The Witcher 3 or How I Learned to Hate Open-World Games

I had played around 70 hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt when I uninstalled it. I had struggled to beat the Imlerith boss on Bald Mountain and stopped playing. Then one day, I looked at it on my PS4 dashboard and thought, I don’t want to put any more time into this. I deleted it, never to return.

The Witcher 3 had been a mixed experience up until this point. Objectively speaking, it is clearly an impressive game – it looked great, had some interesting characters who were well voice acted and contained some enjoyable side missions. However, I did not enjoy the combat. My expectations of melee combat had changed since the ‘Soulsborne series, and The Witcher 3 felt way below that standard. Whereas Souls combat felt impactful and weighty, The Witcher 3 was floaty and disconnected. Maybe I was being unreasonable in making this comparison, but in some ways the ‘Soulsborne series has ruined melee combat for me. Another thing that counted against The Witcher 3 was my lack of familiarity with the series. I felt that I had no emotional stake in the story.

Kaer Morhen

But the issue that sent me over the edge with The Witcher 3 was its size. Often I would show the world map to my girlfriend (who has no interest in games), tell her my position, zoom out so the whole map was on the screen and then complain about how obscenely big it is. The Witcher 3 is by no means the worst culprit for this, but it is here that I reached my breaking point with open-world games. 

The open-world genre is one that is very popular in modern gaming. It is a genre that places the player in a virtual world, with the freedom to explore and complete objectives at their own leisure. Typically, games had been linear and tightly structured in previous generations, partly due to technological limitations. As these lifted, the open-world genre has become increasingly popular, and in modern gaming they constitute regular releases. For example, Ghost of Tsushima has recently released, Cyberpunk 2077 is due for release soon and Far Cry 6 is due early next year. 

I can see the appeal with open-world games. I was once enthusiastic about the genre too, particularly with Fallout 3 and then Fallout: New Vegas. To be transported to another world or time, interacting and exploring that world without the usual barriers is certainly appealing. The ability to shape your experience and your character in these worlds can result in immersive gaming. But by the time I played The Witcher 3, I was sick of open-world games.

So, what happened? My problems with the genre can best be exemplified with the differences between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Arkham Asylum was a game with a detailed and perfectly formed setting. The story progressed and escalated in a way that kept it interesting and held the player’s engagement for the whole of its runtime by being tightly structured. Whilst I still enjoyed Arkham City, the move to an open world watered this down. This open world lost some of the detail found in the previous game, with areas that were repetitive and empty. The deliberate sense of progression and escalation had also been lost. The main story still had this, but by filling the world with side quests and distractions, it took away the urgency of the events of the main story. Any sense of the importance of events was lost as objectives could be completed at the player’s leisure.

I see variations of these problems in other open-world games. Many open-world games have large, empty environments filled with repetitive and bland side quests. As open worlds have gotten larger, these problems have gotten worse. The increased size of these open worlds has become a badge of honour, but my issue is what is the point of having large environments if they are empty and lacking interesting content? And they have become increasingly homogenised, with Ubisoft even placing the same basic gameplay loop between their different franchises. Where is the freedom when the player has to complete busy work by climbing yet another variation of towers? I play games to get away from busy work, not to complete chores. 

This need to go bigger is a reflection of this generation of bloat. The value of video games are now based on how much content they have and their run time. I am finding as I get older, my time is at a premium, and I simply do not have time to sink so many hours into a game, especially since I have many more that I want to play. Many games do not know when to end. This is not just a problem with open-world games. Games that should be 10 hours long are now extended into 20 hours. Games like SUPERHOT and Titanfall 2 have short campaigns but are two of my favourite games of the generation. They demonstrate value by their respective run times being filled with interesting and engaging gameplay and not outstaying their welcome.

This sense of frustration increased whilst I sank hours into The Witcher 3. With some genuinely interesting side missions, it is clearly one of the better examples of the genre. But I was spending too much on a game that I wasn’t particularly enjoying. I had become too distracted by completing as many tasks as I could. I had reached my breaking point with the genre, and ended my time with it at 70 hours.

The Witcher 3 was not the last open-world game I played. The reality is that a lot of big releases are open-world games. As a gamer, they are pretty unavoidable. However,  I have become more disciplined with how much time I spend on them. I’ll do a few side missions, then when I get bored, I mainline the story, keeping the experience to around 40 hours. If a game wants to hold my attention for longer than that, it has to be pretty exceptional, and that is rare. Games need to justify their length, and for the vast majority of the time, they fail to do this. I don’t think The Witcher 3 is a bad game, it just happened to represent everything I hate about the open-world genre, despite how it is actually one of the better ones. I can see how I could go back to The Witcher 3, and with this newfound discipline, maybe I can finally finish it. But having spent 70 hours on the game already, I have moved on.

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