Witcher 3: War, Speciesism, and the Beauty of Long Form Storytelling

Witcher 3: War, Speciesism, and the Beauty of Long Form Storytelling

In the first semester of University, back when I was still a good two years away from being worried about landing an internship offer, I did something that still surprises me to this day – I went to a Software Engineering Club meetup. Over fries and sweet potato wedges, I met a young Malaysian man. And as conversations with me inevitably do, this one too turned to gaming. He was so excited upon learning that I was considering playing Witcher 3, he proceeded to give me a rundown of the entire game.

“So, this is how it goes: Geralt starts off at Kaer Morhen, then goes to Velen and meets a baron. Then you will go to Novigrad, it’s a big city that I’ll come to later. Or maybe not, no spoilers. Finally, you’ll end up on these rocky islands of Skellige, and then go full circle.”

As I sat there listening to him talk animatedly, I clearly remember thinking: how good must this game be if he’s so enamored with it? Is that even possible for someone to enjoy a game so much?

Of course, I was yet to play Death Stranding and Red Dead Redemption 2 myself. Yes, games can be that good to make you want to tell every gamer friend (and stranger) you talk to about them. Finally, in mid-2021, I got around to playing The Witcher 3. Over the past 5 months, I’ve slowly travelled the path that was narrated to me in vivid detail nearly 3 years ago. It easily falls into the category that I reserve for ‘epic’ games. And though I’m guilty of complaining about the length of the game at first – ‘who has the time to play a 100-hour game these days, this is going to take me half a year!’ – I realize now, in hindsight, that long-form storytelling is one of the key points that make Witcher 3 an epic tale.

A Long-Form Story

When one does not have the time to finish an 80-hour storyline in a matter of weeks, the game in question becomes akin to a TV show where you watch an hour-long episode, think about everything that happened on your own time (and theorize about what could), until you come back the next week ready to watch more. Video games traditionally have never had this dynamic. They’re not structured into weekly releases spanning an hour or two – and the ones that are divided into episodes often have months-long periods of waiting before the next one comes out.

For me, this desire to enjoy a story piece by piece was fulfilled through Witcher 3. It is a story that can be sped through, avoiding all other activities and missions on the side – or you can follow the thread of the main story for a while, and go off and do your own thing the next week only to come back to the main plot later. The side quests are structured such that you can approach them in a non-linear manner without breaking any immersion. Often, they feature fully fleshed-out storylines – once I went on an hours-long mission to investigate a curse on an island, only to end up reuniting a ghost with her lover. With solid writing that leads to engaging dialogue and storylines, even the side quests can turn out to be a blast.

Geralt and Yennefer try to capture a Djinn in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Side quests also add depth to the characters, such as exploring the bond between Geralt and the sorceress Yennefer
Image: CD Projekt Red

Harsh Realities

Witcher 3 does not shy away from depicting its fantasy world with shades of the real one – and I love that about it. The world of the Continent is rife with speciesism – non-humans live in ghettos and face rampant discrimination. Religious zealots embark on witch hunts that more often than not result in innocent healers being burned at the stake in the name of moral cleansing. And the omnipresent war is always a step ahead of you, destroying villages and tearing families apart.

If you cross a border post, you’re likely to come across a line of refugees awaiting entry at the gates. If you take a moment to examine the notice board nearby, you’ll likely learn that these temporary havens are rife with fatal disease, corruption and people desperately looking for lost family. War might as well be a character of its own – it affects numerous lives (often for the worse) and impacts the narrative throughout the story. Geralt often comes across pleas for help and choosing to intervene or let events play out is up to the player.

Rated ‘M’ for Mature

For all its brilliance in the adult fantasy department, Game of Thrones relies heavily on sex (often with no real purpose in the narrative), which further solidifies its ‘adult’ label. While the previous Witcher games were no better in this department (The Witcher 1 let players collect cards for every woman they bed, much like trophies), the sex has been dialed down and is actually present to serve the narrative and not titillate. Combined with its other mature themes, The Witcher 3 promises an interesting, often morally conflicting experience for adults that’s rare to find in video games.

Moral Dilemmas

A distinctive feature of this game are the ethical dilemmas – and often risking bad consequences for the ‘right’ action – that it throws at the player every now and then. Would you save a dying woman with your Witcher potions, even though there is a good chance she would die from the treatment? How about freeing a bound deserter who faces certain death at the hands of monsters nearby? And this is where Witcher 3 comes closest to mirroring reality – not through its heart-rending depiction of war, racism, or religious fanaticism, but by eliminating the very idea of the ‘right’ choice.

Towards the end of the game, visiting an army camp, I finally ran into a man who gave me news of the woman I decided to treat with my Witcher potion earlier in the game. Miraculously, she had recovered – I made the right choice! – but she was no longer her old self, having sustained serious brain damage from the healing potion. Was a second chance for her worth it in the end? I encountered the deserter I had freed sometime later in the game, as he looted dead refugees on the side of road. Talking to him confirmed my worst fears, as he was the one who had murdered them too. How many others would die at this man’s hands? Should I have let him die perhaps?

The player has all the agency in the world to make their own choices, yet nothing is black and white. Instead, there are large swathes of gray, and no right answers.

A dwarf pleads to Geralt to help him retrieve his documents from a thief in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
To be helpful, or not to be?
Image: CD Projekt Red

Conclusion

With great writing and side quests that expand on its setting with graphics to match, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a delight to play. It has something for everyone – a solid story, choices and direct consequences, loot, weapons and crafting upgrades, and a large open world you can lose yourself in. It is without a doubt one of the best games of the last decade, if not all time. Whether you like speedruns or pacing yourself, don’t miss this one!

Screenshots

Geralt washed up on the shores of Skellige

Thank you for joining us at Gamer’s Waypoint. What are your theories on the next game in the Witcher universe? Let us know in the comments below! Make sure to follow us on Twitter for our latest reviews and features, and check out our new YouTube video on the indie game Lake!

Looking for something different? Take a look at this thorough review of Forza Horizon 5.

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