Going Your Own Way: Exploration in Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3, Part Two

Last time we looked at The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in comparison to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, we talked about how player movement in the overworld is more organic in the former game. We called this element of gameplay “exploration.” This time, we’ll continue comparing these two games in the context of the same gameplay element. Having dealt with the overworld, we’ll instead turn our attention to the combat system. By the end of this second part, the reasons for comparing the two in this way will hopefully become crystal clear.

Beyond the similarly different overworlds, both games offer a comparable combat experience. In listing a few similarities between the two games last time, we mentioned the enemy hierarchy: The player can fight anything from the small, trivial, and weak enemies to the large, singular, and fearsome foes. In dealing with these enemies, it behooves one to look at every aspect in the equation, namely the player, the protagonist, the overworld, and the enemy. When dealing with the player’s input in isolation, the options do seem limited to only fighting the enemy head-on or sneaking around in order to flank the enemy. Once the player is connected to any or all the other elements, the options become essentially limitless.

When the player combines with the protagonist (i.e. the tools at Link’s disposal) the player’s range of inputs expands beyond the direction of approach. The player can now choose to wield a melee weapon and slash, smash, or throw it; wield a magic weapon to burn or freeze an enemy (or instantly cook a walking meal); wield a bow and shoot regular, fire, or ice arrows; use one or combine multiple of the abilities to harm or incapacitate an enemy; glide down from higher ground and perform a plunging attack or maneouver to a better position; or consume food or potions to boost defensive or offensive capabilities. In combination with the overworld, the range of possibilities expands even more. The player can use conveniently placed explosive barrels, bodies of water, horses, ridges, huts and scaffolding, towers, spikes, other enemies, and even lightning bolts to his or her advantage (or a combination of all of these elements if one were so inclined).

Already we can compare Link’s options to Geralt’s and conclude simply that Geralt is always limited in his options. The player in isolation is, in both cases, limited to a frontal or sideways approach, though Geralt is not nearly as stealthy, leaving him to barge in unannounced at every turn. But looking at Geralt’s options, we also have to come to the same conclusion. Though the often restated criticism of Link’s breaking weaponry persists, Geralt is instead limited to only three weapons: a steel sword, a silver sword, and a crossbow. The two swords immediately give one the illusion of variety; both are one and the same type of melee weapon, only of different mineral quality. This rather insidious illusion relates to a simple gameplay mechanic and foreshadows a greater lack of exploration in the enemy aspect of combat. The difference is very simple: you use steel swords to kill humans and animals while using silver only on monsters and freaks of nature.

This simple prescription is a compounding of the same issue, namely the game’s intent to limit the player’s options in combat. Not only are you given the same weapon, a sword, you’re given another one and told it’s a special sword for special enemies. Throughout the story, Geralt and Ciri even casually mention needing a silver weapon to really hurt a monster, and the player is left to infer the reasons why. Similarly, when the player meets a human or monster enemy, Geralt will draw the respectively useful sword in response, and the player gets to see the same moves inflict comparative or equal damage to different enemies. In this way, the player is never open to making the mistake of killing the enemy with the wrong sword, and, in this case, it would absolutely be a case of using the wrong sword. When going against the grain and fighting a monster with the steel sword, the player will notice that hardly any damage is being inflicted. In strongly discouraging the player from using a superficially different weapon, first by drawing the right one and second by rendering the other useless, the player is told to play by the game’s stringent rules.

Now, this in itself is hardly a cause for any form of lamentation. A steel sword, a silver sword, and so on; so what? But it doesn’t stop right there as the criminal scum that it is. This prescribing of the player’s right and wrong actions (as the two cannot exist separately) goes beyond the weapons used straight into the spells and potions used. The game provides the player with the option to craft and drink potions before fighting an enemy. Unlike Zelda, however, the game has very specific potions for very specific enemies. In other words, don’t drink a potion that raises your attack against ghouls if you’re fighting a gryphon. In short, instead of crafting ten potions that do the same thing, the player has to meander around the overworld and craft ten potions that do the same thing against different enemies if one wants to achieve similar results.

The spells (or signs as they’re called) are equally as big offenders as the potions. Geralt is given control over five seemingly unique signs: the fire sign (Igni), the shield sign (Quen), the stun sign (Axii), the slow sign (Yrden), and the shockwave sign (Aard). Barring the poetic sounding names, these signs supposedly confer variety in terms of engagement. Yet many if not most monsters have a predetermined weakness to just one of these signs. When opening up the dreaded bestiary, the player can read up on lore concerning the various monsters in game, and also quickly discover a weakness to a specific sign. Wraiths, for instance, are shown as being weak to the slow sign, while drowners are weak to the fire sign. Immediately, Geralt’s great signs are reduced to a singular means of weakening a foe. It’s no longer the point to slow an enemy or set it on fire. Instead, it is a tool to help the player mash the enemy with a sword. The bestiary tells you what to do and your job is now to do it; don’t try to light a wraith on fire because it will not work; don’t try to slow drowners because there is no point. The only use of what could have been five distinct tools is instead reduced to right and wrong answers, smart and dumb decisions, all because the game says so.

Here we have to make a note on engaging different enemies. In fairness, the enemy variety will invariably lead to different approaches because different enemies have different weaknesses. Just like you wouldn’t use a crossbow on ghouls, so, too, would you not wish to jump high up in the air only to headshot a mere bokoblin in Zelda. In all cases, there will be a path of least resistance, a most effective way to deal with enemy type X that is different from dealing with enemy type Y. So in the same way, the game tells you what to do and what not to do, yes? No, bad thought. The difference lies not just in the wider range of options when playing Zelda, but also in the absolute lack of a clear-cut rule set. Though it can be argued that both games naturally include an easiest method to kill enemy X, this method is going to be different in Zelda based on the type of player because no one player is going to be the same.

This aspect remains the sole agent of variety even after many reductionist potshots from a comfy desk chair in an attempt to disprove this fact. Thus in offering the same options in the same situations, Zelda manages to keep variety alive, deliberately or not, because a player who went west first will have X first, and a player who prefers ranged weapons and potions will choose differently. The Witcher, in contrast, kills variety outright when it limits the player’s options to predetermined inputs in every situation. This is how to kill a gryphon, don’t try anything else. You wait for it to swoop in and then ground it with the shockwave sign. This is how to kill a group of ghouls, and don’t try anything else because it will not work. You wait for them to attack, then light them on fire, then finish them off. Don’t try anything else.

The same path in the overworld, the same way to kill different enemies; this is how the player’s input, and vicariously the player, is killed. The Witcher 3 does its best to reduce the player’s input to absolutes, to rights and wrongs, leaving no room for player exploration. But in doing so, it kills itself. In reducing the player to spectator, the game reduces itself to an interactive movie, a visual novel with a third-person camera and controls. There cannot be a game without a player, and there cannot be a movie without a spectator. Zelda, I’m glad to say, knows itself to be a game and is more than happy to act as one.

Part One of Jorge’s analysis is here. (Editor’s note: This link was added on 12-27-17.)

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