Permission to Begin Again

I’m about to give you some very bad advice. Are you ready for it? Here it is: Don’t be afraid to start over.

I’ve tried to dedicate 2018 to finishing more games. I wrote about it here, and here. So far this year, I’ve seen the credits roll on a baker’s dozen of games. This doesn’t happen by picking up half-finished efforts and starting over. But I’m telling you, if your gut tells you to do it, go with your gut. It’ll be ok.

I strayed from my quest back in May, committing an egregious crime against the completionists’ cause. I deleted all of my Witcher III save files and began Geralt’s journey anew. They say nobody ever ‘finishes’ The Witcher III. Well, I put about fifty hours into it when it released a few years ago. After completing the second act, the Novigrad quest-line, I decided to take a break before setting off for Skellige.

jerrrber_TheWitcher3WildHunt_20180902_02-31-43
They’re still building my boat to Skellige.

We all know what happened next. Not with Geralt, but with me, with all of us at some point or another. Life got busy, some other game got released, I read a good book­— for one reason or another, that ship never sailed. Like so many other ‘big’ games, my attention span was no match for the massive amount of content available. I’ve made my peace with that.

Here’s the thing: videogames should be fun. Yes, there are other reasons to play videogames, but that’s a discussion for another article. Today, I’m talking about the need to let your eyes dance across something beautiful while you interact with it in surprising and delightful ways. Most modern games, especially the huge, 100+ hour monsters, are front-loaded with some particularly beautiful and delightful introductions. I’m not ashamed that I’ve played the first few hours of Metal Gear Solid V five or six times. They’re really fun. One day I’ll have to check out the rest of it.

When I got the itch to return to Geralt’s rich, vibrant world, I didn’t want to fumble with the (now) unfamiliar controls, struggling to get my bearings. I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to reclaim the joy I remembered from before. What better way to do that than to replay everything I had enjoyed so much in the first place? It wasn’t going to get me any closer to the end, but I knew I’d enjoy it. It’s the same reason I watch re-runs on tv. They’re a no-risk proposition full of known quantities.

Once again, The Witcher III got its hooks in me. I hadn’t necessarily intended to make this an extended stay, but before I knew it, I was looking down the skill tree, planning my late-game build. The characters and the story were still engaging, and enough time had passed that I didn’t always know what was coming next. I remembered the big events, but the moment-to-moment story beats seemed new. Maybe they were. I couldn’t remember the exact path I’d taken on my first run. By the time Geralt arrived in the Bloody Baron’s keep, I made a promise to myself: I was going to finish The Witcher III. I’m not sure why I felt the need to delete my previous save files, but I burned that bridge, consecrating my new pact with its ashes.

Before I go into the reasons I’ve so enjoyed my second journey with Geralt, I would like to point out that CD Projekt has included many quality-of-life features that make it easy to return to The Witcher III after a long hiatus. I’m sure I could have quickly gotten up to speed and continued my original playthrough. It does a very good job of documenting the story. The in-game Glossary reveals and records the hundreds of characters, all in the narrative voice of the bard, Geralt’s friend, Dandelion. Upon my return, I could have simply read up on what I had learned so far. The questlines are also well organized and summarized in Dandelion’s entertaining prose; they are clearly defined with a suggested level, so you know what’s possible to attempt and what’s out of the question. A very competent GPS-like mini-map points you toward your next objective. Lastly, the basic contextual controls are always displayed on the screen. Whether fighting, or fleeing on horseback, The Witcher III tells you how to play.

There’s a deeper level of control, however, under those basic, contextual inputs displayed on the screen. There’s a deeper level to everything in The Witcher III; crafting, alchemy, bombs, signs, even levelling up. Nothing is hidden, but on my first journey, much of it went over my head or took a back seat as I learned the fundamentals. Now, on my second round, I focused on the secondary elements. From the get-go, I was using the crossbow, an item I never used before. As I gained experience, I selected a few key skills to focus on rather than haphazardly assigning points. I also had a better understanding of mutagens and how they work, from the start, which made the skills I selected grow even stronger. I used signs more often, and I discovered the alternate uses for them. I had never before taken advantage of the stronger spells cast by holding down the trigger. My first Geralt only dabbled with potions and bombs, but now, I was actively seeking out alchemists and studying what they had on offer. My collection of decoctions, potions, and bombs is triple what it was on my first run, and I’ve actually been using them. The alchemy items are easily skipped over, and rarely necessary to progress the story, but they add a level of nuance and strategy to the combat that allow you to punch above your weight-class, tackling difficult side-quests and Witcher contracts.

Chasing those crafting and alchemical ingredients led me to engaging the merchants more often than I had on my first attempt. The merchants led me to Gwent. Gwent became its own reason to play The Witcher III, but only on my second run. The first time, I enjoyed the strategic card game, but I think I missed many of the early opportunities to play it. By the time I understood the rules and some of the standard tactics— like using Decoys to steal your opponent’s spies— some of the best cards and players were already behind me. My second Geralt was a seasoned Gwent player from the start. By playing Gwent early and often, I’ve put together competent decks for three of the four factions, and I’ve finished all of the unique card quests presented so far. I couldn’t have done this with my first playthrough.

Speaking of the unique card quests, the first one presented is quite easy to fail. Without spoiling too much, one of the early Gwent players you face might not be there for long. If you neglect to obtain their unique card, the quest is marked as failed. This bothered me when it happened. I was still learning the ropes, and already receiving a failing grade. Then it happened again, when I failed to protect a crew while they cleaned a battlefield; and again when I forgot to bring some medicine back for a dying peasant. Geralt the Second managed to avoid those specific failings, because I happened to remember them. (And in the case of the first one, because I became really, really good at Gwent.) I still failed other quests, though it didn’t bother me as much as it had before. Overall, once I’d decided to make a solid push and finish The Witcher III in 2018, I’d also decided to focus on the story. I’d take on side-missions when they felt convenient or appropriate. If I accidentally triggered one, failing it when I didn’t follow through, I wasn’t going to let it ruin my fun.

As of this writing, I am once again about to wrap up the Novigrad questline. Getting here has taken less time than it took the first time, which is probably to be expected. But I’ve also arrived at this point much stronger than I had before. For myself, I feel I have more momentum. I haven’t been working against as much resistance, not learning quite as many systems. Where I had once felt fatigue, I now feel excitement. And Geralt is several levels stronger than he was when I first reached this point. The levels have been applied more efficiently, with a plan in place. He is better equipped. Before he was dependent solely on his blades and a few signs. Now he utilizes dozens of potions and decoctions, oils and bombs, more powerful magic.

I’ve nearly doubled my time invested in The Witcher III, but I don’t regret it in the slightest. While it might seem counter-intuitive, sometimes taking two steps back can lead to one giant step forward. Maybe sometimes we just need to start over.

Now? Time to hitch a ride to Skellige…

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