*Disclaimer: Before continuing further, please remember that everything you read is written within the context of my personal opinions on the matter. There are spoilers ahead!*
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, you have no doubt played, seen, or at least heard of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. There’s a reason for that: it’s one of the most accomplished games of this generation. So here I wanted to discuss why, to me, The Witcher III is one the most incredible, immersive and satisfying gaming experiences I have ever had.
It’s a little difficult to break down The Witcher III into bits and pieces and analyze each. The game is ultimately more than a sum of its parts. It fulfills a sense of being in one of the most believable worlds I’ve seen in a game before. Its combat and fighting styles become a rhythm of sword and dance as you progress. It tackles mature themes and difficult scenarios. It puts so many memorable, charismatic and dastardly characters on screen. It incorporates incredible music and gorgeous visuals on top of it all. To break it all into separate parts almost feels like an injustice for me. Everything comes together to create a rich and cohesive experience.
What stands out immediately about the game is that it’s somewhat grounded in realism. Now hear me out! Obviously it’s a fictional tale, but the structure of the world, the nature of its citizens, the way magic and monsters are experienced and more are all treated with a certain level of deference. Nothing is overly flashy or feels so far out there. Monsters in this world all have philosophical and biological qualities that made my mind believe in them. Potions are created from ingredients that make sense. That’s just tip of the iceberg.
Now, I’m one to appreciate the history of a developer. This won’t be a history lesson, but context is somewhat important just to add to a game’s appreciation. The individuals behind The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, CD Projekt RED, began as a smaller studio than most. They were established in Poland in 1994 by Marcin Iwiński and Michal Kiciński. What began as two men selling CD-ROMs turned into a group of people localizing Baldur’s Gate in the Polish marketplace for BioWare and Interplay.
After a series of certain events, CDPR began development on the first Witcher game. They received some assistance from BioWare who also offered them space in their booth next to Jade Empire at E3 2004.
After a successful launch of The Witcher, the team grew and development began on the The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings which subsequently launched to critical acclaim and commercial success in 2011.
This paved the way for the inevitable sequel and finale of Geralt’s story in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt RED was on record saying they wished to expand upon the previous games in the series by going open world with the final game while retaining the same quality. They wanted to avoid any form of “Witcher 2.5” criticisms. In their own words, this could only be done by focusing on the PC and eighth generation consoles for release. The Witcher III was officially announced through Game Informer on February 4th, 2013. It was in development for three and a half years with a total of 240 in-house employees working on it. This doesn’t include the over 1,500 individuals involved with the game’s production globally. It was then released on May 19th, 2015 where it received universal praise and went on to win a record number of ‘Game of the Year’ awards.
With all that said, there’s a still to talk about here. And what a game it is.
It should be obvious, but one of the most important aspects of crafting an engrossing and believable narrative are characters. Characters push stories forward, paint scenes and scenarios in certain contexts and breathe life into mere words. They’re the life blood of a story. It’s probably the area that’s a source for a lot of my love for the game.
Every main character in this world has a history. Every one has a story that they either wear on their shoulders or tuck away deep inside. The star of the show is none other than Geralt of Rivia himself. I have rarely felt such a wide range of emotions playing a character as I did with him. Geralt is a Witcher, which in the game world comes with certain connotations. The world of The Witcher [games] is inhabited by monsters of all kinds thanks to a cataclysmic event that brought them into our world from theirs. You have your ghouls, cockatrices, fiends, harpies, foglets, and so on and so forth.
Witchers are normal people who undergo rituals and years of sophisticated training in order to take on these creatures that roam the lands. Due to what they go through, they’re said to lose most of their emotions, physically mutate and become focused on one thing; slaying monsters. They’re mostly treated as outcasts, outsiders whose only use is that of a handyman or plumber. Townsfolk, estate owners, kings and everyone in between has need of their services to remove a monster but nothing more.
It’s this characteristic that gives Geralt such a large presence to me. He’s incredibly skilled at combat, the best of the best, the “Butcher of Blaviken”, the “White Wolf”.
People have heard of him, yet most either don’t give him the respect he’s more than earned or just don’t care. He’s become all too used to it and he doesn’t act like a cliched hero. That’s what gives him a sense of realism. He’ll complete a task no matter who it angers, sass off at a king right to his face, share tender moments with a lover or exact street justice at his own accord. Now, given the nature of RPGs, I’m given choices on whether to approach things this way or the complete opposite.
