With the announcement of a Witcher Netflix series, there’s never been a better time to delve into The Witcher 3 and experience a world that could well exist without you.
There’s a line in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, uttered by the movie’s memory-deprived protagonist: “I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there”. Yet in the case of most games – role-playing games in particular – it’s patently obvious that it’s not. In an age when we’ve come to expect more from video games, many still fall short in this regard.
Take Skyrim which, while still an enjoyable affair, does little to hide its player-centric nature. True, the game has been created with the sole purpose of entertaining you, but the player is so overtly the focus of events that the game ends up resembling a digital version of The Truman Show. Despite the fact that there’s a civil war raging, NPCs exhibit an obsessive interest in the minutiae of your life even before they're informed that you’re The Chosen One (TM) – news which, apparently, instantly reaches all corners of the land. Join a guild and you’ll ultimately end up running it, the members being bafflingly quick to entrust their ages-old organisation to someone who’s been around for all of three weeks.
Yet while it’s easy to accept this as the norm, the bulk of other role-playing games following suit, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt demonstrates a superior approach to world-crafting. A superb example of how to properly construct a believable, breathing world, The Witcher 3 should be required playing for anyone looking to develop their own digital tale. Not because of the game’s lore, or its absurdly gravelly-voiced protagonist, but because it’s obvious, from the game's opening moments onwards, that its world does not hinge on your existence.
It doesn’t matter how many monsters you, as The Witcher, Geralt, slay; for the inhabitants of the realm, life goes on until it doesn’t. The few garden-variety NPCs who do take an interest in you aren’t there to offer you a quest, choosing instead to voice their contempt for you and your kind. No-one runs up to you to comment on your armour or tell you about their suddenly-truncated former careers. All things considered, it’s baffling why other games' NPCs seem so willing to welcome “The Chosen One”. Having some prophesied warrior wander into your village should be a huge red flag; a sure sign that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of potentially fatal collateral damage.
Roaming further afield only underlines the notion that the world’s inhabitants have enough worries of their own. The Witcher 3 takes place in a realm torn apart by a war that has cost the lives of countless soldiers and civilians. Wander through a village and you’ll witness suffering aplenty, villagers bemoaning their lack of food or mourning their dead. Even larger settlements bear the scars of the conflict that have scourged the land. Skyrim’s war, on the other hand, was barely evident and, in a move that overplayed your own importance, you were the only one who could end it.
In The Witcher 3, you’re not tasked with ending the war, and while your actions ultimately impact the conflict’s resolution, it’s never the focus of your quest. Your interactions with quest-essential NPCs also chip away at any sense of self-importance you might have brought to the game, many of the the game’s more prominent characters seeing you as a means to accomplish their own ends.
Nor are you the one true voice of reason and judgment in the world. The decisions you’re presented with are far from clear cut, leaving you entirely unsure whether you’ve made the “right decision”. The Witcher 3 excels at underplaying your own importance, leaving you with the impression that, even when you’ve turned your console off, the world is still ticking over. Even when you follow a villager and witness them doing little more than wandering around in a circuit, the illusion still persists because of the game’s other touches. That's not to say a game needs to be steeped in misery in order to present a convincing world but anything that draws attention away from your own perceived importance adds to the effect.
So why, then, do other games not adopt a similar approach? Games strive to draw you in their universes and, thanks to the aforementioned techniques, The Witcher 3's world is one of the most immersive you’re likely to encounter. It may be due, in part, to the industry’s perceptions of what players want; there exists the idea, carried over from the early days of gaming, that the player has to be the hero, to solve all the world’s problems in one stroke. Yet many of the best games, The Last of Us for example, feature smaller, more personal narratives. Could it be that, for fear of disappointing players, companies keep making their characters the absolute centre of the universe?
Whatever the reason, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an examplar to games designers as to how craft a believable, living world that, going against type, isn’t all about you.