The RPG Scrollbars: A Witcher’s Worthy Foes

Note – some of the below images may constitute spoilers, if you’ve avoided most of the trailers and whatnot.

Guess what I’m playing at the moment! [The Witcher 3? –Obviousness Ed] I’m actually feeling a touch trapped by it, caught between the need to get a review out and my enjoyment of just ambling around and doing Witcher stuff rather than barreling down the core path. It’s coming though! It’s coming as soon as I can, and you can probably tell that it’s going to be quite positive without the need for any fancy Witcher senses. One of the many things I’m appreciating about it though is something I’ve long found frustratingly missing from RPGs. I’m talking about respect – not for players, but for the monsters.

As with many parts of the genre, I think it’s something where your opinion depends on what brought you into it. D&D for instance has its roots in war-games, a focus that the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings have been happy to embrace. Armies clashing! A thousand swords striking a thousand shields! Computer RPGs meanwhile are essentially a murder production line most of the time. By the time you reach the end, you’ve murdered entire nations of monsters and thugs who did admittedly probably deserve it, but still. At some point you shouldn’t get a level-up, but PTSD.

The fantasy that I grew up loving though tended to follow very different paths, and a big part of that is the monsters – the horrors of folk and fairy tales, the singular threats. The Hobbit for instance, where the mere idea of killing Smaug was so inherently laughable that a team of battle-loving dwarves opted to take the subtle approach and hire a burglar. The original versions of tales like Red Riding Hood, prior to convenient huntsmen showing up, where the threats had to be mighty in order to tell a fable. “But mommy, why couldn’t Red Riding Hood just kick it in the balls and run away?” didn’t cut it.

In The Witcher [official site], which of course draws a lot of inspiration from fairy tales both implicitly and explicitly, one of the things that makes Geralt interesting is that he comes to things from the other direction. I’m speaking only of the games here, though I’ve read a couple of the books. He’s a monster hunter, but in both knowing them so well and being arguably as much on their side of the social divide as he is in the human world, he has a respect for them that really works for me. As seen in The Witcher 2, he’ll kill a dragon, but it’s a matter for sadness rather than celebration – a great beast brought low, even while being ignorant of its true story. In The Witcher 3, his stoic stance and practiced neutrality are every bit as likely to break in the face of a ‘monster’ like a botchling (a stillborn baby risen as something else) or a mischievous godling as anything else. It’s generally up to the player whether or not he extends this shit-giving to quest completion or not, but time and again he makes it clear that if a monster isn’t causing enough trouble to warrant a contract on its head, he’s not particularly bothered about its presence.

As usual, one of the most important parts of the story is how it begins, with the griffin. It’s a monster, it’s attacking the locals, it needs slaying. But still, we find out that it has reason beyond ‘it’s a monster’ – the death of its mate, which is treated with the forensic care that we later get when Geralt examines a human corpse. It doesn’t stop him taking the contract, it doesn’t even play a part in how it’s stopped, and he doesn’t bring anyone their comeuppance. It’s just part of the tapestry, to be discarded or appreciated as each individual player sees fit.

But respect doesn’t just come from sympathy, empathy or moralising. Ignoring Geralt’s own feelings, one of my favourite things about The Witcher as a series is that it respects its monsters as monsters. Yes, there are many that are just pests, like drowners and nekkers, that pretty much any mob could deal with. When scaled up even a little though, it presents a world where the monsters are actually threats in a way that most RPG foes just aren’t. Geralt is almost a hundred years old by this point, and yet even for something he treats as by-the-book as a griffin fight or a werewolf, he has to prepare for the fight – to think, to make plans, to bring in additional help. The nature of The Witcher’s combat does mean this kinda diminishes after a while as the hack and slash approach becomes easier, but early on it sets an interesting dynamic – that as much as Geralt’s sword fighting is beyond the average man in every way, it’s what’s in his head that really counts. We also see this with Ciri in the tutorial of course, that witcher training is as much about reading boring books about the difference between ghouls and alghouls (the difference of course being that one is the undead remnants of a corpse, and the other the undead remnants of the man who invented the Internet).

