The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an extraordinary game. For this final installment in the RPG trilogy, developer CD Projekt Red moved to an open-world format. It was an ambitious move, as designing a large game world that is both beautiful and full of interesting things to do requires a lot of resources. CDPR have proved that really what you need is a clear vision of what you want to achieve, as well as a passion for making a work of art that is as good as it can possibly be. They succeeded, because Witcher 3 is without a doubt one of the best video games ever made.
When Bethesda released the majestic Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in 2o11, it moved the goalposts for what players expect from an RPG, and every developer since has been playing catch-up. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, it felt like Bioware was merely trying to live-up to the expectations generated by Skyrim, and it inevitably fell short. In contrast, Witcher 3 utterly eclipses Skyrim as the most ambitious and most satisfying open-world RPG yet made, which is a testament to the ambition, talent and dedication of those involved in its conception and execution. Witcher 3 takes everything Skyrim did so well–a huge, beautiful, consistent landscape; rich lore and writing; and a huge number of interesting quests; but it goes further, with an excellent (and fully-voiced) main character, a gripping and emotionally wrenching storyline, rich and colourful supporting cast, and an abundance of diverse side quests and additional content; all set in a mature and often tragic universe that regularly evokes a deep sense of pathos. In movie terms, Witcher 3 feels like Skyrim meets Mass Effect meets Red Dead Redemption.
I started playing The Witcher 3 back in May this year, and it took me almost four months and at least 200 hours to finish a single playthrough of the main game (and I’ve barely touched the expansions so far). Never before, in 25 years of gaming, have I been so completely immersed in a game for anywhere near this length of time3. Every aspect of the game has been designed to enhance and enrich the player’s experience, and it all forms part of a coherent artistic whole which ensures the final experience is even more than the sum of its exceptional parts.
The story revolves around Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous Witcher, on the trail of his adopted ward Ciri. Ciri is no longer the small child she was when Geralt first looked after her in the witcher fortress of Kaer Morhen, and indeed has become the centre of a major power struggle due to the exceptional power she wields. Geralt’s quest to find Ciri brings him into the midst of a brutal, all-out war, and he is drawn into a number of political and other struggles during the course of the game. He can also take on witcher contracts (he’s a professional after all), and Geralt has a variety of other personal quests to resolve, including the romantic drama carried over from the earlier games in the trilogy.
The game strikes a great balance between action, exploration, and dialogue and exposition. Combat is satisfying and exciting, with enough in the way of crafting gear and potions to make things interesting, as well as a skill tree that allows you to specialize in melee combat, spells, or bombs and crossbow (although you’re likely to use all of the available options). It’s more accessible than Witcher 2 but also much, much deeper and engrossing. Exploring the wild areas of the game is an absolute treat, aided a great deal by the presence of Geralt’s mount, Roach. Not since Red Dead Redemption has a game nailed travelling on horseback quite this well.
The game’s visuals are absolutely stunning. Character models and animation are practically flawless; everything looks and feels real, at least according to the slightly stylized look of the game. Main character models like Geralt and Yennefer look particularly good, but you’ll encounter thousands of different people across the gameworld, and can hardly fail to be impressed from start to finish. Environments are even better, and travelling on horseback through the expansive wilds of the game is an almost transcendent experience. The lighting, trees, bushes, and wildlife just feel so real. The same goes for the dozens of towns and villages you’ll encounter, where people go about their business, cooking, cleaning, or carrying out small-scale industry like carpentry or blacksmithing. This feels like a living world, with Geralt for the most part just passing through.
As well as the beautiful landscapes, weather effects, armour and character designs, Witcher 3 boasts highly original monster designs. Thanks to its heritage in Central/Eastern European history and mythology, the game’s monsters and creatures range from familiar but distinctive takes on fantasy tropes like vampires, trolls and ghouls, to much more unusual creatures like Drowners and Leshen. Some of these have a real background in Slavic mythology and represent a refreshing change from the tired cliches of Western fantasy creature design.
