The Witcher and Misplaced Inspiration

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Saints Row innovated in ways that inspired Rockstar to make a better Grand Theft Auto game.

Not only is it common for developers to take inspiration from more successful games, it is actively encouraged. It not only helps strengthen a genre, but if done correctly it will also prevent flawed gameplay design from reappearing in other games, a problem that still plagues some of the best franchises. The inspiration can be small but have a huge impact. For example, despite being the king of the open-world crime simulator genre, Grand Theft Auto IV featured a few new mechanics that were first found in Saints Row, such as player-placed navigation points. No more constantly pausing the game and looking at the map until every street and alley was memorized – players could now drop a marker on the map and let the game sort out the quickest route.

In order for developers to look for inspiration, it stands that we need games that are inspiring, and perhaps no franchise of the past ten years fits that bill better than the Souls games (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls). The gameplay mechanics, the combat, level design and even save mechanics have been dissected, analyzed and praised everywhere, forcing other developers to take note. Which isn’t much of a problem, since the Souls franchise is a testament to what video games can accomplish that other mediums simply can’t replicate.

But it’s important to take away the right lessons from a game as unique as Dark Souls, as developer CD Projekt RED learned with their critically-acclaimed RPG The Witcher 2. By now the combat system featured in the sequel, which is a drastic departure from the previous entry, has earned a notoriety of its own for being punishing and unforgiving. Yet this combat system, which CD Projekt RED admitted was influenced by the Souls games, never gained the level of praise that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls enjoyed. Instead, a quick search illustrates just how much gamers disliked the combat. So what did CD Projekt Red get wrong, or misunderstand about what worked so well in Dark Souls? The answer lies in the context of each game, and the notion that being inspired simply isn’t enough – developers need to understand their inspirations inside and out, as well as their own games.

Lighting the World On Fire

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Dark Souls is one of the most influential games of the past decade, and for very good reason.

Context and theme are crucial elements that are finalized early on the creation process, which should answer the question, “What do we want players to experience with this game?” Every element should focus on establishing that theme and organically fit within the context that the theme provides. Far too often the conversation looks at only two options, simplistic versions of each option at that, and for reasons not entirely clear the options are often considered mutually exclusive (although this doesn’t need to be the case) – does a game aim to be difficult, or does it aim to tell a story? If difficulty is the goal, the game will most likely call back to gaming from the late-80s or early-90s. Super Time Force gave players the ability to rewind time and play alongside a clone of themselves, a neat gameplay mechanic, but the ultimate goal was to overcome obstacles that would otherwise be impossible with a power that made them slightly less impossible. In order to convey this, the game featured retro, pixel-based graphics, a callback to Contra and Ninja Gaiden games of old. But if story is the goal, the game will often boast the highest production values, but will be simple and require little skill, as both The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite demonstrated. It seems that choosing difficulty as the theme while using modern-day mechanics is impossible, that we cannot have one without the other.

This, of course, is not true; however, it’s rare to see a developer achieve this while staying true to the theme and context they established so early in the creative process. One could argue that The Last of Us meant to convey the struggles of protagonists Noel and Ellie as they traversed a hellish landscape, but the simplistic combat didn’t work toward this theme, and instead this was conveyed through cutscenes and dialogue.

This is the biggest success of Dark Souls – it manages to be a modern-day game, with the same mechanics found in big-budget story-based titles, but with a level of difficulty hardly seen outside of 2-D pixel-based throwbacks. Yet it works because every design choice works to fit a theme – that life is difficult, and success is temporary. Focusing on the combat, a major element of Dark Souls, demonstrates how developer From Software understood their own game, and how well they understood context. If the art direction, level design and story were all servicing the theme of failure and struggle, then the combat couldn’t allow the player to be a powerful God – it, too, had to be punishing.

Dark Souls’s combat is played from a traditional third-person perspective, with the player moving their character with the left analog stick and rotating the camera with the right. Attacks and blocking are mapped to the shoulder buttons, and dodging is handled with one of the face buttons plus a directional input on an analog stick. On paper it’s simple and easy to understand, but in practice it is far more difficult. There are no hints or tutorials in Dark Souls, yet it conveys lessons to the player better than the majority of video games ever released – by letting the player fail in combat, again and again. And players will fail, because they are weak and the enemies within this world are anything but.

