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Gaming Writer’s Saturday: Skyrim vs. The Witcher 3

Apparently I’m one of the few people who didn’t enjoy the Witcher 3 much. The critically acclaimed and multi-awarded game didn’t manage to hold my attention for very long. I played it for several weeks (so about 60-70 hours of gameplay), and then promptly returned to Skyrim which at that time I had already replayed at least half a dozen of times.

Every now and then, when I voice that unpopular opinion, I collect an interesting array of reactions: from quite derogatory suggestions that I don’t know what I’m talking about (as if preference was objective and not subjective), through preaching comments about how Witcher 3 is superior, to plain curiosity about my preference.

It finally prompted me to put my thoughts in one post, and since there hasn’t been a Gaming Writer’s Saturday entry for a while, it seems a perfect opportunity for an update.

Do I think The Witcher 3 a bad game?

When I look at Witcher 3, I see beautiful graphics, dynamic battles, and interesting quests, some with unexpected depth, some with even less expected humor. I see complexity and a potential for weeks if not months of a game play.

I definitely don’t consider Witcher 3 a bad game. As a gamer I appreciate many aspects of it… Yet, it failed to captivate me, and there are two main reasons for that.

A friend a bit too old

I admit, the first reason could be described as “it’s not you, it’s me” issue. In my teens, and then in my early twenties, I was a huge fan the Witcher book series. I read books as they came out in Polish, waiting impatiently for every new release, and then I re-read them multiple times, sprinting through the whole saga or revisiting my favorite scenes and passages.

I knew that story by heart, could name all the characters, and quote a multitude of one-liners. Now, some fifteen years later, I still remember it quite well. I’d lived in that world for so long, it hardly had any secrets. That meant revisiting all the familiar places and story lines when I was playing the game. Sure, some things had changed or were new, but the gist remained the same. It didn’t help that whenever a major character entered the scene, as soon as they introduced themselves, I instantly knew who they were and what to expect from them.

And to discover discrepancies between the books and the game world or tracing down new things was hardly enough to keep me engaged for long.
I also didn’t get to make my own decisions. Having read the book so many times, I knew what Geralt would do or how he’d behave. I knew whom he’d befriend and whom he’d love. I didn’t get to make my own decisions and create my own story. Instead, I was forced into a viewer’s position, following someone else. Which brings me to the second reason why the Witcher 3 failed to enchant me.

Not exactly an RPG

The basis of the role-playing games in its original, pen and paper version, is the character and its creation. The player has almost complete freedom when it comes to crucial character decisions: their personality, past, goals… When it comes to the physical appearance and skills, players are limited by the game mechanics and the world, but within those boundaries, they’re still free to choose whatever they want.

Yet, in The Witcher we have no choice at all. We have to play a male, a witcher, and we don’t even get to pick the name of our character or his appearance. Even the weapons and skills are limited by the character: witchers don’t use magic (the “signs” they use instead aren’t capable of affecting the game style strongly enough), and they fight with swords. So there isn’t even a choice of weapon to fit the player’s game style (there’s a crossbow introduced, but – again – it’s only support).

As a fan of pen and paper RPGs, I seek the same from their video game equivalents: freedom (to whatever extent the game is capable to offer it) and immersion. To me, The Witcher fails to deliver the first one, strongly affecting the second. Of course, the counter argument is that to make the character part of the world, some things have to be pre-defined. But Bioware proved that it can be done while still allowing nearly full freedom. In the games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, the main characters have pieces of pre-defined history, family members, and so on, but the players still get to decide their gender, their appearance, and have a complete control over the skills and gaming style.

The freedom of Skyrim

In comparison, Skyrim offers almost ultimate freedom. Like in every game in the Elder Scrolls series, the player always start as a prisoner freed for the reasons depending on the particular game’s storyline. And after that, there’s nothing but freedom. The appearance, the skills, the game style… and the unlimited exploration.

Of course, that means the character isn’t as much a part of the story like in the Witcher or even in Dragon Age, but with the multitude of quest lines we get to fill in the gaps, engaging our the imagination, and simply living in the world instead of just being part of a story that would come to an end eventually.

Freedom also means high replayability, because each time the main character can take it into different direction, focusing on different things.

I’ve been a Nord who supported the “enemy” Empire, a High Elf who hated high-elven Thalmor agents, and an Imperial who wasn’t really interested in the politics as she explored and focused on building her perfect home at the hill overlooking the lake. I was a powerful mage, and I was a sneaky archer. I went hand to hand with the undead Draugr or killed them from afar with powerful spells. I strayed off the beaten trails to collect flowers for my alchemical experiments. Or I decided to cut straight through the mountain range instead of going around it, spending hours trying to climb seemingly unreachable rocks. The breathtaking view of the Skyrim below me was my reward.

And everywhere I turned, some sort of an adventure awaited me, ready to contribute to the story I was creating in my head.

Skyrim vs. The Witcher 3

I can understand why so many people consider the Witcher 3 to be superior: the rich and sometimes gut-wrenching story and the stunning graphics quality definitely make it a great game. And every now and then I think of trying to play it again… But I’m not a fan of returning to games after a long break and trying to figure out where I was and what I’ve done so far. I usually just start over. But in case of the Witcher 3 it means replaying exactly the same story with exactly the same character, and that’s something that doesn’t appeal to me either if the story failed to enchant me in the first place. So, in the end, I pick up Skyrim instead, create a new character, and enjoy the freedom of creating yet another story in the vast world… or of simply living in it.

Because if I’m forced to relive the story of someone else with little choice of who they are, I’d rather sit down and read a book.

This post is a part of the Gaming Writer’s Saturday series. You can check the idea behind it or browse other posts from the series.

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Alchemy Ocelot

    Agreed. Your post made me think of the problem the Gothic series faced. By the third installment it was hard to swallow the need for starting at level 1 AGAIN, and learning the same skills AGAIN, all with the same Nameless Guy, who by then really didn’t have a character arc anymore. I guess a single character can be used only that often before he wears out.
    But I might be biased here, because I never liked the Witcher setting, neither in the books, nor in the PC games, and I couldn’t care less whether the hero of the Witcher game was Geralt of Rivia or Sir Galahad. They are good games in themselves, but I prefer the freedom of TES.
    I might be biased here as well, because I’m an unrepentant Dunmer Warlock from House Telvanni and I will sing the praises of TES3 Morrowind until my throat goes sore and I sound like and Ashlander with a skooma problem. N’Wahs, N’Wahs everywhere.

    1. Melfka

      I never got around to Gothic because “you have to play a guy? nope, no thank you” – I don’t fancy gender swaps in my RPGs, be it pen & paper or digital ones.
      And yup, my character had a serious cruch on master Aryon (though meeting master Neloth in Skyrim’s DLC was a pleasure too – it made me feel at home).

  2. sjhigbee

    I read this post with fascination, given that I don’t play anything more complicated than Solitaire. It’s a wonderful insight into a world completely different to mine:)). Thank you for your articulate, interesting article, Joanna.

    1. Melfka

      Thank you for reading, Sara. It’s a huge compliment to me that you get to the end of it even if it’s not the topic you’re particularly interested in. 😉

      1. sjhigbee

        I very much like your posts and takes me to a world I don’t know – which is fascinating… It doesn’t hurt that you write well!

        1. Melfka

          Thank you. It’s a huge compliment for a mostly self-taught second language speaker. 🙂

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