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.

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