The First Few Hours: The Witcher 3

I want to write but I’m in a bit of a medication-induced brain-fog, and in any event I feel like it’s too soon for me to talk about The Witcher 3.  Even though I have a specific blog category that’s literally called “the first few hours“, and even though I’ve played maybe 1-2 hours of it so far – very deliberately and slowly – I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface’s surface of what Witcher 3 is all about.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the entire Witcher franchise.  I own the first two Witcher games on PC:  I played through the three different openings of Witcher 1 and thought it was interesting, maybe a little cumbersome, and figured I’d get back to it at some point (but never did); I tried playing Witcher 2, both before and after the big patch that added a tutorial section, and while I was certainly impressed with the world-building (and the world itself), I couldn’t actually get past how obtuse its mechanics were.  Most of what I know about the Witcher franchise was from listening to old Giant Bombcasts.

So I’m really only able to judge this game – or at least form my own first impressions – on its own merits.  And even then, I feel like I should wait until the first few patches come out.  The first mega-patch is supposedly on its way towards the PS4 next week, and another patch that would fix the incredibly small text is in the works.  I’ve not yet run into any terrible bugs, though in some of the “detective” quests I tend to get stuck because I can’t find the last highlighted item, which sometimes requires a restart from the last save.

Here’s what I can say in the very limited time that I’ve spent with it:

  • really like how the conversation system isn’t so obviously skewed towards “good” and “evil” responses.  It’s much easier for me to simply respond as I’d like and see what happens – in other words, I can actually “role-play”, because I’m not constrained by any sort of artificial morality slider that I’m trying to skew.  Whenever I’ve played other games like Mass Effect or KOTOR or Fable or the like, I deliberately lean heavily to one side and then, if the game’s worthy enough of a 2nd run, I’ll play that 2nd run all the way to the other side.  Here, though, I’m happy to simply answer questions in the way I’d like – mostly positive and supportive, in the dozen or so conversations I’ve had thus far – and I’ve not felt like I missed something important as a result.  Maybe I have – maybe I’ve already cut myself off of half a dozen side-quests – but there’s already so much to do and see and explore that I’m not going to worry about it.
  • Even though I’m still in the very first tutorial town, the people I’ve met and helped out have been far more diverse and interesting than possibly all the people I met in Dragon Age: Inquisition.   I’d rather not spoil this, so I’ll just say that talking to everyone is ultimately a rewarding experience, and seeing the world react to conversations I’ve had with random people is incredibly gratifying.  And if the writing is this deep, this quickly, then BOY OH BOY.
  • The melee combat system seems mostly intuitive and familiar, though it’s going to take me some time to get used to the magic signs – I just wish they’d use “Fire” instead of whatever made-up word they’re using.  One might argue that using English words would ruin the immersion, but I counter that argument by saying that me fumbling through a menu and squinting to read the description of each spell is absolutely more disruptive than if they just said “Fire” or “Defense” or “Push” or whatever.  In any event, in my 1-2 hours or so, I’ve only ever used magic by accident.  (Though, in fairness, it did help kill the griffin.)

I’ve only had two play sessions with it thus far; the first night was kind of just a warm-up, getting a feel for the controls and the world, and I turned it off because I was tired and I wasn’t 100% sure I knew where I wanted to go next.  The second night – last night – I turned it off because I knew that if I didn’t, I’d be marathoning it and calling in sick to work and I’d probably still be playing it right now.  Now I understand that I have to be careful going forward, because tomorrow is my 11th wedding anniversary and we’re going house-hunting and buying some toys for the 2-year-old, and if I get sucked into The Witcher right now I’m going to be sleeping on the couch.

(Well, the couch is where the PS4 is, so….)


Further Adventures in Real Estate

1.  In last week’s entry, I wrote that I was incredibly distracted and overwhelmed by the very real possibility that the house we’d fallen love with was going to be ours within a matter of weeks, and that the speed with which this whole thing happened was dizzying and disorienting.  In my excitement and confidence and naivete, I’d told a work colleague that the only two things that could happen to derail this process was that (1) the bank would do their own appraisal and give us far less of a loan than what we’d bid, or (2) the inspector would say “this house is actually just a hologram and doesn’t exist in any sort of physical reality.”

As it turned out, (2) was closer to the truth than (1); the inspection went so terribly that we agreed to abandon it about halfway through, because there was nothing we could see that could possibly make up for what we’d already seen.  Words like “deathtrap” and “shitshow” were thrown around.  The inspector – who was hired by our realtor, and thus was professionally biased on her behalf – said to us, “Look – no problem is unsolvable.  But if you were my own flesh and blood, I’d urge you to walk away.”  I asked our realtor, who’s been doing this for a long time, how this flip ranked in terms of what she’d seen, and she said that it was, in fact, the worst she’d ever seen, and by the time we’d signed the inspection checks, she was already looking at other properties for us to visit.

