Time Ex­tend

If role­play­ing games are only as good as their roles, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is one of the greats

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ALEX WILT­SHIRE

Ger­alt Of Rivera, the White Wolf and Butcher Of Blaviken, comes with a long his­tory. At the out­set of The

Witcher III, he’s some­where around 100 years old, his life ex­tended by the phys­i­cal mu­ta­tions that marked his be­com­ing a witcher, mem­ber of an elite cadre of mon­ster hunters. Also be­hind him are the thou­sands of words writ­ten by his cre­ator, au­thor An­drzej Sap­kowski, as well as the hun­dreds of hours of play in the two games that came be­fore.

For all that it cur­tails the RPG ideal of build­ing a char­ac­ter and set­ting forth with it into a world, it’s re­fresh­ing to play some­one as spe­cific as Ger­alt. Out there, across the bat­tle­fields, is­lands, cities, bogs, peaks and beaches of the North­ern King­doms, are peo­ple to meet and events to un­cover that are writ­ten just for him. There are many choices ahead, but they’re all un­der­scored by be­ing about what Ger­alt would do, and what the world will do for Ger­alt.

“Ah, here crawls a witcher!” cries a pros­e­lytis­ing pri­est of the Eter­nal Fire as you run past. “Look! The corpse-like vis­age! The beastly eyes! This is magic that’s made a mon­grel of a man.” If you choose to face this magic-hat­ing cleric, Ger­alt has only one thing to say: “Got the courage to re­peat that slan­der to my face?” But the pri­est is un­re­pen­tant. “Read­ily! You are a mu­tant. A freak. A use­less relic of a by­gone age that should’ve been burned like a with­ered branch.” While our hack­les rise, Ger­alt says cool; from here you can show the crowd the empti­ness of the pri­est’s claim, since he’s never saved any­one from the mon­sters of the world. As you turn away, it turns on him, and you feel jus­tice has been served.

All of Ger­alt’s di­a­logue, in­clud­ing the choices the game of­fers you, are very much his, born of a man of weary prin­ci­ples; a man who has seen it all and knows he’ll see it all again. With a quest of his own to think of – find­ing his adopted daugh­ter, Ciri – Ger­alt doesn’t want to get em­broiled, but his fre­quent need for the re­wards usu­ally means he has to. Ger­alt works so well as a pro­tag­o­nist be­cause his mo­tives and out­look mir­ror those of yours: a player of many games, who has en­coun­tered in­nu­mer­able NPCs in need across many dif­fer­ent jour­neys, and re­quires gold for a new sword. Ger­alt of­ten ex­presses what you’re think­ing, re­act­ing as you do to the scum­bags and hor­rors you meet.

“Took me a long time to find you,” he says to Whore­son Ju­nior, a crime boss who tor­tures and mur­ders women and gives you the ru­naround un­til you find him. “Wasn’t an easy road to travel. I’m an­gry and tired. Had to kill a lot of peo­ple along the way. Some of them tried to cheat me, some tried to lie. I didn’t like it one bit. I feel like one more lie would be the last bit­ter drop in a chal­ice full of sor­row. And then… Then I’d do some­thing I’d later re­gret.”

Or maybe you won’t re­gret killing him. Ger­alt’s hon­our is flex­i­ble enough to sway both ways, and the op­tion’s ac­cord­ingly yours when it comes to it, be­cause while you play closely to Ger­alt’s char­ac­ter and story, you still get to make sweep­ing choices that have far-reach­ing ef­fects. Kill Whore­son Ju­nior and a quest is suc­cess­fully ended and vengeance is done. Spare him, and his many crimes and bro­ken deals will catch up with him. You’ll later en­counter him beg­ging and weep­ing in the street.

