Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

Why the Witcher 3 is my Favorite Game

It’s a hectic time in my life. I’m in a middle of a move, work is going through some major changes and the summer has been busy. I was in dire need of some comfort, so I started another play through of the Witcher 3, my favorite game of all time.

Considering all the praise lavished on Witcher 3 when it launched that might not seem like a controversial pick. But I’m a lifelong Zelda and JRPG guy. Before the Witcher 3 either Persona 4 or, the forever classic, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, was my favorite game. I couldn’t even make it past the first hour of The Witcher 2, the combat was confusing and unintuitive and nothing about the world grabbed me. Even when I first started playing the Witcher 3 it took me sometime to get into it and care about the wolverine-esque Geralt of Rivia.

But then there was the side quest with the noon wraith and the well. It broke the standard ‘talk to person A, kill x number of things, return to persona A’ side quests I’ve been playing all my life. The Well quest was detailed, invoking both folklore and forensic science. There was a mystery, a tragedy to it. Other characters would mention the events around it, and not just as clues to where the quest was, but as something that was in their village’s shared history. The whole game was like that.

I’ve had hours long conversations with my roommate, a game developer, about the Witcher 3, trying to figure out what makes it so special to me. It’s very similar to a lot of other open world RPGs; there’s stats and inventory management, fast travel, a HUD, combat that becomes repetitive and easier the higher you level up. It’s definitely a video game, but when I’m playing it, it feels so much more immersive.

The Witcher 3 is like reading a book, like reading a book when you’re twelve and everything is exciting and powerfully engrossing. Yes, the bones that Project Red was working with, the Wicther Fantasy series, gave them a detailed and fascinating world. Yes, they polished the hell out of the thing. Yes, they picked a smart way to structure their story with the hunt for Ciri. All those things can make a good game, but a special one?

What is the secret ingredient behind it all? It’s difficult to say, and even after all that debating with my roommate and three play-throughs, I still don’t know exactly. Most people say it’s the complex side quests and while they are truly amazing, I feel like they are part of a bigger design maxim. A maxim that echoes from every detail in the game: ‘make it a real place.’

Almost everything in the Witcher 3 feels real and not a digital playground where I grind and fight bosses. Just look at the open world. Velen is a war torn no man’s land. Armies glare at each other from across the river, ghouls roam battlefields eating the dead, deserters become bandits and villages are full of refugees. As you get closer to Novigrad things quiet down as the war has yet to touch it.

Novigrad’s surroundings are idyllic, with rich farmers and estates and just as you would logically assume, the land around Novigard is safer than Velen. And yet you head towards Novigrad in the middle of the game and start out as a low level player in Velen. You move from danger to safety rather than the other way around.

It feels like world building rather than gameplay is driving the design. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t secrets and dangers around Novigard, but they make sense in the context of the world. The dangers are tucked away, more hidden. Gangs rather than bandits, drowners near water rather than ghouls and nekkers roaming where-ever. If it doesn’t make sense for an enemy type to be in a location based on their lore, they’re not going to be there, even if that enemy would present a greater challenge to the player.

The Witcher 3’s goal is ‘world first’ and it’s that design that makes the side quests branch and change and not have neat endings. They move like stories and not check lists. The world functions like a world and not an amusement park. Consequences are unforeseen, characters are complex with grounded motivations. You pick a point on the map and start moving, the winds howl, barren battlefields slowly give way to muddy swamps and the trappings of a video game disappear as the story grows lusher. Like an old paperback with a cracked spine, the Witcher 3 is a game I’ll always return to.

The Problem with Orcs

The Problem with Orcs

When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.

Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.

Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.

Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.

Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.

In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with these orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?

The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.

In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.

And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.

But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?

God of War and Norse Mythology

God of War and Norse Mythology

****Big Spoilers Ahead*****

The new God of War isn’t just about Kratos’s redemption. It’s also an origin story to one of the most mysterious characters in myth, Loki the trickster god. At the end of the game you find out that Kratos’s wife, Faye, was a giantess that received a prophecy about a child and the end of times and left the giants to go make that prophecy a reality. Kratos reveals that Faye wanted to name their son Loki not Aretus.

To those familiar with Norse myth, or marvel movies, that reveal might seem sinister, but it’s not presented that way. Rather it’s a heartfelt moment. Aretus discovers a part of his past, the giants. And Kratos and Aretus finally say goodbye to Aretus’s mother together.