Well. Usually they show respect, anyway…

One of the sad things about RPGs though is that to extend this across a full game would be an incredibly tough sell. We’re so used to killing monsters in their thousands that it takes something really special to stand out, and it’s a rare monster that can be on such a higher level that “just smack it with a sword” doesn’t inherently feel appropriate. Dragons are about the only species with the majesty to get away with it, with literal forces of evil or otherworldly menace on about the same tier. Even then, games typically make things far easier than they should. As I joked after playing Mortal Kombat X, the answer to “What makes you think you can defeat a god?!” is “Your health bar.”

To actually crank this up more than The Witcher already does feels like one of those ideas that sounds better than it actually is. RPGs have increasingly become games of efficiencies, especially post-MMOs where people obsess over numbers like their DPS and gear score. They’re games of power and momentum, and having that stop for the sake of finding wolfbane to deal with a werewolf or else have your sword bounce off its invulnerable skin as it kills you… that’s not generally what people are looking for. Perhaps it’s fun to do once or twice, as the Quest for Glory series showed (helped by being more adventure than RPG anyway, so fitting as a ‘puzzle’), but after a while it gets old. It’s very quickly just going to be an obstacle between you and those delicious XP points, especially midway through the game when the initial novelty has worn off.

The simple wrapping of it counts for a lot though, setting the tone in so many ways – Geralt’s own responses, the long introspective scenes where he and Ciri will just sit by a body and calmly discuss how horrific the death was rather than leaving it as just a standard ‘out of hit points’ affair, and the ways that the tiers of monsters are discussed. When Geralt has visible trouble fighting a griffin, even as just a tutorial, it makes it all the more meaningful when he flat out says that fighting three mysterious swamp crones (evil Fates, essentially) would be suicide. The same thing doesn’t work if you simply give an enemy a health-bar or claim it’s a badass – showing not telling begins long before you even see the foe, with the details that ensure that what you show is meaningful.

Not every enemy needs that treatment. It’s fine to just have sword-fodder. But sometimes, it’s definitely nice to have one that feels like it made more impact on the world than moving into a random cave and waiting to be slain. See also the likes of Miyazaki’s Undead Dragon in Dark Souls – a maggoty horror sent back to the artist with “This isn’t dignified. Can’t you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?” These are the monsters we deserve, that almost make you feel bad about calling them that.

A little, at least. Sometimes, almost certainly.

Before you kill the crap out of them, because they have loot.

58 Comments

  1. Pazguato says:

    Spoiler pictures?

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      They’re all from the first (proper) zone.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      A little bit, maybe, but I’m pretty sure everything except the Allgod was visible in the trailers in some way. They’re really not ruining any huge surprises.

    • AngoraFish says:

      Any article about a game is going to be somewhat spoilery because, well, it’s about the game… discussing a game is kinda hard to do unless you can talk about, you know, the game.

      If you’re one of those people who is looking for the internet to draw a cone of silence around all discussion about the Next Hot Thing(tm) simply so you personally can live in blissful ignorance until you finally pick the game up in a bundle for next to nothing in 2021…

      Well, look dude, simply stop reading at the title. Don’t wait for lots of spoilery disclaimers. Don’t scroll down. Don’t pester us with your bitching about what is ultimately an issue entirely within your own self-control.

      Sheesh.

  2. spacedyemeerkat says:

    Doesn’t related to a monster – not unless you have nightmares about bunnies – but I have to say I enjoyed the bit of humour injected at the end of the first scene between Keira and Geralt. I literally laughed out loud although its inclusion has apparently upset a few people.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Did it? I thought it was funny

    • Cinek says:

      That’s what I love about Witcher 3 – all these jokes injected between otherwise cruel world. I don’t know about English version, but Polish one is full of this stuff, and there’s really been many times when I laughed out loud, not just in this scene with Keira.

