It's an RPG showdown and we're calling it.
"We live in a post-Skyrim age now, so comparisons between the two are inevitable. But they both define the RPG genre in very different ways…"
Fantasy RPGS are the staple of video games, a hangover from the table-top gaming days of Dungeons & Dragons. Whatever other genres ebb and flow and become popular and fall out of favour (dusty military shooters, I’m looking at you), the fantasy RPG remains as solid as a rock, and just as popular. The fantasy genre permeates pop culture: Games of Thrones, Lord of the Rings. Hell, even that obsession with vampires the world suffered from a few years back can be traced back to our love of the fantastical, and our unquenchable thirst for olde worlde games where maidens were fair, heroes were cast from iron, and everyone got wasted on mead and grog. In fact, Games of Thrones producers originally approached Bethesda to create a game based on the series. But Bethesda were all like, ‘Nah, mate, we got our own thing going on.’ The result? The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Today Skyrim, alongside CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, dominates the genre’s gaming discussion. We live in a post-Skyrim age now, so comparisons between the two are inevitable, if occasionally lazy. Mysterious hero, check. Swordplay, check. Magic-wielding frighteners, check. For the seriously casual gamer, at first glance, hell at second or third glance, they might even be the same game. I’m not saying that one’s better than the other (we’re better than that, aren’t we?) – Skyrim and The Witcher 3 are both brilliantly realised opuses, and if you haven’t played either, it’s probably time to upgrade your Commodore 64 and start questing.
But they both define the genre, in gaming at least, in very different ways…
Skyrim vs. Nilfgaard
Remember when you first stepped into the province of Skyrim? That quickness of breath, heart fluttering, as your imagination runs wild. And you swear you’ll one day climb that distant snow-capped mountain even if it involves two hours of bunny-hopping across ledges not built for Nords. Nilfgaard, on the other hand, despite being around 20 percent bigger than Skyrim, feels a whole lot tighter. By which I mean, town planning feels more natural and recognisable. A Polish pal once said that playing The Witcher 3 was like going back home – presumably because of the stunning scenery, rather than the log shacks and ragged citizenry. The world of The Witcher 3 has a wild, medieval-like tapestry of colour everywhere, from flora to fauna to fortress. Which probably makes for the livelier atmosphere compared to the near-desolate land of Skyrim outside of city hubs. These worlds also give us our first major difference in the way the games explore the genre: Where The Witcher 3 feels grounded in real world imagery, Skyrim is purely imaginative fantasy.
Story and Narrative
You can just about sum up each core story in two words apiece: Dragon-hunt vs. demon-hunt. Throw in a brewing civil war here, a merciless invading army there and you’re all set. Skyrim’s narrative structure and story are fairy-tale simple. That’s no bad thing, since you can explore for hundreds of hours before you pick up the next quest-line and still understand what the hell is happening. The Witcher plays a different card – an in-depth story and a tightly controlled narrative, with pseudo-adult themes, that’s been building since the 2007 original. But you’d expect that, what with The Witcher being based on the books of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. Still, The Witcher 3 breaks the cardinal rule of video game story-telling: It takes control away from the player during expository cut-scenes. Bah. But that’s totally in keeping with its literary origins, with The Witcher 3 playing out like an epic fantasy novel, while Skyrim could be seen as a video game version of Dungeons & Dragons: an experience created by the player, for the player.
Dragonborn vs. Geralt
So who are you? Look in the mirror, man, and tell me who you are. Well, you’re either the ridiculously handsome and angular Geralt of Rivia or… just about anything else inside your crazy mind. You want to be a fat Argonian thief, you go for it. Because he’s pre-defined, Geralt is a stronger character in the traditional sense (i.e. despite your in-game choices, you could reasonably guess how he would react to situations in the source material), whereas Skyrim lets you develop a unique personality for your wild-haired freak of a naked Dunmer. The games look at two different types of fantasy exploration: spinning an epic yarn versus immersive escapism. So Skyrim offers up the wish fulfilment character – you are the story; The Witcher 3 is more focused on following the tale of a legendary hero.
Combat and Gameplay
"While both are pretty similar in their high fantasy style, their execution of gameplay, narrative and setting provides players with very different opportunities to create a world and blaze the trail in a way the other forms of fiction simply can’t provide."
Both games offer some of the deepest gameplay you’ll see this side of the Mundus realm. Courtships and choices and fighting for the right side, depending on whatever you consider right to be. That said, combat in both games always felt slightly off.
In Skyrim, it can all feel a tad unwieldy, unless you’re Fus-Ro-Dahing a goat off a mountain. All right, the controls aren’t as clunky as trying to do, say, absolutely anything in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, but it’s not as silky smooth as Batman: Arkham Asylum. That ain’t to say The Witcher 3 fares much better. It’s not as precise as it would like to pretend (I’ve stabbed more air than enemies, and I died a lot more times in The Witcher because of my awesome air-killing). I also find Skyrim’s quest log utterly overwhelming; a depressing to-do list I’ll never fully tick off (you can add ironing to that, while we’re at it). And I stare in horror at the immense amount of crafting options in both games. Not that it stops me picking up everything in sight, on the off-chance that I’ll need that stolen plate to save the world (I won’t). But it’s the choices you’re offered as you progress that really define the game. Skyrim focuses on crafting the hero you were always meant to be, even if you got a D in maths at school. The Witcher 3, on the other hand, in more concerned with shaping the story when you’re not in a tavern playing Gwent.
Freedom vs. Choice
And that dovetails with the biggest difference in the way the games explore the genre: where one offers freedom, the other is laser-focused on choice. Hear me out, and if you disagree, I’ll volunteer my first-born as a sacrifice. Because right now you’re rolling those pretty eyes of yours and either thinking ‘But both games feature freedom and choice,’ or threatening to do terrible things to my mother because I’m a no-nothing jackass. But there is a subtle difference.
Skyrim is driven by freedom; The Witcher 3 is driven by choice. Sure, Skyrim serves up choice on a platter – character, dialogue, guilds, whether or not to kill every NPC in sight – but the game’s pull is the ability to go anywhere, do anything, ably assisted by an epic and devoted modding community. Freedom is what gives you a playground you can sink 500 hours into and still keep going. Since The Witcher 3’s main focus is its narrative, the emphasis shifts to choice – how you define Geralt’s story and evolve the world around you.
Skyrim Versus The Witcher 3: which is the best RPG?
Fantasy has always been about creating, discovering and exploring new worlds – as well as escaping into them. And while both are pretty similar in their high fantasy style, their execution of gameplay, narrative and setting provides players with very different opportunities to create a world and blaze a trail in a way other forms of fiction simply can’t provide.
But ok, let’s imagine the colonial armies have a sharpened sword to your throat and you can only play one; you’re forced to choose the best. It’s a tough call. While both Skyrim and The Witcher give us fantastical adventures that are engaging and immersive, Skyrim is the game that explores the fantasy genre in the way that only a game can. It’s fully embraced the video game format – from creating your character to crafting your story – so it’s able to offer players a vast experience other literary forms can't manage (and other games just can’t rival). I’ll drink to that; anyone for a goblet of mead?