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‘The Witcher 3’ Is Not Good Enough (Commentary)

It may be one of the greatest video games ever, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been better

The concept of the “greatest video game ever” is a nebulous one, and not something the bulk of the community is every going to agree on. Which is good — it would be weird if everybody agreed on that, just like it would be weird if everybody on Earth suddenly decided that we all have the same favorite movie.

But with gaming still in its creative infancy, we’re always on the lookout for The One that will carry us into the future of this growing entertainment medium. And every couple years a new game will be championed as the one we’ve been waiting for. “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” released in 2015, is the latest example of that phenomenon — delivering an enormous world you can kinda just live in, alongside a great, compelling fantasy story.

I really enjoyed “The Witcher 3.” I’d say I love it, even. But I also find it, and the reaction to it, very frustrating. That frustration is the same sort of frustration I often feel about gaming in general: I worry about lost potential. I want more than even a game as massive as “The Witcher 3” is able to give me.

Never being satisfied is a fairly run-of-the-mill part of being human. We all know that we aren’t perfect. That we can do better. That we have not achieved everything we want to achieve.

That stuff is just a part of life, but that knowledge still drives us absolutely nuts. It’s what more pretentious types (like me!) call the human condition: always troubled because it feels like our lives, and everything we try to do never moves past the work-in-progress stage. We just want more.

Of course, we don’t usually know what that “more” is. No matter what we manage to gain there’s always some other “more” out there. The real goal is figuring out where the search for more stops. But it never really does.

For the video games industry, that “more” is the concept above of the greatest video game ever. The problem it faces in getting there is that the label “video game” can refer to so many different things. It’s an incredibly broad category.

There are many schools of thought on how to build a better video game over until the form reaches its full potential: it’s about improving fun; it’s about adding complexity; it’s about facilitating better storytelling; it’s about prettier graphics; it’s about bigger game worlds; it’s about every more piles of #content; it’s about allowing creators to express what they want to express more clearly.

Since the industry views its games as feature-laden tech products, the hope is that all of those things will be improved at the same time, and that improving all those individual aspects of a game will form a better complete work. And that’s where “The Witcher 3” comes in.

“The Witcher 3,” which is getting its last hurrah this week with its “Complete Edition” re-release, is so wildly acclaimed for being an effective confluence of a bunch of those improvements in a way that no other game has been able to accomplish: It has a physical game world larger than any other; it’s visually stunning to a degree that you just don’t see in games this expansive; it’s fully committed to telling its story without compressing it for the sake of players who just want to get back to the action.

By many of the disparate standards by which video games are judged, “The Witcher 3” is simply excellent. Whereas most “good” games are only good by one of those standards. It excels in the exact way the games industry judges excellence: piece by piece. The individual parts are great, taken on their own, and that’s all that matters.

Except that’s not what really matters. “The Witcher 3” is a work of art. And when taken in whole, rather than as an assemblage of disparate features, it’s subpar.

The story endlessly meanders, thanks mostly to the game world being so big that you end up spending dozens of hours traveling between scenes. The game world constantly tries to distract you from your urgent quest to find your daughter by throwing irrelevant side activities at you. The story bits can drag on so long that any sense of “game flow” will be dramatically impeded at every turn.

The whole thing is, ultimately, just too much. Everything is too much. The joking title of the extended version of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” comes to mind every time I play: “The Unbearably Long Self-Indulgent Director’s Cut.” But there’s no shorter version of “The Witcher 3” — just this 50-plus-hour beast.

But this is not a “Witcher 3” problem. This is a video game problem. They’re all unnecessarily and intentionally bloated, as if we live in some kind of backwards universe in which time wasted is valued above time saved. All hours of content are created equal, they’ll say, regardless of the density of that content’s substance. If a video game’s story is told over ten hours then it probably should have been told in five — but the creators will wish they could have pushed it to 15.

This kind of thing is why big budget gaming hasn’t really gone mainstream in the way that movies did back before my grandparents were born. Length, plus the requirement that you be actively engaged that whole time, equals a lot of games very few people actually finish. How many times does somebody have to fail to finish a video game’s story before deciding it doesn’t make sense to invest their money or time in those things anymore?

“The Witcher 3,” nonetheless, is exactly what video games aspire to be: full of stuff, covered in features. And it does those things so well that, according to the standards of the video games industry, it currently has no real competition in the never-ending discussion of what the best game ever made is. This is the one. It’s the peak.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel too happy about that. In the long term, that’s bad for the industry, which remains as creatively stagnant as it’s ever been. That’s in large part due to an echo chamber of fans and industry professionals who will say that what “The Witcher 3” represents — a hodgepodge of excellent things that don’t really make sense next to each other — is good enough.

It shouldn’t be. Our inborn drive to improve should tell us that very clearly. But with an industry that loves caring for trees but is completely unfamiliar with the concept of a forest, “The Witcher 3” is probably the best we can expect, or hope for.