As sce­nar­ios in The Witcher III go, this is a sim­ple one. Char­ac­ters are rarely as de­spi­ca­ble as Whore­son. The world is one of deep am­bi­gu­ity, where do­ing the right thing is al­most im­pos­si­ble, and here, in the North­ern King­doms, where two great armies face each other across no man’s land, that’s par­tic­u­larly true. The cel­e­brated Bloody Baron quest­line ex­em­pli­fies it, ex­am­in­ing closely wife-abus­ing brute Phillip Strenger.

This self-styled baron was a com­mon sol­dier, risen to baron­hood through con­flict. He’s switched al­le­giances from one side, the na­tive Te­me­ri­ans, who are ruled by Radovid, a mad king who has called geno­cide on all magic users, to the in­vad­ing Nil­f­gaar­dians, led with piti­less ag­gres­sion by Em­peror Emhyr. Now his peo­ple are loot­ing and rap­ing their way through lands he’s lucked into rul­ing from his cas­tle, Crow’s Perch. His clothes be­tray his back­ground, a hap­haz­ard mix­ture of well-worn sol­dier’s ar­mour and stately robes.

But he’s not a happy man; his wife hates him for his thug­gish ways, and through a

long se­quence of quests for him we steadily learn of how he’d drunk­enly beat her, of a mis­car­riage, of her flight from him, of a curse, and the baron’s pro­found guilt and sense of loss. The tale is tragic, and as it un­rav­els the baron be­comes more sym­pa­thetic. The story doesn’t shy from his crimes, but ex­presses the pain and en­dur­ing fall­out he ex­pe­ri­ences as a weak man in a sit­u­a­tion that’s be­yond him.

It’s a model of The Witcher III’s close eye on hu­man­ity. Like most videogames, it hap­pily fix­ates on vi­o­lence and fan­tasy, but they’re both founded upon their ef­fects on peo­ple’s lives. We don’t see grand bat­tles, but we walk through fields of the dead, bro­ken vil­lages and refugee camps, and we meet those who’ve lost their loved ones in them. There are an­cient wrongs, too, curses and haunt­ings that Ger­alt will un­cover with com­pas­sion, in­ves­ti­gat­ing and dis­pelling the mur­der­ous ghost of a mur­dered bride in or­der to lay her to rest. This is a world where mis­ery is com­mon but evil is rare. Even higher vam­pires, preda­tory and dis­dain­ful of hu­man life though they are, are pre­sented as rounded char­ac­ters, and of­ten sym­pa­thetic in The Witcher III’s fi­nal ex­pan­sion, Blood And Wine.

This is a game that in­vites un­der­stand­ing, and of­ten for­give­ness, in a messy world that’s not un­like our own. And so when Ger­alt meets a be­ing who isn’t flawed and weak, it’s a shock. Gaunter O’Dimm, Master Of Mir­rors, is present right at the very start, in the pub in White Or­chard, a mo­ment of fore­shad­ow­ing whose specifics aren’t clear un­til the ar­rival of the game’s first ex­pan­sion, Hearts Of

Stone. He’s the devil, malev­o­lent and om­nipo­tent, de­light­ing in sub­ject­ing the des­per­ate to curses that pro­long their pain. Ger­alt can­not beat him through brawn, but he can through brains, and though the de­noue­ment is fun­da­men­tally a scripted puz­zle level, it feels like a bat­tle of wills be­tween some­thing oth­er­worldly and Ger­alt’s earth­li­ness.

This isn’t a game where you play the min-max­ing, amoral klep­to­ma­niac that you might in an Elder Scrolls or Fall­out. In those games, the world is your play­ground, a place where you can ex­ploit dif­fer­ent sys­tems for profit and power, bun­ny­hop­ping to raise your Ac­ro­bat­ics skill and plac­ing bas­kets over shop­keep­ers’ heads so they won’t see you steal their wares. In Ger­alt’s world, sto­ry­lines are set, and cash and lev­el­ling are tightly con­trolled. Most shop­keep­ers hold lit­tle ready cash with which to trade, and it’s of­ten dif­fi­cult to dis­cern the ef­fect of lev­el­ling up on your com­bat prow­ess.

