The Witcher 3 Helps Explain Why I Play Video Games
The Witcher 3 Helps Explain Why I Play Video Games
The best of modern big-budget, AA titles are games that have awesome depth, complexity, and narrative richness. I feel sorry for my friends who refuse to give modern video games a try.
Posted: 10/29/15 | Category: | Developer: CD Projekt RED | Publisher: Warner Bros. | Platform: Xbox one, Playstation 4, Windows

I’d like to tell you a story. This is how I spent my Monday night.

The story takes place in the land of Skellige. To get an idea of what Skellige is like, picture someone taking Norway, breaking it up into a dozens of pieces, and dropping it into a cold northern ocean.

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Figure 1 The Skellige Archipelago
  

The population of the islands is very much of the Viking mold: Fishermen and warriors, all energized by very primal values of bravery and conquest. Anyone you meet in a tavern in the isles will tell you a long heroic story of one brave Skellige adventurer or another.

These chilly and mountainous islands are ruled by a group of jarls (earls). The jarls are ruled by one King of the Isles. Not long ago Bran, the King, died. I witnessed his fiery Viking-style funeral at sea, complete with his young mistress voluntarily going up in flames with his boat, while his stern widow Birna watches from the shore.

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Figure 2 My old friend, Crach, who has two ambitious children.
  

Of course, with the King dead, it was time for the jarls to choose a new king. In Skellige, this is done by election, not by heredity. Before this election, however, the brave sons of the jarls compete to accomplish heroic deeds to prove they are worthy of being elected king.

Arguably the most powerful of these jarls is Crach. He’s the lord of the largest island in Skellige, and he’s an old friend of mine. It turns out that two of his children are vying to be proven worthy of wearing the crown. There’s his hotheaded son Hjalmar, and his fiercely intelligent daughter Cerys.

While no woman in memory has attempted to be considered ruler of all Skellige, there’s technically no law against it. So Crach watches as his two intense grown children head off to parts unknown to try to accomplish a heroic deed.

When I checked in with Crach on Monday night, he was worried. Both Hjalmar and Cerys had both been gone on their respective adventures for a long time. He’s naturally worried about them. He asks, in the name of our decades-old friendship, if I would check on them. Of course I said I would.

Sorting Out the Daughter
   

I thought I would check on Cerys, Crach’s fiery daughter first. Remember, in order to qualify for becoming the high ruler of all the isles, Cerys needs to pull off an impressive heroic deed. And she hears that the jarl of the island of Svorlage is in some serious trouble. I set sail to see what I could find out.

Turns out it wasn’t actually difficult to find her. Cerys arrives on Svorlag to find its jarl, a handsome guy named Udalryk, is indeed in a very bad way. It isn’t clear what precisely Is wrong with him, but it seems as though he's possessed, or haunted, or something.

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Figure 3 Cerys thinks she's got what it takes to rule.
  

I found Cerys outside the abandoned childhood home of the jarl. Cerys explained to me that she believed the house was haunted by Aki, the ghost of the jarl’s long-dead younger brother. “Well, what’s Aki’s problem?” I ask her.

Like all good ghost stories, Aki’s is about an unrighted wrong. When the jarl and Aki were young, the old jarl, their father, gave Aki a precious family relic, a sword called Brokvar (yes, in this world, swords have names). This felt like an unforgivable affront to Udalryk, because he was the older brother and he felt the sword should have gone to him.

Not long after that, the two brothers are out on the ocean on a small boat when a storm comes up. Only Udalryk comes back alive, and there have been rumors ever since that he was responsible for his brother’s death.

It isn’t easy to talk to Udalryk, because his malady is making him increasingly irrational. But when pressured, he admits that he was at least partially responsible for his brother Aki’s drowning that day long ago, and he ias tortured by guilt.

Well, that seemed to cinch it. My character, Geralt of Rivia, besides being dead handsome, is a specialist at, among other things, lifting curses.

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Figure 4 I think the scar just ads to my allure, don't you?
  