    • Orija says:

      The scene where she is telling off a bunch of peasants to fuck off?

      • BobbyDylan says:

        No, the Bunnies after the bath.

        • Orija says:

          Just saw it one youtube. Shit, I was too taken by the special effects of her bath to notice the fornicating rabbits.

      • spacedyemeerkat says:

        It’s on the conclusion of Geralt’s conversation with Keira as she finishes her bath.

  3. 7hink says:

    I thought about the same thing you’re describing here as well. So here’s what I think could work:

    Wouldn’t it be neat if you didn’t gain any levels at all? You would just have the same vitality, the same attack power etc, etc. That would ensure it would be much more about the preparation for a particular monster and not so much about leveling and loot. It would also keep monsters scary for the duration of the game. Monsters may be more powerful but you wouldn’t get better. (except for maybe some abilities or something along those lines) This way it’s also a lot easier for a dev to make certain enemies easy and others harder.

    Either way. I think they took a step in the right direction with the witcher 3. I’m enjoying it quite a bit so far. The only thing that really bugs me is the controls. I can’t seem to decide between a controller or a mouse and keyboard. Both seem to not work all that well for me.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I feel like the witcher controls are attempting to be a bastard child of two extremes, i.e dark souls style and batman arkham style. One is very brutal and minimalistic whereas the other is flowing and extravagant, personally I don’t know which I would prefer for the Witcher.

      All I know is having dodge on the alt key is literally the worst thing ever and changing it to a mouse button is the best.

      • 7hink says:

        I changed that alt key almost immediately as well. I’m not sure whether anyone even tested that to be honest. If they did they did would’ve noticed that that definitely wasn’t the best placement.

        • 7hink says:

          – 1 x did + 1 edit button

        • Horg says:

          I thought that was a good key placement, you have your thumb on the space bar for rolling so you can just slide it across onto Alt for pirouette.

          • 7hink says:

            Well, to each his own then I suppose. I’m trying it right now, but my thumb doesn’t seem to want to work that way. :)

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        steves says:

        Double tap on WASD will dodge, just like in Witcher 2.

        • gunny1993 says:

          Yeah but I hate double tapping, give you a moment where you’re not in control of anything that just feels unnatural to me.

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      BlueTemplar says:

      Role-Playing Games being about actual role playing, and not eXperience Points or Levels or Damage Per Second? Heresy!!

      • MrObvious says:

        Hah! Actually, which RPG classics had no levels at all? Or not so numbers-oriented progression? Would be pretty interested in a few.

        Just off my head, Realms of Arkania trilogy comes somewhat close (it had levels and lottsa numbers, but there was so little opportunity to actually level up big, as you were more keen on keeping the party alive, warm, fed, healthy et cetera, I remember I finished the games with only few levels gained).

        Wizardry 6-8 had a lot of levels gained during the course of the game, but the enemies did scale accordingly in almost any random encounter (from measly black crows at the start to a firebreathing psychic specter crows at the end), so every random encounter was still hard (although quite tedious with so many of them).

        I would really like to see a fantasy or whatever RPG with no level progression. Something like the Neoscavenger survival game, where you are all set at the start, you can gain few perks through your game actions (mostly just reputation) and better equipment, but a lucky hit from a random bandit can still bring you down easily.

        Such a game mode would fit very nicely in the Witcher universe, and it would obviate the need for the ever respawning hordes of measly drowners and bloedzuigers or whatever you encounter every few hundred meters to “pass” time between quests.

        Especially since in the books, Geralt actually rarely gets into a fight. Most of the time he either hides from massed armies, or flees, or takes on a few men or a monster or two. Not decimating populations of drowners which seemingly exceed the whole human population several times.

        That way, every encounter would be more meaningful. Like the special encounters there are. Just without the random cannon fodder.

