In February of this year, I became interested in finding a new "open world" video game to play. I'm horrible at shooters, and there's only so many times you can get shot in the back while playing Star Wars: Battlefront II before you get frustrated. Last year, I became addicted to the vast world of Skyrim for an entire month, ignoring needs for food and sleep in the process. Why I wanted another experience like that is beyond me, but I started looking for a new sandbox game to play anyway. It wasn't long before I discovered Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Witcher 3 isn't a new game. It came out in 2015. And though it got a pair of upgrades in the form of DLC, I had never played it. Reviews of the game repeatedly said that it took the open world "do what you like" gameplay of Skyrim up another level, almost making that game look small in comparison. The lore and depth of Skyrim is immense — how could this "dark fairy tale" possibly measure up? I decided to give it a shot. I did what I almost never do and blind-bought a game. When it arrived, I popped it into my PS4... and let's just say that it has stayed there.
From this point forward, there will be SPOILERS for Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. If you are interested in playing the game and want to go in cold, do not proceed past Jenny o' the Woods.
Witcher 3 is gorgeous and the gameplay is elegant, but what really hooked me right away was the story. The game (and the two games that preceded it) are based around a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, and because of that, the world building used in the game is on a level the likes of which I had never thought possible. Before I knew it I was in the assassin-boots of Geralt of Rivia — he's the protagonist, he has a head of lush white hair, and he's one of the last "Witchers" in the world of the game.
The notion of a "choice system" is something that many games attempt, but few manage to pull off successfully. The idea that the choices you make in a game will greatly affect the outcome was something I had heard before — I'm no stranger to Telltale's various titles, and the like — but here? They aren't kidding around. Everything I read before playing said I had to be careful with my choices because they'd definitely have repercussions. Right. How bad could it be?
A Witcher's life mostly involves traveling around and killing monsters for money. The game has a main storyline, but as is the case with many open world games, there are tons of side missions to experience. How you go about doing these missions is mostly up to you, and at the beginning, I had a somewhat naive outlook on things.
I accepted various "witcher contracts," which came from troubled peasants. They paid me off to hunt down monsters, and hunt them down I did. You have the option to haggle with these peasants for more money, but I never did that. After defeating the monster in question and fulfilling the contract, I sometimes even went so far as to give them their money back. Something in the back of my mind told me that I was being duped, but I didn't listen. Not yet, anyway.
I proceeded along with the game's story, and eventually arrived at the quest line known as "Family Matters." It's an infamous part of the game, and though I had read a little bit about it beforehand, nothing prepared me for the playing of it. As soon as I met the man known as the Bloody Baron, I knew there would be some hard choices in store. I was right.
I should preface this by mentioning I had already bungled things before I even met this guy. Earlier in the game, I was accosted by some soldiers from a place called Nilfgaard, and I decided that I didn't like the way they were talking to me. I also saw one of them beating a peasant. Because my answer to most things like this in open world games is "kill them immediately," that's what I did. It always worked playing Grand Theft Auto 5, how was this different?
It turned out to be quite different because in killing the soldiers (and a few more along the way) I had made an enemy of Nilfgaard. The Bloody Baron is a vassal of that empire, and because of what I had done, I couldn't get anywhere close to his keep. No problem; I snuck my way in and surprised the guy. I had to talk to him because he had information that I needed in order to continue with the main quest.
Wouldn't you know it, this Falstaff/Robert Baratheon hybrid wasn't going to help me until I helped him. This would prove to be a recurring theme in this game, but who cares, I went about trying to find information on the Baron's missing daughter. A quick inspection of his house made it pretty clear that the Baron was an alcoholic, and not just that, he was an abusive one. I started to suspect that his daughter (and wife) had not been abducted — they had run away.
Still, I needed this big turd's help. I continued along with the storyline, which spawned several side missions, and soon I got to a place where I forced the truth out of the Baron. Everything I'd suspected was true— he was an alcoholic, and he had beaten his wife while she was pregnant. The baby died as a result.
He seemed really upset by all of this, but it was time for him to face the music. There were several different ways I could have gone about making him face it, but I chose to have him dig up the body of his unborn fetus and give it a name. The spirit of this child then pointed the way forward. The would-be child seemed at rest, and I thought I had taught this guy a few things. I felt pretty proud of myself.
That's before I went to Crookback Bog.
In the ongoing pursuit of trying to find out where the Baron's wife and daughter had gone, I went to a swamp that housed an orphanage. It was also home to the crones — three of the worst beings you'll find in any game, anywhere. They wanted me to visit a nearby village and kill a monster they feared.
The crones were insanely powerful and had a huge collection of severed ears. If this monster scared them, it must be something pretty bad.
I went to the village, and I found the monster. It was some kind of poisonous mass wrapped around the roots of a tree, and because I had already gained a hatred of the crones (and wanted to protect the orphans), I made the awful mistake of siding with the monster. I set it free, which was... the wrong choice.
I returned to Crookback Bog to find the orphans gone. The monster had said it would protect them from the crones, but who knows what it really did with them. The crones were also not very happy with me, and it's at this point that all of my bad choices came to a head.
The woman taking care of the orphans turned out to be, you guessed it, the Baron's wife. I had also tracked down the Baron's daughter, who had become a member of a cult in a city I didn't feel very welcome in. I told the Baron all of this, and the guy wasted no time in gathering some troops and heading into the bog.
There they were, reunited at last — the Baron, his daughter, and his wife. Neither of the latter two wanted anything to do with him, and this is with good reason. I had heard their sides of the story, and the Baron was proving to be a complex, addicted wretch. Still, I felt a little bit bad for him. This completely took me by surprise, because the guy was a proven wife beater. He doesn't get second chances. Why did I feel pity for him?