As the studly Geralt, I’m not afraid of no ghosts, so after getting the confession from the afflicted jarl, I bravely stomp into the creepy abandoned house and find the sword. I then use my magical CSI-like detective senses to find poor Aki’s body on the bottom of the sea, and ritualistically give him back the sword.

Problem solved, right? Aki’s ghost should now be happy and should stop haunting his older brother.

Alas…no. Cerys and I go back to visit the jarl, and he’s just getting worse! That’s when I figure it out:

It’s not the ghost of brother Aki that’s been plaguing our poor, guilt-ridden jarl. I mentally go through my encyclopedic knowledge of demons and evil spirits and realize that the thing that’s hurting the jarl is a parasitic spirit called a hym.

The Hym attaches itself to people who feel they’ve done a great wrong. It feeds on their guilt and doesn’t let them go until they are destroyed.

Bummer.

I explain to Cerys that there are two ways to (possibly) defeat this vicious Hym. One involves simply confronting it and fighting it. The downside to this is that it’s REALLY difficult to do, and the fact that its host – in this case, our hapless jarl – could easily perish during the process.

But there is a second option, I declare. It involves tricking the Hym.

“What the bloody hell do you mean tricking the spirit?” Cerys very reasonably asks me.

I explain: If you can make another person think he or she has just committed a truly terrible act while in the direct vicinity of the afflicted person, you can fool the jarl to exit the old host and infect the new one. Then, when the newly afflicted person realizes he’s been tricked and hasn’t done a horrible thing, the Hym is forced to leave forever.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. In this case it was Cerys, a bright young woman but nobody’s fool, and me, the long-suffering, world-weary, been-there-and-done-that-and-gotten-the-chain-mail-T-shirt hero. Neither one of us would be that easy to fool, particularly since we KNOW we're about to get fooled. It’s sort of like the problem when you have the hiccups and you tell your little brother, “Okay, so you gotta SURPRISE me and SCARE me.”

No problem, Cerys assured me. I’m on it. Just sit tight.

I won’t go into every sordid detail, but to sum up: Cerys creates a situation that happens in front of the jarl that involves my being pressured into tossing a baby into a heated oven. And not just any baby. This is the arl’s own grandchild. Yes, I actually put a baby in a hot oven.

Just trust me on this. You sort of had to be there. But clever Cerys pulled it off and managed to fool even me.

Success! The evil Hym is fooled! It leaves the jarl and jumps into me! Seconds later the baby is produced, unharmed, and within moments the poor jarl begins to feel better due to his grandchild being okay and his curse having been lifted.

Cerys thanks me for my help and heads back home to get ready for the conference that would choose the next ruler.

But my work is just beginning. It's now time for me to sail to Undvik, where Cerys’s big brother, Hjalmar, has disappeared while trying to achieve a heroic deed of his own.

Sorting Out the Son
     

Next up is Cerys’s hotheaded brother Hjalmar. HIS heroic task deals with the island of Undvik. It has recently been completely depopulated due to a marauding ice giant. Hjalmar and his men have recently jumped into a boat and set sail for Undvik with the intention of slaying this mighty giant.

But of course, no one has heard of him since.

So off I go in a boat of my own. I arrive on the Isle of Undvik, which right away seems to be a very spooky place:

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There are lots of annoying harpies to slay, and there's a general sense of malaise and ruin and death.

I sniff out the trail of my would-be heroes and find myself in a large cave that belongs to the giant himself! He seems to be supervising the construction of a giGANtic ship. What the hell? I prudently wait for him to wander away to some far part of his lair, then I sneak in and hoist myself up into the ship. There I find a dotty old guy named Octo.

Octo and a group of his friends, as it turns out, have nothing to do with Hjalmar’s giant-killing team. They were captured by the giant years earlier and have been enslaved by him to build this huge boat.

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Figure 5 Where is Hjalmar?
  

“What the hell is this boat for?” I asked Octo. Turns out the giant plans on using the boat to sail into the ultimate battle of the gods. Awesome.

And have I mentioned that all of Octo’s “friends” are skulls he’d put on sticks? Poor guy; he’s the sole survivor of a his group. And he’s mad as a hatter.

