The new generation of video game consoles has ushered in plenty of cool new gameplay features. Virtual worlds are bigger. Graphics are more realistic. There are even more ways to connect with other people when we play thanks to streaming and social features. But none of those things are truly next gen, at least not compared to my favorite aspect of The Witcher 3: the hero can actually grow a virtual beard.
The Witcher 3 is a sprawling fantasy epic that spans many, many hours. It stars a grizzled monster hunter named Geralt, who sports a nasty scar on his face and two swords across his back. At the beginning of the game, he has a bit of stubble, but due to a visit with a king he's forced to get a clean shave, and from there you can watch his facial hair progress.
The beard grows slowly over time, adding a bit of length with each in-game day that passes. Some towns have barbers where you can shave it off, but I never did: the growth of Geralt's beard felt like an important progress tracker, like marking down my kid's height on the wall. (Well, like that except completely unimportant.) Every time I saw his face in close-up, I analyzed it for signs of growth. It was like having a virtual Chia pet. I kept using the PS4's share feature to snap photos of it in different locations around the world.
In most role playing games, your progress is documented with numbers. By the end you have more powerful spells and armor that can take more abuse. But you don't really see the toll that time has taken on your hero. For Geralt, all you have to do is look at his grizzled, grey mane to see the hardships he's been through. At one point toward the end of the game, Yennifer, one-third of a witcher / witch / witch love triangle, complimented Geralt on his new distinguished look. It made me feel weirdly proud.
Expensive new armor makes Geralt look powerful, but a beard makes him feel real.