“If everything is fun, is anything truly fun -- how do we know?” - Geralt of Rivia
Context is inescapable when it comes to most things. Take, for instance, a beer being enjoyed at three in the morning with your live-in beloved. It's a frosty Corona, fitted with a generous slice of lime. It comes as standard with a helping of 90s dance music, something like, I dunno, Dr. Alban. Now, in isolation this is one of the most wonderful of situations I could ever hope to find myself in. I'm dancing in my living room. I'm maybe having a small snack in between sips of beer. I'm jumping up and down, as if I’m really back in the throes of clubland delight. I'm reminded of why, for me, a good, well maintained, mutually respectful and -- of course -- loving long-term relationship is preferable in every way to actually being in a club -- in the 90s or any other period of time -- and trying to find that special someone. I already have. And I'm drinking a beer and dancing with her in my living room at three in the morning.
Ah, yeah, context. That beer needs putting into context. It needs sticking up alongside the ten assorted bottles and pints I've consumed before it over the course of dinner and watching the blues band my boy from work, Nick, is in. And the two bottles of wine she's managed to put away. We're talking about doing this over nine or so hours, so it's fairly spread out, but we're up at three and having a good time; we can't ignore how we got here. We're in high spirits, but the hour will quickly begin to make itself fealt. We'll be in bed for four on this occasion, just as soon as we've emptied the last two Coronas from the fridge. This levity will, of course, have to fit into our wider weekend. Tomorrow morning, despite being hours away, will undeniably be impacted by what we're doing right now. Not by much, it will transpire, and we'll go for a pint and a Sunday fry up for breakfast, but you simply can't be dancing at three in the morning without it affecting many other aspects of your life. This time we'll be lucky. In the past -- and likely sometime again in the future -- having a great deal of fun in the wee hours means you sacrifice some other chunk of some other day. It's just the way it works. Nothing exists in isolation.
When I'm not busy galavanting, I sometimes play video games. At the moment I'm playing one called The Witcher 3. It's a roleplaying game which takes place in a massive open world. You play as Geralt of Rivia, a stoic and humorously sarcastic monster hunter who is out to find his missing daughter. I’ve played it for about a hundred and thirty hours thus far, which is more than five full days so I’m told. It’s actually a rather standard affair if you get down and dirty with being reductive, in that it does nothing -- past its quasi-real-time beard growth simulation -- that RPGs before it haven’t already done. What’s kept me enthralled is the care and detail the people at CD Projekt RED have put into their game.
The sheer amount of narrative is the biggest pull for me. Where many games save all their writing up for the main quest, The Witcher 3 throws you little stories at every turn. You might, in reality, just be going from one place to another and then killing monsters in many of its little side quests, but this is obfuscated by generous storytelling. Each quest is filled with unique characters, who all have names, lives, family members, friends and enemies. You’ll happen upon conveniently discarded notes and journals that further flesh out these relationships and the wider happenings of the local area. The plots of these quests regularly take swerves into the left-field, which is super exceptional considering how straightforward optional activities usually are in this sort of game. The actual fighting of monsters is fun, I must say, but I doubt I’d’ve continued playing for over a working week if all the game gave me to do was repeatedly press the square button to kill things. I'm the sort of person who needs a constantly changing landscape to keep me interested. I'm also very literal, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoy walking a great deal.
The copious story elements in The Witcher 3 contextualise what I’m doing, thus giving my actions meaning, which stops my brain from revolting and telling me to go outside. Without them I wouldn’t still be playing, because regardless of how enjoyable cleaving a man’s torso in two is, it simply can’t hold my sustained attention without a little bit of added meaning.
There are various mechanics of scarcity in effect in the game that make playing as Geralt feel special. As a Witcher, he is reviled by much of society, being, as he is, a wandering, genetically modified monster slayer. He’s a bit of an outsider. To convey this, the game makes his life a little more difficult than most action game protagonists. He has a limited carrying capacity, he can’t quickly heal himself in combat, he can only fast travel from certain points on the large world map, he doesn’t sleep in beds. I’ve already written that I think these things are fantastic as a means of mechanically reinforcing his characterisation. But I’d like to give myself a facetious rebuttal and just say this: shit’s not fun.
I’m not of the mind that all video games should be fun all the time. Games are an interactive medium, and if we’re only ever willing to create fun experiences for players then we’re tragicall underselling their possibilities. At the same time, lots of big ticket, made to be super fun games often have a weird mix of fun and not fun stuff in them. Here, mysterious and unknowably complex formulae are used to decide which of their aspects should evoke bubbling, childish glee, and which should make the player walk super slowly for fifteen minutes because their bag is full and they’re too stingy to throw away a couple of inexpensive swords. These two vastly differing mechanical ideologies chafe together like nobody's business, and their implementation is often a bit arbitrary.
The actual meat and potatoes mechanics of play in big action games are untouchable. To make it genuinely difficult to do basic things like kill people, or punch people or chop people up would be considered sacrilege. I believe the second Witcher game actually locked up blocking as an ability to be bought from the skill tree, which, while being audaciously wonderful in concept, is just plain silly for a combat focused experience. That sort of hijinks has to be left to little art games at all times; it's just the way of the business unfortunately.