As a flawed species, we tend to relate to others like us. That’s why it’s often easy for me to love openly flawed characters. Geralt’s sense of humor works perfectly within the game world too, due in no small part to his fantastic English voice actor Doug Cockle. With monsters dotting the lands, despots in power and rival nations at war, his ability to still crack wise brings relief at just the right moments.
Take a look at this sequence during the “Pyres of Novigrad” mission (courtesy of YouTuber TheGamesEntertainer). Geralt helps out old time lover Triss Merigold remove rats by placing incense in a grain warehouse. A thought casually darts his mind; “A master monster slayer in the world’s largest city…looking for rat shit…sheesh”. He pretty much said exactly what I was thinking at that moment, and it was hilarious! There are loads of examples like this throughout the game, and the supporting cast of characters do well to complement Geralt’s personality.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt has a large advantage by being a sequel. There’s no time wasted on establishing characters from prior games. They’re already a part of Geralt’s life and those relationships are seemingly established in the background. CDPR did a tremendous job instilling a sense of love and tension between Geralt and his long lost lover Yennefer. Though I only played about half of the original Witcher and about a quarter of the second, I still felt like there was indeed a lot of history between the two in this game. That much was so evident in the way they share feelings with one another, look at each other’s faces, kiss, embrace and share worry.
While I adore games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, there’s a sense that relationships in those games feel a bit ‘formulaic’. You meet a character on your team, complete missions which opens up more dialogue options, including romance and subsequently carry on through the game until a climactic final love scene. I almost never felt that way with The Witcher III. The scenes and interactions between Geralt and Yen (and Triss to an extent) almost feel like they grow organically through the game. These moments are peppered throughout the experience. Geralt meets Yen at the Skellige Isles during an emotional moment for the Viking-esque natives. Their king had passed away. I reunite with Yen at the funeral procession. While being respectful of what’s going on in front of them, Yen and Geralt quietly share a tender moment. They stand close together. She’s happy to see him again and he responds in kind, complimenting her. They both share a desire to go back to their personal lodge to be together but have other matters to attend to beforehand. To add impact to the scene, facial expressions and softness in their voices are delivered so well that I couldn’t help but be sucked right into it.
There’s so many other little interactions of similar fashion that I grew to almost feel a bond. These two know each other, they love each other. They both raised a young girl by the name of Ciri to whom they feel a strong sense of guardianship over. After a strenuous exchange during a certain mission, a dialogue conversation opens up with Yen. I had the chance to ask her if she’s okay, but I decided to ask some other questions first. Her immediate reaction was to answer with disappointment in a “Thanks for making sure I’m ok” sort of way. I didn’t even anticipate that. It just occurs naturally and I felt terrible about it. I honestly have no problem saying the relationship between Geralt and Yen is the most genuine I’ve experienced in a game.
And that’s just one relationship dynamic. There are so many characters that stick in my mind two years after I first completed the game. The Nilfgaard king Emhyr var Emreis, played by Charles Dance is another dominating force in the game. He enlists Geralt and Yennefer with finding Ciri. Though I felt more than comfortable playing as Geralt, he always made me feel uneasy. I was compelled to rebel against him at every turn due to his arrogance but at same time felt I had no choice but to respect him. He could have my head lopped off at a moment’s notice.
Chumming it up with drinks with my best Witcher pals Lambert and Eskel was another stand out sequence. We talked about other pasts, our goals, what we wanted out of life and the road ahead among other subjects. These moments don’t really push the narrative forward in any way, but they provide points to breathe and such an enjoyable insight into the lives of these characters that I just appreciated them.
The script and dialogue flow so well in almost every conversation in the game. No one tries hard to be funny. No one feels out of place. There are some quest lines and NPCs that aren’t up to par with the rest of the game, but they’re few and far between and vastly overshadowed by everything else.
Another aspect The Witcher III does phenomenally well is making me as a player feel like I’m only a small part of a much, much larger picture. While I’m ultimately “the savior” by the end of the game in some form, I’m still not the root cause of it. It almost goes out of its way to not feel “gamey”. The maps of Velen and Skellige are absolutely massive, yet almost every square foot feels personally hand crafted. Plants and trees look and feel like they belong where they are. Hills and mountains crest in a geographical order and caves are placed in a believable fashion.