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          BlueTemplar says:

          Well, IMHO Role-Playing Games are mostly about the story that is told and the character’s interactions and choices. If these games also have a good stat leveling and action component, the better.

          I’m not sure what is the link with “cannon fodder”. It’s not like you can only gain experience points by killing enemies…

    • GameCat says:

      Didn’t played W3 yet, but this is certainly a game where leveling up your character should be toned down a lot.
      Geralt is an established character that is experienced in combat. You should maybe make a “class” at the beginning, chosing which combat skills and magic you can use and that’s it.
      Then monster slaying would focus on assembling a gear, elixirs and sword oils that would help you dealing with certain types of enemies.

      • K_Sezegedin says:

        Yeah his constant resetting to level 1 approaches samus-like levels of silliness, but that’s vidya for ya.

  4. Orija says:

    What’s the use of getting a review out this late when everyone is playing the game anyway now?

    • welverin says:

      Because everyone is not playing the game, there are in fact far more people not playing than people who are. In the months and even years to come there will people deciding whether to buy the game or not and reviews will help then make that decision and it will not matter to them if the review was posted on release day or not.

      • GameCat says:

        Or doesn’t have any option to run it. My laptop would blow up if I’d try to run Witcher 3.

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Statistically speaking you’d be right if we took the whole world as a sample, but i doubt this would apply if we only counted those absolutely interested in getting it early, with the money already halfway out of their pocket just waiting for a shiny “YES! Buy it!” sign.

    • dr4gz0r says:

      Reviews don’t exist for the sole purpose of deciding whether or not to buy the game though, some people might simply be interested in what others think about the game, even after they played it themselves.

      Also, not everyone buys the game on day one and for different reasons (pricing, DLCs, polishing etc), so it’s not like you benefit from reading a review only if you’re getting the game on launch day. One year from now some people might be interested in picking Witcher 3 up, and to them it won’t matter that the review came 10 days from launch.

      I for one appreciate that RPS isn’t rushing things here, the game is *really* huge and packed with so much content that I honestly wouldn’t give much credit to reviews published like 3 days after the game launched. I mean, pretty much everyone has yet to beat the game, and that’s without having to write one or more pieces about it…

      • AngoraFish says:

        Yup. I don’t have time to play games any more, I just happen to like reading about them. RPS FTW!

        Also, it’s not a review.

    • padger says:

      Plus everyone likes to read a review of game they have played to say why it is wrong. I am pretty sure reviews do good traffic for sites like RPS way after the release of the game. There’s a reason Kotaku changed its focus to cover more stuff about games people are actually playing right now.

    • horsemedic says:

      If you’re considering people who don’t have game, there’d be almost nothing lost by writing the review 100 years from now, when there are many billions of them.

      But amongst people who _will_ buy the game, most of them will do so within the first few weeks, and the review’s value diminishes with every person who makes that decision before it comes out. So the guy has a point.

      Also a point: it’s a long arse game and I’d rather read a good review than a rushed one. I thought pcgamer’s approach was clever. Their review prepped by playing the storyline through on a console, then spent a couple days getting a feel for the PC version before publishing.

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      teije says:

      Silly comment. I’m not playing it yet, as I like to wait until the bugs have been shaken out and the EE/GOTY edition goes out for any new game, so I can have IMO the best gaming experience. I know others do the same. But I certainly enjoy reading reviews/impressions of the game from others, and take care to avoid major spoilers.

      • Orija says:

        It was a gripe about RPS being tardy with putting up their reviews, and I’ve only just realised that CDP sent out review copies rather late in the day.

        • Sin Vega says:

          I’d rather read good reviews than early ones, more so now than ever in the age of the Inevitable Necessary Patch.

  5. welverin says:

    XP points is redundant and just reads bad.

    That’s the only bad thing I can say about this article..

  6. Rao Dao Zao says:

    But what if you could talk to the monsters?

