Sep 152015

As has become my habit, I visited the Boston Festival of Indie Games at MIT last weekend, an experience I highly recommend to anyone. It’s cheap, you get to see some interesting games, and both the content and the venue are a better fit for kids than PAX can sometimes be. As it happens, I was joined for a few hours this time by my friend Eric and his young son Linus, who loves games of both the video and physical variety but doesn’t get to play too much of the former because his family has no TV and puts healthy limits on his screen time.

As you might expect, Linus was mostly interested by the flashing lights of the video games, though his lack of aptitude with a controller almost drove the developer of Megaton Rainfall—a promising superhero simulator where you’ll knock over a city Man of Steel-style if you muck things up—to despair. When we did get down to the tabletop floor, he was drawn to Maze Racers, a 2-player game where each player uses a set of pieces to build a maze on a mag board. Once the mazes are made, the players race to see who can get their ball through first. Linus beat Eric, so it’s competitive for all ages. I saw kids that looked as young as 5 or so making simple little mazes, and a couple of twentysomethings intensely building intricate mazes as well. This looks like an all-ages winner and is available now.

The big hit of the videogame floor as far as Linus was concerned might have been Mile-Age, a driving game out now for Android and iOS. It lands somewhere between an infinite runner and a bullet-hell shooter, as the goal is to drive a car down a postapocalyptic highway picking up gas cans while dodging obstacles and a blizzard of bullets. Linus wasn’t especially good at it, but we eventually had to almost pry the phone from his hand so other people could get a shot.

The game I had to practically pry out of my own hand was Puzzledrome (out now for iOS and coming soon for Android), a deceptively simple little puzzle game about arranging objects into palindromic arrangements. It’s a clever idea for a puzzle game, and the minimal aesthetic really appealed to me. Also, the difficulty ramp was almost perfectly designed to keep drawing me along into the next puzzle. Considering it comes with an endless mode, it could certainly end up being pretty addictive.

However, what excited me most on the videogame floor (aside from the news that Albino Lullaby comes out this week) was the upcoming subterranean postapocalyptic slime-mold simulator Mushroom 11. It’s something like a puzzle-platformer, but instead of jumping the player controls how a giant lump of fungus grows. By changing shape and shifting center of mass the player moves past obstacles to explore the world and even fight bosses. It’s inventive and interesting, and due out later this fall, at which point you must play it.


Linus has apparently been playing Kingdom Rush quite a bit recently, so he took to World Zombination like a pro. This is a tower defense/swarm assault game that does, yes, feature (sigh) zombies, but I enjoyed it anyway. As the humans it’s essentially a tower defense game, where the player chooses units to hold strong points. Playing as the zombies, it becomes a swarm assault game as the player loosely influences an attacking horde. The game, already out for Android and iOS, has a campaign and also pvp, and appears to be F2P on a cooldown model.

Nearby I found a quirky little route-choosing puzzler called A Tofu Tail (not a typo, there’s a whole thing about Inari going on here), about a man who finds himself transformed into a block of bean curd. The levels are composed of various tiles and the tofu-man can only travel over one type at a time, so hitting nodes that switch him to a new “flavor” in the correct order is the chief challenge. The core idea is a little slim, but the levels I saw were cleverly constructed and difficult enough to be intriguing. The game is still a little rough around the edges though.

Linus was drawn to the cute, Wes Anderson-esque visuals of Maquisard, a game about being a hotel bellhop and also a spy, available now at I liked the details of the character animations and the disarming tone of the writing. Alas, I didn’t get to see much of the gameplay (Linus was busy carrying enormous vases back and forth the whole time) but I’ll be looking into this further soon.


Nearby I checked out Luna: A Voyage to the Moon, a new platformer from Double Stallion. The title, black and white aesthetic, and certain elements of the visual design here seem to be drawn from Le Voyage dans le Lun, and the hook seems to come from an idea about cameras. Under normal circumstances the FOV moves as normal for a 2D platformer, but the player can choose to shift its focus, bringing background elements into the foreground where they can be jumped on or otherwise interacted with. Shifting the focus freezes the FOV in place, so the player has to choose a good camera position before doing this. It seemed pretty clever and I’m looking forward to seeing more about it.