Turning off the map icons helped tremendously in immersing me even further in the world. Rather than travel from icon to icon, I freely decided to go out in which ever direction I felt and tackled anything I stumbled upon at each moment. This again seeded in the organic feel of the world. The lands naturally transition from low lying swamps to open fields, lush forests, and snowy mountaintops. Nothing felt ‘segmented’ or compartmentalized. Galloping across the fields of Velen on my horse Roach and happening upon the corpses of a hard fought battle really made me feel like I was just one person, one Witcher in a forsaken land. I’d disembark Roach and approach the scene as a thunderstorm started to brew above my head. As the raindrops began to fall, I really felt a sense of dread. It’s a story in and of itself.
There’s so many moments like that. Acquiring quests even feels more organic than what’s typical. Upon entering a random town, I see standard structures. Some have an inn, there’s farmland, a blacksmith and towards the center (or sometimes at the town’s entry point), a notice board. In the world of the Witcher, common people have jobs or tasks they require assistance with. Much of the time these problems are in the form of monsters. A noonwraith could be terrorizing the fields in some noble’s estate or a wyvern snatching up travelers on a specific road.
Other games have implemented notice boards in similar fashion, but when I stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense here. These requests are in the form of contracts posted on a little billboard. Naturally an able-bodied individual would happen upon them and choose whether to take on the job or not, and being a master monster slayer, that’s exactly what Geralt does. The contracts explain a general overview of the situation.
The quests could end there. You could go to a waypoint on the minimap, see the monster, kill or get rid of it somehow, go back to the quest giver, get your coin and finish. However, sidequests as simple as monster contracts often times have twists or other issues that keep them feeling fresh or bit more unique. Before even beginning a contract, I could often times haggle with the contract giver on a price for my services. I mean, little things like that go a long way to making me feel like I’m just another monster slayer trying to make his way in life. It gives a sense of believability.
Some contract givers told me they had problems with a specific monster when in fact, during my investigation it would turn out to be a completely different monster or scenario. Using my Witcher sense in a sort of ‘detective vision’ mode, I’d follow trails and acquire more clues as to what happened or where a monster went. To speak further, the locations of these creatures always made sense. A wyvern would house its nest on a mountaintop or lichen roam the deep confines of a dark forest. All of these details told little mini-stories on their own and it absolutely grabbed me each and every time. It created a sense of anticipation every time I got a contract; “I wonder what I’m going to find this time”. Many monsters come with backstories that go into detail about their history and where they came from. I adore things like that because it shows just how much work and passion went into everything.
Take the monster contract “The Oxenfurt Drunk”. Its just one of so many that stood out to me. A creature is stalking the streets of Oxenfurt, one of the major cities in the game. It attacks passers-by and dumps their corpses into gutters and other unsavory places. You approach the guardsman that posted the contract to inquire. When he explains a bit on what’s going on, Geralt immediately asks “Isn’t that something you should look into?”. It’s nothing outlandish or remarkable, but it just works. He’s got attitude. You think “Yea, that’s something I would say. You’re the city guard damn it, you do it”.
Alas, there’s a war going on so they can’t be bothered apparently. After asking about witnesses, where the attacks happened and examining the bodies of victims, Geralt realizes that the culprit is none other than a “katakan”, or vampire in the Witcher’s world. But there’s something unique about this katakan. It loves alcohol and jewelry, and its focus is on none other than drunks walking the streets. To lure it out, Geralt decides the best solution is to get as drunk as a skunk. Walking the alleyways, singing songs out loud and acting disorderly, the katakan finally surfaces and Geralt does what he does best; kill monsters. You learn more about the creature after killing it. It’s one small example of the type of variety simple monster contracts can have and I absolutely love it (Please feel free to watch a walkthrough of the quest below; credit to xLetalis).
If you know me through the Twitter-verse or NeoGAF, you’re probably aware that I’m really big on narrative. Obviously, gameplay mechanics need to be there to support it, but story nuggets and character interactions play a huge role in my enjoyment of games. The simplest of ‘tasks’ in The Witcher III are still peppered with narrative and some form of discovery. During my journey through the game, I encountered notes or hints as to the whereabouts of hidden treasure chests or loot. Instead of being a game of hide and go seek, finding the chest and loot and continuing on, the writers wanted to imbue a sense of intrigue. Even these inconsequential tasks come with letters or notes that tell a backstory about the owner’s life, how the chest got there, who or what transpired, etc. It’s not necessary in the slightest but it goes a long way towards making it all seem more worthwhile.
