Whether you’re a fan or not, chances are you’ve stumbled upon someone in the gaming press heaping glory upon the side-quests of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.
Put simply, they are remarkable. Eschewing the standard fetch-or-defend formula that so often plague the open-world genre, The Witcher 3's optional quests serve as textured narratives that - while functionally quite similar to the more routine missions of other games - provide layers to the game’s fantasy realism setting.
The most lauded of these optional quests is, undoubtedly, the Bloody Baron chain. I’d prefer not to spoil the outcome for anyone that has yet to experience it. In a nutshell, the chain begins when the main storyline takes our hero Geralt to meet Philip Strenger, an ambitious warlord known as “the Bloody Baron”, who has taken advantage of a brutal war to seize a strip of disputed land from a decimated ruling family.
Like many of The Witcher 3's well-defined characters, Strenger is a complex, conflicted individual. He’s a conquerer with a band of truly unpleasant soldiers at his disposal, but also a flawed character with slightly skewed priorities and a taste for excess that belies a deeply emotional wound. Catching up with Strenger later in the tale, after he has played his part in Geralt’s main mission, begins the lengthy quest Family Matters, which offers players a meaningful insight into a toxic family dynamic that sees Strenger emerge as a sympathetic character despite having done abhorrent things. It’s a compelling tale, and one that has been justly celebrated as an essential alternative to the usual fare of “kill five spiders and bring me their bloated corpses”. Kotaku’s own Patrick Klepek shared his thoughts on the quest-line’s merits just over a year ago. However, as enthralling as the Bloody Baron’s tale may be, there’s an even more absorbing scenario buried within CD Projekt Red’s extensive back-catalogue of diversion - at least there is if you’re willing to swap a controller for a keyboard and mouse.
Four years ago, I decided it was time for me to break free of filthy console peasantry, and step into the holy light radiating from the chiselled torsos of the glorious PC master-race. “Glorious”, however, might not be the best adjective to apply to my gaming renaissance. I took my relatively new rig - used primarily for work - to a high-street computer shop and asked them to upgrade me from “DEAR GOD IS THAT MEANT TO BE A FACE” visuals to “If you squint, its almost pretty”. I honestly can’t remember the specifics, but I know my graphics card and RAM got a not-insignificant boost, sufficient to pump out PS3/Xbox 360-grade visuals at a more encouraging FPS, one that occasionally saw fit to hit something close to 60.
Up to this point, I’d only really dabbled on Steam. I’d endured iffy performance on the original Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, and stumbled through what was no doubt a vastly compromised run through Dear Esther, but one particular series had eluded me: The Witcher.
I’d heard the buzz, seen the accolades, and watched a few trailers. As a gritty fantasy series, grounded in a storied mythology with a rich seam of European folklore running right through the centre of it, CD Projekt Red’s magnum opus was a franchise after my own heart. Most importantly though, I wanted a game that would justify my somewhat impulsive decision to get my PC souped up. I was ready to jump in, starting appropriately enough at the very beginning.
However, what I hadn’t realised at the time was that the gulf in difference between The Witcher and its more popular sequel - at least in terms of visual oomph - was as vast as the average Viziman whore’s bill at the STI clinic. I’d signed up for a chiseled-jawed Geralt and a nubile Triss, but ended up with a wonkily animated anti-hero with rather ludicrous hair and a collection of pervy trading cards.
The visuals weren’t the only thing that was off-putting about the original Witcher, though. The combat was intentionally obtuse, with a bizarre stance system filled with implausible pirouettes and flips. Alchemy was unintuitive, requiring the player to be some kind of fortune-teller (or filthy save-spammer) to make any adequate use of it, and back-tracking was a major time-filler in nearly every single chapter. And this was all in the Enchanced Edition - Lord only knows how unsavoury the vanilla version of the first game was.
