The birdman and the jester

Feb 2, 2014

A friend of mine recently told me, “you’re becoming a total RPG nerd, I always thought you were an FPS CoD bro,” and he had the audacity to explain to me that in case I was wondering, not all RPGs had open worlds, in the manner of a school teacher explaining addition to a first grader.

I felt offended. I’d say that I’ve certainly played my share of non-FPS games through the years, and I refuse to be lumped together with the kind of people who buy every new Call of Duty for their Xbox and nothing else. He wasn’t completely off though, because as much as I like to yap on about how great FFXII and Kingdom Hearts were, first-person shooters probably do make up the majority of what I’ve played in recent years, and western RPGs in particular remain a distant creature I’ve never really understood. Lately though, I’ve been spending a lot of time with two of those, and I’ve taken a strange fondness to them both. Yeah, I’m surprised myself.

The two games I’m talking about are The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, two very well-received western RPGs from the last couple of years. While they’re both great games, each of them handle things quite differently, and seeing as I’ve now completed both of them (“completed” used loosely) I’d like to reflect a bit on that.

I’m probably not alone when I say that I feel medieval fantasy is overused. Dwarfs, elves and dragons, swords, magic and chainmail, that sort of thing. I’m sure it was cool back when Tolkien did it 60 years ago but I’d like to think we’ve moved on since then. But alas, RPGs keep using it as their default setting when no one with actual creativity is around, and it makes the genre feel so damn generic. To put it in slightly nerdier terms, medieval fantasy is to RPGs what World War II was to shooters ten years ago and what modern warfare is to shooters today.

Sadly, both Witcher 2 and Skyrim take place in something along those lines, with minor variations on the theme. For instance, Witcher 2 has trolls that for once seem like friendly people, and the only signs of Skyrim‘s dwarfs are their high-tech underground lairs that outlasted them.

witcher3 Not Geralt of Rivia (unfortunately).

In Witcher 2, you’re Geralt of Rivia, the king’s personal bodyguard who fails to prevent an assassination and sets out to exact revenge on the assassin. In Skyrim, you’re whoever you choose in the character creation and you escape from your execution, after which you find out you’re somehow the only one who can stop the dragons that threaten the land. I kinda lost track after that but basically you kill a lot of dragons and save the world.

If there’s one thing that Witcher 2 does well, it’s keeping you interested in what happens next. One of the problems with Skyrim and most of its ilk is the main story arc gets buried under layers and layers of side quests that relate to entirely different characters and places, and by the time you’ve collected your 500 bear asses it’s been ages since you had anything to do with that world-threatening thing you were supposed to be stopping right around 20 playtime hours ago. Conversely, Witcher 2 keeps the number of side quests and characters to a minimum, which is definitely not a point in its favor in terms of longevity, but ensures a much tighter experience that stays interesting (and comprehensible) much more easily.

So how do the two games actually tell their stories? In one corner, you’ve got some occasionally entertaining talks with interesting characters, and in the other, you’ve got endless staring contests with about five voice actors.

Alright, alright. Skyrim certainly doesn’t have the worst characters or dialogue trees I’ve seen, but I found it somewhat less captivating than what Witcher 2 offers. It has this thing where pretty much everyone is either serious, angry or boring (or a combination of those) and it rarely makes for fun interactions. There was this one jester guy I met outside Whiterun who was batshit insane and later turned out to be a central character in one of the minor quest lines, and he’s probably the best character I’ve encountered in the game.

In contrast, Witcher 2 is much more lighthearted. Right off the bat there’s a generous amount of sex and nudity for whatever reason, but that’s not what I’m getting at. The best parts for me were the side quests involving an alcoholic troll and a guy living out in a shack who likes to dress up as a bird. Yeah, it’s weird, but that’s part of the charm, and it’s thankfully not overdone. Skyrim could certainly do with more lightheartedness to combat the otherwise fairly bland world. I suppose Skyrim tries to appeal to the people who want to escape their miserable unfulfilling lives into a world where they’re a world-saving action hero (and don’t we all sometimes), but I’m not sure I would want to save a world where humor is so far-removed.

skyrim You have now seen half of Skyrim.

I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I really like open-world games, and no game has quite the open world Skyrim does. Sure, there are bigger worlds like Just Cause 2 and more visually appealing worlds like GTA, but the continent of Skyrim is so packed with characters, locations and side quests that its longevity is probably unmatched. If you can stomach the frozen tundra and snowy mountain setting long enough, obviously, and that’s really my biggest gripe with it.

Witcher 2’s world is much more closed. It’s not exactly linear, but it’s much more of a controlled environment, for better or worse. The story is divided into three chapters, and each has a different location, mostly consisting of a town acting as a hub for continuing the story and its surrounding wilderness for doing side quests. It works pretty well but obviously lacks the sheer scale of Skyrim, both in terms of map size and number of quests. What it does have is variety, as the three towns are (supposedly) far from each other on the world map. First off you’ve got a river town with a lush surrounding forest, then you’ve got either a cliff town with a quarry or a military camp with some plains (depending on your actions), and then you’ve got a large walled city partly in ruins (which is kind of a letdown).

So which is the better game? I’m really not sure. As much as I liked the two first chapters of Witcher 2, it’s immensely clear that I’ve already played Skyrim far longer — about three times longer, in fact — and I haven’t even discovered half of the locations scattered around the map. The problem, though, is that it all looks the same, so while it might take you several hundred hours to complete everything, you’ve pretty much seen it after just ten.

I guess it depends on what kind of player you are. If you’re the kind of person who wants to spend hundreds of hours immersed in a single game, then Skyrim is undoubtedly more attractive. If you’re like me though, it probably won’t be long before you grow weary of it, and then Witcher 2 is probably the better choice. I know people who gladly put themselves through 300 hours of Skyrim, but I just prefer trying out new things instead. Which, incidentally, is the exact opposite of my social life.