Aretus, the Loki of God of War, seems like he will be a very different figure than the Loki of myth, but maybe not that different. Mythology is meant to be reinterpreted. Stories often have multiple endings and shifts in relationships between characters. Each retelling is a new adaptation building on the bones of the old. And there are enough gaps in myth and ways to view Loki’s actions to make him into a sympathetic character. And the new God of War  has already shown that it knows how retell and re-frame a good myth.

One thing that the original God of War series got right about mythology is that the gods are jerks. The amazing Myths and Legends Podcast (cannot recommend enough) calls Zeus mythology’s ‘greatest monster’ and the God of War series dug into that. In Norse myth the Aesir can be just as bad, especially to the giants, who while not exactly benevolent, don’t deserve all the tricks and murdering that the Aesir inflicted on them.

The new God of War casts the giants in a sympathetic light, even making monsters like the World Serpent into polite allies. It accomplishes this by simply telling the actual myths. Throughout God of War you travel the Lake of the Nine listening to Mimir, your friendly served head and guide. He tells Aretus different Norse legends, but from the giant’s point of view, making the Aesir the antagonists rather than the heroes.

In other ways God of War expands upon ideas already in Norse mythology like Freya marrying Odin even though Freya was Vanir (a different ‘tribe’ of gods.) I don’t love God of War’s reinterpretation of Bladur, but its exploration of his invulnerability makes him more complex. Baldur’s immortality becomes a curse, he can’t die or feel pain, but he can’t feel anything and rather than be grateful to his mother Freya for the gift, he resents her. Also Bladur gives you the biggest hint that Aretus is really Loki pre-end game. Freya freaks out when she sees the ‘green’ arrows that Aretus has. I knew that Bladur dies from an arrow made of mistletoe and leapt out of my seat with an ‘oh damn!’ at that scene.

Loki himself is a figure ripe for this kind of re-framing and exploration. In myth he’s not an Aesir or a giant, though he is connected to them both. Loki hangs out with Odin and Thor, an outsider as much as core member of Asgard. And his tricks help the gods as much as they hurt them. He doesn’t become a true villain until Ragnarok when his monstrous children with a giantess: The World Serpent and Fenrir the wolf, are destined to kill the gods. Loki himself kicks off Ragnarok by orchestrating Baldur’s murder.

In God of War Aretus-loki (Areki? Lotus?) wounds Baldur with a mistletoe arrow by mistake. He does so in an attempt to save Freya from Baldur who is set on killing her. Aretus is presented as less a trickster and more as clever. He’s good at languages and riddles and can work magic unlike his Dad who just brute forces his way through. Aretus does have a bit of Loki’s mean streak, though he apologizes and learns from it.

The God of War version of Loki is probably going to be closer to the God of War version of Tyr. There’s not a lot myths involving Tyr. He’s the Norse god of war and loses a hand to Fenrir in order to bind the wolf. God of War uses the gaps in Tyr’s myth to expand the character. He’s the anti-Kratos, a god of war that isn’t violent and aggressive, but rather one that decides ending wars should be his role. He becomes something of a diplomat god and works against the Aesir to save the giants before disappearing.

Aretus-Loki will probably grow in the next God of War games in a similar way. He will be clever and tricky, but not wicked. He will be molded by myth, but not shaped by it, becoming a unique character all his own. But he will still owe something to the Lokis of myth and pop culture that came before him. A reaction to them, a retelling, the way myths are meant to be.

‘God of War’ Reactions: Dadifaction

‘God of War’ Reactions: Dadifaction

*Light Spoilers ahead*

I always thought that Kratos from God of War was an irredeemable character. And I don’t just mean that in the context of his fictional universe, where he’s slaughtered almost everyone and everything in Greek mythology. I mean that as the lead of video game series. He always felt juvenile to me, a brooding try-hard that would have fit in the pages of a Rob Liefeld comic.

During the first God of War I put up with Kratos’s shouty rage fine enough, but by the second game in the series I actively disliked the guy. By the third I was playing God of War despite Kratos and couldn’t even finish the game. I felt like I was guiding a more self-important Freddy Kruger through Greek myth, butchering everyone in sight. Zeus wasn’t so great a guy in mythology or in the God of War series, but Kratos felt like the real villain by the end.

So, it was to my complete shock that when I finished the new God of War. I not only liked Kratos. He had also become one of my favorite characters of the current console generation. A complex, imperfect hero that often succeeds despite his rage, not because of it.