There are loads of systems in The Witcher 3 that deliberately aren’t fun as a means of adding mechanical depth to Geralt in the face of his ability to murder with ease. I’ve mentioned many of them already -- fast travel, encumbrance, healing -- but the biggest pain is interacting with shopkeepers. Let me count the ways.
>ONE - They do not work at night and cannot be coaxed to do so with the old trick of waking them up by force.
>TWO - They have a limited funds, meaning you can’t sell ten grands worth of pilfered gear to a single peddler in one go.
>THREE - Their limited funds take ages to replenish, meaning that you have to find a new shopkeeper once you’ve taken all their cash.
>FOUR - Most of them are men, which sets a somewhat worrying precedent for the politics of the game (nothing at all has already been spoken about this, honest).
>FIVE - Different traders offer different prices for different types of goods. There is one variety of item (severed monster heads) that only a single shopkeeper in the whole game will give you a good price for. He suffers from all of the above character flaws.
Because we're playing as superheroes at all times in big games, nuance has to live in the things surrounding the characters we control. The semblance of a real economy ticking over around Geralt is there to ground him and the world he inhabits a little. Preventing him from embarking on week-long shopping sprees makes him feel a lot more, you know, vulnerable and real, right? It's the same with the other little niggles. Geralt has the ability to instantly kill an enemy two percent of the time? Balance it out by making him ride a horse for five minutes to the nearest fast travel signpost. He can telekinetically control minds for the rest of the game at level four? Might as well only let him carry three swords, a jug of milk and a bag of flowers (I’m exaggerating slightly).
Don't get me wrong: I'm being a pedant to make a point that even I'm not a hundred percent on. I understand why systems like this exist -- and again, I’ve already written in praise of them. It's just that big ticket games like The Witcher 3, while all the time being giant playgrounds of unrealistically boombastic good times, unnecessarily pepper themselves with deliberately obtuse mechanics in the name of upholding wholly false and inaccurate standards of realism, authenticity and (shudder) immersion. I find it annoyingly selective, and, just like the argument that everyone in the game is white because of historical accuracy, a bit limp as justifications go. What frustrates me so much about systems like encumbrance, slow health regen (from already capacity-capped potions) and limited access to fast travel is that they are so neutered. They aren't punishing or restrictive enough to be truly meaningful. Weapon carry capacity, to keep harping on an example, should in my mind be limited to equipped weapons only, or not limited at all. I don't see an arbitrary cap sitting somewhere in between as anything but an inconvenience at best, or a nonsensical anachronism at worst. I mean, I get why these things are implemented -- to add certain balances to wildly powerful characters -- I'm just not convinced that they achieve their goal of contextualising such power.
Punitive peripheral systems can and do add nuance, but they do so in an incongruous and contradictory way. They offer the illusion that playing as a powerful character is more taxing than it truly is. But, at the same time, they are do come in handy as a means of controlling and meting out our enjoyment. Just as The Witcher 3 excels because it supplements its core combat experience with lavish storytelling, it's also much more interesting precisely because its hero is forced to think just a little about what he's doing, even if that entails running about, laboriously selling swords to fifteen different retailers. It mightn’t appear much at first, but mechanics of scarcity like these do stop us binging on the genuinely fun parts of a game. Maybe the key to creating fun is to actually limit its quantities? Is it simply the case that fun things accompanied by not fun things actually generates more fun for the player?
(f + -f =2f)?
I'm not saying that the waiting hangover is ever part of enjoying the dancing in your living room at three in the morning, but it does at least stop us from staying up late all the time. You can't, after all, appreciate the novelty of something that occurs too regularly. Moderation, as we were all told as children, is the key to enjoying oneself. The fun parts of games are usually the most simplistic. Yes, it takes some time to learn to deftly block and then counterattack, but these are mechanics designed to be mastered by the player. Once this is accomplished, don’t we then run the risk of our enjoyment steadily declining, as we begin to simply go through the motions?
On the whole, I don’t think systems like encumbrance succeed in making our all-powerful protagonists feel weaker or more vulnerable. (They do in The Witcher 3, but only because they are so heavily incorporated into Geralt’s painstakingly reinforced characterisation.) What they do do, at least, is place the fun stuff like blocking, and counterattacking, and torso cleaving into a wider context alongside really quite rubbish stuff. In doing so, they act as the hangover we all need to be able to truly appreciate the good stuff. They remind us that, yes, this isn’t the greatest feeling we’ve ever experienced, but Christ, the stars aligned that Saturday night, and something wonderful came together that more than justified the pounding head come Sunday.
The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:
I actually ended up spending about fifteen quid on Coronas that night. Thusly... If you're thankful in any way for my free written gift to you, maybe consider making it ever so slightly less free by donating to my lovely Patreon, it resides here: patreon.com/ashouses. Chrz.