A less highbrow space adventure appeared in the form of Loose Nozzles, a family affair of a physics game where the father did the coding and the son did the art and sound effects. The goal is to rescue people using a spaceship with two engine nozzles, and the only way to control the ship is to fire one nozzle and/or the other. Bumping into anything will cause pieces to fall off your rocket, making further rescues substantially more difficult. Linus liked this game a bit too, though I’m not sure he fully realized how much of it had been made by a kid not much older than himself. The Fosters are still working on it but plan to have the game out in early 2016.

I had more fun with Alpha One, a sort of Elite-meets-Asteroids 2D top-down space game. The game features randomized galaxies where the player jumps between systems where space stations are beleaguered by asteroids and/or aliens. The ship itself has rather tricky steering and the weapons are limited, but there’s a tree of tech upgrades to explore and a Diablo-ish “find your body” method of restoring things if you get blown up. It’s at an early phase but I liked it.

Last but not least I checked out Reflections, a first-person adventure game for PC currently available in Early Access on Steam. It’s a pretty low-key game, but I really liked its color-filling mechanic and at least the promise of tangible consequences for action. I had a listen while the developer was outlining his vision, and it sounded pretty ambitious (perhaps too much so). Still, I’m interested and will keep an eye on it.

That’s only some of the games I saw and played, but these were the ones that stood out to me this year. Once again I had loads of fun and will be returning next year.

Aug 182015

With different degrees of success, Velen and Novigrad use their structure, their quests, and their storylines as an integrated whole to project Geralt’s inner life into the game world. In Velen The Wild Hunt airs Geralt’s worries that his “family” won’t fit back together after their long time apart. In Novigrad the game threatens the relationships that have already been working in The Witcher games. Once he reaches Skellige, the game turns its attention back to Yennefer and Ciri. In this region, however, the game loses coherence and as a result feels much more ordinary and even dull.

Skellige’s failure has many sources, but possibly the greatest one is that Geralt has very different concerns about Yennefer and Ciri. Geralt believes that Ciri could be in danger and need him to help her. With Yennefer it is decidedly not a question of whether she needs him but whether she wants him. Because the game needs to move forward it can’t deal with these topics on the level of vague unease anymore; it has to deal in specifics. Unfortunately, these specific ideas don’t have a lot to say to each other and so the coherence of the earlier areas is never going to show up here.

The Skellige Isles

The one advantage that the game has, at least on the initial pass through Skellige, is that Ciri is still absent and so it can still sublimate Geralt’s worries into external projections. This is one area where Skellige delivers, because the quests in this region have a sharp focus on tensions between the older and younger generation and the efforts of the old to save the young. In the region’s major sidequest chain, Crach an Craite recruits Geralt to help his children survive quests they’ve taken on in order to establish their worthiness to be king (or queen). Extensive as these quests are, Crach’s kids are just the start. Geralt finds himself drawn into quests to save lost children, to help sick children, and has to deal with a man whose children he killed. In Fayrlund he must choose sides between the village elders and the young upstarts. After finding himself in a tight spot, he has to help Madman Lugos’ son face his deepest fears. Again and again throughout the isles Geralt has to help the young, even if they don’t particularly desire his assistance.

The weakness here is that the game doesn’t do anything particularly effective with this feeling in its portion of the main quest. Those missions are instead tied up, as a practical matter, with Geralt’s long-time love Yennefer. Unfortunately, The Wild Hunt doesn’t do a great job of dealing with this relationship, in large part because it doesn’t take enough time with anything. One sign of this is that Geralt and Yen go from strained greetings in the port of Kaer Trolde to awkward sex on a stuffed unicorn in about fifteen minutes. That kind of sudden surge of passion is not out of character for their relationship historically, but in a medium and series where the sex scene has for a very long time been viewed as the successful endpoint of a relationship it obscures the amount of work that the pair have yet to put in on their relationship.

