Bewitching

After four years three countries and countless dozens of hours I finally finished the Witcher 3.

And I don’t know how to feel about it.

This continent spanning single playthrough is now undeniably my most memorable gaming experience, beating out that hazy summer of ’98 spent maxxing out my party in Final Fantasy 7. This isn’t something I expected when purchasing my copy back in 2015, back when I all I knew of the franchise was it’s sex laden minigames and comedically poor translation. It was an impulse buy after a holiday away, a last moment “Well the coverage has been good” grab. Almost half a decade later and 4000kms away I can now definitively conclude that sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.

If the third game is a startling testament to the power inherent in the medium, its heritage is hardly one of gaming royalty. The first Witcher was a clunky, badly translated RPG known primarily for its ‘mature’ content, that being a sidequest where every female NPC slept with gifted you a playing card adorned with a nudey drawing. Really nudey. Some of the lifelike illustrations were straight up pornographic, depicting characters that would later go on to have complex character arcs as little more than sex-mad temptresses. At a vague count there were 30 or so of these, all depicting women and all those women being white, thin and gorgeous. Aside from the narrative dissonance (the Witcher games being set in an even darker version of the Dark Ages, where beauty perhaps wasn’t the foremost priority of your average villager) this misstep pandering to the worst type of stereotypical nerd is brought up regularly whenever other projects of the developer are discussed.

The game itself was barely playable even at the time, with atrocious combat mechanics and poor graphical fidelity. The plot, ripped from Poland’s equivalent of A Song of Ice and Fire, was apparently good enough, and the game profitable enough, to spawn a sequel which arrived several years later and was a different barrel of necrophages all together.

The Witcher 2 was a technical marvel. By far one of the most ambitious looking games of its day, many were tempted in by the look of the thing alone. The opening scene depicted a castle siege on a scale rarely seen in the gaming, immediately giving contemporary western RPG developers a right royal kick up the jacksy. Unfortunately for those hoping ludic depths to go along with the spectacle, this opening became notorious for its harsh learning curve. Gone were any ideas of diegetic training levels or hand-holdy training stages: the very first level of the Witcher 2was a meat grinder.

Geralt, the eponymous witcher, is thrown into the thick of the siege against enemies far tougher than one would expect. Consistent death was not unusual and frustration was bound to follow. It didn’t help that the combat itself was vague and floaty and consisted mainly of mashing the attack button until someone died. Usually it was you.

The rest of the game was generally more of a success, telling a mature and diverting story and failing to rely on cheap shock value for its thrills. Perhaps the most vaunted feature was its final third, which changed entirely depending on a choice made at the end of the second. Creating two completely separate game worlds and quest lines for the finale, neither of which overlapped, while knowing the vast majority of your player base would only ever see one of them was a hell of a decision and one that made each player’s version of the story feel that much more unique. The game was a commercial success and secured the development of a third, and final, game to round out the series.

So it was that four years later, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was released. Departing from the guided structure of its predecessors, the third game followed in the footsteps of the GTAs, the Far Crys and the STALKERs by going open world. A notoriously tricky genre to master, many were initially sceptical that a second-tier developer responsible for two cult hits could, on their first try, create a coherent and engaging open world experience without falling into the numerous pitfalls of the genre. Not helping matters was the first example of a controversy that has only grown in frequency as capital g capital c Gamer Culture continues down the grooves scoured out by GamerGate: the Downgrade.

After an initial trailer demoed a stunning looking game, later previews appeared far less impressive. Water and fire effects were completely changed, enemy designs were simplified, draw distances were reduced. The final product still emerged as one of the best looking games of 2015 but it wasn’t good looking enough for many. Cries of deception and betrayal abounded and those wont to moan about the ethics of games journalism had a field day ignoring the actual game to count pixels and smugly cry havoc.

Despite this the game received rapturous acclaim. Many outlets named it the best RPG in a generation, pointing to its evolution of frameworks created by the old boys of the genre and its updating of such mechanics for the modern era. These impressions alone were enough to spark my own interest, even as previous experience of the games dampened any hype I might otherwise have had.

So it was that I bought the game on a whim. Almost immediately there was something different here, something lacking in previous games and indeed in other RPGs of the generation. This game had a sense of life to it that transformed the experience from the playing of a game to the experiencing of a space. The game begins with Geralt travelling to a small village and its surrounding area, an open world in microcosm. One of the first sights is a gibbet replete with corpses which pretty much sets the mood for the rest of the game. Unlike the high fantasy worlds of Dragon Age or the technotopian future of Mass Effect the world of the Witcher 3 is one of blood and mud and despair. The village itself, you learn, was recently conquered by an invading force and the effects are on full show. The local tavern owner gets a beating after taking down a patriotic coat of arms, your mission giver is the new custodian of the land fighting against an unruly populace and the remnants of his defeated rival. Nothing is black or white, morality is suspect, nothing is simple.