Pity didn't matter a fig in the end, because the crones ended up tricking us all. They placed a spell on the Baron's wife (because of what I had done with the monster) and in my trying to revive her, she ended up dying. The Baron's daughter wept, then left with her fire-worshipping cult members. The Baron was left in grief, and I thought that was the end of it. He told me what I needed to know, and I left him there. When I returned to his keep, I found he had hanged himself from a tree. His lieutenant was in control now, and he planned to ravage the land.
All of this because I trusted a monster.
Whether the Baron deserved what he got is an entire article unto itself, but I don't think I was ready for such complex issues to be brought up in the game. Yes, the Baron deserved to be punished... but I was certain that his wife did not. Now she was dead. She was dead because of my choices.
My version of Geralt of Rivia changed at that moment, and I changed as well. I immediately entered the Baron's house and looted every single thing I found. I changed my armor for the first time in the game, never again to wear the clothing that was so very tainted with my mistakes. I was a Witcher, and a Witcher kills monsters. I would never let a single monster live for the rest of my time playing.
Before I went on my spree, I decided to check in with Keira, a sorceress I had met earlier in the game. She had invited me to see her at her house, and I sensed some chemistry between us. That's right, some of the game's choices involve romance. Though I was pretty sure my Geralt's soulmate would be the raven-haired Yennefer of Venderberg (a character straight out of the Penny Dreadful-Vanessa Ives Guide to Life), I went to see Keira. I was upset. I wasn't thinking clearly. I ended up making the wrong decision yet again.
I made the choice to be intimate with Keira, only to find out it was all a ploy for her to get her hands on some magic she could not be trusted with. I confronted her and got the stolen secrets back, but the betrayal stung anyway. I was left next to the ruins of an old tower and I felt like an idiot. I was an idiot.
Was this how it was gonna be, game? Fine. In the words of Diane Evans, "let's rock."
As I previously mentioned, I started killing every monster I came across. It didn't matter if they tried to reason or bargain with me — they died.
Witchers kill monsters, and I had forgotten that. No more. Not only did I kill the monsters, but I gouged every crown I could out of the peasants to do so. If there was a way to get more money, I did it. Occasionally, the peasants would try to screw me over after a job, and if they did, then I threatened them with death. Usually, they paid me off, but if they didn't, I killed them and looted everything in their village. I usually did the looting either way. The game has you come across a fair number of human "monsters," as well, bandits and the like. They died, too. Horribly.
Eventually it came time for me to leave the swampy "no man's land" of Velen to pursue my next lead, but I had become a changed Witcher. I lived to kill and make as much money as possible — and eventually, I hoped, get vengeance on the crones. As far as I was concerned, the life of the orphans and the Baron's wife was on me. I don't know how threatening peasants and killing the occasional innocent monster ties into that, but it made sense at the time.
All of this happened over the course of a week of playing the game, maybe more. It's a famously long game, and it gives you a lot of content for a one-time fee. Though the events of the game were troubling enough, some of my real-life choices had become equally troubling.
My Geralt had become an untrusting horror show, and I had unknowingly started to become like him. I walked around my real-life neighborhood with a dubious eye and was wary of every single person I came across. I saw dark designs everywhere and tried to figure out everyone's angle because they obviously had them. When I went to bed, my thoughts inevitably went back to Crookback Bog. To the hanged Baron. To the tree monster. To my incredible failure and everything I had been doing since.
It took about a month for me to stop thinking about "betrayal, the Baron, and the crones" during most real-life interactions I had. That's not normal, and it's certainly not something that any game has made me experience before.
Desperate to try and make myself feel better, I read up on all things related to the Baron quest line — apparently, there is a way to save the Baron and his family, but an entire village perishes as a result. If you come across the tree monster before doing any of this, another result is possible.
My roommate was also playing the game at the time, and at this point, he was a little bit behind me because he had chosen a higher difficulty level. I watched him make better choices, but even then, a price had to be paid in some way. He didn't stay behind me for long; many a morning, I'll wake up to find him hunting down plans for enhanced Cat Armor or some such. He's a more thorough player than I am, and he takes more time with his decisions. The game, through pain, has almost forced me to adapt to this style of play.
As of this writing, I'm still not done with the game. Like I said, it is long and I've found that playing for long stretches of time does weird things to me. My Geralt is no longer as extreme or harsh as he used to be, and he has accomplished much — he's in a healthy relationship with Yennefer (after I was a complete jerk to his former lover, Triss), and he has become a bit wiser. We don't always make the smart choices, but we've made some "not horrible" ones. Most places I visit in the game are worse off after I leave, but so it goes. I still take every peasant for every crown they're worth because Witching isn't cheap.
Geralt also produced and starred in a play (not joking). Not only did we pretty much co-write the script, the quest that contains this sequence actually has you go out and drum up an audience to watch the thing. We had a full house, but of course, we didn't bother to learn our lines. Another mistake.
The final battle is approaching quickly, and the early lessons of the Baron story still ring true. The game has let me get vengeance on two of the three crones, but one of them is still out there. Its days are numbered. Whenever I think about them I get angry. I'm angry right now.
Am I being hyperbolic, over-the-top, and just a bit (or more than a bit) crazy about all of this? Absolutely. That's what this game does to you. It's one of the most immersive gaming experiences I've ever encountered, and a part of me hopes it never ends. I've gotten these haunting experiences from books, movies and plays before, but never from a video game, and never on this scale. At a certain point, Witcher 3 ceases to be a great video game — it becomes great art.