The Price of Geralt's Progress

Roleplaying games are the genre most commonly associated with narrative, or seen as having a greater emphasis on characters and plot. The name itself—roleplaying—suggests something immersive and character-driven. With videogames in general trending towards creating visceral, photorealistic experiences, it stands to reason that the RPG would also attempt to create something believable, in both narrative and gameplay as well as in graphics.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a triumph of the RPG genre and stands at the summit of the climb towards realism. The simple inclusion of a feature as innocuous and unessential as dynamic beard growth suggests that even the finest of details were considered to create a fictional world that is consistent and ‘possible’ (or at least plausible).

But an important game system—the defining mechanic, whose existence is synonymous with the very concept of RPGs—is the toxin corroding this carefully crafted world from the inside: levelling up.

Levelling systems have bled across into numerous other genres of videogame (and is typically a fundamental element of the educational strategy of gamification) but remain the cornerstone of the RPG. Character ‘levels’ are a short-hand for demonstrating player and player-character skill and creating (the illusion of) consistent progress. The necessity of quantifying player progress and presenting a tangible sense of achievement—players need to feel like their time has been worth something—has contributed to the mechanic’s longevity and pervasiveness. But the nature of levelling up is what irreconcilably separates The Witcher 3 from the constructed ‘reality’.

With levels representing an imprecise summation of a character’s (combat) skills, it becomes immediately clear that the world of The Witcher is inconsistent. The titular witcher, Geralt, is a specially-trained monster hunter with two grand adventures (The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins and Kings) already behind him. The countless scars covering his body stand testament to the sheer number of enemies—both beast and man—that he has survived thus far. He’s tall, covered in muscle, can use some simple magic, and carries himself with grace while wearing heavy armour and wielding two (two!) large swords.

So the very idea that Geralt could be defeated in a tavern fist-fight by malnourished peasants—even a group of them—is utterly preposterous.

This disconnect is known as ludonarrative dissonance: where the elements of gameplay (from the word ludology, which is based on the Latin word ‘ludere’, or ‘to play’) contradict or otherwise clash with elements and themes of the narrative. The peasants example above is a simplification, but still showcases the concept: Geralt, through the game mechanics, can lose to the peasants in a fight, even though Geralt, in a narrative sense, wouldn’t lose. The narrative and gameplay are at odds with each other.

That’s not to say that Geralt should never be in danger of losing a fight, or should be impervious to damage—peasant or not. The potential of defeat is an important factor in creating tension and stakes, even if the prospect of reloading a save is far less dramatic than, say, actually dying. These stakes tie into the player’s sense of achievement—steamrolling over everything in your path is really only satisfying in Katamari Damacy—so removing them causes its own problems.

Losing a bar brawl isn't the only example of ludonarrative dissonance caused by the level system in The Witcher 3. Geralt begins The Witcher 3 at ‘level 1’. While this seems like a logical place to begin, it also immediately creates contradictions and disrupts the consistency of the in-game universe. If level 1 represents Geralt’s starting abilities in The Witcher 3, then what were his levels in the previous games representative of? Would they be negatives on this scale? And if so, why is everything else—every peasant, every wolf, every weird monster—at least level 1?

The simple act of ‘starting at the bottom’ de-legitimises Geralt as a character; his alleged strength and skill mean nothing, because they are absolutely equivalent to those two drunks at the local tavern. All his years of specialist training, all his witcher mutations that generate constant fear and hatred from the populace are pointless: he might have still been as powerful and successful a monster slayer without getting the witcher mutations (and all the baggage that comes with), if he wanted.

And then there’s the unending march of progress to contend with: the constant progress and improvement of the player necessitates that the enemies Geralt faces must also increase in challenge. Which leads to situations that clash: in Velen, I encountered some level 14 Nilfgaardian soldiers. These soldiers, theoretically, have some level of training and are wielding steel weapons. However, they still manage to do less damage than the level 16 unarmed street thugs—presumably without military training—later fought in Novigrad.

It makes for sensible game design: have difficulty increase as player skill (or player-character skill) increases, keeping them in that constant flow state. Don’t let the game get too hard or too easy and players will be less inclined to move onto something else. But from a narrative perspective, levelling up—at least in this inconsistent, imprecise way—is garbage.

RPGs have tried to solve these issues. Tried. Final Fantasy VII addressed the issue of previous combat experience: party members did not start at level 1, but rather a level more representative of their training. But it, too, falls over when later party members—who, seemingly, have no previous training and who have not been battling monsters and soldiers to gain levels up until this point—join at an equivalent level. Suspension of disbelief goes out the window; the only way for a player to reconcile this is to be reductive: ‘it’s just a videogame thing.’

But it doesn't need to be. Videogames are demonstrating that they want to be more than gimmicks, so relying on lazy excuses is no longer viable. And when the developers go to great lengths to turn The Witcher 3 into an emotional, believable, and complex world, nobody wants to see it undermined by archaic or poorly implemented mechanics.

If the levelling up mechanic didn't create this ludonarrative dissonance—if it was consistent, precise, and was anything other than an arbitrary carrot-on-a-stick for players—then maybe I wouldn't need to complain about it.

Or maybe it’s time we stopped letting a number tell us if we’re getting better, making progress, or having fun.

Originally published at PC & Tech Authority.