(May 2015)My favorite game of 2015 was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (W3), and it won my soul by a landslide. The game does so much well that the few “complaints” I have seem insignificant. W3 has an engaging story, offers an open and well-crafted world, and presents players with so many choices. From a variety of side quests to determining if certain characters should live or die, W3 leaves players feeling like their decisions have an impact on the fantasy world.One of my biggest praises for the game has to do with the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia. Some scholars have criticized open-world games because they seemingly strip players of identity. But in this case, I would argue that W3‘s emphasis on role play is a powerful design choice that exposes players to experiences and even discomforts that ultimately enlighten and empower players.
Geralt is a witcher—a professional monster hunter. Essentially he tracks down monsters that attack villages, haunt estates, and kill local children. Geralt mostly does this for coin, but his profession also leads him to complex interactions with figures of power. Geralt is not limited to chasing down monsters in the beautiful countryside. He also plays a part in the complex web of political intrigue in the Northern Realm’s cities and villages. One particularly disturbing scene has you come across a character who tortures and violates women before killing them. This part of the quest upset and disgusted me so much that when I was given the choice to let the perpetrator live or die I decided to end him.
This quest is part of the main storyline, and is something all players will experience at some point in the game. It is one example of the powerful narrative W3 tells. The Northern Realm consists of a war-torn land where the poor continually suffer while the wealthy manage to throw elaborate balls and schedule assassinations.
I also found Geralt to be an intriguing character because of his social standing. As a witcher and user of magic, he is despised by most from peasants to royalty. Walking through villages, I was regularly yelled at and spit upon, and if I accidentally made the wrong move shrieks could be heard from miles around. I was called “mutant,” “freak,” and “miscreant”—and these were the more polite terms. I was the “other” the citizens both feared and despised. This idea of an unwelcome or unrealized hero, if Geralt can be considered a hero at all, is refreshing. Geralt is constantly being used and underpaid for dirty work, literally. As Geralt, I dove into putrid rivers to retrieve boxes of goods and killed individuals I had no personal qualms with. Geralt is not entirely underappreciated, but the general consensus is that a witcher’s place is best realized in the pages of a dusty history book.
As the virtual scum of the earth, Geralt has also been witness to some of the saddest sights in the Northern Realm. I have saved lost soldiers, helped a father realize the fate of his missing child, and saved a poor dog who just lost his master. Geralt has not only seen much but when you play him you feel as though you too have seen the highs and lows of humanity.
While Geralt’s quest to save his “adopted” daughter from the evil forces of the Wild Hunt is a noble quest, he does not always display noble qualities. At times Geralt plays various political factions against each other, and at other times he claims that witchers are meant to be neutral. He also has womanizer tendencies, though players can dictate most of these would-be encounters.
The world itself has a history of magic which helps make the lore particularly rich. Players learn from dialogue with npcs (non-player characters) and from the various documents strewn throughout the caves, sewers, and cities. With my second play through, I have become a collector of books lugging around my personal library everywhere I go. Knowledge, and the ability to readily access it, is an important factor in this genre of games. If you asked, I would say that The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher franchises are among the best at creating such lore and promoting in-game literacy opportunities.
While much of this world knowledge is accessible in books, the npcs and the things they say create a natural transferal of knowledge. Npcs make comments on anything from the local happenings in their communities to hushed political rumors. Players can stand nearby and listen to these conversations or simply ignore them. But the fact that the npcs are going about their lives and holding even brief conversations makes the world all the more engaging.
The combat is satisfying and balanced provided players bring the right gear and know their enemies well. This knowledge of enemies is reliant on players paying attention to the world. Knowing the world and its secrets reaps its rewards. The more you explore the more you know, the more you know the more opportunities come your way, and the more opportunities you have the more xp and equipment you earn for more adventures.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a stunning and engaging masterpiece that stands boldly in the RPG fantasy genre while setting standards for all future games seeking the same impact.