The Wild Hunt also doesn’t take enough time to establish exactly why Geralt goes gaga for Yennefer. Her beauty, intelligence, and strength of will are all important characteristics, but also they are shared by many other characters Geralt has had carnal relations with previously and indeed can in this very same game. In Skellige Yen doesn’t seem to work particularly well with Geralt, and she doesn’t come across as a particularly pleasant character in her own right.

Indeed, Yennefer frequently crosses the line into outright evil. She steals and effectively destroys a precious magic artifact, simultaneously provoking a cataclysmic weather event. Yen goes on to drain all the magic out of a spot that has been revered by generations of islanders in order to animate and interrogate a corpse, which she subsequently insults. Later, she enlists Geralt’s aid to capture a djinn, and rather than use its vast power to restore any of the precious things she has ruined, she selfishly uses it to test her relationship with Geralt. As an isolated incident, this wouldn’t be so easy to criticize, as it undoes an extremely selfish act Geralt performs in the Witcher tales. In the context of her destructive activities in Skellige, however, Yen’s choice here just makes her look self-absorbed or even cruel.

As a result of all this Skellige comes across as a strong argument against any kind of relationship with Yen. This doesn’t seem like something that comes from within Geralt. Arguably it’s a line of thought that could come from Dandelion, who at some points in the written stories seems to dislike Yen and the effect she has on Geralt. However, having the area reflect Dandelion’s thoughts on Geralt’s relationship with Yen, while not a completely unjustified reading since he’s the game’s narrator, seems out of step with the rest of the experience. Instead I feel this has to be looked at as a failed attempt to make Yennefer look strong and cool, which tilts over into the realm of making her look brutal and callous.

The landscape of Skellige itself doesn’t seem to be in dialogue with either the plot or Geralt’s internal life in this segment of the game, and has little to recommend it in any case. On the whole Skellige seems colder than the rest of the game, unaccountably so as it lies south of the other zones, but it actually seems to have more geographic diversity overall than Velen or Novigrad. However, its geography and sociology make it seem like an echo of Skyrim. Skellige’s mountains and vast bodies of water also have negative effects on play. The region’s cliffs and peaks confound movement, tending to make the area seem larger than it is. That’s a good trick in a small place, but in a vast one like Skellige it just makes travel annoying.

As for the oceans, they are a terrible bore, and it’s telling that in this area only The Wild Hunt gives the player the ability to fast-travel to a place without having visited it first. The seas take a long time to cross using a boring mode of conveyance, and have nothing interesting to do on the way. Instead of the variety of sites that can be visited on land, the ocean, as you can see above, has only smuggler’s caches, the vast number of which hardly seem necessary in islands primarily inhabited by pirates. The only question a player can realistically have on approaching a question mark in these waters is whether the trio of floating treasure chests will be guarded by sirens or drowners. Either way, an extended episode of the game’s dull underwater combat is sure to follow. Because of their vast number, however, looting those chests at least offers the player the pleasure of breaking the game’s economy, as selling the loot will quickly exhaust the cash reserves of the region’s merchants despite the best efforts of real-time algorithmic modeling.

Although it deals in more critical moments of the plot, Skellige never matches the power of The Wild Hunt’s earlier regions. Geralt has two very different topics on his mind, preventing the area from establishing a single tone. While the sidequests effectively externalize his thoughts about Ciri, the main quest seems out of tune with his feelings towards Yen. As a consequence, Skellige feels like just a place where stuff happens. That’s normal for an open-world RPG, but it’s certainly less effective than either Novigrad or Velen, places that held a dialogue with the internal life of the main character. To complain that an area of a game, in terms of its quests and landscape, seems a bit too much like Skyrim may seem like praising by faint damnation. Skellige, however, loses the bridge between character and world that gave The Wild Hunt‘s earlier areas their unique energy, and so ends up being the game’s weakest setting.

