The Witcher 3 – Narratives of Importance and the challenges of story-telling

The Witcher 3 – Narratives of Importance and the challenges of story-telling

After a long summer break, I am finally on my way back into the rhythm of things, and that includes blogging! Please everyone please, try to contain your excitement, although I know it must be hard. This blog post will continue where the previous left of, by discussing The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (From now on referred to as TW3). Now the emphasis will be on narrative, which is lucky, because narrative is quite an important piece of The Witcher puzzle.

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Now, before I talk more about TW3 it is essential to look at the function of narrative first. The main question here being, why are narratives so important to us? I mean, we are literally surrounded by narratives! Storytelling is not a recent invention, as it does in fact date back to the Pleistocene period of our existence. As this predates writing all storytelling was shared through speech. Usually when looking at something through the glasses of human evolution, we do it with the goal of establishing whether it has any adaptive traits. In other words, has a certain trait helped our early ancestors survive and create more offspring? Here lies the problem, as it has been difficult to, at least definitively, to prove the adaptive value of storytelling. The general theory is that storytelling is an adaptive trait for three possible reasons (Not mutually exclusive):

  1. Stories provide us with vicarious experiences that can help us deal with future situations more adeptly.
  2. Stories, even those that are entirely fictional, contain some sort of factual information that we can make use of.
  3. Stories help us understand other people better. Increases our knowledge of others point of view, and can increase our understanding of emotions.

As it turs out most stories that have been told through time, whether they be oral or written, include these points above, whilst exploring some kind of problem or obstacle that a protagonist usually has to overcome. Think about it, people are obsessed with other people, emotions and new perspectives, which is why the majority of our fiction is about people, and their relations towards other people. (Dutton, 2009, 189-190)

The above was a very short explanation of why we enjoy stories and narratives to such a degree. It does not do the topic entirely justice if I am to be honest, but for the sake of the length of this post, it will have to suffice for now. If you would like to know more about our love for stories let me know, and I will feature it in a post later on in the year.

That was the wide scope of narrative, now let’s narrow it down a bit, and have a look at what role narratives play in video games. I am aware of the fact that not all games include a narrative, and many games a very limited narrative, BUT even a game such as Tetris is not entirely without narrative! The actual game itself may not contain a narrative per se, as Tetris is all about the mechanics, but the narrative of you playing the games is created within your mind as you play it. Suddenly when you think back on that last intense you just played, where you were hanging on by the skin of your teeth towards the end, desperate clearing rows so as to not lose, well there you have it, this is your little personal narrative about that experience. “Hold on, but doesn’t that imply that everything that happens in our daily lives can be called a narrative in that case?” you might say. Technically speaking yes, that is precisely what it means, and there have been tons of discussions regarding this subject amongst narratologists. Let me make clear that I am not arguing that Tetris is a game with a narrative, because obviously, it does not have anything of the sorts, but what I am pointing out is the fact that the game consists of elements that can be narrative inducing. It can lead us to achieving a goal, and when this happens, we tend to share it. By sharing it, we are sharing our personal story. We do like sharing our personal stories, increasingly so, just think about the amount of people on Snapchat, constantly sharing little moments of their lives with their friends.

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Moving on, we can hopefully all agree upon the fact that some games contain more narrative than others do, and it is story based games that are the focus of today’s topic TW3. As with most things, there has been a lot of discussion concerning narratives in video games, even to the point where some believed narrative came in the way of people enjoying a game fully.

“There is a direct, immediate conflict between the demands of a story and the demands of a game. Divergence from a story’s path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player’s freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game.” (Costikyan, 2000, 44-43)

This view is one that I see as belonging to a group of people who are strict, or pure, ludologists. In this view, a game should not mix with a story. True games are those with strong game mechanics, such as Tetris, or Pacman. Costikyan does touch upon an important note, which is if game designers are not mindful and combine game and narrative thoughtfully, they may very well end up with a game that is neither satisfying to play, nor deliver an interesting story. Incorporating good storytelling into a game is not an easy task, and it is one I believe is often underestimated by game designers. Luckily, for us consumers, the game designers seem to have woken up to this problem, and we are beginning to see more and more games where the narrative is receiving more attention and integration into the games. How these games integrate narrative varies a lot. I won’t go further into that now, as this is already becoming a lengthy post, but can return to this in a later blog post if you should want me to become even more technical. Something I don’t personally mind, but then again, such a detailed discussion might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Well done for getting this far! It is now finally time to talk some about TW3!

The way in which the narrative is provided in TW3 is a bit of a mixed bag. We get the odd cut scene. There is quite a lot of dialogue. Quite a lot of the action and storytelling takes places while you a playing; by this I mean we are in the midst of the action and able to move around as some events unfold. And sometimes some of the games storytelling is simply conveyed through the surroundings, atmosphere, small notes, etc.

