The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt recently won Game of the Year at the less-than-prestigious 2015 Game Awards. It’s difficult to take the Game Awards seriously. They’ve overblown excuses to plug lots of advertising while making halfhearted attempts to legitimize the gaming industry. They fail at the second part. They’re an awards show, and I’ve never seen an awards show in any medium that gave me a good feeling afterward.
However, this year the Game Awards at least gave the right prize to the right game, and I hope many of the respectable game outlets do the same. There were certainly some heavy hitters this year, namely Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V, Super Mario Maker, and Fallout 4 (as well as King’s Quest, which is on my personal favorites list), but I don’t think any of them stand up to The Witcher 3. It might be the most complete game ever made.
Obviously I loved the game, and I’d call it my personal Game of the Year without hesitation, so I don’t think this will be a review in the traditional sense. It’s also not very timely as the game was released half a year ago. I only recently finished the main game and have yet to start the DLC. Instead, I want to write about the scope of The Witcher 3, and why many of those who play it will likely never fully experience what it has to offer.
A few years ago I elsewhere wrote a similar blog post about The Witcher 2 and The Last Wish, chronologically the first book in Andrej Sapkowski’s Witcher series. I read The Last Wish while playing The Witcher 2, and found that each strengthened the other in a fascinating way. Yet I never finished The Witcher 2, due to life interruptions, and I lost interest in the universe not long after. At the time, the subsequent Witcher novels had not been translated nor published in the U.S., so I had two stories set in the same world that had very little to do with one another. The Last Wish introduces Geralt of Rivia, the protagonist of all Witcher things, but it’s a series of short stories that are only loosely connected and have little to do with the events in The Witcher 2. Thankfully for those of us interested in serious immersion, almost the entirety of Sapkowski’s books are now available in English.
Blood of Elves, The Time of Contempt, and Baptism of Fire all follow events in The Last Wish, and set up the events leading to The Witcher 3. There is another post-The Last Wish book called Sword of Destiny, wherein the character of Ciri is introduced, and Ciri becomes a focal point for the series from then on. As of this writing, I am halfway through Baptism of Fire, having not yet read Sword of Destiny but having finished The Last Wish twice, as well as Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt, and even outside of the games find them to be excellent fantasy novels on part with anything I’ve read in the genre. Thanks to the efforts and passion of developer CD Projekt Red, I am able to dive into the world of Geralt and Ciri in a way that I’ve never experienced before. As a long time fantasy reader, this is an opportunity that I’ve harbored secret wishes of since my first reading of The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Lord of the Rings brings to mind the fact that this is not a new idea. Developers have been trying this for years because game designers are often fans of one series or another and want as much as anyone else to see their favorite mythologies come to life. The Lord of the Rings Online, developed and still running, was one such effort that met with moderate success. It’s an entirely online game where players can choose to be a hobbit or an elf or a Numenorean and adventure in nearly all the lands written about in Tolkien’s vaunted series. This almost scratched the itch I had to dive into my favorite alternate realities, and I still have extremely fond memories of traipsing about the Shire, but it was missing one of the most important aspects of LotR; the characters. You would occasionally run across Gandalf or Legolas out in the world, but you weren’t an integral part of the Ring’s destruction. Developers have been trying for decades to create a Star Wars game that immersed players, and have succeeded to varying degrees. The reverse has happened as well, particularly by developer BioWare, who has often had the lead writers of the Mass Effect and Dragon age games write tie-in novels, again to varying success.
Though noble efforts all, no game has yet managed to create a world as engaging and robust as that present in The Witcher 3. In The Witcher 3, we are thrust into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, set free amidst some of the most famed lands described in the books, and on a quest to find Ciri, Geralt’s adopted daughter and one of the best characters in fantasy in her own right. You, as Geralt, are left to wander the lands of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige, and meet all the characters you may or may not have read about. Though the game’s events are not canon in the Witcher universe (and can best be described as really good fan-fiction), it still feels like it picks up where the books leave off. Obviously, I haven’t finished Baptism of Fire, nor started either of the two books set after it that aren’t published yet, but for me, this ability to read lore in book form for a game I already love has been incredibly engaging.
There are also easter eggs I wouldn’t have noticed had I not read the books. When Geralt is travelling through eastern Velen, he comes across a band of on-lookers near a river, all watching a caged wyvern scratch and claw at the bars of his enclosure. There is a hawker here, demanding payment for viewing the “basilisk.” Geralt proclaims that it’s not a basilisk, it gets free, and he’s forced to slay it. This happens almost verbatim in the books, only it’s Ciri who finds the event and disrupts it. My favorite connection between book and game is the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer.
Yennefer is a sorceress with loads of raw power and ambition. “The Last Wish,” the titular short story from the book of the same name, sees Geralt and Yennefer thrown together seemingly at random to engage with a large djinn threatening a town. Yennefer wants to enslave the djinn, but things go wrong and Geralt ends up getting the djinn’s ‘last wish.’ He wishes for his fate and Yennefer’s to be tied to one another for all time. As the books progress, Yennefer and Geralt continue to show up in each other’s lives, fall in love, and eventually become Ciri’s surrogate parents, a state which persists in The Witcher 3. In one of my favorite side quests of the game, Geralt and Yennefer find the original djinn from the story and negate Geralt’s wish. Not long after, they realize they are still in love, and that it never had anything to do with the djinn. It’s a beautiful quest, well written, and makes me feel emotion and connection in a way that I wouldn’t have had I not read the original genesis of their story. Reading the books beforehand also made the decision of whether or not to choose Triss or Yennefer, the game’s main love interests, a no-brainer.
Thankfully, as with most really good stories, the focus of The Witcher 3 isn’t on Geralt finding love. What both the books and the third game truly revolve around is Cirilla of Cintra, orphaned princess and wielder of powers well beyond the scope of anyone in the Witcher’s world. The Witcher 3 begins with Geralt training Ciri as a young girl in the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen, and almost the entirety of the game sees Geralt following her trail and tracking her down. Eventually, the two re-unite and take down The Wild Hunt.
The ambition of Polish developed CD Projekt Red is admirable, which is an adjective usually given to projects that attempt grandness and don’t quite meet the mark, and so it’s more than admirable. It’s admirable and awe-inspiring. Immersing oneself into The Witcher 3, and all the lore surrounding it, has been one of the best gaming experiences of my life. I don’t expect every game to craft monumental narratives out of popular book series, but I hope other developers can see what can be accomplished when the source material is loved, when the type of game fits the narrative, and when nothing seems too large to accomplish.
I’m certainly not finished with The Witcher 3. Even completing the main story doesn’t mean there aren’t leagues more world to explore and more quests to do (and the game allows you to keep adventuring). I have a few armor sets that need crafting, two separate and massive DLC packs to wade through, and a list of side quests left, each in their own right polished and worthwhile tales to experience. And I have more books to read, with Sword of Destiny recently published and The Swallow’s Tower and Lady of the Lake on the horizon. It’s a fantastic time to be a fan of Sapkowski and the vision he’s inspired. Game of the Year? That doesn’t even seem like enough praise.