CD Projekt Red and the Anatomy of an Open World: Part 1

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

The First and Last Word on a Generation

The PS4, Xbox One and (at a massive push / RIP Wii U) Nintendo Switch generation will likely go down as the longest generational gap in gaming history. We’ve had an unprecedented 6-year cycle with these consoles, living and breathing their content for over half a decade and now, on the cusp of the PS5 and Xbox Series X launch, we’re about ready to go riding off into the sunset towards (likely) expensive new horizons. Within that stretch of time we've experienced some incredible titles across the board that have slowly but surely changed the way we play games, and I'm not just talking about VR.

But this generational leap into the future does not come with the same graphical jumps of fidelity from generations past. If there is one thing that can be taken as absolute from this current cycle it is that a true test of a games mettle is no longer based on the number of pretty pixels shoved onto the disc but on the quality of the content lying there within.

Enter CD Projekt Red. Founded way back in 2002, originally as a means to get video games published in the Czech Republic, CDPR made it's name on the back of the Witcher series. Having found some minimal success adapting Andrzej Sapkowskis fantasy books with the first two entries, things didn't really take off in a meaningful way until 2015 with the release of the seminal third entry. The Witcher 3 was a smash hit open world adventure that, seemingly overnight, became the poster child of both the company itself and simultaneously set the standard for open world games for a generation.

I write all this because I believe that the swan song of a generation of consoles will not be dictated by the last scheduled first party exclusive title (even if it is fantastic in its own right) before the new hardware arrives. No, I believe the true mark of progress is waiting on the wings of CDPR's next big venture, Cyberpunk 2077 releasing on the 17th of November 2020. Whether it can live up to its lofty promises is anyone's guess really but if any developer is up for the challenge it's CD Projekt Red.

This is a team that, through a mix of optimization, iterative design, talent, and a pinch of good timing, expanded and improved on the rigid structures of open world game design as we know it. With its deep gameplay systems, intricate story telling and engaging atmospheric world, CDPR laid the foundations for of a generation of immersive story telling. So, with that in mind we are taking a look at just what made the Witcher 3 stand above the rest and why CDPR's ambitions for Cyberpunk have the potential to set a brand new standard for us all once again.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 doesn't actually go too far outside the norms when it comes to its fantasy trappings. I don't mean to say that negatively but on a first glance, it is a game that does exactly what you would think. It is an open world fantasy RPG with monster hunting, side questing, leveling, multiple skill trees, an expansive world and a suitably world ending scenario to boot. With plenty of secrets, dungeons and that all important world building lore for the folk that want to experience all it has to offer.

Its in the implementation and optimization of these core gameplay mechanics that truly sets it apart from the rest.

Of Worlds Apart and Plenty

For starters, let's look at the world that encompasses the Witcher. It's gorgeous, a feat that is often the first port of call for any game but becomes increasingly difficult at scale. No one wants a flat boring landscape of course but the sheer level of detail for each region in the game goes above and beyond what had come before. Novigrad, Velen, The Skellige Isles and Kaer Morhen are all teeming with personality and life. Not only that, each area brings with it a unique feel. Velen, is a war-torn waste land filled with famine, death and decay. The landscape is torn and twisted by war and so are its people.

Novigrad then is near opposite, a city that on its surface looks pristine, inspired by eastern European towns and villages, lush with splendor and power but hides a seedy underbelly just below the surface. The beautiful homes and boutiques stand in stark contrast to the muck and grime of its poorer suburbs and back alleys. The Skelliges then feel farther removed still. Humble towns riddle the coastline and its inhabitants want nothing to do with the raging war of the mainland and willfully disconnect with their neighbors in favor of a simpler life free of aristocrats and kings machinations.

Environmental story telling is at its best when it doesn't shove it in your face. The player always feels apart of the world and not just "in it" as a tourist. For example - during one particular side quest - on the trail of a werewolf, I came across the lycans human cabin out in the woods not far from a local village. It was clear that whoever this person was, they were hiding and trying to live apart from society for fear of being found out and killed. Tattered clothes littered the floor, splintered beams within the cabin suggests the agonizing struggle as he transformed into the beast and days old blood had already soaked into the floor boards and rug. Without a single word of dialog I understood the danger of the situation and of the tragic reality for this person, inflicted with this curse that now had me on his trail.

