Why The Witcher 3 is a Skyrim killer
The first open-world RPG to land on next-generation consoles, CD Projekt RED tells games™ how the dark fantasy world of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will change the genre for good.
The Witcher franchise has always appeared to be defined as much by the events that players don’t see as it is by those that are actually experienced. The wilderness is a harsh beast willing to challenge the moral fibre of this fantasy tale’s antihero Geralt, spawning endless consequences that echo throughout his journey traversing the mythical realm in which the story takes place. Unlike the majority of celebrated fantasy literature, there’s no black-and-white good versus evil tale, and the villain trying to annihilate the world isn’t telegraphed by the sharpened fangs hanging from a goliath’s maw, nor is it a flaming eye piercing the blackened skyline.
Therefore, it’s not always obvious which path you should walk; there’s no pendulum swinging between positive and negative determined by the choices Geralt makes, and you won’t see the continued toil of these decisions reflected in any sort of physical transformation. Beloved characters perish, while others continue to fight by your side; friends become enemies, and some of the most frightening monsters you face often turn out to be human.
While most developers eagerly create choices, CD Projekt RED has created a world, the state of which organically moulds itself around the consequences of the player’s actions. You will never see everything that the Witcher series has to offer, but then, your journey feels uniquely your own.
“You don’t even want to know how much work that takes,” laughs Maciej Szcześnik, lead gameplay designer on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. “Really. We’re making a game with 36 different possible endings, 12 world states and three fully playable epilogues. And all this is powered by your choices and is interconnected. If you want to get the scope of it, picture this: 100 hours of gameplay, a ton of quests and decisions to be made. Imagine the time needed to put all this into one coherent piece. Yes, you don’t even want to know.”
As the last part of the trilogy, it promises a fittingly epic conclusion to Geralt of Rivia’s story, not to mention the journey taken by the studio itself over the past decade. The independent Polish studio has grown enormously from its inauspicious origins as a distributor, branching into videogame development in 2002 after dalliances in the localisation market and a brief flirtation with porting console games to PC (the predominant format in Poland). 2007’s The Witcher was CD Projekt RED’s inaugural release, the most expensive game developed in Poland at the time, using BioWare’s Aurora Engine and with the majority of the development team learning the ropes as it went along.
Flying by the seat of their pants, the company hit a bumpy road following the release of The Witcher, abandoning a console port (titled Rise Of The White Wolf ) after a significant cash injection and beginning development of the PC sequel blind on an untested new engine.
It paid off, though. The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings was a more confident product, pushing the storytelling to new heights within a richer and more receptive world. Crucially, the PC release was followed nearly a year later by the franchise’s graceful bow onto consoles, which was facilitated by the studio’s own proprietary tech. The ambition of the studio continues to swell alongside its international recognition. Being released on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One simultaneously, it boasts the developer’s first expansive open-world setting that not only dwarfs the size of its predecessor, but also weighs in at about 20 per cent bigger than the land mass of its cultural touchstone, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As an indie studio that is undeniably on the upswing, surely the thought of taking on some of the biggest studios in the world is a daunting one?
“As unexpected as it may seem, we’ve been preparing for this since The Witcher,” Szcześnik tells gamesTM. “We always wanted to make an open-world game, but we also wanted to make super-quality RPGs, and this takes both patience and resources. Over the course of our previous games we’ve gained the necessary experience, technology and creative force to push us into the next generation with a bang. We’ve bolstered many departments with really creative people who have tons of fresh ideas and knowledge, and we have the means to back them up. It’s time to do an open-world game that tells a story like no other.”
The Witcher 3 doesn’t just bring about the close to Geralt’s story; it marks the end of an era for CD Projekt RED who, through the Witcher series, has become one of the most propitious and fascinating developers working today.
CD Projekt RED will tell you that it’s not creating a game, but crafting a story. For all the majesty of Skyrim’s Scandinavian-flavoured world, the mainline plot was relatively short, the immersive nature of its sublimely crafted snow-drenched landscape and the dynamic nature of its denizens compensating for its narrative brevity. CD Projekt RED predicts that the central story of The Witcher 3 will take around 50 hours to conquer, following Geralt as he fends off the invading forces of the Empire of Nilfgaard currently pillaging the Northern Kingdom, while searching for the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg – his lost love who he hopes will bring him serenity. But he’s also investigating the emergence of the Wild Hunt – a fearsome supernatural race, led by the King of the Wild Hunt, and something of an omen of death and destruction – to which Geralt’s destiny appears intrinsically tied to.
