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 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.