Sequels are more, they are a continuation, a sign that the previous instalment was not enough, is not finished. More guns, more explosions, more hours, more of everything is something like a mantra for video game sequels, and sequels in general. At what point, however, does more become a surplus, too much?
With The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings CD Projekt Red did not give themselves up entirely to simply adding more. The innovation of the The Witcher 2 was a branching story determined by an early game choice which caused there to be two distinct Witcher 2s. Consequently, each path was shorter than the length of the first game; there were fewer areas to explore, fewer quests. The game was simultaneously less and more. To get more you now had to play through the game twice on each side and so repetition, replaying, was coded into this need for more; you had to surmount the old to get to the new.
Now, in the Witcher 3, this repetition is the more. The huge maps are now littered with a seemingly infinite number of question marks that lead to one of four events: typically a monster’s nest or a bandit’s camp, and rarely a place of power or a person in distress (essentially the same as a bandit’s camp but there is a person in a cage to be freed). These small moments can often spark other quests if you find a letter informing you of some nearby treasure, for example, or an encounter with a rare monster. These are rarely satisfying and involve no effort or thought.
This is not an issue exclusive to the side quests. The main quests often falter with dull dialogue, and mundane go-get-this-item-and-come-back actions. Then suddenly, out of the blue, it will turn on a single moment of actually interesting dialogue, or a piece of genuinely beautiful cinematography. This is the central dilemma and intrigue of The Witcher 3: it’s astoundingly inconsistent and, therefore, the absolute inability to know which quests will be worthwhile and which will not. The game hits an early peak with the culmination of the Bloody Baron quest line and then falls into mundanity for quite a while. It cannot sustain a consistent high quality of writing and quest design and so the peaks, the genuinely worthwhile moments, come entirely by surprise.
The most prominent example of this I have discovered is a side quest with Yennefer in which she, with Geralt’s aid, is looking for a djinn. The player must dive into the water three times to look for an item. It is boring and awkward. Geralt, it is revealed, had previously made a wish that he and Yennefer would always be together. The authenticity of their relationship is then doubted by Yennefer. How can she know if it is truly love or simply the djinn’s magic? Intrigue begins to form; there are ideas to play with now. As the item is found they are transported to the djinn’s location: a boat atop a mountain. It is a striking moment so much so that my surprise led me to fall off of the mountain. The djinn is then fought, it is an ephemeral abstract head that looks great, is a new atypical monster. After it is defeated Geralt and Yennefer sit and chat, sitting over the edge of the ship. The camera, for a moment, shows only their feet dangling in the air as if this was an indie film about two teenage lovers. After they announce their love to one and other (if they do, you can choose not to) the camera slowly and lovingly pans over the skyline: we are joined with them in the appreciation of the beauty. Then the quest is over, we are dropped back into the world to find something else to do, something that will hopefully match the quality of that quest, and most likely it won’t.
This leads to periods where nothing provoking is discovered, I begin to skip through the dialogue, sprint to whatever marker is on my map, and return for my reward again skipping the dialogue. I am bored. At these times I wonder if it is really worth going on, if my time would be better served doing anything else at all, but the next quest may be the one with another new conceit, some funny dialogue, or a genuinely touching moment of humanity. The possibility carries me on, helps me to drag myself through the mire of yet another drowner’s nest.
The Witcher 3 is wildly inconsistent, is downright broken in some fundamental cases, and yet I cannot stop, do not want to stop, playing it because the peaks it hits can be dizzyingly high. The pits look particularly low in comparison but I look out of them in the knowledge and trust that it will get better.