Ger­alt, af­ter all, is a su­per­nat­u­rally skilled war­rior, able to face lechens, katakans and fiends. He’s not the Cho­sen One, nor blessed by fate. He’s trained for years to be­come who he is, and to play him well means learn­ing to be skilled, too. The

Witcher III’s com­bat can feel ini­tially dis­lo­cated in its at­tempt to blend stat-based

THIS GAME IN­VITES UN­DER­STAND­ING, AND OF­TEN FOR­GIVE­NESS, IN A MESSY WORLD THAT’S NOT UN­LIKE OUR OWN

dam­age with ac­tion-based tim­ing, but it’s re­ally about plan­ning and an­tic­i­pa­tion: of a dodge and then a strike and then a roll clear. Ger­alt finds ad­van­tage through ex­pe­ri­ence, pa­tience and de­lib­er­ate ac­tion, and hit­ting but­tons wildly will leave him open to easy de­feat on higher dif­fi­culty lev­els.

Ger­alt’s blades are only half his ar­se­nal. His knowl­edge and use of signs, oils, po­tions, de­coc­tions and bombs come into their own in chal­leng­ing fights. Signs are pow­er­ful recharg­ing spells, which can be cast to sum­mon a shield or a blast of fire. Oils ap­plied to Ger­alt’s blade will make them more ef­fec­tive against cer­tain en­e­mies. Toxic po­tions and de­coc­tions lend Ger­alt spe­cial abil­i­ties, and bombs can dam­age groups or pre­vent magic from be­ing used against him. Ev­ery one has spe­cific use, whether by species or by tac­tics, and the sig­nif­i­cance of ev­ery one is fur­ther de­fined by skills bought as he lev­els up, en­abling spe­cialised builds that in­crease Sign recharge rates and ef­fec­tive­ness, or crit­i­cal hits and bleed­ing from sword strikes, or his abil­ity to with­stand the tox­i­c­ity of his po­tions so he can take more of them.

To play Ger­alt well, there­fore, is to em­ploy his knowl­edge, a sub­tle act that has you role­play­ing this pre­set char­ac­ter with­out re­al­is­ing it. The close­ness you end up feel­ing to this gruff, tired man lends the main game’s end­ing last­ing poignancy. With his main quest to find Ciri suc­cess­ful, the game spends a great deal of time ten­derly ex­plor­ing his re­la­tion­ship with his daugh­ter be­fore they pre­pare to face the Wild Hunt. They’re fi­nally to­gether, and yet we see how Ger­alt’s world is crum­bling, his or­der of witch­ers nearly ex­tinct and Ciri fated to live apart from him. At the game’s con­clu­sion, all he can do is to re­turn to the road to live once again from hand to mouth, from bounty to mon­ster and back again.

This sad state only makes one of the very dif­fer­ent end­ings of Blood And Wine more cathar­tic. Given a house of his own far from the war, and hav­ing amassed funds to make it good, Ger­alt has a visit from Ciri. They dis­cuss the life of a witcher and the idea of set­tling down. Here, with them sit­ting on a sunny hill, we don’t know whether he re­ally will. But the sense that Ger­alt’s story can fi­nally end is un­com­monly sat­is­fy­ing, born of hav­ing lived with him for so long.

Ger­alt is voiced in English by Doug Cockle, a grav­elly per­for­mance that ini­tially comes across as flat but ex­presses his un­der­stated emo­tions with sub­tlety

For all Ger­alt’s jaded emo­tional sup­pres­sion, he’s still ca­pa­ble of fun and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, which only makes him more like­able

Not ev­ery mon­ster is wor­thy of death. If Ger­alt can break this wight’s curse, it turns into a woman who be­comes his per­ma­nent house guest

Of all videogame worlds, The Witcher III’s is un­com­monly ana­logue. Ger­alt takes a nat­u­ral place in its me­an­der­ing lanes, che­quered fields and tan­gled forests

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