Despite all this, though, I persisted. I learned how to make effective use of Geralt’s stances, revised my thinking about potion-use, and learnt to appreciate the economy of back-tracking by ensuring each return trip to the godforsaken Outskirts had more than one purpose. In time, I grew to respect the gentle rhythms of each of the games locales. The old-school, gated environments were populated by NPCs with believable daily schedules that had me harking back to Majora’s Mask, and there was no doubting the quality of the rough-hewn narrative and setting, filled as it is with medieval social politics and moral quandaries.
Immersion is the key, here. Given the right setting, a cleverly applied art-style, or an unobstructive soundtrack, the routine nature of retracing your steps in a game can sometimes have the bizarre effect of increasing your immersion. Trudging back through the fresh night-soil pasted across Vizima’s Temple Quarter is just as inconvenient to you the player as it is to Geralt the character. Nowhere was this sense of mundane commonality better applied than in the game’s fourth act.
Let’s set the scene. Three plot-heavy chapters have passed in which Geralt has bartered, bantered and enveigled his way into the quarantined Temerian capital of Vizima, seeking a way to foil the plans of the Salamandra - a cult planning to make use of the Witcher caste’s secrets to further their as yet unknown ambitions. He’s cozied up to earnest medic Shianni, preppy sorceress Triss, a few wenches, and even King Foltest’s tempestuous daughter Adda. He’s also managed to find himself saddled with the care of a ward by the name of Alvin - a young boy said to be a “Source” of magic.
After a heated confrontation with Salamandra’s leaders, who happen to be in league with the traitorous Adda, Geralt’s friend-with-benefits Triss teleports both him and Alvin to the relative safety of Murky Waters, a village of literally no consequence in the middle of the Temerian countryside. It’s here where, removed from the urgency of the main narrative plot, players are given a real taste of life in Geralt’s day-job.
While there are a number of primary quests to pursue in Murky Waters and its surrounding environs, they all have a very different texture to those found in Chapters 1 through 3. Very few of them feel essential, even though the game requires you to complete most of them to progress to the next part of the story. A Lovecraftian water-deity and his reptilian followers need to be appeased. Alvin, Geralt’s young ward, seeks some fatherly advice from the grizzled witcher. A suit of armour worn by a legendary member of Geralt’s vilified caste can be partially retrieved and repaired. And the Lady of the Lake, a spirit venerated by a band of fusty, grey-bearded druids, seeks to be taken down off the pedestal her followers have placed her on, and complemented on her more.... earthy assets.
The best part of this section of the game, though, comes when you begin the quest titled “The Heat of the Day”. Alina, the comely girl who has kindly offered lodgings to Geralt and Alvin, is to be married. Her intended is Julian, a merchant from abroad who has developed a fondness for the parochial charms of Murky Waters - or at least those of it’s most cherished local beauty. However, Alina doesn’t love Julian. For her, the marriage is purely one of convenience. Julian is loaded, after all. Alina’s affections are reserved for Adam, a childhood friend and tortured poet whom her father considers an unsuitable match. Alina has been pursuing a secret romance with Adam for quite some time, and her besotted husband-to-be has no inkling his intended has been rolling in the hay with another man. To him, she is simply an attractive, chaste country girl.
Sitting on the side-lines of this hillbilly love triangle is Celina, Alina’s edgy older sister. You can tell she’s edgy, because she has dark hair, and isn’t adverse to a spot of casual revenge-sex.
Anyway, Celina longs for Julian to marry her instead of Alina, but he only has eyes for her younger, blonder sister. As such, Celina despises her sibling for making a fool of her unrequited love, and will resort to the bitchiest of tactics to hurt her more popular sibling. Its here, among the simmering tensions, that our hero enters the story.
At this point, once all the necessary introductions have been made, Chapter Four ostensibly turns into a murder mystery. Alina is found dead in the meadows near Murky Waters, and Celina disappears too. A ghastly blonde-haired apparition the villagers take to calling “the midday bride” begins to appear in the meadow where Alina’s body was found, when the sun reaches its highest point each day.
