Lumbering through the remains of The witcher 3In the city’s earliest villages, protagonist Geralt encounters a priest. That’s not an uncommon sight, as the Church of the Eternal Fire holds a great deal of power over the townsfolk seeking more meaning in life ravaged by war. However, this holy man has a job for Geralt: to further scorch the nearby smoldering battlefields, to keep scavenging monsters from making the lives of his charge much worse.
It’s a bleak solution to a fantastic problem and one that fits our hero’s profession of “professional monster slayer” perfectly. But it quickly branches into a whole other story, as Geralt finds a survivor among the ‘corpses’. That survivor contradicts the priest’s account of how he got there, and sends Geralt off to confront his would-be imposter.
Inside the side quests The witcher 3 can vary greatly in length and long-term importance; some are relatively isolated, others have consequences that go unrevealed for hours. What these missions all have in common, however, is a story worth seeing in its own right. It’s part of what sets the game apart from your typical open-world game, which simply has the same dozens of objectives that Jackson Pollock has played hundreds of times on maps. While impressively rendered, those worlds don’t warrant much exploration on their own.
For a good example of this problem, look to last year Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The game featured a map full of chests to loot, sigils to collect, and the occasional bystander to kill. Unit was so full of it stuff that publisher/developer Ubisoft saved some of the leakage to companion apps, mobile games, and its ubiquitous Uplay service.
But looting “Animus Fragments” and treasure chests tells us nothing more about the Paris chapter of the Assassin Brotherhood or about the main character of the game. Instead, these missions are narrative cul-de-sacs: boxes to check off a list fueling that easy, superficial shot of dopamine to “finish” something.
When the explosive costs of AAA development mean that a game that sells 3.4 million units could be a bust, companies trip over themselves for forcing larger, more detailed, and increasingly expensive environments into their games. But the things players have to do in those worlds don’t always seem to justify these massive worlds.
Deeply detailed vanity
The witcher 3 has its share of repetitive content, but even that can work in the game’s favor. As a witcher, Geralt is half exterminator, half detective, studying the monsters he needs to kill in order to better fight them. It is normal for him to poke surrounding bandit camps and monster nests. More often than not, those redirects lead to something new anyway. It’s filler, but it serves a purpose, and those sufficiently involved in the story the game aims to tell can happily spend the roughly 200 hours it takes to see it all.
The best open-world games contain side content that goes beyond players’ innate desire for completion. Take Grand Theft Auto V, featuring some of the best core missions in the series in the form of heists. These heists have little to do with the open world they are set in. The content between and to the sides of those missions – the parts that take place in the “open world” – aren’t as repetitive as Unit collect-athon, but they’re also not as convincing as The witcher 3are intertwined stories.
Instead, they’re just… boring. This filler content only serves to remind the player that you can indeed walk, drive, and bike from one end of the fictional city of Los Santos to the other. Chasing or towing targets or driving from point A to B to watch a cutscene provides an excuse to drive around an obsessively detailed Los Angeles stand-in. It also begs the question of whether Rockstar’s goal was to make a game that’s fun to play or a vanity project that’s fun to look at.
It’s not just because spectacle sells, though just the phrase “open world” seems to come with a set of expectations for size and structure. It’s gotten to the point where Nintendo uses the term in conjunction with the following The Legend of Zelda title, a series that has all the time allowed players to go virtually anywhere they wanted.
Our shared vision of what an open-world game should be, and the expectations that come with it, make these games perfect recipients for the kind of post-release DLC that has come close to being expected in recent years. Ubisoft and Warner Bros. make better use of that addictive demand for more content than most, with plenty of towers to climb, villains to interrogate and terminals to hack.
Players clear a dead end to reveal more of the map, with several dozen new dead ends to sneak into. For some, cleaning up that repetitive mess is an addiction, while others are content with it unlock the additional marks. The latter group is guaranteed to know just how big this year’s model is compared to last year’s, even though they give up on the repetitive grind long before they’ve ever experienced it all.
Bigger is not always worse
None of this is to say that bigger is inherently worse. The debate over game length versus value rages on, and both sides have merit. Games are expensive – not just as an industry, but as a hobby – and for some people that padding makes a $60 new release a better value proposition.
The witcher 3 is certainly not the first huge game to avoid the filler problem either. The older scrolls and Fallout follow a very similar philosophy towards optional missions. Dusting off a mage’s diary of a spell gone wrong or stumbling upon the remains of a strangely evolved Vault community fills the world with enriching detail. The Persona franchise, on the other hand, unfolds a deep and meaningful world full of character and charm over 80+ hours spent on a path so linear there’s actually a calendar to tell you how many in-game days are on the map for you are brought from time. Person 4 fails despite this linearity, but because the laser focus makes every moment of the story meaningful.
Those games that can not justify distribution outwards might have to look forward in much the same way. By making Los Santos smaller, with its plodding car towing and crate-loading, perhaps more time could have been spent coming up with more and better heists, resulting in a longer, finer sequence of GTAV‘s best content. A smaller world would mitigate some of the cop-ducking bombast of previous games in the series, but there are already some alternatives that specialize just that. The same applies to Unit‘s kills, which have not been a core focus of the Assassin’s Creed series for years.
With so much money, time and talent being spent on games of this size, players don’t have to choose between content that is engaging and content that just fills up space. Games like The witcher 3 proving that we can have both and that we shouldn’t settle for less.