On a whim, I recently started out on the Witcher 3- a game that, for some reason, I have never been particularly excited about. This is because I am an idiot.
The game is of course phenomenal, but that’s not a particularly fresh topic. What I’d instead like to talk about is a fun little effect generated by the dissonance between the game’s progression system and its world.
Most (by no means all, but certainly most) games are designed to become more challenging as the player makes their way through them. The Witcher 3 does not do this- assuming the player is putting in the hours on side quests, Geralt increases in power at a noticeably faster rate than his enemies. The amount of skill and knowledge required in order to succeed decreases accordingly- the variety of abilities and enemies in play keeps broadening, but the player has to learn less and less about them because Geralt is increasingly able simply to muscle through. Whilst I doubt CD Projekt RED intended for this to be case, they’re at least in good company when it comes to struggling with managing the difficulty curve for a massive, open-world RPG. The combination of stats-driven combat and heaping servings of player freedom creates a truly nightmarish balancing task.
What this means is that the most punishing encounters in the game come very early on, before the levelling system really gets rolling. Not only is the player less familiar with the combat mechanics than they will be later on, but they haven’t yet had the chance to get ahead of the curve in the way that the game will soon so readily afford them. This becomes strikingly apparent if the player opts for the highest difficulty level (which, with a name as good as “Death March”, they clearly should). They’ll be riddled by arrows that will soon be little more than a nuisance, ganked by random bands of ghouls when they’ll later be storming through small armies without a second thought.
I mentioned dissonance, and this is where it comes in to play. As with any game, The Witcher 3’s bestiary grows more impressive as the game goes on- you start off fighting dogs, bandits and a particularly durable griffin, and not too long later you’re dealing the finishing blows to all manner of immortals and abominations. The dogs are much more dangerous.
In one very early encounter, I made a moral compromise on what would otherwise have been my decision regarding a group of bandits simply because the resultant fight was likely to end in an unceremonious ganking. Ten levels later, I elect to murder an entire base worth of Witch Hunters rather than having to suffer the indignity of NOT telling them where they can go and what they can do whilst they’re there. The first “proper” combat encounter in the game is against a small group of ghouls, and those de facto training dummies are quite possibly the most lethal undead in the game on Death March difficulty. There’s a certain comedy to the fact that, for all the wild and fantastical creatures the player fights, none live up to threat posed by the common thugs and wolves from the early areas.
With that in mind, I started thinking about overachieving enemies from other games- low-level, bottom-of-the-barrel minions that, by some strange quirk of the game’s design, turn out to be far more dangerous than their narrative context belies.
It transpires that there are actually rather a lot- for many games in which one enemy can be easily identified as more annoying and traumatic than the rest of the pack, that enemy is something relatively innocuous, and not just on account of a descending difficulty curve. In classic platformers, enemies of the “random flying nuisance” school often do a much better job of killing the hero than their theoretically far more dangerous (and preferably vampiric) masters. Many action games and shooters are so eager to provide the player with flashy but mechanically simple ways to dispatch their more imposing enemies that they accidentally render the basic grunts more threatening. Again, this is especially true on higher difficulties, in which generic enemy soldiers are intended to be able to kill the player, but the same QTE-based methods can be employed against bigger and more vehicular adversaries.
Then, for whatever reason, there are the dogs. From Souls through Resident Evil and all the way to CoD, gaming’s canidae seem to punch above their weight a startling amount of the time. No wonder Diamond Dogs were so much more resilient than MSF- if most games are to be believed, an army of literal dogs would be almost unstoppable.
That’s about all I have time for right now, short though it is (apparently going to university sometimes entails actually going to university). It remains to be noted that the case of the overachieving enemy is likely to be, at times, a personal one. There are probably some depraved, wrong individuals out there who laughed off the dogs in Demon’s Souls 1-2 but somehow died multiple times to both Phalanx and Leechmonger. I am filled with simultaneous envy and pity towards these mutants. Do share any interesting stories you fine people may have on the matter.
Thanks for reading, and try not to choke to death on three pounds of steel (sigh).