So there’s that.

At this point, we’ve learned quite a lot in a very short amount of time, the most important of which are:

  • There will never be a situation in which an inspector looks at a house and says, “I can’t find anything wrong, this is a perfect house.”  But there’s a difference between a solvable problem and a waking nightmare.
  • The Venn diagram comprising available houses in this neighborhood in our price range that also meet our specific needs and that aren’t going to collapse in a stiff breeze is going to be very small, and we have to be realistic about what we can expect to find.
  • A good support team is everything.

We’re not giving up; indeed, we went back out there this past weekend and saw something that’s actually quite lovely, and we also learned that the very first house that we ended up being the runner-up bid for might be coming back on the market, and the chance to get a second crack at that one is certainly very intriguing.  But until we finally get out of the nightmare contract and get our money back, we’re still on the outside looking in.

2.  I need to get back to the album at some point, but as you can imagine, it’s just impossible to feel creative and focused when so much big stuff is happening.  Looking at houses is exhausting, especially with a two year old who loves climbing stairs and saying “No.  Stop.”  and hitting you when it’s time to stop climbing steps and leave the house.  I’d hate to think that I’m not going to get back to it until we’re moved in to a new place, because who knows how long this process is going to take; in the meantime, though, it’s rough going.  I’m trying to not beat myself up about it; these are extenuating circumstances, to be sure, and I’m sure that soon enough I’ll be able to carve out some time and mental energy to get back to it in earnest.

3.  I am kinda playing games again, though, if only because that’s easier for me to deal with when I’m collapsed on the couch.  There wasn’t a lot of time this weekend, but there was enough time for me to be able to see a few things.

  • Invisible, Inc. is a really interesting turn-based stealth game – it’s by the team that made the fantastic Mark of the Ninja, and it looks an awful lot like XCOM – and I can’t wait to really settle down and play it for real.  The simple truth is that for me right now, even on the easiest difficulty setting, it’s very stressful, and I’m already too stressed out as it is.  Supposedly it’s coming to PS4 later this year; if it also came to the Vita, I’d gladly buy it twice, as I think it’d be perfect as a handheld title.
  • Project CARS is really beautiful and really obtuse; I played it for about 5 minutes and then put it back in the Gamefly envelope.
  • For some reason, I felt bad that I’d not turned my Xbox One on in a while, and so I decided to rent Dead Rising 3, even though I’ve never really cared for the first 2.  And after 10-15 minutes, I remembered that I’d still not finished Sunset Overdrive, which is one of the games I bought the XBO for in the first place, and that if I had to choose between two zombie apocalypse games, I’d much rather play Sunset Overdrive.
  • Did I end up playing Sunset Overdrive, though?  No, I did not.  Instead, I tried to cram through as much of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood as I could.  I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and even though it’s not nearly as engrossing as last year’s New Order, it’s certainly fun enough in its mindless action, and shooting Nazi zombies is always a gas.  (Even though they also shoot back, which, I mean, come on.)  I’d like to finish it tonight, so that my plate is clear before The Witcher 3 unlocks.

Yeah, The Witcher 3.  I’m trying to keep my expectations in check.  I played bits and pieces of the first two and couldn’t really get into either of them.  The hyperbole surrounding this newest one is ridiculous, which is impossible to ignore; but given that I’m also feeling rather sour about games at the moment, it must be said that I’m kinda putting a lot of pressure on it to really be as good as everyone else seems to say it is.  If The Witcher 3 can’t get me excited about gaming as a medium, then maybe I should start thinking about switching off for good.

Limbo / Endings and Beginnings

I have so many things I need to talk about, and (of course) I have no idea where to begin.  The following image series is more or less what I’ve been doing here for the last few weeks.

1.  One of the many reasons why I’ve been silent here of late is that there’s a BIG BIG THING that is still not 100% finished yet, and I don’t want to jinx it by spilling the beans, but at this point we’re getting pretty close to knowing for sure if this is going to happen or not, and so (since my wife says it’s OK) here’s the news:  It looks like we’re moving out of the city and into the ‘burbs.  We put an offer on a perfect (for us) house in Maplewood, New Jersey; they accepted our offer; we’re already out of attorney review; we’re getting the house inspected tomorrow (while we also examine potential day care solutions); the mortgage application has been filed; the tentative closing date is June 19.  THIS IS HAPPENING SO VERY FAST.

