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It's not all about you.

It’s not that often that a game really knocks me for six but The Witcher 3 succeeded in doing just that.  It wasn’t the game’s precise combat system,  fuzzy morality or impressive graphics that surprised me, though.  Instead,  I was stunned by how alive and independent The Witcher’s 3 world appeared to be.

As I wandered through the game’s opening area, it became apparent that not only did many of the locals not like me – openly insulting me as I walked past them –  but they had their own problems to deal with.  I encountered villagers who were weeping over the demise of family members and others who were suffering under the yoke of the village’s occupying force.  In short, they were in too much of a bad state to worry about the affairs of one lone monster-hunter.  Nor did I have the ability to alleviate their suffering, at least in the short term. 

True, all of this was down to clever programming, yet I still found it to be immensely gratifying.  It served as a stark contrast to many of the open world role-playing games I’d played, where I felt that the whole world was unnaturally geared towards my presence.  Admittedly, it may seem absurd to criticise a single player game for being too player focused but I’ve found this to be a recurring problem,  to the point that it risks taking me out of the game.

Skyrim was a prime example of this though it’s by no means the only offender.  ‘Arrow to the knee’ jokes aside, every NPC seemed overly interested in your presence despite the fact that, compared to the semi-supernatural protagonist of The Witcher, you were relatively ordinary.  Even before you embarked on any notable quests, they would have something to say to you, often commenting on your armour.  When you did finally complete a significant quest, the NPCs would take great pains to mention it at every opportunity,  even if word had barely had time to travel across the internet-deprived land.

 I appreciate that this was likely meant to make the player look important, but it came off as really awkward and artificial.  I like I was starring in a Dungeons and Dragons version of The Truman Show, half expecting to turn around to see an Khajit having their makeup applied,  or an unmasked  Argonian having a sneaky cigarette.  Conversely, the civil war that was supposedly ravaging the land ended up taking a back seat, being hardly evident outside of specific quests and the odd NPC line.

It used to be that I expected less from RPGs,  partly because of the technical limitations of the platforms they were released on.  I saw no problem with NPCs who had perhaps two lines of dialogue and who would remain ceaselessly rooted to the spot.  And yet now,  with gaming technology having come along in leaps and bounds,  I’ve correspondingly raised my expectations.  

Curiously enough, while I have criticised Skyrim, Bethesda did in fact come up with a pioneering AI system that gave each NPC their own needs and agenda. Called ‘Radiant AI’, this system featured heavily in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.  It was, however, allegedly hobbled somewhat when it was discovered that NPCs would attack each other to obtain the objects they needed to complete their own tasks.  

I know this could have caused problems if a quest-essential NPC was killed and it would also have painted many of the inhabitants of Cyrodil as homicidal maniacs.  Nevertheless, I would have liked this level of NPC independence to have been further exploited in other games, but it was not to be.  If anything, the NPC AI was scaled back in Bethesda’s subsequent games.

I’d like to see an RPG that featured a truly living world, where each inhabitant had their own unique lives that could occasionally intersect with the player’s but which would continue until their demise from natural or unnatural causes.  This would require a heck of a lot programming effort for something that many players might not notice,  which perhaps explains why so few games offer a convincing living world.  

But why is that I find the idea of a living game world so appealing? I think it all boils down to the fact that I want a world and its populace to be worth helping.  If I can immediately tell that a world’s NPCs are little more than generic cardboard cutouts, then why bother?

It may sound like a lot of hard work, but The Witcher 3 shows that it is possible to maintain the illusion of a living game world with just clever scripting and some carefully chosen dialogue.  It also lends credence to the notion that, should my character fail, life would continue.  As the protagonist of Memento put it, ‘The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?’ In the case of The Witcher 3, I can honestly believe that it doesn’t.

Do you agree? Would you like to see more RPGs that have a convincing living game world, with noticeably independent NPCs? Which game worlds have felt the most ‘alive’ to you? Or do you have something else to say on the matter? Feel free to comment below.

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