The quests themselves are fairly rote, go here, kill this, but their writing manages to obfuscate the more gamey aspects behind a wall of personality and nuance. The very first quest is to kill a griffin harassing both the village and the local garrison. But you’re a witcher, a monster hunter, and you aren’t doing this out of the kindness of your heart. You need information. Who has that information? The local commander, a commander in an army that was, in previous entries, the greater scope villain of the piece. But Geralt is a pragmatist. Needs must, and you cut a deal. You eventually slay the beast but not before discovering it was the actions of said commander that disturbed it in the first place. He doesn’t care. One problem is solved and so he sends you on your way. He even pays you. The quest ends with no villain or hero, just the sickly feeling that war and its consequences bring nothing but lingering, festering death.

This continues throughout the game’s 100 plus hours of gameplay. Never once does the writing feel lazy or hackneyed, though this was surely a tempting cutback given the sheer volume of dialogue in the game. But every trash vendor, every minor sidequest, every piece of incidental dialogue feels grounded in a world-weary, realist tone that never relents. So skilled is said writing that the world never feels more oppressive than it should. As a witcher the game positions the player slightly aside from the tragedy as an independent observer passing through the muck on his way to more important ends. Though Geralt is a set character, dialogue and quest options allow him to be played as an aloof professional or a jaded caretaker, as one uncaring for the needs of the many or someone disgusted with the effects of war on the ‘innocent’. Innocence is a regular theme in fact, with many seemingly innocuous kill-missions becoming multilayered explorations of morality and consequence.

It is this rumination on conflict and consequence rather than the combat (wonky) or the RPG systems (overly complex) that kept me coming back. That and the remarkable sense of place imbued into every scene in the game. Most point to Novigrad, the game’s largest city and centre of many a plot strand, as the crown jewel of the experience but I found equal wonder in the smaller locations as well: slowly meandering through a village and disturbing a gaggle of geese, noting idly the villagers’ disgusted reactions to the mutant witcher or their haggling over wheat prices. Visiting the inn on Ard Skellig and watching a band play as patrons dance drunkenly about. Cutting through a field and spending a moment to watch a farmer go about his business. Whereas games like Dragon Age Inquisition felt like a simulation of individual places, the Wild Hunt conjured the essence of the concept that is ‘place’, a representation of a specific set of tones and imagery that allow one to empathise with a space. I have no idea how this was achieved, but I’ve yet to play a game that has done it better.

For 4 years I dipped in and out of this world. Sometimes in fleeting spare moments I’d fire up the game with the express intention of simply wandering about and existing in that world. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’d allow myself a sidequest or two, perhaps a main plot mission every now and again. Each goal completed felt like a step towards a time when living in this world would become an impossibility, or at least an irrelevance. I didn’t want to live in a time where there was no more Witcher to experience.

I finished the main quest a few years ago and dove into the two DLCs. Both were massive chunks of content, one exclusively quest based and the other introducing an entirely new open world area. Having bought both at the same time I saw my way through the first comparatively quickly, experiencing the best mission in the game as well as one of the most charismatic villains from any game, ever. The second I have taken my time with, exploring the fairy-tale land of Toussaint and its dramatic shift in narrative tone with care, knowing full well this was the end.

And the end it was. A few days ago I decided it was time and mainlined the final few story missions. The story they told was fine, a return to the extreme branching of the second game where every choice felt like a wall slamming down on a series of possibility-spaces, but it was the very final conversation of the game that really conjured the feeling of closing a book, and the conclusion of an experience that had lasted years and covered continents, both in game and out.

(Minor spoilers for the Blood and Wine expansion from heron).

With the main threat defeated, Geralt and his friend Regis sit about a campfire, drinking heavily and wondering where it is they will go from here. Geralt is a witcher, a professional monster slayer and one of the last of his kind. He has spent a dozen lifetimes killing those he was paid to kill and he is tired. Regis is a vampire, countless thousands of years old, and in my playthrough must find a new continent to call home. These are two old souls looking back on the past with lamentation and fondness, unsure of where this new world will lead them. Regis asks Geralt if he will settle down and the player is given a choice; yes or no. My Geralt had become a cynic over the course of his journey and replied no, he was created to kill and so kill he would continue to do. But as if reading my mind his dialogue reflected this world-weariness, stating his home in Toussaint would become a new place from which to set out into the world.

At the end of the conversation there is a pause, a few moments of silence, before Geralt begrudgingly yet contentedly remarks that his journey has been a long one and that perhaps at least he deserves a rest. Finally, ostensibly talking to Regis with his voice full of fondness, he turns to camera and says;

“And so do you.”

No other game has been with me through so many changes in my life, certainly not one of this quality or lasting impact. It is undoubtedly my favourite game at this point, thanks both to experiences within and without. Like any great work its passing leaves a hole, an unfulfillable need for more in a world where more does not exist, and so I am sad that the experience is over. But I am happy to have experienced it, and even more so to have bidden it farewell and seen a conclusion that satisfied. I have gained a closure that was lacking, and although it is bittersweet, I am glad this story has been told.