Thursday, February 18, 2016

OverAnalyzed: Infinitely-Spawning Enemies In The Witcher

Games are a funny thing. There are some where it feels natural for enemies to respawn time after time, where mechanic and setting mesh perfectly. Take Dark Souls, a game I love to talk about because it’s so well-crafted. Within the setting, respawning enemies make sense on multiple levels—many are hollowed Undead, and thus have the same Lazarus effect as the player; in addition, the flow of time is distorted, which is essentially “Magic, I ain’t gotta explain nuffin” but is still an answer. There are other games, however, where such jack-in-the-box enemies don’t make sense at all. Two that spring to mind are Far Cry 2 and The Witcher. Both are great games. But both have enemy respawns that border on the nonsensical.

Pictured: Trading card. Pictured: Ludonarrative dissonance
Let’s focus on The Witcher because I played it recently. This is a game that aims for gritty realism in a fantasy setting. And to CD Projekt Red (and Andrezj Sapkowski’s) credit, The Witcher hits its mark most of the time—how it deals with racism towards Roma and Jew analogues, the petty political squabbles, and so on. Of course, the game has flaws *cough* trading cards *cough* but it’s mostly coherent.

Respawning enemies, however, are particularly jarring due to—sorry—ludonarrative dissonance. Yeah, I said a big word that gets overused. Deal with it.

The thing that sets apart monsters in the Witcher universe is that, while they are ever-present in the wilds outside civilization, they are also quite rare. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at what it takes to create a drowner, one of the more common enemies. To create a drowner, someone must drown. Okay, makes sense. Let’s just assume for simplicity that there is a 1:1 ratio of drowning victims to drowners. Now, I’ve killed easily two or three hundred drowners since I started playing. What does that indicate about deaths by drowning in the relatively limited region (two large villages, a swamp community, and a city) we see in the game? Someone must be drowning on a near-daily basis! And while death by drowning was quite common in pre-modern eras, that’s a bit absurd. The same goes for most of the other enemies in the game. Their populations would be unsustainable within the world The Witcher has set out for us.

Now. I’m not stupid. This is a game. There have to be enemies. I understand this. But enemies to make sense within the game world. If you have infinitely-spawning enemies in a richly-detailed medieval setting, there better be a reason for that. You can’t just brush it off with “lolmagic” unless you’re prepared to make that magic a part of the game world, as Dark Souls does.

What’s frustrating is that the mechanics for enemies to make sense are present in the game. (Note: I’m primarily talking about The Witcher, since things changed in Assassins of Kings and The Wild Hunt). In-game, there are “special” monsters, as well as quests to kill specific monsters—the striga, or the noonwraith. Many of these monsters lurk in dens surrounded by other monsters of their type. So why not make hunting them more of a big deal? Sick of Kikimores? Hunt down the Kikimore Queen and destroy the nest. Sick of drowners? I don’t know, put railings up along the riverbanks?

The game gives us potions and oils for specific situations, makes us do research for ingredient-collection sidequests. So make that even more integral. Going to kill the Kikimore Queen? Better research kikimores, get the appropriate potions ready, and use what you learned in your research to find their nest. Kill the queen and you won’t see any more of them. Want to stop killing scrub-tier vampires? Pop a bitterblood potion and hunt down the old vampire who’s turning them! And so on… You’d replace hordes of low-level enemies which the player farms for XP with bigger, tougher, more EVENTFUL enemies, which provide higher levels of XP.

See, Geralt PREPPED for this and still nearly died. 
After all, Witchers, in lore, do lots of prep before witching. They don’t just go out and hunt up monsters willy-nilly. So make the gameplay reflect that. In so many other areas, the gameplay DOES reflect the lore, which makes it all the more irksome that in this instance it does not. You’d wind up with a game that is truer to source material AND more fun because you don’t have to kill thirty drowners to get somewhere.

Now, thankfully, CD Projekt Red learn from their mistakes. They began to shift towards this methodology in Assassins of Kings, and from what I’ve played of The Wild Hunt, have implemented it even further there.

And if you’ll excuse me, I wish to hunt the Wild Hunt now.