A traditional game will throw lesser enemies at the player in the beginning, and as the player increases their stats and obtains better gear, they will face stiffer competition. But the combat in Dark Souls, which focuses on attacking while blocking, dodging and parrying, is set up so that a low-level character can still take on high-level enemies if they have learned those enemies’ strengths and weaknesses. The struggle comes in learning those lessons, and thanks to simplistic mechanics that require mastery to execute, every encounter with an enemy is a learning experience. Every time the player feels confident in their abilities, the game will throw an enemy at them that features an attack pattern unseen before, and before the player can even think of a response they are dead, and are forced to start over. But they do not reload a save point and try again – they are stuck in the same world, and must retrace their steps to reclaim the souls they collected, which serve as both a form of currency and experience points necessary to level up. Dark Souls doesn’t let players retreat and try again – it forces them to face their failures over and over until they learn what they are doing wrong, and only then will they succeed.

It’s easy to see why this style of combat would be appealing to other developers – it allows them to get creative and introduce new elements throughout the game without it seeming like they were throwing random ideas at a wall to see what stuck. There’s meticulous planning and well-reasoned logic behind the challenges in Dark Souls, and the perfect execution of the combat allows all of them to work. As players we may complain that they feel unfair, until we beat them, and suddenly it all makes sense,  we’re now better than the game and all feels fair in the world. But in order for this approach to combat to work, the rest of the game has to share the same goal. The Witcher 2 drew inspiration from this style of combat, but unfortunately CD Projekt RED didn’t understand how presenting elements that are out of context can ruin what would otherwise be an amazing game.

A Dance With Swords and Monsters

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The first entry in the Witcher franchise does a great job of weaving together the themes throughout all aspects of game design.

While Dark Souls focused heavily on theme, the context at which mechanics are introduced and implemented is equally important. There needs to be a cohesion to every element, or else it will feel out of balance. To best understand the context in which The Witcher series is meant to be experienced, we have to start at the beginning with the original entry in the franchise, an underrated game that has obtained cult-like status and is unfairly maligned for what many perceive to be poor combat.

If failure is the theme in Dark Souls, the opposite is true of The Witcher – success at all costs. In this world where life is unfair and cruel, the player is spared this fate by taking control of Geralt, who is a Witcher. Witchers are monster hunters, but more importantly they are humans who have subjected themselves to genetic mutations that allow them to consume highly toxic potions that imbue them with supernatural powers. Witchers use these powers to hunt down and slay monsters that threaten the otherwise helpless residents of small towns and villages. From the very beginning, the player is meant to be capable and powerful. In the first Witcher game, this theme is conveyed through combat.

To say that the combat system of the first Witcher was unpopular is an understatement, yet I found plenty to enjoy because it fit within the context of the world, characters and story. CD Projekt RED has described the combat as rhythm-based, which is technically true, but in practice works similar to any combat system that features a stamina meter or a limit on attacks. When approaching an enemy, the player must decide which of three attacks they want to use, a fast attack, a heavy attack and a group attack. Most enemies can be taken out with any attack, but if an enemy has heavy armor it will take far too long to take them out with fast attacks – heavy attacks will get the job done in seconds. Similarly, taking out a group of enemies with heavy attacks leaves the player open and vulnerable to counter attacks – using the group style both protects the player and deals the most damage over a greater area.

Once the correct style is chosen, the rhythm portion of the combat begins. Players use the mouse to hover the attack icon over an enemy, and must use the left-click button when the icon lights up. Hitting it too early or too late will result in Geralt missing his target, which will most likely result in taking damage. However, get the timing just right and Geralt can unleash powerful combinations onto enemies, rendering them dead in seconds.

To be fair, this approach to combat takes a lot of the action out of the player’s hand. For example, once the player learns how to parry, the game will automatically do it in combat, determining the success of the block with stat-rolls behind the scenes. And those awesome flips and combos Geralt is performing? Those are handled by the computer, triggered by the player who has to do nothing more than click their mouse at the correct time. This may sound shallow and unfulfilling, but it works in The Witcher for one simple reason – combat is never meant to be a struggle. Characters will frequently comment on how nervous the presence of a Witcher makes them every time Geralt enters a room, because Witchers are capable of tearing people apart with eas. Since the focus of the game is not on learning a combat system through failure, the skill necessary to engage in combat is toned down, allowing story and player decisions to be the focus. Unlike The Last of Us, the world of The Witcher is not meant to be hard on Witchers, and therefore the player, and the combat reflects this and helps tie the themes of the game together into a cohesive package. While it may seem shallow, shallow is exactly what works.

Stumbling in the Dark

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Despite everything else improving in the sequel, combat in The Witcher 2 took a huge step back.

Given the backlash to the combat system in the first game, and given how successful Demon’s Souls was (and how anticipated Dark Souls was), it makes sense that CD Projekt RED would look at what From Software was doing and try to incorporate that into their game. The only problem with this is that nothing else in The Wither 2, from the story to the world and the characters, changed alongside the combat, resulting in an amazing game, except for when there is any actual fighting.

