Examinning the key elements that defined CDPR’s open world masterpiece.
The Witcher 3 is already considered among the greatest games to have been released this generation, but years from now, it’ll undoubtedly also be ranked as one of the best games of all time, period. CD Projekt RED’s 2015 open world title stands as a monument to storytelling in video games, with incredible writing, mature storytelling, a captivating cast of characters, and a blueprint for how to expertly tell a gripping story in a vast open world that games have been following since the day it came out.
Geralt of Rivia’s story is very much over, and CD Projekt RED are moving away from The Witcher – for now, at least – to tell a completely new story in a cyberpunk world. But it’s never a bad time to look back on this milestone for the industry, and try and decipher just what it was that it did that made it stand out so thoroughly. That’s exactly what this piece is going to do (or try to, at the very least)- nail down the key elements that pervaded the entire Witcher 3 experience, that defined its every second, and made it the stunning game that we all know it to be.
Just like I did with The Last of Us quite recently, I’m going to try and boil down The Witcher 3’s genius into three of those aforementioned key elements. And what element better to start with than the wonderful world that The Witcher 3 is set in? Known in the series’ lore only as the Continent, a lot of the credit here – at least on the most fundamental level – lies not with CD Projekt RED, but with Andrzej Sapkowski, the author who wrote the novels and short stories CDPR’s trilogy is based on and created the Continent and everything in it.
Where CDPR does deserve credit for is how it uses that source material and implements it in The Witcher 3. It goes without saying, but books and games are very different mediums, and the rules that a game must follow to build a believable, immersive world are drastically different than the rules that a book must follow to do the same. The literary works and source materials that The Witcher 3 pulls from provide a solid foundation for the game to work off of, but a huge chunk of its work is still left, in terms of how it builds the atmosphere, how it presents the world visually, how it delivers the information from the foundation, and so, so much more.
The Witcher 3 handles all of that masterfully. It takes the rich lore of Sapkowski’s books and uses them in constantly engaging ways. Conflicts that readers of those books have grown familiar with appear in the game and are propped up in fascinating ways, which take interesting directions, but always remain consistent with the source material. Even stories and vignettes that CDPR themselves built up with the previous two Witcher games rear their heads again, delivering satisfying conclusions and payoffs.
Every place you visit in the game’s entire world, from the swamplands of Velen, to the bustling streets of Novigrad, to the archipelago of Skellige, to Blood and Wine’s beautiful duchy of Toussaint, is brought to life in spectacular ways. A lot of that is down to some excellent art design (which, of course, is propped up by equally excellent tech), with each place having its own very unique atmosphere and flavour- but each location also brings with it its own set of stories, of brewing conflicts, of key characters, all of whom come together to deliver a strong and cohesive identity.
The world of The Witcher 3 has an incredible sense of place- when you’re playing the game, you’re completely immersed, like you’re actually there. And the true genius of it all is that it’s completely accessible to everyone, regardless of how much prior knowledge or experience you have of the property. It doesn’t matter how many of the books you’ve read, or even if you’ve played any of the first two Witcher games- The Witcher 3 sells its world and everything in it so convincingly, it’s hard not to drown in its currents. Sure, it’s all much more rewarding if you do have that prior experience, but that never acts as a barrier to entry- and for the final game of a trilogy which is based on an even larger collection of literary works, that is no small feat.
The second key element that forms the backbone of The Witcher 3 is one that we’ve all spent countless hours waxing lyrical over since the game first came out over four years ago- the richness of the entire experience, which, in turn, is defined by its complexity. Because as we all well know by now, nothing in The Witcher 3 is straightfoward. Nothing is simple, nothing is unidimensional.
When it comes to the characters, one only need think of Phillip Strenger – better known as the Bloody Baron – or Emhyr var Emreis – the Emperor of the Nilfgaardian Empire – or Olgierd von Everec – the tortured and tragic centrepiece of Hearts of Stone – or even our main man Geralt himself. All of them – and so, so many others – are characters with blatant, apparent flaws, but characters that we can all, on some level, relate to, or at least feel some sympathy for. CDPR is a master of crafting morally grey characters that are neither good nor evil, and in The Witcher 3, they were at the top of their game.
And it’s not just the characters themselves that are complex. By extension, they make the stories they’re involved in – and, in turn, the choices you, as Geralt, are forced to make in those stories – equally complex. More and more, choice-based games have been shifting away from black and white binary player decisions, and leaning more towards nuanced branching moments that actually make the player think, and enrich the narrative that much more.
Was The Witcher 3 the first game ever to do that? Of course not. But the massive scale at which it did so, and the consistency with which it accomplished that nuance, set the benchmark for the industry, which game continue to aspire to today. A choice-driven RPG with no karma system, no morality system, no clearly defined “good” or “bad” choices, or even choices that might not even present consequences for hours and hours would have been unthinkable in the AAA space not too long ago, but The Witcher 3 changed that mindset. And the reason it stood out so much was because of how deftly and smartly it handled that complexity- never too in-your-face about how “grey” its choices were, but never too understated either.
Finally, the third and final element that I think made The Witcher 3 as memorable as it was is a little bit different than the first two- in that it was very much a product of its time. I like to call it the “next-gen factor.” Back in early 2015, the PS4 and the Xbox One were still very much in their infancy, and the output of games we’d seen on both of them from both first and third parties had hardly been what you’d call groundbreaking. That isn’t to say it was bad– it was just (largely) unremarkable. The vast majority of the good games that had been released on both those platforms were either cross-gen, or were the kinds of games that one could very easily picture having been released on last gen platforms with little (or maybe even zero) sacrifices.
The Witcher 3, however, very much felt like a next gen experience. On a pure surface level, that can be attributed to just how amazing the game looked, and how it achieved that technical brilliance in such a massive world. But when we really get down to it, what we expect from “next gen experiences” – more than even prettier visuals – is to give us something that we haven’t seen before. And that is exactly what The Witcher 3 did.
On top of everything that this piece has already discussed so far, and on top of being a technical behemoth, The Witcher 3 was also a rare example of a narrative-driven game with a compelling story and consistently tight writing set in a massive, sprawling open world. Regardless of how much time you wasted in its world, regardless of how much you ignored the main quest, there was always a sense of cohesion to the entire game, and it never felt like its huge non-linear nature was ever getting in the way of its storytelling ambitions.
Hell, I’d even argue that even now, with the eighth console generation coming to a close, The Witcher 3 is one of very few games that gave us the sort of experience that would have been impossible to imagine in, say, 2012. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Red Dead Redemption 2? Maybe a few others? That’s really it.
Next gen or otherwise, The Witcher 3 was a remarkable game that ended up blowing minds by sheer virtue of how great it was. I may have started to touch upon maybe a fraction of the surface of this game’s depth of merit, but there’s far too much it does well to be covered in one editorial. Not easily does a game join the elites as one of the time greats, and the fact that The Witcher 3 managed to do so pretty much as soon as it was released is a testament to how stellar it was.
Soon, CD Projekt RED will be delivering their next big game, Cyberpunk 2077, which was actually announced long before The Witcher 3 even came out. It’s something that we’ve been looking forward to for what feels like forever, but impossibly enough, it’s now not too far away. Whether or not it will live up to the high bar CDPR have set for themselves is a question that’s impossible to answer- a studio of this quality inspires trust in all of us, but at the same time, being as good as – if not better than – The Witcher 3 isn’t something that can be easily accomplished. And in the end, that’s perhaps The Witcher 3’s enduring legacy- it became a standard unto itself, a bar for all other games to aspire to.