Note that the example given was not a mainline quest or set piece from the bigger story, this is but one example of a side quest that honestly started life as a request on a notice board. Side quests are nothing new in gaming, good ones aren't either but I found this level of detail persists throughout the game big or small and its here, in the nitty gritty details, where CDPR shines as a studio. Attention to detail is given throughout all its aspects and will become increasingly more obvious as we continue on.

The Silver One Is For Monsters And The Iron For Humans

A beautiful game world is nothing but a pretty 3D picture if the characters, monsters and things in general that occupy it are not interesting. From Geralt himself to the Alghouls stalking the swamps of Velen, everything has a reason for being there. The world feels lived in. NPC's react to Geralt, sometimes in hushed tones as you ride by, other times literally spitting at you (witchers are..not well liked). When a fight breaks out in a village, it attracts a crowd or makes citizens run to the hills. Spend any amount of time in a local tavern and you'll see folk go about their day, get drunk and pass out next to the stage where a minstrel is singing.

Things happen whether you are present or not and as much as the game wants you to see it, it doesn't force any of it on you.

You might think to yourself "well ya, Skyrim did that 10 years ago, what's the difference?" and for me the answer to that rhetorical question is quality. Instead of relying on the fantasy trope of you being the all-powerful hero of the world, you are just a hunter trying to make some coin. Sure you're skilled but there's a pre-existing history to the character that invests you more deeply in the world and the fact that nearly every character couldn't give a damn about your quest is refreshing.

The world feels like its pushing back against you and not just holding your hand and going along with you. It has a bite too it - so even though you do experience the power fantasy of being a skilled swordsman - the way you interact with characters and your environment can change dramatically, creating and imprinting your own set of emotions and experiences as you progress through the campaign.

Return to Crookback Bog

Which brings us to quests themselves...

Consider this section mild spoilers for an early part of the game, half of which is optional

"The Bloody Baron" is a multi part mission that sees Geralt investigating the disappearance of a local barons wife and daughter. It happens to be one of the saddest arcs in the game that - while well written in its own right - becomes something else entirely with its unique epilogue. A completely optional mission that is a perfect example of the systemic nature of the game.

You see, upon conclusion of the story line requirements needed to progress the main campaign, the baron will ask you to help him retrieve his wife who, unfortunately, was captured by the Crones of Crookback Bog, witches that took advantage of a desperate woman. The outcome of this mission is entirely dependent on how Geralt handles the crones in a previous mission. If you help them, they will leave the bog but sacrifice the orphans the barons wife was looking after, leaving her in such a state of shock that she becomes catatonic and unresponsive.

If you defy the witches then as punishment, they curse the wife and turn her into a water hag, which you must then fight. Once you defeat the cursed hag, Geralt is able to perform a ritual that reverses the curse but is too late to save the barons wife who dies in your arms. The Baron, tells you to go back to his keep to claim your reward for helping him and on your arrival you find the Baron, hanging from a tree, killed by his own hand. At the time, I thought this was all relevant to the plot but discovered later that nope, you can totally skip this and never experience it.

To put that level of detail into something that the player can very easily decide to skip on a whim is ballsy to say the least. Making games is hard and you can't fault a developer for wanting to show their stuff off, so the fact that this level of intricacy can be missed entirely is incredible. And it does not stop there, throughout the whole world are moments that can never be seen by the player but still contain the level of quality you'd expect from a main line mission.

For The Advancement of Learning

What CD Projekt Red accomplished with this title cannot be understated. Whether you enjoy these types of games or not, the sheer commitment to quality is evident throughout the entire campaign and the developers deserved every single ounce of praise. There's a prevalent feeling throughout that you are playing something truly special. The Witcher 3 felt like a paradigm shift, it does not waste your time with fluff but it doesn't ask you to understand. You are either in or out and regardless of what you choose, it's going.

They made the games industry stand up and take notice. Developers and publishers alike took their own lessons from its design. Ubisoft reinvented its stagnating Assassins Creed franchise with Assassins Creed: Origin, ditching its linear leanings into a fullblown RPG with skill trees and branching dialog options and quest lines alike. Even Nintendo took some notes it seems with Breath of the Wild. Designing a world that the player can interact with and use in meaningful new ways, urging players to use the environment to their advantage. Shades of Geralt can be seen throughout this generation and I truly believe that is no coincidence.

We'll be back again next week with part 2 as we look to the horizon and Cyberpunk 2077. But what were some of your most memorable moments in the game? Do you agree? Feel free to keep the discussion going in the comments section below!

All images taken directly from CD Projekt Red Press Center here

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