The Witcher 3 was overwhelming. After I stepped out of that steamy bath tub, put on my monster hunting gear and wandered into that expansive open world, I felt a little bit sick. It was nauseatingly huge; just looking at the map made me want to cry. I was so shell-shocked by the scale of Geralt’s quest, that I didn’t play the game for another 6 months. Instead I packed the game neatly away in its case, closed the draw and downloaded a nice little indie title about an elderly fisherman who discovers the meaning of family.
Now, clearly I’m more toddler than monster hunter. If I had it my way, the whole of The Witcher 3 would be set in the bath tub with occasional exploratory missions to the kitchen for snacks. The only spells I would cast would be to make more bubbles and the only wars I would wage would be against a battalion of rubber ducks… However, the sheer depth and breadth that video games are reaching is becoming intimidating, even for battle-hardened aficionados. Take Red Dead Redemption 2 for example, where gameplay mechanics include remembering to eat a daily bowl of stew to maintain your stamina and taking regular swims in a river (or bath!) to maintain your personal hygiene. It’s great; I’m glad video games have achieved such an awesome level of technical sophistication. But it’s a bit much isn’t it? We’re one step away from having an oral hygiene meter in the bottom left of the screen, with an icon of an increasingly bristly toothbrush, which glows red after you’ve had a particularly sugary meal. “You’re mission is to assassinate this bank teller”, some shadowy cowboy would say with a Southern drawl, the brim of his hat casting his face in darkness. “But first, pick up Colgate: Whitening Max from the drugstore. Killing a man is one thing, but tooth decay… well that’s something else entirely“, he’d say, before lifting his head to reveal a toothless, gummy grin.
I guess, my first memories of playing video games weren’t really playing them at all. Instead, I would sit on the sofa watching my brother playing Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001), wrapped snugly in a blanket, sucking my thumb. I always enjoyed the watching, that was the best part, and yelling advice when my brother got stuck. But when my brother wandered into the kitchen, and thrust the controller into my hands, I got scared. It was too much. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. Instead I just left Scooby Doo sitting on a dinosaur while I quietly asked my brother for help… and a couple of Chocolate Digestives. I think, some of that DNA is still in me. When I play a video game, I like being told what to do. Maybe I’m a skeleton of the past, but I like video games to feel like video games. I like being hemmed in by grainy walls and surrounded by fences that, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to hurdle. Unlimited choice, I don’t want unlimited choice! Tell me what to do. Narrow my options down. Help me! After all, if I wanted to play a video game set within some massive open world, where you could go anywhere and do anything, I would just be me. I would be participating in my life. The reason I’m playing you – in my jockeys, at 2 in the afternoon on my day off – is because I want you to make some decisions for me. “RUN DOWN THAT CORRIDOR! SHOOT THAT MAN! RUN DOWN ANOTHER CORRIDOR!” Those are the games for me.
As these games continue to get bigger, the gap between creating immersive, purposeful open worlds and just adding detail for the sake of detail is becoming blurrier. Despite what the gaming industry has been striving towards, realism is not necessarily the way forward. I play video games because they’re fun, an escapist distraction to whittle away the hours. I don’t want to be so bogged down in realistic and grounded systems that it becomes a chore to survive. I don’t want to be slurping bone marrow out of a possum’s leg at 4 in the morning to make sure I have enough protein to survive the night! Or scrubbing my Wild West underwear in a river each morning to appease the community! I want to have fun. And regardless of how cool it is to see Arthur Morgan skin a fox in real time, does it really have to happen every time? I mean, this isn’t Game of Thrones. I’m not Tywin Lannister, tearing some stag apart while making some ominous monologue about protecting the Iron Throne. I’m playing a game! What’s wrong with a little suspension of disbelief? When did Arthur taking two vague swipes at the fox before it magically appeared on his back become such a bad thing?
I realise I sound callous here. The work and technology that goes into making these games is mind-boggling, and the levels of immersion are testament to the craftsmanship of those that make them. But just remember, they’re games. To be enjoyed. And the way we’re going, I’m going to be playing the Witcher 5 in a few years time, doing my tax returns late at night, trying not to wake the baby, figuring out how many side missions I’ll need to do each month to make ends meet…