Can The Witcher 3 Become a Good Open-World Story-Driven RPG?

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With the Witcher 3 announcement the biggest concern seems to be the fact that CD Projekt RED is going for an open-world approach, deliberately drawing comparisons to Skyrim. The question is of course, can they pull this off for a heavily-story-based game and not fall victim to the same traps?

I should start by saying that I personally don’t have much problem with Skyrim or how it executed its open-world gameplay. I loved being able to completely ignore the main quest to do literally whatever I wanted as soon as the tutorial mission ended. In my opinion Skyrim is average at worst. When it comes to 2011 RPGs it had the edge in terms of sheer volume of content, but its combat wasn’t nearly as good as that of Dark Souls, and its narrative couldn’t touch The Witcher 2.

That’s really the issue there — what made The Witcher 2 was its characters, universe, plotline, and how well-planned its quests were. People don’t want to see an open-world setup ruin all that in some pursuit of Skyrim’s audience. Skyrim has a generally open-ended storyline that you engage with a custom-built character. The Witcher games also feature malleable storylines, but malleable along multiple strict lines, which players engage with a pre-written character.

The Game Informer feature along with other things suggest that CDPR really is trying to grab the North American audience here. The first Witcher game was pretty niche and probably mostly for Central and Eastern European PC gamers. TW2 went a bit more international, and now it looks like TW3 is swinging for the big leagues, putting CDPR in direct competition with the likes of Bethesda and BioWare.

The site Gaming Everything has a pretty in-depth summary of the Game Informer piece, and what makes me optimistic is how CDPR says they’re taking care to maintain the quality of quest design TW2 displayed. They even go into different priorities of narrative between day-to-day monster hunting, the political situation, and Geralt’s own personal main quest.

That shows that they’re trying to maintain a balance between an open-world and a good story, but should this even be attempted?

A few posts ago I noted how I had more fun in Far Cry 3 doing random stuff than I did doing the main missions, and how I started to feel open-world games needed far less narrative than linear ones. The thing about the first two Witcher games was that they were sort of “wide-linear” games — they had a progression of contained environments, but each one was relatively large and able to be explored in its own right. Games like that, Deus Ex being another example, tend to create the best balance between giving the player freedom and telling a good story.

The open-world story situation that games like Far Cry 3 or Grand Theft Auto may suffer from though I think is really only a problem with open-world action games. Open-world action games are fun because you can freely run around and cause destruction. With TW3 we’re really talking about an open-world RPG.

Ever since there have even been role-playing video games there have been open-world RPGs — RPGs built on top of a single massive world map. I think the issue we face with modern games is that Bethesda’s unique interpretation of the design has become well-known and inevitably compared to GTA, when it really isn’t the same at all.

Maybe this is because open-world western RPGs haven’t been common on consoles until the current generation. Things like the earlier Fallout and Ultima games aren’t really known to those outside of PC gaming. There’s more than Skyrim for CDPR to gleam from when it comes to open-world RPGs.

Other than that the only examples you have that are well-known are Japanese RPGs, which aren’t big on consoles anymore. Those games have wrestled for years with portraying pre-written characters walking across massive open landscapes, if in a different manner than in the Elder Scrolls games.

I like to think however that this also presents CDPR a chance to do something relatively new instead of chasing after the current commercial leader. Since TW3 is going to be hitting in the early part of a new console generation, it even has a chance to make CDPR a leader itself.

BULLETS:

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