Again, the sense of maturity and heavy weight to some of the quests left me shocked for some time. One of the most memorable quest lines in the game is that of the Bloody Baron, called “Family Matters”. With the real name Phillip Strenger, he’s the self-proclaimed baron of Crow’s Perch (a small township), and he’s a wretched old man.
You get that sense from the moment you meet him. He’s a drunkard living the “high life” thanks to his Nilfgaard connections. Geralt crosses paths with the Baron due to Ciri’s recent contact with him and his people. Naturally, Geralt must follow. Before assisting me with finding Ciri, he requests a favor. Help him find his lost wife and daughter. They apparently mean everything to him, but you get the sense that not all is normal in the Strenger household. I eventually learned that the Baron and his wife, Anna grew apart while he was off fighting battles. They’d become distant, scolding each other. Eventually Phillip discovers she’d been committing adultery with another soldier. He’d let it go but he learns that it wasn’t a one time thing but rather repeated offenses.
The Baron grew to love the bottle. Arguments grew into physical fights until a boiling point whereby he struck Anna. He’d passed out, only realizing afterwards what had happened from lounging in his own urine. Anna had left. Their daughter too. Eventually, Geralt learns of an even darker secret.
Anna was pregnant. The baby was a stillborn because of the violence she endured at the Baron’s hands. Even with all his disparaging flaws, I could see the devastation in his eyes. He’d give his own life to bring that child back if he could, and it hit me deeply. He buried her in the town graveyard with no rites performed. Geralt lets him know that baby will never be at rest until it’s given a proper burial. They find the baby wandering the graveyard, completely disfigured and transformed into a botchling, a ghastly representation of itself. They calmly perform a ritual to put her at peace, with the Baron giving her a name. It’s a touching sequence, one that I recommend below.
Through a sequence of events, Geralt learns the locations of both his wife Anna and older daughter Tamara. Tamara wants nothing to do with her old man, having lived through what she perceived as hell. There’s a very tough decision to make regarding the family which could end with Anna’s freedom at the expense of the deaths of dozens of innocent children or the children freed, Anna alive for only a short moment, and the Baron’s suicide by hanging.
The toughest part if that you as a player don’t know those consequences beforehand. You’re not given a guidebook to what’s right and wrong. There’s almost always a gray area and I relished that decision making at every turn. To top it all off, this was a mere optional side quest!
What I haven’t talked about yet is the combat. This is seemingly a point of contention between many players but it’s an area I enjoyed quite a bit. The Witchers are described as masters of the sword and move in almost dance like motions while fighting. That’s fairly evident in the game and I adored it. Parrying and blocking work well and I’d regularly have to anticipate whether to use a quick dodge or longer roll depending on the enemy I’m battling. Every foe in the game has weaknesses and I loved mixing potions and elixirs to prepare for each encounter I faced. Some imbued my swords with poisons while others a concoction of dust or other matter to take on werewolves or beasts like them.
Blows had impact and I felt like I was actually slicing and hitting things with my sword. I could mix and match builds suited to my playstyle, employing deadly and impressive feats of magic at the same time. There are so many moments of discovering a legendary sword or finding a suit of impressive armor out in the wilderness that made me giddy in anticipation of donning them in combat.
The music is some of the most powerful I have ever heard in a video game. Deep, invigorating and it resonated absolutely perfectly with the rest of the game. Music director and lead composer Marcin Przybylowicz deserves every ounce of adoration for a wonderful job. Just have a listen to some examples:
The Fields of Ard Skellig is so touching and spoke to every inch of my heart. Emotions and stories are told through music and I couldn’t help but be enchanted by every track that graced my ears. The soundtrack made exploring and wandering the fields of Velen, the swamps of Crookback Bog and islands of Ard Skellig that much more impactful. I just can not praise it enough.
I honestly can’t say enough about this game. Never mind the fact that I haven’t even touched upon the stunning expansions in Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine which added dozens of hours of extra characters, quests, new regions and so much more that could very well be considered their own game by any measure. That’s for another day!
I have put in almost 250 hours combined in my two playthroughs thus far. Oh yes, I’m planning a third when I get around to it. I have rarely been so entranced by a game like this. Everything from the memorable and lovable characters, their personal stories as well as the main quest, the utterly gorgeous visuals at every turn, the voice acting and impeccable writing quality, the quest design, the attention to detail, the engaging combat and heart wrenching soundtrack all combined to create something I’ll likely never forget. In my 20+ years of playing video games, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is up there with the greatest for me.
Thank you for creating a masterpiece, CD Projekt RED. Until
Cyberpunk next time!