Naturally, the finger of suspicion falls on Celina, whose jealousy was so poorly concealed even the village’s prize cow probably knew she wanted to jump Julian’s bones. However, the case takes a more tragic turn when a similar, dark-haired wraith begins stalking the same meadow at night, lamenting about some kind of “accident”, and her own dreadful fear of the night. Both wraiths pose a danger to the residents of Murky Waters, forcing Geralt to step once more into the breach.
With the help of various supernatural experts, including (but not limited to) a disgraced fellow witcher, an eccentric hermit, the sex-starved Lady of the Lake and Geralt’s bard pal Dandelion, our hero concludes that the noon-wraith is Alina’s spirit, unable to accept her death. To give her final rest, Geralt must communicate with her on her own level, which means informing her of her untimely demise via the medium of poetry, which results in the player engaging in a spot of truly awful cooperative improv with Dandelion. It says volumes about Alina’s terrible taste that even Geralt’s gravel-gargled amateur recitations can impress her. Alternatively, our hero can retrieve and repair Alina’s favourite mirror - which shattered when she died, and show her her grim new makeover. Similarly, the night-wraith is Celina, who - as expected - did kill her sister. But it was an accident. Wracked by guilt, Celina’s spirit is unable to move on, and can only be absolved of her crime by using a mystical item known as the wreath of immortelles, which Geralt can receive as a boon for helping the aforementioned hermit with his own ghastly problem earlier in the chapter.
Once the wraiths are dealt with, Geralt can solve the mystery of Celina’s death. It turns out, Adam was the culprit. In a fit of passion, he stabbed Celina in the same field where her sister died, as vengeance for the death of his love. Since Celina died before she could confess her guilt, she was condemned to walk the scene of her crime by night as a ghastly spectre - one that still can’t hold a candle to the eerie radiance of her dearly departed sister. As Geralt, players can inform the villagers of Adam’s crime, or they can hold back the facts, resolving that enough pain has been endured by the village’s residents already.
I’ll admit it. This plotline sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a trashy made-for-TV romantic thriller. However, it actually has a far more textured origin than the basic plot beats suggest, and its one that is shared by The Witcher’s acclaimed source material.
Just before The Wild Hunt released back in 2015, I bought a copy of the English-language translation of The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski’s first-ever Wiedźmin book. For anyone who has yet to read it, The Last Wish takes the form of a collection of loosely themed short stories, related by Geralt as he undergoes convalescence at a nunnery following a particularly severe mauling during a hunt. The short anthology almost serves as a proof-of-concept for the Witcher series as a whole, largely foregoing the textured dynastic conflicts that come to the forefront in later novels, and the video-games, which serve as unofficial sequels to the books.
Instead, the stories Sapkowski focuses on are contextual, fleshing out the everyday horrors - supernatural or otherwise - faced by the lower orders in the world Geralt inhabits - much like in Murky Waters. As I read through the book, I began to notice a creeping sense of familiarity with the stories presented. The tale of Renfri, a raven-haired highway-woman who leads a cadre of dwarven bandits, bears a twisted resemblance to that of Snow White. The story of Nivellan, a man cursed to live as a beast in an enchanted manor house, seems curiously reminiscent of a certain French fairy-tale currently spinning money for Disney at the box office. Even the likes of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel are obliquely referenced in the form of a cross-story plot point in which nobles are reported to be locking up their daughters in far-flung towers, on the orders of superstitious wizards drunk on their own influence.
With The Witcher, Sapkowski built a fairy-tale multiverse more than a decade before The Avengers would even be a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye.
“But what about The Heat of the Day?” I hear you cry. The plotline seen in The Witcher’s fourth chapter is not adapted directly from Sapkowski’s novels; it is pretty much original to the game. However, must like Sapkowski’s literary works, CD Projekt Red took inspiration for the quest from the same rich vein of Slavic folklore that Sapkowski had previously mined to such striking effect. Specifically, the tragedy of Alina and Celina bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of Balladyna, a play by 19th-century Polish playwright Juliusz Słowacki. Like “The Heat of the Day”, Balladyna tells the story of two poor sisters who compete for the affections of a visiting noble. One is killed by the other, and a mysterious hermit proves to be the key to salvation for the “surviving” sister. In both the game and the play, the sister who dies first is named Alina, but unlike her titular counterpart in Balladyna, The Witcher’s Celina does not become a Lady Macbeth-style despotic queen. Instead she eventually achieves peace in death, while Balladyna is, well, literally struck down by God for her continued crimes.