Aug 122015

I called the emotion Geralt feels in Velen “anxiety” because he’s really fretting about something he hasn’t got anymore, and wondering if he can get it back. This sense of dispossession is shared most specifically by the Bloody Baron, but it broadly afflicts everyone in Velen, whose old lives have been swept away by the war and may not return. Velen is a land afraid that things will not get better. In contrast, Novigrad is defined by its fear that things will get worse, and it attempts to inflict this fear on Geralt.

Velen and Novigrad are shown separately on The Wild Hunt‘s world map but are, in play, completely contiguous. While I believe the game classifies most of the land area as Velen, I myself want to draw a line down the center of the Pontar, a thematic border matching the world’s political and military ones, separating Velen from the northern region, which I’m going to call Novigrad for short even though it includes Oxenfurt and Redania. This definition will serve us because it separates two regions that are dramatically different.

The obvious difference here is that while Velen was almost entirely rural, Novigrad is urban, with most of the population crammed into the Oxenfurt and Novigrad itself. The cities have novelties besides tiled roofs and cobbled streets—rich people exist in this region, not just as a singular well-off Baron but in numbers great enough they become their own class of people and have whole districts to themselves. And beyond the cities, Novigrad has vast fields planted with wheat, grapes, and other produce. The Novigrad countryside is not a vast wilderness with broken settlements chopped out of the trees but a land of plenty dotted with estates. In this region misery is not a constant guest, and its tone is correspondingly lighter, without the constant massacres of Velen.

Martin Feuille's Farmstead

Novigrad has its share of beggars and slums, but the region as a whole conveys a sense of wealth. This matters because you can’t really be afraid of losing what you haven’t got. And losing what they have seems to be a pressing concern for the region’s people. Instead of Velen’s string of human tragedies, Novigrad fields an array of quests centering on property. These range from the small scale of a woman hoping for help with her stolen chickens, to the weighty and dangerous matter of Dijkstra’s stolen millions. In between, we have petty thieves, frightened beekeepers, rat-afflicted grain dea  lers, and at least two “haunted” houses.

The Wild Hunt puts Geralt in the same straits. His property is literally threatened in one quick sidequest, where he makes the mistake of selecting the wrong drinking partners. The region’s main quests, however, put the threat to something more precious. Velen aired Geralt’s anxieties about characters who had been absent from The Witcher games; Novigrad directly endangers characters who have been there since the (player’s) beginning. Dandelion the bard has been around since the first game, and Triss Merigold has been a potential love interest across that span of time as well. Triss is endangered simply by being in Novigrad, as the game drives home by having Geralt witness the outcome of a witch hunt when he first tries to visit. Dandelion is in trouble because he tried to help Ciri, but saving him means putting Triss at risk or even letting her get tortured.

The stage-setting is pretty effective. The Wild Hunt convincingly paints Novigrad as a more prosperous region than Velen, and by contrast with its southern neighbor establishes the stakes that have driven the people here to extreme behavior. The segment also does a solid job of centering fear, justified or not, as a motivating force in the region. In the main quest, Dijkstra’s fear of the consequences of failing as the criminal underworld’s banker drives his desire to recover the money more than the greed for his portion of it, and assuaging the doppler Dudu’s fear of being captured is an essential step. A major sidequest concerns a man who wants to inspire fear in those who criticize the church of the Eternal Fire, and of course throughout this chapter the fear of that cult motivates the actions of Triss and her compatriots. The game backs up the paranoia of the local populace by putting in quests built around disguise and deception. These tricks can be magical, as with the thieving doppler or the vampire serial killer, or more practical in nature, such as the children disguising themselves as wolves or the Bertram colluding with then betraying Little Red’s bandits.

The game also wisely emphasizes the symbol of the Eternal Fire, because while fire is dangerous when out of hand, when controlled it is a signifier of safety and comfort, freedom from fear. As if to comment on this, Novigrad features minor quests where the safety and comfort of the campfire is subverted by theft and violent confrontation.

When it tries to make fear bear more specifically on Geralt, however, the Novigrad region falters. The game’s structure protects us from any worry about Dandelion. His voice speaks reassuringly to the player on every loading screen and in every entry of the game’s codex. Because of this it’s difficult to muster up any worry that the quest can go wrong. Having Dandelion essentially narrate everything is not a bad conceit but it doesn’t play well with trying to motivate a major quest with the fear that he won’t be alive to write things the player has already read.