Witcher 3 also features stellar voice acting as well as a sumptuous score. The game’s main characters are superbly acted, especially Geralt with his Clint Eastwood/Solid Snake drawl; but even incidental characters are well done, and the different regions’ inhabitants are all voiced consistently with regional accents. The sheer amount of dialogue and voiced lines you’ll hear is unbelievable. As for the soundtrack, it’s one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. The music has a generally mournful atmosphere, suited to the long passages of time you’ll spend traversing the wilds; while some tracks are more upbeat or fast-paced in more populated areas or during action scenes. Some tracks can be decidedly creepy, as well, adding significantly to the sense of horror you’ll occasionally experience during some of the game’s darker quests. The world of the Witcher is full of ancient and powerful creatures, including some very memorable, original and disturbing villains. It also features some characters who at first seem like villains, and may well turn out to be depending on your response to them and your point of view; but who also might unexpectedly win some redemption or sympathy if you give them a chance.
Among the few criticisms of Witcher 3 have been complaints about its treatment and depiction of women, as well as the absence of non-white characters. The first two Witcher games were known for their somewhat degrading objectification of women, but this third game does represent a change in tone. There is plenty of sex in the game, a few plunging necklines, and certain sections have a highly sexualised atmosphere; but this is in keeping with the general nature of the in-game universe and is also in keeping with the game’s wider cultural reference points. Medieval Europe, particularly in rural areas, was a generally bawdy place, aside from times where forces like the Inquisition or Puritanism were in the ascendancy.
The game certainly depicts violence against women, but this invariably makes sense within the context of the story; such as the torture of mages by a demented, hate-filled monarch; or the murder of prostitutes by a fearsome and sadistic crimelord. It’s always horrifying, and Geralt’s visceral reaction to it mirrors that of the player. Moreover, many of the most powerful characters in the story are women, particularly Ciri, Yennefer, and Triss. Other prominent women characters include female monarchs and artisans, and on the whole the game does a good job of subverting misogynist tropes. It’s true that these characters are exceptions, and the reality for most women in Witcher 3 is one of grinding toil and poverty. This is a world where many women become prostitutes and endure violence and mistreatment; but it’s a war-torn, poverty-stricken dystopia standing on the brink of annihilation, and life for almost everyone is a living hell.
Some people have criticized the absence of non-white characters in the main game, which was perhaps tacitly acknowledged by CDPR via the DLC. The wider Witcher universe includes non-white civilizations in regions not explored in Witcher 3; and having just started the first expansion, it’s striking that some of the first new characters you meet are dark-skinned and hail from the region of Ofier. The addition of the new characters is meaningful in the context of the game and thoroughly un-tokenistic, and I think this should inform future discussions about cultural representation in the game. That said, this should really have been addressed in the base game, and not left to an expansion.
At the same time, I feel like criticizing the game on the grounds of cultural representation is missing the point somewhat. Surely it’s important to acknowledge that themes of racism (albeit against elves and dwarves), as well as wider prejudice and discrimination are central to the game’s story, and that Geralt and his allies spend much of their time fighting against these evils? A failure to acknowledge this, and the game’s wider message about intolerance, seems to me to be tantamount to “not seeing the woods for the trees”. Cultural representation is something which only really has meaning in the concrete, and you have to take into account the social context for a work of art’s creation as well as its message. Witcher 3 was made not in the USA or UK but in a (by comparison) very poor Slavic country with an almost entirely white population. Poland certainly does have a big problem with racism, but the game clearly transmits an anti-racist message that indicts bigotry and intolerance. Moreover, Poland itself has been subjected to a long series of invasions and occupations over the centuries; and Polish people living abroad are themselves subjected to racial discrimination in a variety of countries around the world. It’s not really fair to apply quite the same criteria here as we would with a major British or American game.
