The RPG genre has always had roots in the idea of choice. Choice of class, choice of race, gender, good or evil. If you’ve played D and D or any other of the innumerable pen and paper games out there you’ll know that it’s the amount of freedom that the games give you that makes each session so fun and improvisational.
The thing is, I’m not so sure that the idea translates to video games all that well.
The missing element, obviously, is the DM or Dungeon Master; a living, thinking human that can react to any of the player’s actions. Want to try to incite a riot in a small town? Okay but you’ll have to make a good speech. Want to release all these prisoners? You can but there will be consequences. Interested in cutting to the chase and completing a major plot point before the DM is ready? You can try and the entire campaign will change based on it. The DM can change focus as the game progresses. Though you can make similar decisions in video game RPGs, you’re still following set paths. The game needs to be written and dialogue needs to be recorded—it’s the nature of the beast. Which is why it’s so surprising that RPGs try to give you it all, in spite of that.
Take last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, a great game but, in retrospect, a pretty inorganic experience. Your hero is nameless and shapeless, making it all the harder for the writers to put them into the world in a natural feeling way. Thedas (the land in which your inquisitor, um, inquisitions) is filled with bustling towns, deep history and interesting architecture, and yet, after the initial wonder of it wears off, it seems to only exist for the player’s benefit. Like when you turn off your system all of the wonderfully written people and characters cease to exist. All of the decisions you end up making seem trite, almost as if they’re put there by the developer with a sign saying “look we’re letting you make a decision now!”
It’s a lack of focus.
Inquisition is built to be played one hundred different ways, with many different combinations of race, class and backstory and, to accommodate the overarching story, things have to be made slightly vanilla. Take the (spoilers) attack on Haven. If you gain assistance from the Templars (Thedas’ holy nights and banishers of magic users), you are attacked by an army of mages, which doesn’t really fit the setting. Mages are supposedly few and far between in Thedas and an earlier conversation with a leader of a free mage circle seems to suggest that many of them have lost their power due to the Templars’ meddling. It’s one of the many ways the game forces itself to give you a choice by sacrificing the consistency of its story. By trying to give us a story with hundreds of possibilities it, in a lot of ways, it failed to deliver a complete feeling experience.
Now let’s talk about Geralt of Rivia.
The Witcher: Wild Hunt is an RPG with a similar scope, but is able to solve these problems with a proper focus. The players experience the game through the eyes of the titular Witcher, Geralt, instead of a nameless hero. Geralt is an acclaimed hunter of monsters in the world of The Witcher: Wild Hunt, making interactions with npcs all that more interesting. Many have history with you (for good or ill) and hearing their reaction to you makes the world feel real and alive. After I while I started to play the game actually as Geralt. When making a decision in the world of Wild Hunt, I was no longer thinking about how my choice would obviously effect gameplay (losing a character, angering a faction, etc.) but thinking of what Geralt would do.
For instance, there are a lot of decisions you have to make involving the game’s other protagonist, Ciri. She’s like a daughter to Geralt and, though the game gives you an option to throw her to the wolves on occasion, I was always sticking up for her because that’s what Geralt would do. It made the sometimes tedious task of making RPG choices more fun and manageable.
The focus helped streamline combat, too. A witcher is a warrior, first and foremost, so instead of having to come up with ways to wedge magic and backstabbing into the gameplay, the developers could concentrate on making great, action oriented combat (which was always satisfying). All of these things together helped make The Witcher a strong, cohesive narrative and gameplay experience.
Of course there are draw backs to The Witcher: Wild Hunt’s focused story-telling. For one, you’re getting a womanizing male perspective, which, especially here in America, is overdone and nearly taboo. Another thing is that if magic or theiving do happen to be your thing, you’re going to find the few measly spells and lack of rogue-ing a little underwhelming.
But that being said The Witcher: Wild Hunt knows which story it wants to tell—and because of that—is a better game. As a western RPG fan, I’m hoping that more developers will try this approach in the future instead of trying to give us everything.