I’ve gotten pretty good at video games, in general. I won’t say I’m the best. It’s not hard to find someone better than me at any given challenge. Now am I necessarily good at all games. You could probably beat be at a racing or fighting game. Or a rhythm game. Or one of those sportsers. Or… you know what? We’ll just stop there. In general, overall, I’m pretty good. And I’m starting to get an appreciation for those games and challenges that have made me better. We’ve talked about a few of them here. Ninja Gaiden honed my instincts and reflexes. The Dark Souls run taught me to make full use of my resources. Well, I want to honor another such experience I’ve had lately. I played Witcher 2. And it, too, has made me better at video games.
Witcher 2 is perhaps not as hard as Ninja Gaiden or Dark Souls was, but it was just as much of a tough love teacher for me. The important thing about that game lie in just how its combat system works. In contrast to the OG Witcher game, where almost all the gameplay that mattered was tied up in your preparation and planning, Witcher 2 is a lot more active. It has a structure you might recognize from other games. You’ve got a light and a strong attack. You can dodge roll or block. You can fire off a spell or chuck knives or bombs, if you’re needing ranged attacks. If you break it down like that, it sounds a lot like your typical action game.
And it plays a lot like a typical action game, which is what made it such an effective teacher for me. Every single instinct I had told me that I could just wade into a fight like I would in many other games and trust in my reflexes and spur of the moment decisions to see me through. So I would do that. And I would die, so many times, to random gangs of jobbers. Because while the Witcher 2 feels like an action game, it’s not. It’s an RPG. That has its roots in the first Witcher, where anticipating situations, crafting solutions, and making the right choices of your preparations before you ever wandered into the fight were the big keys to making it anywhere. If you’re playing Witcher 2 at any higher level than easy, your enemies are as strong or stronger than you and can bring you down in just a couple of hits, and the controls, although they’re a lot more free that in many other RPGs, still aren’t fluid enough to let you weave into and out of enemies like you could in something like Bayonetta. If you want success in this game, you need to unlearn a lot of the lessons that action games have taught you, and actually think about and strategize your fights.
That’s a hard lesson to learn. “I’m playing stupid” became a common refrain of mine when I found myself falling to a challenge that seemed completely feasible to me, needing to remind myself that I couldn’t just hack and slash through whatever like I could with most games. Success required preparations. Walking into a fight without using alchemy to buff myself and my weapons, without a good set of traps and bombs at hand, and without an idea of what I wanted to do with my spells would quickly lead to my demise. And the game didn’t make the planning process easy, either. The whole system was built around managing downsides. Blocking and spells used up the same meter, and using that meter reduced your damage, so if I was needing to play defensively or use some of the powerful magic effects, I needed to be prepared to be a bit less sword-happy. Yet, trying to keep my sword damage at max made my Geralt inflexible and rather vulnerable, and particularly poor at dealing with crowds. The most powerful buffs came with equally powerful debuffs. I could significantly increase my damage at the cost of significantly reducing my health. I could speed up greatly how fast I regenerated the blocking and magic juice, but I’d get hit hard by status effects if I did so. Preparing for a battle wasn’t so much a matter of picking which numbers I wanted to go up as it was a matter of trying to determine a significantly varying strategy for a potentially unknown situation and sticking with it until it worked.
And I had to do that again, and again and again. Fall into old habits, realize I’m playing stupid, then stop turning my brain off and relying on pure twitch gameskills and actually think about it. Use my reflexes, yes, but don’t rely on them wholly. The Witcher 2 had me practice this again and again until I finally started to get used to the idea that I actually had to use my conscious mind in a fight, not just the instinctual one. And since I finished that game and moved on to other ones, that practice has stuck with me. The “I’m playing stupid” and actually strategizing on top of my raw skills has been coming again. And I’ve been seeing faster successes because of it.
So yeah, at this point in my gaming career, it’s starting to get a bit rare to see the game that can have the sudden and long-term impact on my skill like this. Witcher 2 has made me a better player. And that’s something to celebrate.