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.

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