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.

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 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.