“Can you please bring me some twine and nails so I can finish the boat?” he begs me, and I promise I’ll try.

Time to get on with my search. I use my witcher senses to follow tracks of Hjalmar’s men all over the island. Eventually I trace them to a cave where a couple of rock trolls are preparing a stew for dinner. I hear cries of help from inside the cauldron. How do I rescue this guy?

Well, it turns out that I’m pretty handy with trolls. Whereas most humans in the world of The Witcher 3 have an instinctual aversion to the creatures, I recognize them as (marginally) sentient, and most of the time I engage them in conversation rather than combat. I get them to agree to a war of riddles. If I win, they release the man they’re cooking. If I lose, I’ll jump in the pot as well.

Dear reader, I am happy to report that I won the riddle battle! So out of the cauldron pops a very upset and partially boiled member of Hjalmar’s mission. So far so good. Turns out the team got scattered all over the island. Time to find Hjalmar!

The two of us finally find him and a few other men warding off some nasty harpies on another part of the island. I help him out. I’m hell on harpies; I have a magic sign that makes them fall from the sky and have a few moments of total vulnerability on the ground. In just a few moments, we were knee-deep in dead harpies.

Hjalmar is happy to see me and his other companion. He asks about his sister, and I tell him she’s already successfully completed her Heroic Feat. This makes poor Hjalmar even more determined to finish off this annoying Ice Giant.

With Hjalmar and the small group of fighters we had left, we creep into the ice giant’s cave. We discover another of their companions trapped in a cage near the sleeping giant. I make to free him, but Hjalmar stops me. “He’s mad!” he warns me. “He’ll go off and wake up the giant and we’ll lose our advantage!” So I reluctantly leave his mad companion in his cage.

I creep up to the sleeping giant, pull out my silver monster-killing sword and open up on him.

Good news: We're successful in smiting the mighty Ice Giant!

Bad news: During the fight he smashes the cage that held our mad friend, killing him instantly.

Win some, lose some.

Hjalmar is grateful for my help, and I'm happy to let him have all the glory. I promise to meet him back at his father’s castle, where the new Ruler of the Isles would soon be voted on.

Choosing the Next Ruler of the Isles
    

With both of Crach’s kids saved, I hightail it back to his stronghold. As I get there, the big convocation to choose the next ruler of all of Skellige is in full swing. Crach’s trusted advisor, Armvald, welcomes me warmly and tells me Crach is in his chambers and wants to see me to reward me for the help I’d given his children.

Hjalmar and Cerys greet me and thank me for my help. Also in the great hall are about a dozen other candidates for the throne: Other sons of jarls who feel they have the heroic stuff to lead the fragmented island nation.

I go downstairs to say hello to my old buddy Crach. I interrupt a tense conversation with him and Birna Bran, the beautiful foreign widow of the recently dead king Bran. Turns out she's trying to convince Crach to swing his support to her son. I’d never trusted Birna; she seems like a schemer to me. And her son does NOT seem like king material.

Crach is, of course, very glad to see me and is exceedingly grateful for the help I’d given his son and daughter. (Aw, shucks.) He tells me he now considers me a member of the family. Awesome.

But what’s that? The sounds coming the great hall above no longer sound like the rowdy congregation I had just passed through. Crach and I look at each other: Something’s very wrong!

I thunder up the stairs and back into the great hall and a scene of horrific madness. Three bears the size of SUVs are attacking and killing the guests!

Killing monsters is what I’m really best at, so I dispatch all three bears as quickly as I can. But it's too late: Half of the guests, including most of the candidates for ruler, are dead or dying on the floor. The great hall is a slaughterhouse.

The Seligman rules of hospitality means that until we learn otherwise, the blame for the massacre is at the feet of the host, my old friend Crach. I know he's innocent and I set out to prove it.

At least both of his children had survived. I now face a choice: Do I help the headstrong Hjalmar get to the bottom of the mystery, or do I instead offer to help Cerys, his more brainy sister?

Naturally, I chose Cerys. Brainy always wins with me.

We begin by using my witcher senses to examine the corpses of the bears. Turns out they weren’t really bears at all, but humans who had been transformed into bears! Further investigation reveals several flagons that had been tainted with some weird poison that seem to be the culprit.

