It’s no secret that I’m a fan of The Witcher. Listen to our Game Over podcasts or follow me on twitter and you’ll know all about my favourite game series. With The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt right around the corner (32 days, but who’s counting?) I thought I’d explore what made the original instalment so special.
Anyone who’s played The Witcher knows that it isn’t without its flaws. Its combat system is lacklustre at first glance and the guilty party in sending many players packing. It hurtles you into a world crammed full of lore and expects you to keep up. Romance never feels genuine and the sex cards are ridiculous—though they can be fun to collect. And it has the ugliest elves I’ve ever seen. But they’ll also know that it’s a rollercoaster of an RPG set in a beautiful environment with a gripping story and a strong cast of characters. What it boils down to is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played. Despite the stunning visuals of the sequel Assassins of Kings and its extra level of polish, the first game is what I think of when I think of the world of The Witcher.
Maybe this is because I’ve read the books that the games are based on. If you’ve read Andrzej Sapkowski’s series, The Witcher is a veritable treasure trove of loving references and cheeky call-backs. They pull at the heart strings of readers, forming an emotional connection between the game and the fictional world audiences already know and love. Every mention of Geralt’s past or one of his old friends makes me smile as I play, and makes the game world feel more alive. The party at Shani’s house is a goldmine of references, which makes it one of my favourite quests in the entire game, even though it’s relatively simple: fetch some drinks, invite a friend, have deep and meaningful conversations about your past. There are similar references in Assassins of Kings, but the sequel seems generally isolated from the novels and the first game. More importance is placed on the political schemes of the Northern Kingdoms, and while this makes for an engaging game anyway, the personal tone of the Witcher world suffers because of it. Wild Hunt is linking up with the books again, introducing characters like Ciri and Yennefer, who were hinted at in the first game, into the game world. Knowing this while replaying the first game gives a new sense of meaning to the call-backs, like they’re promises of things to come.
But The Witcher’s tendency to refer to the events of the novels doesn’t exclude newcomers. The references add a nice extra layer of information, but they’re inconsequential to the narrative. Players fresh to the series will still enjoy a vibrant RPG with lots of small details that add flair to the experience. Flocks of birds peck at grassy fields but fly away when Geralt runs past them. Geese run off, wings flapping in panic, when the witcher gets too close. Villagers have their chores to do during the day and their rituals at night, and when it rains, they take cover to wait it out. You’ll hear them complaining about the weather if you’re brave enough to venture out during a storm. Instead of hitting a brick wall of sliding around them, Geralt shoves people aside if they get in his way walking down the street. Children tail you around cities because witchers are impressive sights to behold. These may not sound so amazing now, but when I first played The Witcher as a wide-eyed teenager they blew me away and provided the final immersive link between me sitting at my desk pressing buttons and the game world.
As always in the Witcher universe, an emphasis is placed on preparation. As a professional monster hunter, Geralt is hired to track down and kill various beasties. In the first game, these contracts are simple fetch quests, but they require thought all the same. First you need learn about the beast you’re hunting, which you can do in one of two ways: you can read books on the monster, or you can talk to certain NPCs to learn what they know. It’s the latter that excites me as an inhabitant of the Witcher world. These villagers have lived long lives often made harder by the monster you’re tracking, or else they’ve grown up hearing folk tales teaching about the monster. They’re always happy to share their knowledge with a witcher in exchange for food, because they’ve fallen on hard times in the harsh world of The Witcher. This exchange is simple but effective—it conveys a certain world state and includes the player in it.
And while The Witcher is getting on in years now—it was released in 2007 with an Enhanced Edition coming out in 2008—it’s still got some beautiful imagery hidden away to show you this world state. The screenshots used in the article were all taken by me during my latest playthrough, and while they’re not as gorgeous as Assassins of Kings or what we’ve seen of Wild Hunt so far, they still have a certain charm to them. Nothing I see in the game stops me from feeling like the world is real, which can bring the sense of immersion to a screeching halt. And despite the outdated graphics, they still create other-worldly environments that bring the fantasy of The Witcher universe to life.
But the ace up The Witcher’s sleeve is its unpredictable branching narrative. Early on in the game players encounter a seemingly insignificant decision: hand over some crates and their unknown contents to a group of elven freedom fighters, or refuse. The elves appeal to the morality of players by claiming that the crates contain medical supplies and food, which they will die without. This seems like a pretty standard good/evil choice: be a nice guy and let the elves live, or act like a huge dick and be responsible for their deaths. But the real consequences of the crate dilemma don’t emerge until the next chapter of the game, and they’re actually quite severe. Turns out the crates contained weapons which the elves used to slaughter innocent civilians. Nice work, Mr Nice Guy, you just enabled an act of terrorism.
While a decision-based branching narrative isn’t unique to The Witcher, very few other games approach the choices so ambiguously. These kinds of morally grey decisions are threaded throughout the entire game, and they make sure that players can never make a decision lightly or rely on typical video game behaviour. The Witcher’s far-reaching consequences immerse players into a world where their actions matter beyond assigning them a morality score. Real life isn’t so cut and dry, so why would a fictional world be either?
So many aspects of The Witcher make it feel like a living, breathing world that players inhabit, instead of a simple video game construct. All the caring references to the existing fiction add a home-sweet-home vibe to the game’s environment. The quirks of NPCs and the subtle ways that players can interact with them make them seem like real people and not just tools. The game’s ambiguous approach to morality and its constant emphasis on the importance of your role in determining the state of the game world gives players an authorial power. There are lots of things that make The Witcher special, and it’s these features that make the first game such a wonderful adaptation of the source novels.
While I’m very glad that the series went the direction it did for Assassins of Kings and Wild Hunt, I’m also grateful for the groundwork that The Witcher laid. It set the scene for what’s become one of the most impressive RPG series, and where Assassins of Kings took a small sidestep gameplay-wise, Wild Hunt looks to be a modern and ambitious evolution of this scene. So when you get your hands on Wild Hunt next month take a moment to appreciate the game that started it all.
Article by Alana Young