Cha's Games of the Year 2015. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
I'm starting with the obvious choice. It's difficult for anything else to compete with this for me. And not just because I have a Geralt-crush, although maybe that too.
I'll admit I was worried about how The Witcher 3 was going to turn out. I loved the first two Witcher games, but was sceptical about expanding it to such a huge open world. Big-budget games are full of the constant need to be bigger and better, and cram more stuff into each iteration of a series. Coolness tends to trump things like remaining coherent and supporting interesting themes.
Open world series like Elder Scrolls, Fallout or Grand Theft Auto feel dull and empty to me (sorry, but I just don't get it). Even when they do have interesting aspects there's usually a big disconnect between the story missions and sandbox. I find myself wishing developers would focus more on one or the other. I've been playing Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon recently and there the divide is particularly jarring. Story missions lock you into them from beginning to end, even causing a mission failure if you move too far away. The vibe I get from Blood Dragon is practically self-loathing, like it resents its own open world context. I hope the original Farcry 3 made better use of its map, because in Blood Dragon they don't seem to know what to do with it, and just repeat the same few side missions over and over. Emergent elements are interesting, like spreading fire and the interactions between soldiers and wildlife, but it's not enough to hold everything together.
For once I needn't have worried. The Witcher 3 is one of the few places where I'll tolerate the expanding scope and embrace the open map. I don't think I've played another game of this size with so much respect for my time. There's very little padding or repetition, and sidequests are unique, interesting things I genuinely want to do instead of objectives to tick off.
The only real downside of the open world is the issue with becoming overpowered and stomping through everything, even after pumping the difficulty level higher than my usual inclination. There are also a few exceptions to the interesting, unique quest rule – the horse races, fistfights, and particularly the card games provide an element of mini-gamey distractions – but most everything else contributes something to my sense of the world.
Environments feel full and varied, without ever becoming cluttered. There's a perfect balance between finding lots of exciting things to do, and still having the loneliness of exploring the remote corners of the world. The place never feels empty, but I can still trek through a landscape that feels wild and isolated, and take a moment to watch a spectacular sunset.
Detective work is a significant part of being a Witcher, whether it's determining what kind of monster is terrorising a village, or tracking someone through an area. Clues aren't always encountered in chronological order, meaning there's an element of reconstructing timelines from scattered information. It says a lot about these game designers that it feels so damn natural and doesn't become a confusing mess.
There's less of the usual tunnel vision that happens during roleplaying quests. It's normal to pursue multiple goals that happened to involve moving in the same direction. There are often several ways to start a questline, and information can be gathered in varying order. Stumbling on a later clue can mean being able to bypass the series of steps it would normally take to get there. This is one way an open world can start to feel like a place instead of an over-developed menu system for a series of scripted missions. Exploration feels suitably organic and spontaneous. Never pursuing collectable items for their own sake, but genuinely wanting to track something down. Or being automatically drawn into something intriguing you encounter by chance.
Another thing that's exciting about The Witcher 3 is that we've made it past the amnesia phase. Where the first two games fell back on this narrative crutch as a way to introduce the world, now we're finally trusted to go along with the fiction, and inhabit a character with a long, involved backstory. And with expertise about monsters to draw on instead of having to research everything from scratch.
I have my own ideas about who Geralt is, and what it means to have an unhealthy amount of attention from fate. But previously I always felt like I was making decisions for a man with an incomplete understanding of himself. Now he's the complete package (what? don't look at me like that).
Geralt is looking older and wearier than ever, and seems to be feeling the full weight of his now-remembered history. His role as a father figure is the major story focus, but of course the romance options will still get more attention. I naturally fell back into Geralt's toxic relationship with Yennefer because that's their tragedy and core to the whole story for me. Whether it's an enchantment, fate, or just the messiness of the heart, I imagine them never quite being able to escape each other's gravity. How often do big budget games let me play out such a trainwreck? Maybe even encourage me to buy into it as something more; that this could even be the kind of fairytale with a happily ever after.
There should never be any happily ever afters. These are horrible places full of horrible people, and I love them anyway. This is a game that made me care about an abusive husband and still condemn his actions. That had me reconcile with old enemies. And that had me confront my own cruelty in unexpected ways. Every triumph is bittersweet, and every moment of beauty battles against overwhelming pain and violence.
There are unsurprising issues with the world. Typical grossness about gender, sexuality, class, race and disability. But in general this is what I want from an epic, not a fluffy power fantasy with little or no personal consequences. Sometimes I can lose myself here for days, and other times it becomes too much. I still have a lot to explore, but I'm happy to take my time and give small details time to percolate in my brain. Witcher games tend to sit with me for a long time; an ongoing presence in the back of my mind as I dip in and out of other games. I feel different about myself when I finish and don't have that place any more.