Also, Dandelion is incredibly silly as a person, and this speaks to a tonal problem. Novigrad, despite all the horrible things happening there, is often funny. Even the tragic bits (an innocent mage was burned to death) often come with silly bits tacked on to them (he used stinky cheese to see the future). The main quest is full of this kind of thing, from following Dandelion’s day planner (full of women, natch) to Dijkstra’s troll guard to Geralt’s ludicrous performance in the play used to calm Dudu’s nerves. The improved circumstances of Novigrad relative to Velen give it a lighter tone overall, and the abundance of humorous quests, and humorous aspects to serious quests, pushes back against the sense of threat the main narrative needs.

The game’s tone works a little better when it comes to threatening Triss, because The Wild Hunt does take the step of killing characters Geralt knows when he first arrives in Novigrad. However, this only ends minor characters from a Witcher story and preceding game.  Of course The Wild Hunt is the final installment of a trilogy and so it has the option to kill major characters, but it hasn’t yet established that it’s willing to do so. Also, the Witcher games have made something of a habit out of pretending to endanger Triss so the threat of this part needs something to add credibility, and that’s just not present. It’s an ingredient that’s absent from the setting, too: for all the soldiers parading around, The Wild Hunt never even pretends to have the kind of dynamics that would bring Nilfgaardian forces across the river.

Very few open-world games successfully build narrative tension; the whole concept of being free to go anywhere and do anything works against it. Despite its mostly effective stage-setting in Novigrad, however, The Wild Hunt has more than just genre philosophy working against it when it’s trying to threaten the relationships Geralt already has. The region’s gentler nature and humorous touches work against the sense of danger, even as the game’s framing and unclear stakes seem to specifically inure the threatened characters. As a result, Novigrad seems less than the sum of its parts. The Wild Hunt simply never succeeds in making fear as real the player as it is supposed to be for Geralt and the people of Novigrad.

Aug 032015

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is a very large game, perhaps too large. Consequently there’s a lot to say about it, especially as regards its main plot and the three principal areas where that plot plays out. Of these the first the player encounters is Velen, a contested part of the continent where the armies of Nilfgaard have fought their way to the river Pontar and failed to cross due to opposition from the northern armies of Redania. Velen also happens to be the best of the three main story areas.

One reason I like Velen best is that The Wild Hunt has a serious case of mechanical stagnation. The prologue section in White Orchard introduces the basic methods of playing the game, but these tools really develop and interact with each other only after Geralt makes it to Velen. As the game goes on beyond that point, enemies get harder and sometimes more numerous, but the game never grows much deeper or more complex. The character progression system is too obstructive too offer many new gameplay permutations in a given playthrough, and too obfuscatory to guide the player to them anyhow. Geralt gains a few new tools here and in other sections, but the game seems to forget in fairly short order that he has means of seeing ghosts, breaking illusions, or detecting magic. As a consequence Velen was the only area where I felt like I was really developing as a player; the rest of the game was just executing, at a more or less constant level, on what I already knew.

Velen, however, also stands on its own merits, as a well-constructed locale where a broad theme interacts fruitfully with a particular stage of the story.

A Dismal Land

The one word that captures the core of the Velen territory is “misery”. The game’s prologue in White Orchard brushes against the poor lot of soldiers, but Velen truly speaks to the misery of the land and people that war passes over. Velen is a region in crisis, sorely lacking in food and comfort. The fields that still exist are infested with monsters; the towns that once farmed them stand ransacked and empty. Only a few towns have retained any sense of normality; for every peaceful hamlet tucked away in the woods, it seems there’s at least one like it that has been overtaken by cannibals or ghouls. Even in the relatively nice towns, people are starving. They send their children into the swamp, to follow a trail of treats to the Crones.

