The Witcher 3 remains one of the highlights of the generation.
My dear friend Jess text me the other day to say she was replaying that bit in The Witcher 3 where everyone gets drunk, and that she had forgotten how good it is.
There is more than one occasion in The Witcher 3 where everyone gets drunk and all of them are pretty good, but I immediately knew which one she meant: the one where the witchers all get pissed, try on Yennefer’s clothes and drunkenly facetime her professional contacts. It’s a highlight.
While The Witcher 3 is an okay action game and a better RPG, its most notable achievement is in its writing.
This optional, genuinely funny incident takes place at Kaer Morhen during the mission No Place like Home, one of a pair of plot-heavy, action-light missions between the Ugly Baby questline and your last chance to level up and tie up side quests before endgame begins in The Isle of Mists, when everything goes to hell. It’s a perfect counterbalance to its partner, Va Faile Elaine, in which the player can only watch terrible things unfold before them.
The two missions – one so lighthearted, the other so affecting – are an elegant illustration of CD Projekt RED’s strengths. While The Witcher 3 is an okay action game and a better RPG, its most notable achievement is in its writing.
Very few games can boast casts the size of The Witcher 3’s – and of those that can, even fewer can lay claim to making them memorable. The Witcher 3 draws on two established universes – Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy books, and the related but not identical canon established by CD Projekt RED’s two previous games – and throws dozens of important names and faces at you from across both.
Somehow, though, previous knowledge is not required; you can dive into the background stories via the in-game encyclopaedia (presented, delightfully, by the bard Dandelion – Geralt’s self-nominated and frequently unreliable chronicler), but you never really need to, because everything you need to know is elegantly, skilfully and deliberately conveyed in how the characters relate to Geralt and to each other.
Take, for example, Yennefer and Triss. These two primary love interests both have a long history with our hero, but you don’t need to pore over who seduced, cheated on or failed to text back whom to understand a fraught love triangle when you see it. Yennefer’s commanding, certain attitude, Triss’s reluctance and hesitancy, and Geralt’s reaction to both tell you everything you need to know about their history, viz: it has led to This, and This is a mess.
In almost any other game, both of the sorcerers would spend long, awkward moments outlining their entire relationship history for the benefit of the player. In The Witcher 3, it’s enough for someone to say “You always do this”, and not give dates and details. CD Projekt RED trusts you to be an adult human with a basic understanding of how the world works, and put the pieces together – just as you do in real life.
We’re trusted to understand Geralt is forever walking on stage in the middle of someone else’s story – as do we all, every day. The Witcher 3 never pretends that the world is centred on Geralt; history continues on around him, and he gets glimpses of it and has to puzzle out the rest as he goes – and so do we.
This trust in the audience to fill in the blanks from small clues is something we find all the time in literature and cinema, but rarely in mainstream, blockbuster video games. That one dude in the focus group who says “I don’t know what’s going on” can go to hell, in CD Projekt RED’s opinion, and the rest of us are better off for it.
By insisting the players acknowledge that Geralt isn’t the only real person in the game’s world, CD Projekt RED both makes the setting feel much more grounded and also ensures all the characters we meet stick in our mind. Nobody remembers the six minute exposition monologues; everyone remembers the feeling that there’s more to this fella than what we’re seeing right here and now.
What there is to each and every one of those fellas is a real humanity. Writers always talk about making their characters feel flawed and warm, but it rarely comes across that way. In The Witcher 3, it does; everyone has their own goals and ambitions rather than existing to serve Geralt’s purposes.
Somehow, in both the base game and two expansions, Geralt himself remains the primary moving force where his own goal always contextualises his actions. The three-part first act in the base game takes him through three leads, slowly piecing together enough information to put him on the right road, while incidentally unfurling the subplots that move the world and other characters’ stories along. Geralt dips into these stories as a tourist, patiently and grimly doing what must be done to get what he needs, and when he has it, the plot boils along towards its conclusion.
No matter what Geralt might be doing, it always serves his purpose and he’s in control of his destiny. Compare and contrast to, say, the Assassin’s Creed series, where our heroes do whatever historical figure X tells them to on the flimsiest of pretexts , as some poor beleaguered writer tries to find a way to string together dozens of different types of quests designed by different teams in different countries for different reasons.
All of this is elevated even further by the recognisably Eastern European flavour throughout. Maybe you need to have Polish friends to pick up on it. It’s not just the monster names and touches of local folklore; it’s the jokes, both dirty and clean; the cadence of muttered complaints; the dry humour; the interchangeably self-deprecating and scathing banter that feels a world away from the increasingly prevalent Joss Whedon MCU aesthetic turning most geek culture TV, movies and games into a homogenous mass of predictable wisecracks and even more predictable timing.
All of this very human element serves to make the extremes of The Witcher 3’s drama and tragedy all the more poignant. This is a setting with grounded sorrow built right into its fantasy elements – the lore of the witchers and sorcerers, or Yennefer and Geralt’s complicated connection are a good example of how Sapkowski asks questions about the potential effects of magical tropes on real people. But CD Projekt RED take these big, impersonal good versus evil arcs and manages to make them all about the people involved in them. It makes you remember and like these people, and then it hurts them. And so it hurts you.
Lots of people are still playing The Witcher 3 if activity on our guides is any indication, and every day they remember – or discover for the first time – how good it is. I hope I never forget how good The Witcher 3 is. I hope the games industry works out why it’s so good sooner rather than later.