The Witcher 3 [official site] brings to a close one of the strangest trilogies in games. Unlike a series like Mass Effect, where the first game’s design laid a foundation for each subsequent instalment, The Witcher series completely reinvented itself at every turn. Yet despite the way CD Projekt Red lurched from one design to another, the series also retained an undeniably unique and consistent identity.
How much of The Witcher series’ evolution was by design, and how much was improvised? It’s hard to say, even for the CDP veterans who oversaw Geralt’s video game odyssey from beginning to end. I know because I asked.
“I remember a meeting that took place around the time when The Witcher was released,” wrote Sebastian Stępień, Creative Director at CD Projekt Red. “[CDP co-founder] Michał Kiciński produced a sheet of paper and said that he had the story blueprint for a three-part saga about the witcher. Later, I remember people talking about this legendary document, but that meeting was the first and only time I ever saw it.”
Despite the popularity of the original Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, the game series started on a wing and a prayer.
“You have to remember that back around 2005-2007, we were really young, really inexperienced, even outright naive in that we thought we could accomplish anything,” said Mateusz Kanik, Game Director. “What’s more, we actually believed we had the know-how to do it. In hindsight, I honestly have to say that we were wrong.”
Kanik means his remark in good humor, but there’s some truth to his harsh self-assessment. The Witcher remains a strange game, and a big part of its unusual character comes from the struggles CD Projekt endured as it battled the Neverwinter Nights engine.
Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, another CDP Game Director, explained, “It was our first title, a project we actually used to learn how to develop games. On top of that, we had huge ambitions that extended well beyond the capabilities of BioWare’s engine. Above all, we wanted to push the envelope graphically, so we rebuilt the renderer from scratch and created our own means for displaying visuals.”
One of the unique things about The Witcher, back in 2007, was the way it was brimming with life-like details. I remember being floored when the skies opened up over a tiny village center and everyone started running for shelter, clustering under eaves and awnings while waiting for the storm to pass.
“Since BioWare’s engine didn’t support large in-game communities, we had to create our own tools that would let us generate populations that would be satisfactory in size and follow a daily life cycle,” Tomaszkiewicz said. “It wasn’t easy, but ultimately we managed to produce something that truly resembled a living world, where folk had their jobs and lifestyles. They’d leave their homes in the morning, visit the local tavern after work to unwind, then go home to their families come evening. Merchants would hawk their wares, guardsmen would patrol Vizima’s back streets.”
But the Neverwinter Nights engine still had to be clubbed into submission in some other ways, using tricks that are both laughable and ingenious.
“I remember thinking that the [Neverwinter editor] tool was pretty rigid, that it afforded designers little flexibility,” he continued. “I can’t count the number of times we had to resort to scripting unique events. Scripts in Neverwinter Nights were assigned to objects, so oftentimes we would place more complex bits of logic, for instance, in a torch hanging on the wall of a building inhabited by some specific NPCs.”
Improvised solutions like these let the team overcome their crude tools and lack of experience, and that’s why Kanik can’t call their effort a failure. But looking back from the vantage point of 2015, it’s hard for him not to wonder what The Witcher could have been if only they’d been a bit wiser.
“We made up for it with passion, commitment and plain hard work — and that’s why, in spite of everything, the game was a success,” Kanik said. “But if we ventured back in time with all we know and have now, we could avoid all those walls we crashed into head-on. We could avoid a multitude of problems, production-related and otherwise, and produce a game with far more polished features, and probably a far greater number of them.”
Despite its technical limitations, The Witcher’s themes and tone set it apart. The dirt and grime of that first game wasn’t in service of “gritty” realism or grimdark fantasy tropes, but a byproduct of the series’ relentless focus on ground-level, human-scale stories.
“Geralt makes a living by solving the problems of others,” explained Marcin Blacha, lead writer. “He travels from place to place, looking for opportunities to make money. That’s actually a very convenient excuse to tell stories about the everyday lives of the world’s inhabitants, be they kings, merchants, peasants or beggars.
While the story that ultimately drives the last act of The Witcher is a typical “battle for the fate of the world”, most of the game is concerned with petty crimes and betrayals.
“The games about Geralt contend that evil has its source in people – in their lies and weaknesses that others can easily exploit,” Blacha continued. “Stories of this kind are far more suggestive than, say, a story about an invasion by evil demons. True, we use supernatural beings and forces in the games, but merely as metaphors. The Beast from the Outskirts is not scary just because it’s a dangerous monster. It’s also frightening because it’s an incarnation of misdeeds and sins we might witness or experience in our daily lives.”
The flip-side of that is The Witcher’s focus on friendships. Even if Geralt was routinely exploring the dark-side of human nature, and alternating between dour impassivity and ironic distance, he was warmed by the friends who surrounded him.
“To this day,” said Stępień, “I have fond memories of Old Friend of Mine, [a quest] which culminated with the get-together at Shani’s house. That’s a quest that I think really manages to capture the spirit of Sapkowski’s prose, a spirit that’s hard to capture in a computer game because it assumes an almost complete lack of action: no enemies — none of the challenges players are used to having in a quest. But we managed to produce something successful and had a good time doing it. I think I still have the uncut version of that quest somewhere, where there’s at least three times as much dialogue as you saw in that quest in the game.”