It’s telling that the people here worship the Crones. These are possibly the best antagonists in the game, as they manage to parlay fairy-tale grotesquerie—wearing someone else’s ears, a taste for child’s flesh—into malice that’s more threatening and disturbing than the titular Wild Hunt. Any people who see the Crones as their best hope for mercy must have been at the end of their rope for some time.

The central bogs of Velen

The central bogs of Velen

The land itself even seems kind of miserable. Velen’s landscape is dominated by swamps and bogs. The largest of these, Crookback Bog in the east, serves as a nexus for several of the region’s storylines, but it’s hardly alone. Fyke Island (another nexus), the Frischlow region south of it, and the shores of the Pontar are also major swamplands, and there are smaller ones throughout the region. Even in our world, swamps are seen as dismal locations, and ours aren’t teeming with drowners, wraiths, necrophages, and fiends. The Wild Hunt accentuates the feeling of misery and dismay by filling the swampland with the shattered wreckage of human dwellings. Burned and decaying dwellings are a frequent sight throughout Velen thanks to the war, but the ones in the swamps are particularly affecting, shattered and sinking into the mire like the hopes of the people who once lived in them.

The quests that move Geralt through this dismal place largely deal in tragedy. This isn’t to say that there’s no attempt to leaven things with comic relief, but most of the time if Geralt is picking up a contract it means something deeply awful has happened. In some cases all, or almost all, of a town has been killed by men or monsters. Tragic love stories lie behind many of the region’s missions, from Midcopse and Blackbough to Fyke Isle. It’s possible for Geralt to mistakenly turn some of his adventures into even greater tragedies, unleashing a plague or releasing a spirit to slaughter a town.

A notably large portion of the trouble, even when it involves a monster, is man-made. Envy between classes causes the tragedy of Fyke Island, while jealousy among individuals leads to a sad tale in Blackbough and at the Reardon Manor. The greed of the people in Byways and Honorton provokes the ire of monsters that destroy these towns, and something similar seems to have happened in Frischlow. In some cases the collisions between humans and monsters happen on their own, but all too often in Velen the humans are the authors of their own demise.

The Bloody Baron

Nowhere does this prove more true than in the major questline concerning the Bloody Baron Philip Strenger, a local lord that Geralt soon learns hosted Ciri for quite a while. Cameron Kunzelman has done a pretty in-depth examination of this questline, so I won’t go into many of the mission’s practical details here. However, I came out of Velen with a more positive view of this quest than Kunzleman and I want to go over some of the reasons why.

Kunzleman very astutely points out that the Bloody Baron’s story has a rhythm and melodramatic tone similar to police procedurals, especially the modern techno-procedurals in the vein of CSI. The Bloody Baron tells Geralt a story, Geralt goes and finds evidence that this story is incomplete, then the Baron is forced to adjust and tell (more of) the truth. This actually has several benefits. The first is that it puts one of the game’s core frustrations into the form of both story and play. As Geralt repeatedly emphasizes throughout this quest and many others, he needs as much information as possible in order to make the right decisions as a monster hunter. Repeatedly, however, in both this quest and elsewhere, he, and by extension the player, is given too little to go on. Throughout The Wild Hunt Geralt and the player are called upon to make decisions not only without knowing the ultimate outcome, but also often without even knowing the immediate stakes. The Baron’s stinginess with the truth puts the player and Geralt into the same position.

This stinginess also helps to characterize the Baron himself. It’s worthwhile to note that the Baron has the most at stake throughout this quest. While bad things can certainly happen to the Baron and his wife Anna during this storyline, there’s almost never a sense that the wife and daughter are in any immediate danger. The Baron wants to have them back, and he’s risking a great deal to try and make that happen. It’s not just the truth of his own story that he’s withholding, it’s the story of Ciri. This puts him in the position of angering a deadly warrior, and more specifically of hindering Geralt in a task he was set to by the monarch at whose pleasure the Baron serves. The Baron is risking literally everything he has by forcing Geralt to look for Anna and Tamara.