The main reason for Kratos’s transformation is his Dadifaction. He’s a father and single parent, tasked with spreading his dead wife’s ashes from the highest peak in all the nine realms. His son Atreus feels like a real kid. He’s super inquisitive, but also at times self-conscious. He lies and screams at his Dad, and rather than talk about his emotions he sulks. He’s often generous but can be selfish and makes some truly horrible mistakes. And yet despite all this Atreus never feels annoying, never feels like a character you don’t want to protect and guide.

You can tell that Kratos has a rocky relationship with his son. He takes his role as father seriously, but he’s distant to Atreus, shouting orders more than parenting. I thought at first that was because Kratos didn’t know how to be a dad, and there’ an element of that. But Kratos’s distance from his child runs deeper than that and showed something that was absolutely necessary for me to care about Kratos again, regret.

Kratos is never repentant in the new God of War. But he is a man who is ashamed of his past. He’s buried the ‘Blades of Chaos’ his signature weapon and refuses to use them save as a last resort. He breaks Greek pottery depicting him to try and hide his former self from Atreus. And when in Hel and Kratos is tormented by visions of himself beating Zeus to death, he cries out for Atreus to look away.

Kratos never comes out and says he’s ashamed. When anyone asks why he won’t reveal his past to Atreus he says it’s to protect the boy from his own godhood. And yet through their journey Kratos realizes that his legacy is no longer his alone. In having a child he needs to tell Atreus who he was, so the boy can understand where he comes from. It’s only by revealing his past to Atreus that Kratos begins to come to grips with it himself. He finally acknowledges, ‘I killed many who deserved it, and many who did not.’

Rather than being something to run from Kratos’s past as a monster makes him more real. He still experiences rage, but he also tries to hold it in check. When tormented by those he killed, rather than scream at them like he did in the past he instead grudgingly agrees with them. He’s a man ashamed of himself and only by caring about Atreus more than himself is Kratos able to let go of his past angst and vengeance and grow as a character.

Fatherhood changes you. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. And fatherhood has been changing video games for the last two generations: The Witcher 3, Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’, the Bioshock games, and The Last of Us all have included stories about being parent, but none of them have felt so transformative as God of War. The new God of War is proof that we all grow up at some point, that we can regret our past while at the same time accepting it. All we need to do is care about something or someone more than ourselves.

The Persona Paradox

The Persona Paradox

When Persona 5 was released at the start of the month I wasn’t going to buy it. Despite waiting nearly ten years for it, and that the fact that Persona 4, was one of my all time favorite games, (seriously, I bought a PS-Vita just to play the best version of it, ‘Persona 4 Golden’) I was supposed to hold off. I was in the middle of another excellent game, ‘Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wilds‘, and I needed to finish a novel draft that had already gone on for far too long (more on that in another post). I didn’t have the time to get sucked into a game that would last over a hundred hours.

And yet, on Persona 5’s very release date, I made the snap decision to stop at Best Buy on my way home and pick it up. I’m about fifty hours in and only about halfway through the story. I’ve played it every evening after work and have sacrificed whole weekends to it. I can’t stop, which I find both understandable and utterly bizarre, because at its core Persona 5 is a game all about time management.

In Persona 5 you’re a teenager who is sent to live in Tokyo on prohibition after being falsely accused of a crime. There the player character finds that he can travel to another dimension known as ‘The Metaverse’ where he gets some dope threads and starts stealing the ‘hearts’ of corrupt adults to make them confess their crimes. It’s a game full of teenage rebellion, coming of age stories, young love, talking cats, virtual tourism and the slickest menus and smoothest background music you can find. The last two are vitally important because you spend a lot of time in those menus planning your day.

Unlike most RPGs were the progression of time might exist only to change the scenery from night to day, Persona 5 has a friggin calendar. Each morning the date is prominently displayed by a slick cartoon knife throw. You start the day going to class and then get the afternoon off to run dungeons, work part time jobs or hang out with friends, with a similar free time existing in the evening. Each dungeon must to be completed by a certain date, and if you don’t pull it off, well it’s game over. In Persona, if you fail at time management you die.

This emphasis on making smart choices with your time is a paradox, because Persona 5 is a massive time commitment. The game is a dialogue heavy experience that takes over a hundred hours to complete a single play through. And to get the entire story, boosting all your stats and social links, you must beat Persona 5 multiple times. Accomplishing that would cost you hundreds of afternoons and evenings, the very resources that Persona 5 teaches you are precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Thus Persona 5 rewards me for being smart with my time in game and yet it costs me a ton of my real-life time. I first discovered this paradox back in Persona 4 when I skipped the gym to play more Persona 4, but told my character in game to work out, in order to improve his ‘guts’ stat. I gained a point in the game and lost one in real life. I was shocked, and yet I kept playing.