On the whole, the writing in Witcher 3 is extremely sophisticated and emotionally mature. The script is excellent, and there is also a vast amount of written content in the game in the form of bestiary and character glossaries, as well as hundreds of letters and excerpts from books to encounter in the gameworld. The level of writing is consistently high, as is the English translation. The game’s ending was not what I expected, and indeed a lot of people were unhappy with how certain major storylines were resolved. I had a very unpleasant surprise towards the end of the game which, considering my emotional investment in the story, upset me greatly (if you’re curious and don’t mind spoilers, do an internet search for ‘Three to Tango’). Fortunately, I narrowly avoided the other ‘bad’ ending, which might have finished me off altogether. That said, it’s a sign of greatness when a work of literature, film, or gaming can have such a profound emotional and psychological effect on you in this way; the only other games that have affected me in the same way in recent years have been Mass Effect 3 and the first season of The Walking Dead. With a game this massive and deep, it’s always going to be hard to create an ending which will satisfy everyone, and I think CDPR did a good job overall. In a way, a game of this scale really shows you that it’s about the journey, rather than the destination. At the same time, we all want a happy ending, and it can be a real blow when you don’t get the ending you want, even if what you get is the ending you deserve.
For me, one of the most significant parts of the Witcher 3’s world-building is that it subverts the familiar RPG trope that the player avatar is some kind of ‘Emperor of Mankind’, where you have the power to pretty much fix everything and make everyone happy if only you make the ‘right’ decisions and select the right dialogue options. From the outset, Geralt finds himself in the middle of a world ravaged by war, disease, inequality, discrimination and poverty. Geralt is a compassionate character, and you can try to make a difference where you can; but for the most part it’s drop in the ocean stuff. Additionally, sometimes you’re faced with the choice of, say, saving someone from a lynch mob, or helping the ghost of a murdered woman find peace; but what if in saving someone’s life you have to kill several others, and the person you saved goes on to become a notorious bandit and murderer? What if in aiding a ghost you inadvertently unleash a power that decimates an entire, largely blameless, community? Geralt always wants to do the right thing, but the black-and-grey morality of the Witcher’s universe is like a mirror on a world where often, particularly in conflict zones and in a time of major societal collapse, there is no ‘right’ answer.
As the story progresses and Geralt becomes more powerful, you can begin to shape major world events to try and make life better for the majority of people. However, crucially, the ultimate resolution of the two major endgame storylines is actually taken out of Geralt’s hands. True, earlier player decisions ultimately determine the outcome, but only indirectly: only in how Geralt’s behaviour shapes the independent resolve and agency of other (female) characters, namely his love interest/s and his grown-up surrogate daughter. Most other games give you a ‘get-out-of-jail’ dialogue option, or telegraph if you’re on the road to ruin and give you time to choose a different path; but Witcher 3 is relentless in how it holds Geralt (you) to account for his (your) actions.
To me, it seemed like the story was trying to show you the importance of ‘letting go’, and accepting the agency of others, which is rather unusual in a medium where we’re used to our character being the centre of everything. In real life, accepting and learning to live with the fact that you normally can’t control what happens around you–whether in terms of politics and the outside world, or in your personal relationships with partners, children, parents, siblings, and friends–is a constant struggle. Taken with the whole ‘meditation’ mechanic, I do wonder whether this aspect of acceptance and ‘letting go’ points to the influence of Buddhism or another Eastern philosophy on the writing; but I’m probably well wide of the mark.
A special mention should go to Gwent, the card-playing minigame designed for Witcher 3 that has become a phenomenon in its own right. Once you play a few games and get the hang of the rules, Gwent is an engrossing and extremely enjoyable card game, and it’s no wonder that CD Projekt are releasing Gwent as a standalone free-to-play game later this year. I just hope they don’t go down the same route as Blizzard’s Hearthstone, with a disregard for balance and an emphasis on dopamine-thrill mechanics; but I have much more confidence in CD Projekt and am intrigued to see what they come up with.
In the end, Witcher 3 is a staggering achievement. What’s all the more impressive is that this game was created by a relatively unheralded studio from Poland, in an industry where most of the market is controlled by giant corporations. This is both a credit to CD Projekt and the development studio, and an indictment of the rest of the video game industry. The Witcher 3 is evidence of what can be accomplished if you have a clear artistic vision, a degree of economic freedom, and have the passion and dedication to pull it off. Although it might not be perfect, it’s certainly my own favourite game of all time, and undoubtedly one of the best games ever made.