As much of a fan as I was of the rhythm-based combat in the first game, I was fine with CD Projekt RED taking a different route in the second game. After all, the franchise was gaining some traction, and what was once a PC-only franchise was quickly becoming both PC and console based. A controller wouldn’t have worked with the combat of the first game, so a new direction was needed.

On paper, the combat in The Witcher 2 sounds identical to that of Dark Souls – combat is played from a traditional third-person perspective, with the player moving their character with the left analog stick and rotating the camera with the right. Attacks and dodging are mapped to the face buttons, with dodging still handled via one of the face buttons plus a directional input on an analog stick. Blocking is mapped to a shoulder button, but other than that, it should play the same.

But it doesn’t. For starters, fans of the franchise enter into the sequel with a specific mindset –  Geralt is powerful and meant to be fierce and unflinching in combat. Rushing into battle is acceptable, and if things go south the player can always roll away from the enemy and fire off a powerful magic spell. But the first inspiration CD Projekt RED implemented incorrectly from Dark Souls was to make the player weak and enemies tough. I remember the first time I came across Drowners in both Witcher games – in the first game, these enemies (zombies that live in water, essentially) would stumble out onto land and run right into my sword. They posed a threat to villagers, but what the game told me is that I was no mere villager, and therefore Drowners provided no real threat. But in the second game, the first group of Drowners I came across murdered me in an instant.  For reasons never explained, I could no longer rush these aquatic zombies and slice them up – I had to block, parry, roll and use magic just to barely survive. By implementing the weak player/strong world mechanic into a game that was never about that, The Witcher 2 starts off on a confusing foot, and it never recovers from there.

There is nothing inherently wrong with placing an emphasis on blocking, dodging and parrying, and The Witcher 2 could have seen how Dark Souls accomplished this and implemented it successfully, so long as, unlike Dark Souls, the player character was able to easily defend themselves. However, not all aspects of this dodge-heavy combat carried over. For reasons not entirely made clear, when the player locks onto an enemy in The Witcher 2, the camera does not follow them.

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The implementation of the Souls-inspired combat in The Witcher 2 leaves much to be desired.

Take a step back from this and it becomes clear that CD Projekt RED didn’t fully understand what made Dark Souls work, and what made their own game work. Even in Dark Souls, a game based on failure and difficulty, the ability to lock onto an enemy was also accompanied by the camera automatically tracking that same enemy. By doing this, it frees the player up to focus on not just offense but on defense. By leaving out the ability of the camera to track a targeted enemy, CD Projekt RED hindered the very combat system that inspired the drastic overhaul. Not only do players have to focus on attacking and dodging, but they have to move the camera around manually to see where their enemies are at. It places too many restrictions on the combat, which leads to problems of its own – stale, repetitive enemies. Unlike Dark Souls, the variety of enemies (and, specifically, of enemy attacks) in The Witcher 2 is depressingly shallow. All enemies behave in a similar manner – run foward, attack, retreat, rinse, repeat. It should be easy to roll around enemies and attack them from behind as they retreat, or dodge and counter them when they attack, but since the player has to focus on manually moving the camera, more enemy attacks get through, and since enemies are inexplicably overpowered, a few mistakes means the player is dead and has to restart.

Restarting is handled the same way as it is in nearly every other game – reloading the last save and trying again. There is nothing at stake, no items potentially lost, and therefore little is learned. The player keeps beating their head against a brick wall until it finally breaks, but there is little satisfaction in that style of progression. This says nothing of some other rather baffling design choices, such as the fact that blocking immobilizes the player, meaning that blocking and movement are two separate skills that do not intersect, removing strategy from the combat. An odd choice for a system heavily inspired by combat founded on learning and mastering strategy. By the end of each battle, the player doesn’t feel like they succeeded by learning from past mistakes – success seems to happen in spite of the combat mechanics.

What Could Have Been

Implementing a mechanic and understanding a mechanic are two very different things, as the combat in The Witcher 2 demonstrates. But it didn’t have to play out this way, and the evidence that is the success of The Witcher 3 proves this. CD Projekt RED had every right to change their combat system from the first game, and they also should have looked to the Souls games for inspiration. However, knowing how these inspirations fit within the theme and context of your game are far more important than simply having them in the game. I’m not surprised that a developer as talented as CD Projekt RED learned from these mistakes, and I’m glad to see them embrace them.

Developers should always look for inspiration, but inspiration can be misplaced. Don’t simply make a game difficult because Dark Souls was – make a game that is engaging and thematically consistent, and you’ll have a successful game. Just like Dark Souls and The Witcher.