Despite my surprise Persona is hardly the first game where I’ve bumped into similar paradoxes. RPGs are my favorite video games, but they’re a genre that require a lot of time and even some work. Things like grinding and sorting through gazillion pieces of equipment aren’t actually fun, but you do them to bump up stats and get the best stuff. Back in high school my mom always found it infuriating that I could be so thorough planning out a massive game and yet never had my homework done on time. It was all because of the Persona Paradox.

For instance one of the many tasks you can do in Persona 5 is laundry. Laundry takes up one of the game’s afternoon or evening slots (just like in real life). I can now say that in one of my favorite games, you do laundry. How does Persona 5 make something like laundry compelling?

There’s a lot of answers to this, some are obvious, in Persona 5 laundry takes a game ‘afternoon’ which is like 15 seconds. There’s a scene where my character sits down stares at the laundry machine and my adorable talking cat says something cute and it’s over. Laundry only cost me about two pushes of a button. In real life it takes more time and effort. There’s also the rewards.

In Persona 5 if I do laundry I get new, better equipment. In the real world, the same clothes I already own are now clean, it’s just not the same. And that’s true for all of Persona 5’s daily activities. In Persona 5 if I spend my afternoon working at the flower shop I gain both money and also a sat boost to my ‘kindness’. If I spend the evening playing Shogi with my friend I move our relationship forward and get a stat boost to my ‘knowledge’.

Certain apps and TED talks have suggested we can ‘gamify’ life. Take the rewards and habit loops that are so addictive in games and recreate them in the real world. You get points and experience for doing chores, you can level up. If I make it to level ten blogger maybe I’ll earn a follower, that sort of thing. I see the allure of this thinking, but real life is a lot messier than video games.

Take the stats I keep on mentioning. In Persona 5, like in many games, you can increase stats by doing repetitive tasks. This is kind of like real life. If I get up every morning to run, I’ll get better at running over time and be able to go farther and faster. But my path forward is not a straight video game experience bar. I don’t know exactly how many runs I’ll need to progress to a new level as runner and no video game randomly injures me when I push too hard. I could strain myself and that might cost me some of my gains. And running is pretty clean example, what about some of more the abstract persona stats? What repetitive tasks make you kinder or more charming? How do know you’ve progressed in those areas?

The social links of Persona would be even harder to quantify. In the Persona games you gain more experience, neat tricks and occasional stat boosts by hanging out with different characters. These characters are your friends, but also maybe your teacher, or guardian, or that shady guy at the gun store that asked you to ‘hold something’ for him when the cops came calling. On top of being rewarded levels for hanging out with people you’re also rewarded with insight into their lives and get little story arcs that are fun and touching. Progress these far enough and you might even get yourself a girlfriend (every girl in the game is kinda into the player character, which yeah, that ain’t like real life.)

In real life how do I know I’m progressing in levels with a friend or colleague? If I hang out with my friend Pete I’m not going to get a neat little story every time like in Persona. Sometimes we’re just going to watch a movie or argue about politics. Some people you’ll never gain intimate insights to regardless of how often you hang out with them. There’s also no toxic relationships in persona.

And since Persona 3 they removed the very real world mechanic where if you didn’t regularly hang out with a social link, then that link would start to deteriorate and you could even be demoted levels with them. From real life experience I can tell you that if I start hanging out with a girl then ignore her for weeks on end to break into cognitive palaces, play with my talking cat or rent dvds to increase my ‘proficiency’, she won’t become my girlfriend when I decide I have time to get back to her. I’d be lucky if she even responded to my texts at all. (Side note; Persona 5 taught me that renting DVDs is apparently still a thing in Japan).

And yet, I can’t let the Persona fantasy go. It is so tantalizing close to real life. Sure, I can’t be a dashing phantom thief with great hair, but hanging out with my friends, volunteering to help local politicians, and reading to increase my knowledge? I can do those things. I can look at my afternoons and evenings as chances to expand my relationships and experiences. Time management can be fun and engrossing. I can even get a girlfriend! Or I can play Persona 5 where all that is as easy as pressing a button. Maybe that’s the true allure of the Persona Paradox, that the fulfilling exciting life you always wanted is there for you, and all it will cost you is your time.