As you might imagine, this has more or less completely taken over my life.  My wife and I aren’t sleeping; we fret about monthly expenses, we worry about day care, we have absolutely no idea what the morning commute is going to look like (before we get on the train, that is; once we’re on the train it’s easy-peasy).  I suddenly have to get a NJ driver’s license and get the car re-registered and inspected and the dogs need to get re-registered and licensed and we need homeowner’s insurance and new car insurance and we have to find a pediatrician and we also know maybe 2 people who live in the town and and and

It’s super-exciting because the house is amazing and the town itself is amazing and we can’t wait to move in, but it’s also terrifying because HOLY SHIT IT’S A HOUSE AND WHAT IF A TREE FALLS ON THE HOUSE AND HOW MUCH WILL A REPUTABLE PLUMBER COST AND HOW WILL WE PAY FOR ANYTHING IF ANYTHING BREAKS.

2.  One of the other reasons why I’ve been silent here – and I’ve probably said this before, during similar lulls – is that it’s hard for me to talk about games when I’m not actively playing anything.  It’s true that I’ve picked up a few things here and there over the last few weeks but nothing’s held my interest; to the extent I’m playing anything at all (besides a few excellent time-wasters on my iPhone), I’ve been wrapping up old side quests in Dragon Age Inquisition since that’s at least something that I’ve already spend a considerable amount of time with.  Most of my evenings of late have been spent with both the consoles and the gaming PC turned off, though, and I haven’t felt much of a pull to get back

But if I’m being honest here, I’ve been starting to wonder how much longer I’m going to talk about games at all.

I’m starting to feel disconnected from gaming.  I’ve talked about this before, I know, but it’s different this time.  I know that I’m distracted right now, what with the house and the album and my kid and everything else, but even the eye-popping advance reviews for The Witcher 3 aren’t necessarily getting me as excited as I might’ve been only a few years ago – and if The Witcher 3 isn’t gonna do it, I honestly have no idea what would.

I had an interesting conversation with David Wolinsky yesterday over twitter.  He’d written a rather breath-taking piece for Unwinnable (which you should read right now) and I felt compelled to thank him, and then I saw his pinned tweet:

I responded that I think I might be in the middle of that specific transition, and it bothered me a little bit.  I’ve been playing games since I was 5 or 6 years old, and with the exception of my college years, I’ve been a dedicated gamer the whole time.  Within the last few years, though, I’ve been feeling myself slowly slip away from it – not just from games themselves, but from reading Twitter, from engaging with the community, from writing about games on other sites, even from delivering soliloquies such as this on this very site, where I’m free from editorial oversight and advertising pressure.  I’m feeling alienated from the culture.  Most AAA games simply aren’t made for 39-year-olds, and that’s a weird thing to wrap my head around.

I’ll end this with something I’ve quoted here before but which bears repeating in light of this feeling of alienation and disengagement – the last 3 paragraphs of Tom Bissell’s Grantland piece about GTA V, which says this so much better than I ever could:

…I have a full Xbox Live friends list, 100 people strong, and last night 25 percent of them were playing GTA V — something I’ve never seen before. The texts and messages started flying: So, what do you think? How far are you? Very few of my friends had good words to say about GTA V, even as the game’s Metacritic score holds firm at a mind-boggling 97. Then I got a text message from a game-dev friend who happens to be one of the smartest, most aesthetically sophisticated people I’ve ever met in games. He wasn’t enjoying the game, and he seemed puzzled by that. We texted for a while. Then he sent this: “I guess I’m mourning the admittance that I’m no longer the target audience of my own work.”

One of GTA V‘s characters admits at the end of the game, “I’m getting too old for this nonsense.” And you know what? I felt the same thing numerous times while playing GTA V, even though I continue to admire the hell out of much of what it accomplishes. So if I sound ambivalent, Niko, I think it’s because I’m part of a generation of gamers who just realized we’re no longer the intended audience of modern gaming’s most iconic franchise. Three steps past that realization, of course, is anticipation of one’s private, desperate hurtle into galactic heat death. I’m left wondering when I, or any of us, express a wish for GTA to grow up, what are we actually saying? What would it even mean for something like GTA to “grow up”? Our most satirically daring, adult-themed game is also our most defiantly puerile game. Maybe the biggest sin of the GTA games is the cheerful, spiteful way they rub our faces in what video games make us willing to do, in what video games are.

Playing GTA used to feel like sneaking out behind school for a quick, illicit smoke. The smoke still tastes good, Niko; the nicotine still nicely javelins into your system. But when you look up, you have to wonder what you’re actually doing here. Everyone is so young, way younger than you, with the notable exception of the guy handing out the cigarettes, and he’s smiling like he just made a billion dollars.

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