I had three reasons to go to the Elven ruins of Est Taylar in The Witcher 3. First, I had a story mission: a paranoid king was seeking his sorceress enemy, and hired Geralt, the playable character, to hunt her down. Second, I had am upgrade quest to head there. Somewhere in those ruins was a crafting design that would give me a high-quality piece of Witcher gear, better than just about any other gear at that level. Finally, there was a question mark indicating an unexplored point of interest on the map.
All three of those motivations are viable. It was the second that brought me to Est Taylar, although the first was likely to push me there soon enough. And I did, eventually, clear all three out in the same go, efficiently and conveniently. But that wasn’t my goal. My goal was simply to find the diagram. Achieving my other objectives along the way wasn’t merely a happy accident, it was the sort of happy accident that makes The Witcher 3’s open world work.
So in this case I wandered into the ruins of Est Taylar expecting a quiet little treasure hunt. What I found was an optional story mission that expanded my understanding of the recent political history of the game world, and, if I’d played previous games in the series, told me about what important characters were up to. This leads to one of the open-world strengths of The Witcher 3…
Story can happen at any point: There has historically been a division between story quests and open-world exploration in RPGs. Skyrim, for example, had virtually no story at all. It was a map with simple quests and places to go, trusting in its size and emergent narrative to work as a game. Dragon Age: Inquisition had a lot of major story missions — but they were almost totally segregated from the open-world side of the game. That was an especially odd decision for BioWare given their history of having stories and choices for almost every quest.
With Witcher 3, you don’t necessarily know how much story you’re going to be getting while wandering. The Est Taylar moment wasn’t the only time this happened to me — at one point I climbed a hill to find a point of interest, and found myself at the end of a monster contract quest chain, fleeing from a giant fiend ten levels out of my range. This can also be intentional — you take what looks like a generic monster contract, and discover that it’s a long-term quest chain reuniting Geralt with an old friend, or less of a hunt and fight than a mystery leading to an examination of the ethics of sentient monster extermination.
Not knowing just how much emotional, time, and skill investment you’ll need in a quest adds to the game’s variety and rhythm. Fallout 3 was fantastic with this — its points of interest could be a quick fight or a deep dive into a dystopian vault. This prevents the open world from being entirely mechanical, as both Skyrim and Inquisition could. And speaking of that feeling….
You can only see one quest at a time: The sheer amount of quests in open-world games lends itself to a process of looking at every quest you have on a map, then picking the most dense grouping of them, heading there, knocking the quests out, then doing it again. The world map becomes a checklist instead of an interesting space.
This is possible in The Witcher 3, but it takes a lot more effort. It only allows you to view one active quest at a time, and the map is in a different screen. So instead of picking out where you can achieve the most pragmatic goals, you can pick quests according to which individual ones you’re interested in. The focus remains on the game itself, not gaming the game.
Quests are complicated: It’s difficult to view much of the world of The Witcher as “completed” and move on because its quests may reshape aspects of it. I could have, for example, gone to Est Taylar at many points prior, and just cleared the exploration aspect off of my map. The treasure hunts occur at any point where you find a part of the set, or a map leading to them — this could have been the last part of a mission I did as quickly as I could once I found the pieces, or it could have been the first piece, triggering another mission. And the story mission? A new quest that only appeared at the end of another set of optional story missions, themselves triggered by story progress.
In other works, there was a multidimensional set of quests pushing me to this place. Had this not been in place, I could have gone to the ruins three different times, perhaps to some annoyance. But even if that were the case, it would have made it more likely that I’d have had that happy accident in another place where exploring down one path led to an entertaining diversion.
Variety is key: This is the clearest conclusion possible. The Witcher 3 offers multiple types of quest, and allows players to find and complete them both organically and intentionally. What’s more, it almost always allows you to opt out, if you want to do something else — you can run away, fast travel somewhere else, or just walk in a different direction.
When advertising for The Witcher 3 started trumpeting how many hours of “content” it had, I was skeptical, to say the least. The marketing for Dragon Age: Inquisition had done the same, and made that game significantly worse than it would have been with a more limited world. The Witcher 3 didn’t totally transcend all the issues of the huge open-world RPG, but it accomplished the rare feat of making its open world an asset to its story, instead of a distraction like Inquisition, or the real game, like Skyrim. And it did so by utilizing its systems, its quests, and its maps in order to provide consistent variety and freshness.