Szcześnik explains that pushing the darker fantasy elements to create a grimmer atmosphere is all in keeping with the source material of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books of the same name: “The whole world presented as in both the books and the games is very gritty and dark. It’s not the kind of kindergarten fantasy that’s become kind of typical to the genre. At its core, the game world is very brutal and bathed in all the shades of grey. There’s no right or wrong here; it’s eat or be eaten, win or die. And when it comes to Geralt, well, he’s really motivated to get the job done. This time his motivation is deeply personal.”
There are other machinations that spur Geralt to investigate the terrors that lurk in the darkest recesses of the fantasy realm. One of the benefits of the mystical Witch Hunt spreading their wretchedness (not to mention dark magic) across the land is the arrival of over 80 new monsters waiting to be tracked and to slaughtered for a tidy profit. For Geralt, the bounty hunter business is certainly booming.
Each of these encounters, while not part of the main storyline, represents a significant undertaking in itself. The majority of enemies lurking among the shadows are feral by nature, which means that it won’t be a straight sword fight for Geralt. Instead, each will have its own unique attack patterns, and Geralt will need to identify their weaknesses to bring them down. Using Witcher Senses – one of the game’s new abilities that resembles the Barman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode – weak points will be highlighted, which can be as specific as limbs that need to be removed. Again, similarly to Arkham, Geralt can also piece together grisly events that have occurred, replaying them to kick-start an investigation and a new side quest.
We’ve seen both of these in action during an extended presentation that involved tracking a woodland creature known as a Leshen. For the most part it was a case of following the trail and dispensing of the creature in a specific manner. However, it was the way that the local community interacted with Geralt during his enquiries that impressed most. Several members of the local village express their beliefs as to why the Leshen is terrorising their land, slaughtering innocents within a twisted net of tangled tree branches. There are not a million different resolutions to this side quest, but the few that are available offer unexpected twists and credible repercussions rippling through the rest of your time within that world.
CD Projekt RED has said that the side quests will double the play time, and it’s down to the organic nature of exploration that makes travelling the world – which takes roughly 40 minutes from one side to another on horseback – a meaningful pursuit.
“In the Slavic mythos from which the game also draws inspiration, adventure is always around the corner,” says Szcześnik of the distractions littered across The Witcher 3’s continent. “You don’t have to venture on a quest to another part of the world to have the adventure of your life. Our idea of a living world is one that is dripping with stories that want to be experienced; stories that want to be told and listened to. They don’t necessarily have to be grand tales of saving the world; sometimes they’re very intimate or emotional. And they’re always very different. This is what fuels gamers to explore the world we’re presenting. In The Witcher 3, adventure is always within reach.”
The world in The Witcher 3 is 35 times bigger than what you saw in The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings… and that was a pretty big game itself,” exclaims Szcześnik. “Because of this, it’s more difficult to build environments simply because of the scale. Gamers can now see more of the Continent, which has many diverse environments – the rocky Skellige archipelago, the murky and war-ravaged No Man’s Land and the beautiful yet corrupted Novigrad.”
Unsurprisingly, this has proven to be the biggest challenge for the studio in comparison to its work on The Witcher 2. The Witcher 3’s world has been created on an unprecedented scale, but that’s not to say the minor details have been overlooked. Expected systems, such as day and night cycles and dynamic weather simulation, help reinforce the fantasy, but they converge in impressive fashion; for instance, a storm batters and tosses Geralt about as he travels between islands by boat during an unsettled evening.
It will also have a dramatic effect on the surrounding area: the neighbouring villagers will retreat to local beer halls and busy themselves with something other than standing outside in the pouring rain. Even with the heightened production values, the way in which CD Projekt RED has approached building a tangible world, in which both the mythology and characters feel believable, and even intimate, is indicative of its uncompromising indie spirit.
