The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been hands down my favorite game of 2015. I was hooked on the story, dialogue, combat, visuals and let’s not forget the music… I actually listen to the soundtrack on my way to work! I can’t wait to get my hands on the upcoming expansion whenever that comes out. Last week we gave students at the game design course I’m teaching on the assignment to choose a moment from a game and write about how that moment feels. Breaking it down and looking at all the components involved in that moment in a similar way to what Steve Swink does in his book Game Feel. Which brings us back to The Witcher 3 as the game to talk about today, specifically the feeling of being in a showdown with a monster.
The feeling I’m talking about can be described as a mix of danger, tension and excitement. The result of a combination of audio, visual and haptic elements that I will attempt to identify so we can learn a bit more about how to design great feel by polishing and combining different types of feedback. First let’s take a look at an example of that moment captured by the YouTube channel Boss Fight Database (you can watch until 01.30):
Notice the moment at 00.18 when “Morvudd” swings his horns at Geralt, breaking his Quen sign (The shield spell thing) and knocking Geralt back several meters. At that moment the game is telling the player he needs to be more careful and take this fight seriously. The player in this video becomes a bit more cautious and starts using bombs and dodging more. The game continues to punish the player every time he takes an extra swing at the fiend instead of dodging away and waiting for another opening. That happens a few more times in the fight and without the Quen sign being active once which gives us something to compare to.
If we start with Morvudd’s attack. The attack’s animation starts with Morvudd recoiling from the hit he took and explodes outwards with a huge swing of the horns with all his body weight behind it. The attack almost resembles an uppercut that takes advantage of the fiend’s giant horns and really puts them right in your face. The sound that comes with it is of the fiend’s roar. There are no additional visual effects to go with this attack.
When the Attack connects with Geralt it breaks the Quen sign protecting him and throws him back. The spell breaking is visualized with a flashy spherical orange blast and a glow of the same color covering Geralt. The glow quickly disappears to signify the fading of the spell and the blast leaves particles in the air similar to particles from a fire. I’m not exactly sure how to describe the sound, but it sounds to me like a combination of something smashing against a shield, metal scraping against metal (like a knife sharpener) with a bit of “magic” added to it. An additional motion blur effect surrounding the blast is used to further intensify the feeling of the blow. The controller (I played on a PS4) shakes with the blast. Geralt is flung back and the animation takes him through a backwards roll that he uses to recover his footing. He then stands for a moment, staggered and recovering from the blow.
Instead of taking advantage of the situation, Morvudd walks in a circle around Geralt with music from the game’s excellent (in my opinion) soundtrack. Almost as if to say, “Let’s dance”. The game’s soundtrack is one of the things I love most about it and I actually listen to it while working or find myself humming some of the tunes. While impact of the attacks a monster can deliver gives you a sense of danger. The soundtrack does a great job transporting you into the game’s harsh world, building up tension and in making combat exciting.
You can examine my fight with the griffin Opinicus for an even more juicy attack. You’ll notice one of the griffin’s attacks when grounded is a backhanded swipe with it’s talons. The swipe has a heavy swoosh sound and kicks up some dust and comes with an added screen shake. Combining all these things really makes it feel as dangerous as it actually is (you’ll see it taking quite a nice chunk off my health bar).
I really think that part of what makes The Witcher 3’s combat so good is how much impact different skills and attacks have. I hope I successfully broke things down in the examples I gave. What I think we can learn from this is that the player needs to feel every interaction that happens in a game, and to deliver that feeling we need to use sounds, animation, visual effects and whatever else we have access to where it is appropriate of course. I’ll end this blog post with one of my favorite pieces from the soundtrack.