The Witcher came out on PC in 2007. That feels like a lifetime ago. The series is now easily one of my favourites, but a decade ago I, like a lot of people, had no idea it even existed. That’s created a weird dynamic as I play The Witcher 1 for the first time knowing everything that happens in the second two games, like being Michael J. Fox in Back To The Future sent back to Renaissance Poland rather than 1950s California.
In The Witcher 1’s opening, series protagonist Geralt suffers from amnesia. Shortly after arriving back at the stronghold of Kaer Morhen, a group of bandits led by an evil mage and sinister looking academic lay siege to the place in an attempt to steal the Witcher school’s prized mutagens. It’s a lot to take in, especially since the game uses it as an opportunity to tutorialise things like combat and exploration. Playing the game in 2007, and without having read the books they were adapted from, a lot of the opening moments might go underappreciated, but after everything I’ve experienced, it bordered on the surreal.
Within minutes I was plotting the castle’s defence with characters I’ve spoken with and fought alongside countless times, but who haven’t yet experienced those things within the timeline of the series. Lambert, Eskel, and Vesemir welcome Geralt with warmth and familiarity, but not like the old battleworn friend he’s become by the end of the third game. The graphics being a decade old, the characters even feel younger, the lines in their faces smoothed away by poor texture quality. Lambert hectors everyone, but with less grit in his voice. Vesemir, the group’s father figure, moves with more urgency. And Triss Merigold, years before helping other magic users flee Novigrad to escape being hanged, seems slightly less sure of herself, even if her abilities remain a match for anyone.
With the Witcher games, CD Projekt Red has always managed to strike an exceptional balance between trying to evoke every nuance and detail of the series’ particular lore and grimey fantasy aesthetic and letting that stuff ooze organically from each scene without the characters acting as mouthpieces for it. Creating a health potion for Triss after the first battle at Kaer Morhen, you get a sense of how tender Geralt can be, despite his scars and smart-ass retorts. He’s always had a soft spot, but suffering from a fresh bout of memory loss and unsure of his particular relationship to the woman lying sick in bed in front of him, Geralt’s ongoing struggle to do right by those around him without making it clear how much he cares is complex. In the context of the rest of their journey together, from tracking Triss down in the second game to helping her escape to Skellige in the third, the moment also feels incredibly normal and lowkey. It provides a window into the two characters’ relationship prior to things going sideways. What might have been a tedious throwaway side quest in 2007 ended up in 2018 showing me something new about two characters I thought I already knew everything about.
I’d love for CD Projekt Red to remake the first game using the engine of the third. There have already been a few fan mods to that effect. However ugly and often unwieldy to navigate, full of badly-delivered lines by voice actors still getting the hang of things, The Witcher 1 remains an irreplaceable part of the larger world CD Projekt has spent a decade creating. I can’t wait to keep playing the hell out of it.