking about a brand and a mileu that rose through obscurity through to being arguably the best Western RPG made in the last 15 years. You can argue this, as with anything, of course.
Somewhere in my memory palace I have blank slates that are reserved for truly remarkable games. There's a finite number of these, so I have to be careful when I inscribe the name of something on it with my hammer and chisel. There's a permanence to this act of inscription - walking down this memory hall is somber and austere, like walking through the hall of presidents. Here is Star Control 2, here is Shadow of the Colossus. Here is Silent Hill 2 up on its plinth. Dragon Age? Not on there. Final Fantasy VII? Sorry Aerith, not on there.
Witcher 3? On there.
What else can I say on the thread that hasn't already been said? I played this game for 200 hours. Every hour was wonderful.
I remember reading once about Don Quixote (the book)... and how some believe it is a novel that is meant to be read 3 times in life: Once as a young man, once as a middle aged man, once in old age. Each reading will produce something different. We never step in the same river twice.
Playing a game like the Witcher, I can't help but feel like I'm reading something aimed at that middle stage - that "seasoned" but not yet tired stage of life.
Much like Her Story, this is a game that carries the banner for the maturity that video games have managed to carve out for themselves since the days of Mega Man. Not saying every game on earth needs to aim for Masterpiece Theater of course, but as I approach middle age myself, playing both games such as Nep Nep, Monster Hunter and Journey I have been reflecting a lot on Don Quixote.
For years I have been feeling that sensation of being right on the cusp of a cohort at risk of Growing Out of video games, waking up one day no longer a Friend of Narnia. Not because I don't love games: I do, obviously... but because the commercial forces pumping the blood of the gaming industry see little value in keeping up with *me* and what I'm about. As people like Warren Specter and Iwata age and (sadly) die, the outer edge of our medium is fraying somewhat. Fluttering, like old cloth, as the first ones die or leave or diminish, and go into the West.
Developers are growing old. The audience is growing old - having kids - deciding whether or not gaming is a thing they want to make time for in comparison to Wife and Family or House of Cards on Netflix. For the most part the people with the most purchasing power are also the people being underserved by our current media landscape. I look at Heroes of the Storm and I feel old and confused. I look at Clash of Clans and I feel old and confused. Sadly, I also occasionally look at products such as Nekopara or Batman and feel similar things. Sometimes. you understand... not always.
There's an onion article that says something like "30 year old Gen-Xer disappointed by older brother's desire to go see theatrical play instead of ironically watching Full House reruns". I am at that stage in my life, I guess. I want that David Mammet play - these quiet things - more than I want Full House.
With limited time to allocate for leisure. spending 200 hours with anything better pay off in spades. I want media that speaks to the issues and I see writ large in the lives and hearts of my 40 year old friends and colleagues. Am I doing enough good with my life? What does getting old have to mean? What do you do when the world seems full of choices with no clear answers? What does it mean to rekindle love? To have real friends? To be a good person? How do I pass on what I believe to be right to the next generation?
Witcher 3 goes head-on at questions like this, and does it while simultaneously killing epic beasts, ploughing concubines, trotting slowly over gorgeous landscapes on horseback, etc. etc. No disrespect to saving the world from JENOVA but these days this kind of story speaks to me in ways that is, all things considered, fairly rare right now in gaming. As I said, I believe I represent the front edge of this vanguard... the people who are still Sticking Around for whatever reason. The Witcher has an experience FLOOR: The people who will really enjoy it to the fullest are people (again, like Geralt its greying protagonist) who have lost things in their lives, who have seen sorrow. Watching Chinatown just doesn't mean that much to you when your'e in high school.
Way back when the 1UP boards were a thing, I once stated that the reason we all keep coming together to talk about games is that by doing so -- surrounded by likeminded people who feel the and think along similar lines, we make ourselves feel both less crazy and less alone. I have more sympathetic things to say on this subject over in the Neptunia thread, but ultimately that's what it comes down to. Feeling less crazy and less alone. It's so rare in the world of Candy Crush to run across a big meaty solid no-holds-barred triple A experience that truly accomplishes this feat.
I think it is interesting that the Witcher won its fame and fortune with an R rating, not a PG-13 rating. You know that cliche about how ALL the top 10 best grossing movies are PG-13 because they get both kid butts and grownup butts to the seats with some light cussing, lots of explosions and sideboob but nothing TOO alienating to the ticket sales? Witcher 3 doesn't do that. It's a plough and be ploughed kinda world in Sapkowski land. Refeshing - especially in the land when Hunger Games is de rigeur. We can thank Game of Thrones for this? Maybe? Don't take my word for it, go over to the Too Old For This boards and you will see dozens of self-described curmudgeons geeking right the royal fuck out about this game like nothing you've ever seen in your life before.
I think this choice is doubly interesting compared to stuff like Destiny and GTA. CD Project proved something about mass market sales and knowing one's audience with this one, though it remains to be seen whether it's the last great hurrah of triple-A, or just more of gaming's growing upwards and outwards to tell more and different kinds of stories.
I have some beefs with the Witcher here and there of course -- I literally finished the game ON THE DAY they saw fit to put a stash into the mix so I didn't have to schlep 120 pounds of unique treasure hunted armor everyfuckingwhere -- but these complaints are so few compared to the time I sunk into the experience.
I did think it was strange that there were parts of the game, especially near the end, where they made a lot of direct references to subject matter drawn from books which had not yet been translated into English. Some of the stuff with Ciri and Lara Doran comes from the Polish-only "Lady of the Lake" book, #4 in the series - a fact I had to go look up on Wikipedia once the credits rolled and I was still confused.
There's a few nitpicks. Uneven challenge slope that is too hard for newbies at the beginning, too soft at the end once you've ultra-leveled everything. Maybe something WRPGs can learn from JRPGs is the importance of that final ultimate dungeon reserved as bragging rights for the truly hardcore. I didn't like the fact that the 1.07 patch I'd been waiting weeks for ended up breaking all my achievements so that my 200 hours of play weren't recorded in the annals of Gaming Valhalla on my Steam Profile. Small quips.
All these are minor however. The good outweighs the bad to such a strong degree that I can handwave it all. I loved how much of the focus of the game was on the relationship between Geralt and Ciri rather than saving the world. I love how they brought Yennifer (one of my favorite characters from the books) squarely into the forefront of the Witcher World and bound her right there beside Geralt where she belongs. It's crazy to think that neither Ciri nor Yen were in the series up until this point in time - they are literally the 2 most important characters in Sapkowski's novels aside from the big G.
What did I take away from the series? Little things - a pastiche of little things. Much like how Mass Effect was at its best when you were just hanging out on the Citadel with Garrus and Tali, the Witcher is at its best in its little micro-moments. Small interconnected detective stories.
My friends and I were joking the other day that there should be an ESRB rating "AM" for "Actually Mature". It would include such advisory warnings as:
- Interpersonal Relationships
- Grey on Grey Morality
- Reading between the lines
Hats off to you, CD Project. Not that I ever doubted you, but hats off anyway. You proved something to the industry about how to craft a respectful game while not giving in to the slippery slope of autotuning and market forces. About how art can still be profitable and gorgeous and soulful and HIGH BUDGET, even in 2013 - even without the Burger King tie-in.
You proved if nothing else that we need more games based on great literature. I can only hope that W3 is a sign of more things to come. I've never played Moby Dick or Lonesome Dove or Foundation, though I would in a heartbeat. Good on ya, and farewell to Geralt as well.... though I'll be seeing you old friend, no doubt in the resultant DLC.