A few times in a generation, a game comes along that sets the bar a little bit higher. Over the past ten years, a handful of different titles have taken something about themselves and pushed the industry a little further on; examples include Breath of the Wild’s approach to open worlds and Fortnite’s relentless pace of updates, but nothing will be felt quite as keenly as The Witcher 3’s approach to story-telling.
I fell in love with Sapkowski’s world through The Witcher 3. Geralt’s story weaves through an intricately crafted version of The Northern Realms, introducing a delightful cast of characters, and allowing you into their lives without ever veering too far from the central narrative and the destinies that tie them together. It’s a feat that I delighted in on a personal level, but one that I’m also aware doesn’t set The Witcher 3 apart in its own right: the past decade has offered up plenty of immersive and well-realised fantasy worlds and stories, from Skyrim to God of War.
What makes CD Projekt Red’s take on narrative so impressive is the way it handles the RPG minutiae; the side-quests, busy work, and world-building that breathes life into not only The Continent, but into what a witcher actually is. For swathes of all three games (and much of the books), Geralt’s critical path is beset by political scheming and existential threats. Without stepping from that path, we’d never get to see Geralt the monster hunter trekking from impoverished village to forgotten hamlet, haggling with paupers who’ve hired him to address their latest ghoul infestation. When we do, it might have been enough for CDPR to simply point us in the direction of the occasional pack of drowners and let Geralt’s silver sword do the rest, but the result is often far more rewarding.
Even the game’s most nondescript side quests are shaped by the stories of the normal people that drive them. The Witcher 3 doesn’t just treat its NPCs as filler material to give its world a little extra vibrance, but as people living out their own lives. Their countries may be in the process of being rent apart by a conflict they can barely understand, but they scrape by just as they did before, and crimes of passion and dark family secrets are just as important in the homesteads of Velen as they are in the streets of Novigrad and the courts of Nilfgaard. Each contract is a narrative rabbit hole, twisting and turning its way through the folklore that underwrites the entire Witcher series, rewarding players with not just gold or experience points, but another short chapter deserving of a spot in Geralt’s story.
Those chapters fit into place a little more easily thanks in no small part to the world in which they take place. For all its breadth, The Witcher 3 is set within a relatively small corner of The Continent, yet offers the opportunity to focus in on its world far more closely than many of its biggest fantasy competitors. Towns and cities like Oxenfurt and Novigrad hum with activity, but I’ve always found the villages and hamlets scattered around the map more interesting places to spend time. These are locations where the poverty and hardship of medieval peasantry is placed front and centre in a way that’s often glossed over at best, and romanticised at worst. The Continent is an ugly, violent place, and CD Projekt Red’s decision to embrace that reality helps ground the stories attached to the game’s wildest folklore.
The Witcher 3’s detailed, highly personal approach to the people and places that offer a backdrop to its epic story has provided the game with a legacy that has already been felt in the current generation and will continue to be felt for years to come. The personalities behind Geralt’s side quests have already helped drive the Assassin’s Creed series’ return to form, and are shaping Techland’s approach to Dying Light 2. Geralt’s 'final' adventure brought Sapkowski’s fantasy novel series into the mainstream, and will be shaping one of the biggest genres in the industry for years to come.