In light of this, his reticence seems not to make any sense. Strenger clearly wants his family back and is willing to go to great lengths to do that, so why interfere with the investigation? The behavior speaks to a core of cowardice in the man. He recognizes that he has done great wrong but he lacks the guts to acknowledge what he has done and accept the consequences. Even though the miscarriage is clearly relevant, Strenger won’t bring it up until Geralt forces his hand, because he believes himself to be directly responsible for it, which is close enough. In truth, he’s indirectly responsible, as he was such a monster Anna chose to enslave herself to the Crones to pay for an abortion rather than bear his child.

Through Geralt, the player gets to choose where the Baron goes from that point. He can force the Baron to confront his misdeeds in the form of the botchling, and if his choices leave the Baron with any hope at the end of the quest, Strenger does the best he can to fix things. Yet Geralt can also create a scenario where repairing the family is impossible, an outcome Strenger does not have the courage to face.

This isn’t just relevant to the Baron. Another thing that the procedural setup does here is reinforce the idea, established in White Orchard, that Geralt is a CSI-esque professional. It’s typical for those shows to center around dispassionate, “scientific” individuals who establish character traits mainly from hairstyles, actorly tics, and a few seconds of dialogue here or there in each episode that only build into a personality over the course of a 100+ episode syndication run. Geralt, with his limited apparent emotional range, seems to match with these expectations (and certainly this is consistent with the beliefs of most people in The Witcher’s world). In a typical Western RPG, where the interior of the character is supplied entirely by the mind of the player, this would be an extremely useful presentation. But that’s not what’s going on.

The challenge for CD Projekt Red is that Geralt is an existing character with canonical desires, and while the player is given the opportunity to choose how Geralt reacts to his emotional connections, the player does not get to define them. As a result, it’s necessary to establish what his connections and anxieties are. Of course this could be done with endless internal (or, as is typical for this game, audible) monologue, but I think it’s more fruitful to view the Bloody Baron’s quest as a way of displaying Geralt’s entanglements and anxieties externally. This quest is a mirror of his own situation, perhaps even one that’s a bit too on the nose. Anna’s choice to flee Strenger and serve the monstrous crones and Tamara’s decision to abandon her life and take up common cause with strangers parallel Yen’s avoidance of Geralt and service to Nilfgaard, and Ciri’s alliance with an unknown elf with mysterious motives.

The clearest reflection of Geralt’s anxieties, however, comes when the Baron finally breaks down and tells the whole story. In this exchange, the Baron reveals that the roots of his present unhappiness—his drinking, Anna’s anger—lay in the years he spent away at war. His family began to break down in his absence, and after that his presence became unbearable. This is the worry that Geralt the character, and thus the player, needs to be processing. He has been separated from Yen for some time, and the strained conversation he’s had with her in Vizima clearly indicates that their relationship, like the Baron’s, has been weakened by their infidelities. Ciri, too, has been away for years, and he has already been struck by the fact that she is now grown up. Has she also grown away? If the Baron’s normal family, bound by ties of blood, couldn’t come back together after years apart, can Geralt’s family, freakish (by the world’s lights) and held together only by the choices of its members, keep from fracturing? In this light, Geralt’s decisions to reunify the Strengers or let them fall apart represent his own desire for absolution or condemnation, and thus give the player the option of stating, through play, how Geralt feels about himself.

The Benefits of Misery

Its bogs and swamps make Velen a naturally miserable land. It’s also supernaturally dismal, thanks to the creatures those places attract and its disturbing would-be deities. To this brew humanity has added war, starvation, and the slowly sinking wreckage of shattered hopes. This broad sense of gloom speaks more specifically to Geralt’s worries through the region’s numerous tragic love stories, and focuses precisely on them through the Bloody Baron’s quest. The swamp, the Crones, and the self-destructive nature of man play weave their way into both the broad arc of that story and its grace notes (e.g. Gretka). The player’s interaction with the various characters and events of the quest chain allows him not only to express judgments about the world, but also to explore how Geralt feels about his own situation, be it condemnation or, perhaps, a whisper of hope. This complex interplay of location and plot makes Velen the best region of The Wild Hunt, and one of the most compelling locales of recent role-playing games.