The Witcher 3: Opening the Door to the Next Gen

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If The Witcher 3 has proven anything to me, it’s that video games will continue to be video games.

The Witcher 3 is a game that truly tests the limits of what developers can do with the medium, pushing known limits of fidelity and detail. It features a sprawling, hand-crafted environment that would make earlier consoles blush. It juggles weather and crowd and combat systems like they’re perfectly grippy tennis balls. It features facial animation that looks lifelike without being creepy (a la LA Noir). It has pushed the notion of a traditional RPG to its limit.

Despite all that noise, it’s still a video game.

During my time with the game, I have fallen down steep cliffs while standing fully upright. I have fought bandits while horses bug the fuck out and run continuously at walls. I have walked a little too far past the FUCKING GOD DAMNED FLOWER I’M TRYING TO PICK and had to steer Geralt of Rivia in a tight little semi-circle to give it another pass. I’ve had to manage inventory slots. I’ve had to choose which arbitrary skill set to improve. I’ve played virtual cards against virtual people while fierce virtual wars rage. I’ve died. I’ve come back to life. I’ve died again.

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I’ve also fought epic, beautiful battles against mythical creatures. I’ve tracked missing persons and discovered their grisly, lycanthropic fates. I’ve picked flowers, yes, but I’ve done so by learning where they tend to grow and tracking them visually. The Witcher 3 is a game that I feel could not have been made before this point, and it feels like the fulfillment of a promise made two years ago when the PS4 and Xbox One launched.

Really, it all boils down to the medieval environs you inhabit. The game’s environment turns the phrase “open world” on its head by giving you geography that actually feels, for perhaps the first time in a game, like a world. Like a place people live. We’ve moved beyond the Assassin’s Creed crowds that flow around and around in circles. Here, we have dilapidated villages that must be cleared of monsters so that peasants can begin to rebuild. We have lazy fishermen living next to industrious peasants and miserable fieldhands. There are stories everywhere in The Witcher 3, and they’re not all just simple side quests.

It’s an encouraging step. This current generation of consoles has been fairly disappointing, and not only because there are so few games seemingly worth playing. Up until now, the games that have come out have all felt very iterative of the games we’ve been playing for 10 years now. I’m talking about games like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Infamous: Second Son and Dragon Age: Inquisition and, um…

Knack.

They’ve all felt like previous gen games given a new paint job. There have been very few innovations in gameplay and only slightly more innovations in fidelity. The PS3 and 360, meanwhile, brought a huge number of changes to how video games functioned. Internet connectivity became essential, achievements changed the way we think about game completion, HD resolutions became achievable, enemies became smarter, open worlds became a mainstay, and so on and so on. The current generation has embraced video streaming, which is a smart, applaudable decision, but nothing else about either the hardware or games seems like a major step forward. Throw in many developers’ seeming inability to achieve 60 frames per second at true HD resolutions, and it’s easy to feel a bit depressed with the state of gaming. There is a major change on the horizon, but it’s one that I have some misgivings about.

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Project Morpheus, Sony’s virtual reality headset, is due to launch in 2016. Theoretically, it will bring the dream of virtual reality gaming to the masses by integrating with the PS4. This is an exciting proposition, but my time with The Witcher 3 has me conflicted. The entire idea of virtual reality is to immerse you in another world. The Witcher 3 does this beautifully already…until you glitch out and your arm clips through a wall. We’ve come to expect these small graphical glitches from video games, and I think it will be a very long time until we stop seeing them pop up. So what happens when your virtual arm clips through a wall while you’re wearing a VR headset? Instantly, the illusion is shattered. Suddenly, it’s not your character’s arm that is cut off at the elbow, but your own. Even worse, what happens when your character falls through the world? I imagine most people will tear the headset off at that point, rather than sigh and restart like you would with most games.

The move to VR brings with it hundreds of questions beyond just graphical glitches. Will games have to move slower to accommodate your bodily motions? What happens when the framerate dips into the single digits, and suddenly you’re looking through a View-Master instead of a VR headset? Games struggle to render at high resolutions now, how will they handle having to render two relatively high-resolution images simultaneously? Even more generally, what kinds of games will be left behind by this move towards VR? Certainly it opens the door to new, unrealized ideas of what video games can be, and that’s definitely something to look forward to. But things like puzzle games, fighting games, and strategy games. will either need to evolve or be left behind if Project Morpheus and its peers take off.

As such, it seems like the industry is looking for ways to innovate that don’t without examining the core components of what make games tick. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft tried the same thing last generation with motion controls, and the fact that all 3 have moved back towards traditional methods of input seems to suggest that this maybe isn’t the right road to follow. I would be much more interested in a continuation of the progress The Witcher 3 has made, towards larger, more interesting worlds with more meat on their bones. What The Witcher chases isn’t realism, but believability. It uses new technology to create a world more easy to get lost in and care about, without the crutch of a screen strapped to your head. I welcome the progress VR may or may not bring, but the future imagined by The Witcher 3 seems to me like a future more worth pursuing.

Tucker Phillips