The concept of the noonwraith comes from Slavic folklore too. The legend of a ghost that haunts fields during the day is a curious one, and has its roots in common agricultural labourers’ limited understanding of heatstroke. Those suffering in “the heat of the day” were said to have been the victims of a spectre known as Poludnica, whose name translates to English as “Lady Midday”. The 19th-century Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Noon Witch takes the legend of Lady Midday as its inspiration, telling the story of a woman who threatened her unruly son with a visit by the titular wraith, only to find her promise becoming a reality as Lady Midday comes to claim her child’s life.
Chapter Four serves as a near-perfect adaptation of the vignette-style storytelling found in the first Wiedźmin anthology, but this alone is not quite enough to grant it supremacy over the highly polished narratives crafted in CD Projekt Red’s more recent magnum opus. The icing on the proverbial cake comes in the form of how Chapter Four’s over-arching narrative is framed.
Essentially, your main quest objective at this point in the game is simply to bide your time and wait for other factions to make their move. And that’s the key to this particular chapter’s success. In most open-world titles, players who are particularly invested in the main narrative would feel some sense of unease or dissonance over turning their attention away from saving the world, or the girl, or the McGuffin, to effectively do other people’s busywork. This is what has come to be known among critics as ludonarrative dissonance, a term coined specifically to refer to an instance where a game’s design or scenario offers objectives that - when viewed as part of a linear narrative - would conflict directly with a character’s established moral standpoint, or even their ultimate objective. One of the most cited examples of this can be found in the Uncharted series, in which charming everyman hero Nathan Drake displays moral outrage at the actions of unscrupulous villains, but then proceeds to mercilessly mow down wave upon wave of henchmen, single-handedly achieving a kill-count that would put the average Middle-Eastern dictator to shame.
For the unenlightened, Clint Hocking originally came up with this term in 2007, applying it to the narrative dilemma observed in Bioshock, in which the player’s goal of getting stronger in-game and adopting a very particular stance on Randian Objectivism contrasted with silent protagonist Jack’s willingness to comply with the requests (or should that be orders...) of his radio contact Atlas, as mandated by the game’s mostly linear plot. Hocking’s argument hinges on his reading of Bioshock as being, essentially, a pseudo-psychological case-study in which the player is encouraged to adopt and maintain a Randian perspective to “win” the game and progress through the narrative. The argument he makes undoubtedly has its flaws, but it did succeed in giving a definite name to the unease players sometimes feel when game systems fail to sync-up with the themes explored in their stories.
The Wild Hunt’s main narrative drive for a significant portion of the game is “Find Ciri”, and the frequent sojourns into her well-heeled boots demonstrate the very real peril she’s in, and the urgency with which Geralt needs to complete his mission. Tension has been effectively established, but is diminished when Geralt takes time-out from tracking his adoptive daughter to deal with massively unrelated issues such as reports of a fellow witcher gone-rogue, or to investigate a deserted village haunted by a vengeful bride.
By contrast, The Witcher’s Chapter Four expertly dispenses with this problem, by simply applying the brakes to the game’s main plot, grinding it to a standstill. The story demands that Geralt takes time-out from his involvement with Temeria’s men and women of influence, and by doing so, it grants the player free, unencumbered license to really drink in the atmosphere of the fictional world that both Andrzej Sapkowski and CD Projekt Red’s writing team have built. Sure, a lingering awareness of the unresolved over-arching plot remains, but the bucolic idyll of Murky Waters and its surrounding environs serves to alleviate the tensions built by what had - up to this point at least - been a taut political fantasy thriller. What CD Projekt Red crafted was a mini-holiday within an otherwise grim tale. Sure, it’s a bus-man’s holiday, but aren’t they sometimes some of the best?