I grew up video-game-adjacent. As a child and teen, I remember watching rather than actively participating, picking up games so infrequently that I considered myself less than a casual gamer. Puzzling through the HER Interactive Nancy Drew games with my mom and best friend is my most prominent gaming memory from childhood, mainly because I was a mystery-obsessed tween who read way too much Agatha Christie.
Despite my irregular play, I liked the idea of gaming so much as an adult that my New Year’s resolution, three years in a row, was to play more video games. This didn’t stick until recently, when I picked up The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
I turned twenty-four this year and recently began playing video games consistently, but I hesitate to call myself a gamer. Though I have every right to claim that label for myself, I can’t help but feel there’s an implication of skill inherent in the term “gamer” that I don’t live up to. Of course, this is ridiculous—people who play games of any genre in any capacity and with any level of skill fall under the gaming umbrella.
The innate pressure to be “good” is something I have thought about a lot, particularly as I’ve watched my own skills improving over the course of the year. The skill threshold is largely self-determined, but will I ever pass it? How would I even define a category so arbitrary and subjective as “good”?
I took both NieR: Automata and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on vacation this year, and in completing them both I was finally able let go of my hangups about gaming, including this issue of being “good.” Even though my RPG history consisted of some button mashing in Kingdom Hearts, I absolutely loved both NieR and The Witcher. Both games have rich narratives enhanced by incredibly detailed lore and world building, as well as emotional and satisfying character growth.
Over the past year, I’ve played several narrative-heavy games—Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home—and I am a staunch defender of “walking simulators.” However, it wasn’t until I played The Witcher that I began to question the self-doubt that kept me away from other games for so long.
The Witcher is an open-world RPG where the player controls Geralt, who is a Witcher, a mutated human with exceptional hunting skills. Though the main goal of the game is to track down Geralt’s adopted daughter, Ciri, there are plenty of side quests, horse races, and in-game card tournaments players can complete. It is the first game of this kind that I have ever finished on my own, and the longest.
The most surprising thing about my dedication to The Witcher 3 is that I was so engrossed I allowed myself the ninety-plus hours it took me to complete the game. I have a guilt-fueled relationship with free time, which has only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. Most of my productivity is motivated purely by guilt. Anxiety about performing well in school led to feeling bad about time not spent working and studying, even though it’s totally unrealistic to spend every waking moment neck-deep in work. I could almost never justify taking time to play the Batman games I had been given for the PlayStation3, and even once I made the conscious decision to play games and purchased a PlayStation4, I largely played because “I bought it, might as well use it.”
Despite my mental hang-ups and lack of skill in playing The Witcher 3, for the first time I wanted to finish a game. I needed to know how the story ended, and in my quest to finish I was finally able to let go of some of the guilt I felt for not spending time being “productive.”
The Witcher’s compelling and seemingly endless quests are a retreat into an amazingly crafted fantasy world. The narrative aspect in TW3 itself deserves an essay, but on a personal level, the gameplay mechanics of taking on quests and deciding how to handle them was something I absolutely loved.
As Geralt, you can negotiate more money from quest-givers or refuse quests outright, though this is something I never did. You can also refuse payment. There’s a quest early in the game where Geralt comes across a man whose daughter is severely ill because a wraith is poisoning the water in their well. Upon completion of this quest, the man offers Geralt payment from what would have been his daughter’s dowry.
I refused his payment because I couldn’t bear to leave this man and his daughter with nothing. Most NPCs bring up the idea that Witchers are greedy, but I liked that I didn’t have to play the game that way. Instead, I was able to help townsfolk in war-ravaged countrysides live slightly less miserable lives. I was able to choose my Witcher path, something that allowed me to connect more deeply with the game. This was a big part of why I continued playing after my vacation had ended. It felt awesome to solve problems for people, even fictional ones.
This especially felt true since my real-life progress seemed like it was on hold, between being unable to leave my job to pursue a career and unable to pursue projects outside of the ones I was working on in grad school. Working two jobs and taking classes full time left me burnt out and irritable in my spare time, and the sense of accomplishment I got from gaming for a couple of hours before bed kept me sane.
I am by no means old, but picking up gaming later in life meant that I approached it with the same analytical perspective with which I approach all media I consume. The fighting aspects of TW3 are awesome, but the narrative depth frequently left me thinking about the game.
The Witcher’s capacity for choice and the consequential ripple effect elevated the story, and I celebrated the defeat of each boss and agonized over the difficult moral decisions present throughout the game. A few times, the outcomes were so unpredictably bad that I reloaded recent saves to make a less hurtful decision.
Without divulging too many spoilers, there’s a choice about halfway through the game where one dialogue option leads to someone being killed and Geralt badly physically hurting a friend, and the other changes the political outcome of the game potentially for the better. It’s often impossible to know the immediate consequence of your choices, but in this case I couldn’t continue with others being so badly hurt at my expense.
I cared about the game, its characters, and its outcome in a way that I hadn’t cared about any other game before, and I was finally able to enjoy a game without being bogged down by my own mental barriers. I didn’t read any of the Witcher books before starting the game. I wasn’t asking myself what kind of Witcher Geralt should be, even though the game lays out commonly held beliefs about Witchers throughout. I was playing the game (and Geralt) for myself.
The control I had over everything from my weapons and armor to how I responded to quest-givers was engrossing. It made the game feel deeply personal, resulting in a more meaningful and empathetic gaming experience. In the end, I got to determine what kind of Witcher I wanted to be, something that shaped my gameplay and the narrative.
It was beyond rewarding to realize that I had gotten so caught up in enjoying the game that I had stopped questioning my thoughts and skills. More than ninety hours spent in the world of Geralt and company meant my skills improved a lot, too—by the time I finished the game, I was dying more from unwittingly falling off cliffs than at the hands of my enemies.
I’ve finally begun to enjoy games purely for myself, and, more importantly, I’ve begun to allow myself to enjoy them in my free time. I’m not sure that my barriers—my need for skill as validation and my workaholic tendencies—will ever go away, but they no longer prevent me from playing.
Madison Butler writes about advertising by day and about video games the rest of the time. She can usually be found crying about Final Fantasy and Nier: Automata on Twitter @madisonrbutler.