If you’d asked me between 2015-2020 why I loved The Witcher 3, I’d probably have drawn up a very long list of things. In 2021, though, following the release of both Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, that list is a lot shorter. It’s basically now just “the wind” and “the sun”.
In earlier, more carefree times, I thought The Witcher 3 was exceptional for a number of reasons, most of them probably the same as you’d have listed. Things like its smart writing, memorable quests, consequential choices and lovable lead character. So when the same team responsible for making The Witcher 3 got set last year to release a new game, that’s the kind of stuff I found myself getting excited for. More sad Barons, more babies in the oven.
Cyberpunk 2077, as you are no doubt aware, did not deliver on those fronts, or many others, to the point where playing it felt like playing something from an entirely different studio. I’d fired the game up expecting to feel that same Temerian magic, and uninstalled it having found not a single drop of it.
Moving on bummed from Cyberpunk, then, literally the very next game I played was Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and whaddya know. It turns out I was going to feel that Witcher 3 magic after all, just in somebody else’s game. And that my Witcher 3 adoration (or at least the heart of it) hadn’t had as much to do with consequences and storylines; I was just in love with a beautiful forest and a swift sunrise.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m an open-world game designer. That shit must be hard. But I am a seasoned enjoyer of them, and if a lifetime spent playing them has taught me anything, it’s that my appreciation of their worlds—not the games themselves, but the places they’re set in—often has little to do with how “busy” they are.
If big single-player games are anything, they’re a form of escapism, and so my favourites are usually the ones that truly let me escape. Using Cyberpunk as an example, if only because it’s so recent, it’s set in an enormous, bustling city, full of cars and pedestrians and ads and shops. That’s not an escape! That’s, uh, the life most of us lead every day already!
No, if most of us live an urban life, then it’s a natural setting that’s a true escape. And The Witcher 3's was such a beautiful world, where you could almost smell the wet grass and feel the wind on your face, and it’s one of the few open-world games where I’ve ever wanted to reach every corner of its map, not to satisfy objectives, but just to see what it looked like and to soak it all up.
A vibrant, living world like this is just so much more enticing than a concrete jungle. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s something more primal in all of us, a call to nature that only gets more pronounced the further so many of us get from it. I’ve written about virtual tourism in Yakuza before, but that’s a specific place. This is more a state of mind, a love of nature wherever it is, whether it’s a fantasy world or a historical caricature.
Other games I’ve loved for this reason are Oblivion and the Far Cry series, while Assassin’s Creed Odyssey got very close a couple years back, even if its Mediterranean coastlines and crisp blue waters hewed closer to my love of Wind Waker than The Witcher.
Valhalla, though, oh boy. It’s exactly what I’m after. Its idyllic caricature of 9th century England is like a weekend getaway in a nature reserve, albeit with quite a lot of murder and climbing in between. Not my ideal holiday, but they’re part of the package.
While Valhalla’s opening Norway sequence is breathtaking in its own alpine way, once I arrived in England it took about three seconds for that feeling to start tingling. That ol’ Witcher 3 hum. The Oblivion fever. Long grass. Big trees. Falling leaves. Chirping birds. Running water. A gentle breeze. Sunlight poking through branches, bathing a campsite in an amber morning glow.
Ah, this is the shit. This is escapism. Not in deeds, but in setting.
Valhalla shows that some of the most memorable open worlds aren’t defined by their density, and that busyness doesn’t equate to believability. Its England has some points on the map where stuff happens, sure, but for vast expanses there’s nothing to do, and so like all the best road trips you’re free to soak up the breathtaking scenery, which is a pleasure that resonates with me so much more than tedious open-world busywork.
While it can be tempting to pack a video game world with as much sound and fury and stuff as possible, as Cyberpunk seemed so intent on, sometimes it’s best to just let an open world be open, and let us enjoy the sights. In these cases, like with Valhalla, the nothingness isn’t a problem. It’s the best thing about the game.