  7. Bernardo says:

    That’s a really good article that expresses very well what I feel is different about this game, and why I feel much more invested in its world than, say, in Skyrim.

    The fact that you often need to research a monster first also means that you are confronted with its story. It seems to me that that’s what they took over from folk tales – there’s always a reason for the presence of a monster, and the reason is usually people behaving horrifically to each other. Even the Nekkers and Drowners, and the wolves and wild dogs, are explained to roam the country because of the war, and are usually present at sites where there are bodies.

  8. that_guy_strife says:

    ”RPGs have increasingly become games of efficiencies, especially post-MMOs where people obsess over numbers like their DPS and gear score.”

    Since Final Fantasy 4 (for me) RPG’s have always been about numbers. That’s actually the definition of an RPG for me – those games where finally finding a +42 sword is super cool. They’re not ”skill” games per say but they reward carefully optimizing your build, synergizing your party, and managing combat. Which MMO’s later took online.

    I haven’t had time to sit down and have a good few hours to sink in the Witcher 3 so I was kinda sad to see some minor spoilers, but oh well, that’s what I get for reading articles about the game I s’pose.

  9. Cinek says:

    As for mentioned combat, health bars and DPS – I think that the Witcher is probably the first game that really avoided this problem to a degree, and encounters with monsters are very fun and meaningful.

    First of all – I love the investigations about monsters and learning things about them. there’s a huge amount of lore in them and even if I can defeat a monster in 5 seconds – I still had a lot of fun exploring what monster did, finding the place he hides in and then seeing reactions of the people for killing the beast and how people affected make a remarks about the event.

    Secondly – I love how skill rules over the levels. Just yesterday I managed to kill lvl 28 monster while being lvl 14 myself without even having maxed-out gear. Yes, I made few tries, but I was very happy after completing it and it really felt like killing a horrible beast making a meaningful difference to the game world. No more immortal monsters until you hit a certain point in a plot / certain level and no more one-shot-deaths from monsters that you aren’t suppose to fight (Quen does magic here! hehehe)

    Thirdly – there’s so many enjoyable, funny quests that don’t require you to do any meaningful combat that you still very much enjoy the game even if you badly overleveled some of them.

    And finally – the amount of outcomes from quests is really surprising me. I re-played one quest 5 times and each time seen different dialogs and slightly different outcome. Discovering that was really amazing, cause initially I expected only 2 endings, meanwhile it came out to be far, far better than that. Not to mention the usual stuff for Witcher games that so few other RPGs allow you to do: make a decision to let monster go in one quest and 5 quests later find out that it has a catastrophic outcome… or it did not and everything went well.

    It all gives you a very interesting and unique mix that I would love other RPGs to follow.

    • padger says:

      Agreed with this. It’s easy to pick holes in this game, but I don’t see anything else matching what it does do well.

    • Zenicetus says:

      Same here, I agree with all the above. It’s a wonderful game (wonky controls aside, and that’s either getting better or I’m just getting used to it). They even nailed horseback riding and combat, in a way I haven’t enjoyed so much since Mount and Blade.

      “It all gives you a very interesting and unique mix that I would love other RPGs to follow.”

      I would too, but every time I go back into this game, I’m astounded by the amount of sheer development hours that was put into it. All that environment design, the monster animations, the writing and voice acting everywhere. It’s a stupendous amount of work to create something like this, so it’s not something we’re going to see from the smaller studios.

      I played through Pillars of Eternity just before this. While I enjoyed most of it, and it’s not fair to compare two very different RPG mechanics like this, the contrast in how much money and developer hours were available between the two studios is very clear. Witcher 3 is just a much deeper game on so many levels. And it couldn’t happen without the money and developer hours.

      Meanwhile, the few other big developers with the budget and manpower like Bioware and Ubisoft, seem creatively bankrupt by comparison. They’re like Hollywood movie studios that can’t afford to take chances when it’s a summer blockbuster, and there is so much money at stake.

