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.

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