Now to those of you who might not know the game please check out the video below, where you will get the pleasure of seeing me playing the game a bit and attempting to explain its basics at the same time. Something done with varying success:

Warning: The following may contain spoilers!

Let us start by looking at the main story of the game. We are playing as the character Geralt of Rivia, and Geralt wants to find his adopted daughter Ciri. The problem is he doesn’t know where Ciri is exactly, so in order to find Ciri he must first seek out his old friend (and lover) Yennefer of Vengerberg. We also find out that Ciri is chased by something called the Wild Hunt, and that this Wild Hunt is a group of extremely dangerous foes. In the beginning of the game, this overarching plot can seem slightly vague, as we don’t have a lot to go on. So even though it is very clearly Geralt’s own motivation for most of the things that he does, it is not necessarily what drives the player forward in the beginning. See what I did there? It is important to be aware of the difference between the character’s motivations, which are those that are scripted into the story, and become evident, especially, through dialogue, and the player, whose motivations can vary quite a lot. Therefore, when we come across the first village, very early on in the game, there is going to be a difference in motivations. Geralt is adamant on finding Yennefer; there can be no doubts about that. But I, as the person playing the game, was more interested in other stuff initially. I mean, of course it was interesting enough trudging around the tavern and talking to the locals trying to get information on Yennefer’s whereabouts, and getting just about nothing but insult spat back in your face. But, it was even more interesting getting outside the tavern, because this meant the first taste of freedom! TW3 is an open-world RPG, which means its game mechanics should encourage the player to venture forth and explore the world, and this is what someone plying such a game probably wants to do. I certainly did.

And that’s it, we are let loose, and will from this time onwards diverge from the path of the main story in order to satisfy our own curiosity and motivations. There are many different approaches to gaming, and subsequently a plentitude of motivational factors that can drive a certain player, such as players who are completionists, people who focus on role-playing their characters, or maybe people who just like following the main story without too many interruptions. Whatever your favorite poison is there is a fair chance that TW3 can satisfy it.

The main story is indeed fairly good. Although the first two thirds of the story is by far the best. Basically everything leading up to the point where Geralt finds Ciri. Following this event things slowly, but surely, start going downhill. There are plenty people voicing this opinion on the internet these days, and even some possible explanations. The one I can follow to some extent has to do with actual content of the story. You see, in the first two thirds of the main story not a lot happens. Geralt runs around solving small problems here and there in order to gather small pieces of evidence that might finally lead to Ciri’s whereabouts. This means the plot does not have to unfold very much during this part of the game. This can be perceived as a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, it does give the player a lot of freedom to explore, and leaves a lot of space for side quests and other interesting stories. On the negative side it leaves all the explanation until the end, which means a lot of the plot suddenly has to unravel in a relatively short period of time. Things did seem slightly rushed towards the end, and the game took a more linear shape; limiting our freedom. Whether the change to linear story-telling is a good or a bad things is down to personal taste. I felt it was a mixed pleasure. Some parts were amazing, such as when Geralt had to jump through portals dropping him into strange worlds. Some parts less so, such as the final boss fights. They felt quite standard, as boss fights go, and in the end there was not a great feeling of accomplishment by beating them. Part of this I would assign to the lack of personality given these opponents. It is not a major problem in the game, but it is a shame. The white frost is a phenomenon left relatively unexplained, also a shame, and generally just darn is confusing.

This has become a lengthy post, so I will cut it short. Let me just say, the side quests are really what makes this game for me, plus the general atmosphere throughout the world. The atmosphere is fairly dark and brutal. The brutality itself is supported by the difficulty of the game, which is certainly not on the easy side, although we are not talking Dark Souls difficult! The general depiction of racism e.g. is not censored in any way, and is in fairness quite horrible, but that is a good thing, because ignoring such issues certainly won’t help. The side quests can also be dark and brutal, but they will often also be quirky. An example of this comes early in the game, when Geralt is asked to fetch an old frying pan from inside a house for an old lady.

I will return to narrative and especially the side quests in my next blog post. In that post I will draw upon an approach on narrative game design from Frictional Games, described in a post on their blog. They mention four layers: Gameplay, narrative goal, narrative background, and mental modelling.

Thank you so much for reading.

Leave a comment in the comments section below if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions regarding this or any other game.

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References:

Costikyan, Greg. 2000. Where Stories End and Games Begin. Game Developer, September: pp. 44-53.

Dutton, Dennis. 2009. The Uses of Fiction in Evolution, Literature and Film. New York: Columbia University Press.

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