This leads us through a search through the underground alchemy labs in the castle where we find further proof of this poisonous perfidy. Eventually, we discover a scrap of cloth that turns out to be from the garment of none other than Armvald, Crach’s trusted advisor!!

This leads me on a high-speed horse chase down the mountain after the traitor. I eventually catch him and he admits he was put up to the deed of poisoning random guests with the tainted drink by the women I never trusted to begin with, Birna Bran, the creepy widow of the late King.

I drag her before Crach and the surviving members of the congress and accuse her of the crime. She tries to discredit me as a mutant (true), foreigner (also true), etc., but she’s having trouble selling that one because I’m so awesome and everyone knows it.

However, Birna is powerful and persuasive. She’s on the verge of discrediting my “wild accusations” when, stunningly, her son steps forward. This is the milquetoast spawn she’s been trying to sell as the next ruler of the Isles. Turns out he has a bit of a backbone after all! He’s disgusted and appalled by his mother’s actions, and he confirms my allegations in front of everyone. She’s toast. Almost literally – she’s sentenced to death on the spot.

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Figure 6 I never trusted the late King's widow!
  

Okay! So all of that unpleasantness out of the way, there's nothing left to do but celebrate the election of the new ruler. And who did they elect, you ask? I’m happy to report it was my lovely young protégée, Cerys, the first-ever female ruler of Skellige.

I enjoy the celebration very much. Her father, Crach, is thrilled of course, and even her jealous brother seems properly proud and supportive of his little sister’s accomplishment.

It's Just More Fun Than Television 
  

Here’s the thing. I was driving these stories. I was a participant. While you were watching another episode of “Orange is the New House of Dancing With the Has-Beens,” I was having a rollicking night of adventure. In an active way, not in a passive way.

This is the reason why I have to disappoint my friends most of the time when they mention the awesome TV show they are enjoying. And I freely admit we live in a time with a LOT of good TV. But I still say I’m having more fun playing video games.

Now, obviously, not all games are as great as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The game is vast and has fantastically designed quests. How vast? Well, I’ll tell you: Every bit of activity I described in this article is optional. They're a completely voluntary series of side quests.

Other fun things I’ve gotten to do in this game include attending (and participating in) an art auction; acting in a play; attending a wedding while being possessed by a bored ghost who didn’t get out nearly enough; recruiting a team for, planning, and executing a complex heist; exploring the laboratory of a cheese mage1, following a flying ghost fetus around the woods in the dead of night2, and on and on. This is in addition to the more traditional roleplaying staples such as horseracing, crafting, and playing cards.

Oh, and then there’s the sex. Lots and lots and lots and lots of sex. Once on top of a stuffed unicorn3.

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Figure 7 Afterglow.
  

The best of modern big-budget, AA titles are games that have awesome depth, complexity, and narrative richness. I’d rather be the one having the adventure than watch other people have the adventure. I feel sorry for my friends who refuse to give modern video games a try.

By the way, I have two footnotes to this story I’ve told you tonight:

Days later, when I was doing some exploring around Skellige, I came upon a tiny rock sticking out of a bay that featured a horrible sight: A person chained to the rocks, dead. I looked closer. It was the condemned widow of the late king, the scheming Birna Bran. I’d stumbled, quite by accident, upon the place where they had executed her.

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Figure 8 The Traitor's Place of Execution
  

Also, I realized after the coronation that I’d forgotten the old crazy guy in the Ice Giant’s cave who I’d promised to bring twine and nails. I found some and sailed back to the island to deliver them. But when I got to the half-built giant ship, he was gone. I had no idea what happened to him and I never saw him again.


1 Long Story.
2 REALLY long story.
3 I'm so not kidding.
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JustAdventure
Cindy Kyser
Ray - thanks for the insightful article! The Witcher 3 came as a 'bonus' with my laptop. I installed it, loaded up, and then got sidetracked before figuring out how to play. I did not realize it was a story-based RPG. Now I am inspired to go exploring!!!
Posted Date : 11/03/2015
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