What I Played in 2015: The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt

Boy, I really didn’t think that CD Projekt Red had a massively successful AAA game in them. Why did I feel that way you ask?

Firstly, Poland, and much of the Slavic region, hasn’t had a long or storied history of huge AAA games. They have a history of making great games for sure, but it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve started seeing eastern-European studios pump out games with the depth and production value needed to stand on the AAA world stage. 4A Games’ Metro series and Techland’s Dying Light — from Ukraine and Poland respectively — stand out as contemporaries.

Secondly, CD Projekt is known for being incredibly consumer friendly in a world of not-so consumer friendly publishers. They started as a small import and translation house during a time in Poland where the shroud of Soviet communism had just fallen. There was a rush to get all the media that was blacked out by the former ruling party after the wall fell, and CD Projekt wanted to translate and repackage games so that Polish gamers wouldn’t feel quite as alienated.

This was coming right after a time when there was no game piracy laws in Poland because, well, there were no copyright laws at all. Gamers in former Soviet controlled countries were used to copying and trading disks and tapes between each other. The trade laws didn’t allow any outside media in, so they would smuggle it in and trade it during computer exchanges. Radio stations would broadcast Commodore 64 games over the airwaves and you could record them off your stereo.

CD Projekt was facing a strange challenge. They were trying to sell games to people that had never payed for games before. They had to entice gamers that paying full price for a boxed copy of a game was better than paying nothing for it. They did this by being very front-facing and consumer friendly. They were also known for including a lot of “Feelies” in their boxed copies. Feelie is a term used for extra content that was included in the box: cloth maps, in-universe coins, patches, artwork etc.

They keep this mentality alive today, not only with the in-box extras, but with their attitude towards DRM. Good Old Games — which they own — is famous for bucking the trend of digital DRM. You download a game off the site and you own it outright. You get an ISO and can do whatever you want with it, no strings attached.

They have stood out in their attitude towards DLC as well. In a marketplace that is complacent with charging you $40 for a season pass full of costume changes and small side-quests, they decided to make all of Witcher 3’s DLC free. You just receive all this extra content for no more than the purchase price, and it’s yours to keep forever. Yes, they do charge for the 2 expansion packs, but from what I’ve read, they are 10+ hours of new content each.

They’ve also commented on modern game piracy, and in their view it’s a symptom of distrust in the publisher. In their own research, they’ve found that the majority of people that pirate a game end up buying it if they are encouraged to use the pirated copy as a demo.

Thirdly (and perhaps most importantly), the Witcher series is an esoteric, hardcore, PC-centric, hard-MA rated group of games. CD Projekt Red has never pulled any punches with this property. Racism, sexism, religious oppression, murder, rape, and a retinue of truly macabre shit have all been dealt with in the games, and are frequently the focal point of the narrative. The Witcher games can be brutally difficult and unwelcoming to new players. The games are also distinctively Slavic. The myths and historical subtexts the games use are rooted in a culture and history that is potentially alienating to a wide swath of gamers around the world.

So perhaps you can see why I was surprised when the game sold massively and was awarded multiple game of the year awards. I have been a fan of the series for a while now, but never thought that the hardcore, yet impressive little series I loved could become a global phenomenon.

After that long-winded explanation, you may be wondering what I thought of the game. Well, I’ll put it this way. I played 3 open-world games this year, and two of them pull off “best-in-genre” mechanics. Metal Gear Solid 5 is the other one.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has the best narrative structure and threading of any open-world game I have ever played. I have never traversed a huge gameplay space, doing hundreds of small tasks and quests and had the smallest choices I’ve made through that time play a pivotal role in the main narrative. This is the anti-Fallout 4 in that regard. I was never given a pop-up telling me that my narrative choices would have a rippling effect across the world. I just made the choices, and lived with the consequences.

That group of Elves you saved from persecution 10 hours into the game seemed like a good decision, right? Well, it turns out they have been selling children’s organs on the black market and you just facilitated that. That random werewolf you killed on the side of road turned out to be a baron that was tricked into lycanthropy for his inheritance. There was a religious zealot that you killed early in the game, but it turns out that he is the only hope for a group of villagers and they all burn to death 80 hours in.

That isn’t to imply that all these narrative threads are haphazard, or that they rely on a “gotcha” form of surprise. The stakes are defined enough so that you can see the people that will be affected, but much like in real life, you can never see the unintended consequences of a decision. CD Projekt Red wove these narrative threads so seamlessly as they would seem made by magic.

And this is where The Witcher benefits so much from being based off The Witcher. Geralt is a “side-quester” by occupation. It’s literally the job of a witcher to take care of other people’s small problems, and he is doing so in a world that is very morally grey. People in the world of The Witcher are much like people in the real world; they have secondary motives and hidden intentions. Nothing is clear cut and there is a deeper story to everything.

CD Projekt Red came out of left and east field to deliver one of the best made AAA open-world games of all time. The fact that Cyberpunk 2077 is their next project makes me a very happy nerd.