  10. colossalstrikepackage says:

    These are not the monsters we want. These are the monsters we deserve.

    Batman

  11. kaisergav says:

    I really like the sense that is established that you are not the most powerful being in the world. As well as the preparation discussed above, Geralt frequently sounds cautious when asked to do things like killing a monster or lifting a curse – saying at least that he’ll need to find out what it is first.

    This also works well in terms of choices you have to make. In one quest you have to choose between obeying the crones, or another spirit. But both of these ‘forces’ seem way more ancient, powerful, and mysterious than Geralt. I think this makes it more interesting when deciding which to trust, than what we’ve seen in previous (esp. Bioware) games – where you know that if it all goes wrong you can probably just kill everyone and assert your own will. it also just makes the world itself a more intriguing place, knowing that there are powers that are inscrutable to your own character.

    If anything, the sense I get is of Aragorn when he was called Strider in the Fellowship: he’s a skilled fighter and knows how to survive in the wild, and understands what the Nazgul are and how to fight them. But he’s powerless to actually destroy them, to heal Frodo fully, or to do anything at all about the Balrog. Playing Geralt feels a bit like that and is, I think, a more interesting type of experience.

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    gritz says:

    Scrollbars is the best series on RPS right now, at least in terms of speaking directly to my interests. Keep up the excellent work.

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    To appreciate the monsters you really have to play the appropriate difficulty setting which is the third one for me. Early on when you walk with tutorial guy Vesemir I rushed ahead to get some peaceful drowners and had to reload three times. Finished the first side-quest boss with empty health bar. You respect the monsters, you take care, you pick your battles, buy gear and upgrades and use those potions.
    Even so the game gets easier as you loot every corner of the world for artefacts and screws (it’s certainly nowhere near Dark Souls) although some reviewer (Kotaku?) still states it’s “too tough” and that you should not frustrate yourself which is awefully important these days as it seems.

    • horsemedic says:

      Max difficulty is perfect—almost Dark Soul-esque. I need to prepare for even random battles, tactics can mean the difference between a disaster and a route, and low level monsters can still be deadly.

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        gritz says:

        I’m debating holding off on playing the rest of the game until a version comes out with something similar to W2’s Dark Mode.

  14. derbefrier says:

    I bought this but havent had time time play enough to really get me hooked yet. I can see it will probably happen though as my one big gripe about the first two games seems to be finally fixed, which was the combat.

    I did stick it on the 2nd highest difficulty and got rocked by a pack of wolves but i am just a big nub and I am still learning the combat system.

  15. Diatribe says:

    I completely agree with this article. The lack of cliched monsters, respect for adversaries, and the frequent times when the “moral choices” offered are not between baby saving and baby eating, but rather which horrible situation is the least bad is what made the Witcher 2 such a great game, and I’m so glad they kept it in Witcher 3.

    When people say “adult game” this is really what I think is meant. Are NPCs (even those you will inevitably have a conflict with) treated as real characters? Are the choices you make realistic in scope and given the setting? (E.g., in Witcher 2 I love/hate that no matter what you do, there will be a war and lots and lots of death.) It’s really regrettable that Witcher 1 had those sex cards, and there was so much focus on a sex scene in Witcher 2, because that’s what gets read into “adult game” rather than content with enough nuance and depth to appeal to adults.

    Developers please pay attention!

    Also, Mr. Cobbett, you weren’t on my radar before you started posting regularly at RPS, but I’ve been delighted by just about everything of yours I’ve read so far.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Why, thank you.

    • Dicehuge says:

      I get what you mean with the tone of the storytelling. I’m always hesitant about shows/games/movies proclaiming themselves to be “adult” as more often than not it means they just chuck in some sexual violence and characters being incredibly cruel for no real reason. Adult storytelling shouldn’t just be “eveyone here is evil. don’t ask why” But I really like the nuance in W3, I thought characters like the Bloody Baron show that you can have people doing horrible things without just making them completely morally simplistic.