Szcześnik explains how fundamental it was to make every object person feel like it belongs in its place: “When we create something for the world, we make sure that it fits its context in terms of geography (for example, a village in the swamps would be made mostly of wood, while one situated in rocky and treeless highlands would be made of stone), culture (in a merchant town people advertise their wealth, often ostentatiously, through the way they dress and via luxurious architecture), economic situation, lore, etc. Even though this is a fantasy universe, we want it to be plausible and realistic – to have people believe that, even though it’s a fantasy world, this place could exist. The same goes for characters; we want them to behave like real people, minding their own business, having their own goals and aims. They will talk, think and act differently depending on their cultural background, life experiences and character.”
We ask whether it was challenging to create a unifying art direction over such a massive, varied landscape, uniting disparate parts of the world together. The answer is, quite simply, a case of returning to the source material. “It depends on how you look at it,” muses Szcześnik. “On one hand, we have a lot of creative freedom and we’re not afraid to experiment. On the other, we need to stay faithful to all the books. Sapkowski’s novels, the source of the game world, provide quite a lot in terms of art direction. They specify the general look and feel of places and monsters and are something we can always resort to or have in the back of our minds. But there’s a lot of stuff the books don’t specify, and here’s where the super-creative people from the art department kick in. We have brainstorming sessions and frequently quarrel over how stuff should look like, but because of the great communication processes we managed to develop in the studio, maintaining a coherent art direction is not an impossible task.”
It’s clear that CD Projekt RED is confident about what it has set out to achieve with The Witcher 3. And as it draws to a close on a trilogy of titles that evolved in parallel with the developer itself, we can’t help but wonder what sort of impact this has all had on its next venture, an adaptation of the classic pen and paper role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2077.
“From a technical standpoint, the experience gained developing The Witcher 3 on next-gen will definitely pay off when we work on Cyberpunk 2077,” reveals Szcześnik. “Along with the rest of the world, we’re pioneering the next generation. We did not have access to the systems from day one of development, so some decisions had to be made based on estimates of what the new consoles can do. Each grain of knowledge we get now will pay off in the future.”
It’s an elusive statement, but the truth is that the future noir of Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a huge leap from the world it has created with The Witcher. Both share themes of terrorism, social inequality and duplicitous authorities, despite the atmospheric touch of European mythology to The Witcher 3 and the Blade Runner-esque dystopia touted in Cyberpunk 2077 being complete polar opposites.
But as Szcześnik highlighted earlier, the thing the two have most in common is the platforms they’re releasing on, namely PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It was a task that would demand a new engine – the third iteration of REDengine, which only debuted with The Witcher 2 in 2011 – that enabled the studio to enhance the world’s visual details, from the stunning vistas to character mannerisms. Above all, it facilitated a new approach to the console RPG.
“We wanted to put as much force as we could into the punch that, we hope, will change the RPG genre for a long time,” says Szcześnik. “Both consoles are wonderful pieces of hardware and allow us to go crazy on the visuals and gameplay ideas. This next generation of hardware will mean a next generation of graphics and storytelling in open-world RPGs.”
It has certainly helped that the lack of direct competition at this point in time has gained The Witcher 3 a much broader pre-release recognition than either of its predecessors. Not that Szcześnik suggests any pressure is felt within the studio: “We want to make an extremely good RPG for next-gen platforms,” he says. “Our intention is to convince people that it’s a revolutionary game not because it’s the only game available, but because it’s truly good. Will it help? It might, but we’re not thinking about it – we’re making the best game we can, not wishing there’s no competition when we launch. That would be stupid, because there’s always another game, be it RPGs, strategy, sports or shooters; it’s not like gamers play one genre only. In terms of our audience, I hope it reaches everyone who values a good story in a mature environment. The story is always the most important part of the experience for us, but this time around combat could stand on its own so even action-orientated gamers will like it.”
There’s no firm release date set, but we wouldn’t expect it to arrive in the first half of 2014. When we discuss some of the other advancements in the sequel – a less newbie-alienating introduction to the mechanics, how alchemy will function and the more nuanced and graceful changes to combat – it’s clear that the studio is still figuring out how all the pieces will slot together.
“We’re still experimenting,” admits Szcześnik when we move onto discussing what the interface will look like in the final build. Yet, the news doesn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, this is a studio that has built its success clinging onto the edge of its seat, constantly iterating and refining all the way to the finish line. It’s encouraging that while the beasties grow more fearsome, the world more imposingly stunning and Geralt older and wiser, that everything that goes on behind the scenes to create the final chapter in the Witcher trilogy – the stuff that you don’t see – remains the same as it has always been.