I dove back into the world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a few nights ago, my first time spent with the game since plowing through its first expansion pack in October. I don’t have many quests or treasure hunts left to complete, so I decided to explore the few corners of the map I hadn’t yet plumbed. The sea surrounding the Skellige Isles is studded with nameless islets and booty-filled shipwrecks, many of which are guarded by shrieking harpies and ugly drowners; I wanted to sniff around for new gear. I rode Roach, my stupid but faithful horse, to a fishing village near an Ard Skellig cape, hopped in a tiny boat, and started sailing south. It was sunset, and the choppy water was cast in soft pink light. It felt like I was the only person on the planet.
A second later, I heard a roar off to my right somewhere. I slowed the ship down and started looking around. Were pirates inbound? Were monsters going to board my ship, clawing at its wood until they were dispatched by a well-placed crossbow bolt? I turned to look at the ship’s front, where a giant whale’s tail was rising above the water a few dozen feet in front of me. It slapped the water, and the creature kept gliding forward. I’d never seen one before.
This is the magic of The Witcher 3: you can play for hundreds of hours and yet the game will still find a way to surprise you.
It's a gigantic, ambitious patchwork quilt of a game
The Witcher 3 is a massive, ambitious game, one that sometimes feels like a bunch of smaller, stellar games that’ve been sewn together into a patchwork whole. At first glance, it’s basically medieval Grand Theft Auto: you can steal, fight, and fuck your way across a massive open world. (In The Witcher’s case, it’s more like two and a quarter massive open worlds.) It’s also a great hack-and-slash loot ‘em up like Diablo III, one with a robust crafting and augmenting system and tons of procedurally generated trinkets. It’s also a Game of Thrones-esque story-driven political thriller, one that includes a horrid war, religiously motivated ethnic cleansing, a struggle over succession, and a potential assassination. And it’s also the framing device for a half-decent love triangle, a world-spanning treasure hunt / history lesson, and a character-first point-and-click. It’s even the most addictive card game this site of Hearthstone. (The world’s Gwent players know what I’m talking about.)
From a narrative perspective, the game shares a core concept with one of this year’s other massive open-world RPGs, Fallout 4: you’re a parent trying to save your child, and it’s when you manage to find them that things really get interesting. There’s a little more to The Witcher 3’s main thread, of course. You’re sterile, and your child is adoptive; her biological father is the most powerful man on the planet, and he’s in the middle of a massive, world-rending war with his last remaining rival. The daughter you share is being chased by a crew of supernatural beings most people think represent the apocalypse, and she’s the key to saving the world. You can’t find her without the help of a repulsive local warlord, a drunken dwarf, a stoic rebel, a spoony bard, a spy chief turned underworld boss, a rowdy royal family, and a handful of witches who are also your ex-lovers. My head hurts just thinking about it.
The Witcher 3 is bigger and more dense than anything you'd compare it to
When it comes to both gameplay and story, The Witcher 3 is bigger and denser than all of the games you’d use as points of comparison. That’s why the game’s emotionally piercing moments, stunning set pieces, and enjoyable bits of fluff are so impressive: they linger even after you’ve met dozens of new characters, after you’ve crossed hundreds of activities off your virtual to-do list. It’s hard to forget the Bloody Baron, toying with the supernatural to correct years’ worth of mistakes; the ill-fated trip to Skellige that ends with a shipwreck and a whole new world to explore; the battle for Kaer Morhen, where you learn there are some fights even the finest squad on the Continent can’t win. Smaller moments stick around, too. I remember my horse race with a Nilfgaardian general, the night I starred in a Novigrad amateur play, the tryst on the unicorn. I remember that soft pink sunset on the Skellige sea.
As Geralt of Rivia, you’re the star of The Witcher 3’s epic adventure — but you’re also just another person trying to make ends meet. Your allies, enemies, and acquaintances all have lives of their own, and they’re going to fight, scheme, and act no matter what you do. In many ways, the world is leaving you behind: you’re the last of a dying breed, one often treated with suspicion if not outright disgust by the populace, and you don’t have a direct impact on the world’s fate. You can slash through monsters like soft butter and have access to elementary mind control, and it doesn’t matter: you’re usually the least powerful person in a conversation, and your combat prowess has less to do with the game’s conclusion than the way you treat people. It feels like half the game’s characters deserve their own game just as much as Geralt does, and they have the personality and depth to support said games. Who wouldn’t play The Sorceress? The Rebel? The Chosen One? Why not a RTS built around The Emperor? There’s room for all of them in this world.
Geralt's just one part of a broad, rich tapestry
Almost every game I played this year took place in a world unimaginable without its main character. Gotham will plunge into eternal chaos if Batman doesn’t intervene. Yharnam’s nightmare will never end without the work of the hunter. The Commonwealth sleeps without the unpredictable action of the Vault Dweller. That’s not true for the world of The Witcher 3, a game in which the ostensible hero is just one part of a broad, rich tapestry. When Geralt rests, the shopkeepers in Novigrad and Oxenfurt keep shilling their wares; the sorceresses keep scheming, worming their way into royal courts around the world; the villagers of Skellige keep visiting their locals inns to drink and fight. The whales are going to keep swimming whether you discover them or not. Relative insignificance has never felt this satisfying.