The joy of The Witcher 3’s great outdoors

A secret for you: I have not finished The Witcher 3, even though I think very highly of it. I do not believe that I will ever finish it, and the reason for that is the weather.

I’ve never uninstalled the game from my hard drive, but though I fire it up once every couple of months, I don’t progress.

All I do is joyfully roam around the fells and streams of a place I have come to call home. There are other places like this in this game, some perhaps even prettier or more dramatic still than this one, but this is where I chose to hang my hat. I amble around it unhurriedly, this patch of land of mine, just opening my senses to it all.

I smile as a rabbit or deer erupts from the trees as I pass by; watch the skies turn from blue to white to nightmare-black; feel compelled to seek shelter as the trees’ gentle twitching escalates to feverish spasms; sense that my real-life body temperature has dropped by several degrees as scattered sunlight gives way to torrential rain; revel in the sheer wildness of Skellige as the heavens reach their apex and visit lightning and thunder upon this unspoilt landscape. And the sky, the size of that sky.

My savegame locates me in a highland area just outside a small village named Fryesdal. I cannot recall quite how or why I fetched up there, but I know that it was not long after the deeply unsettling and moving events of the Bloody Baron quest chain. Emotionally exhausted by that pitch-black tale of brutality, sacrifice and grief, I fled from the world of man in search of the catharsis of the countryside.

This place near Fyresdal ticked all the boxes. Coastal yet mountainous, floral yet forested, carpeted with vegetation yet forked by streams, as idyllic in the sunshine as it was startlingly exposed in a thunderstorm.

I can see – feel – all the weather from here, as it rolls off the distant mountains, as the big sky clouds and clears, as the shadows lengthen and shorten with the sun.

For all that I know there are monsters over there and quest-givers with funny accents over there and that if I press this button my character will throw fire from his hands, I have never felt more outdoors in a videogame. Real outdoors, not videogame or Hollywood outdoors.

Though there are vibrant flowers and lush trees, it is as much scrubby as it is pastoral beauty, and cruel weather dramatically transforms it from tranquillity to something almost apocalyptic. The great outdoors, the size of it, the weather of it, the twitching life of it all.

And so I never leave, for fear that I will never find this place again.

63 Comments

  1. Jokerme says:

    All gaming websites should have a monthly The Witcher 3 appreciation day.

  2. LexxieJ says:

    And this is one of the reasons I love RPS> No other site has articles as whimsical as this.

    Great job Alec.

  3. kud13 says:

    I never finished Blood and Wine.

    I reached a point where I’m supposed to make a choice on how to progress the plot. And I can feel that the ramifications of either choice will hurt the characters I (but most importantly, Geralt) cares about.

    Faced with a moral dilemma with no acceptable way out, I chose to just walk away. And I can’t force myself to go back.

    • Premium User Badge

      boundless08 says:

      “Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I’m not a pious hermit, I haven’t done only good in my life. But if I’m to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.” – Geralt of Rivia.

      Pretty much what the books and games are all based upon but I remember playing the first witcher ages ago and when making a decision was like “Well which is the good and which is the bad? Wait, hang on, there is no good or bad? I’m to make a decision based on my own feelings and thoughts?” *runs away*.

      • Orillion says:

        In the Witcher 1, the big choice actually DOES have a “good” option: stay neutral, like witchers are supposed to.

        It, uh, also leads to a threesome with two nurses, as I recall.

        • Rich says:

          And, in the end, isn’t that what life is all about?

        • Imperialist says:

          Not really. You have a choice between a pious faction corrupted by evil leaders, who see their actions as “good” but intend to establish a new world order using less-than-moral methods. Also creating actual monsters to “save the world”.

          Or a faction of terrorists, who despite a slight good streak, ultimately tread an evil path, kidnap children, kill humans because they are human, regardless of whether or not one is a butcher of elves, or collecting firewood.

          Or you can choose neither, choosing to remain on the Path. It results in a greater loss of life, however, as you are essentially forced to slaughter everything. Which places all 3 endings in a big grey blob that all depends on your perspective. The game makes a big point of choosing the lesser evil, which i guess depending on your personal ideology, is up for debate.

          Also, addition and SPOILERS: The Order is redeemed (for a time) if you saved Sigfried. They ultimately are disbanded and become bandits to survive.
          And the Scoi’atel are somewhat redeemed, or at least shed in far less evil light if you help Iorveth in TW2.

      • eeguest says:

        I remember this different way:
        The is no good or evil, only choces and consequences.

      • Zeewolf says:

        To be fair, the decision not to choose between two evils is exactly what gave him the nickname “The butcher of Blaviken”.

        I guess players have the unfair advantage that the world doesn’t move on until they do.

        As for Blood & Wine, I’m pretty sure you can navigate that questline in a way that ends up reasonably well for most people involved. And if you’ve been a decent person in the game as a whole, the “ending” of Blood & Wine is really, really satisfying.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I can understand that decision, but just so you know… at least one version of the ending for Blood and Wine has a coda that I found very satisfying, as a way to finally say goodbye to Geralt. In spite of the inevitable tragedy along the way.

    • jdogburger says:

      I haven’t finished the last chapter so I can keeping telling myself I’m still playing the greatest game ever.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      If you want the ending with the least tragedy (dare I say the “happy” ending?), “remember the ribbon.”

    • Corwin71 says:

      I’m not sure exactly what decision point you’re referring to, but I can tell you that the ending I reached was satisfying and fairly happy, a nice (temporary?) retirement with Geralt and Yen in an idyllic spot.

  4. vence333 says:

    The weather effects in this game are amazing, and they play a major role in the overall immersion.

    • Stevostin says:

      What immersion ? It’s third person view. Game designer are screaming to my hear every bloody second that I am not there, just watching someone who is. There is not an ounce of immersion with that kind of view. I always wonder why they care so much about developing a world they then insist we can’t personally visit.

      • batraz says:

        So you never immerge in movies, nor books ? This idea that only first person view provides immersion is the most silly thing I’ve read about games and narratives in general. Have you seen this 1947 adaptation of Chandler’s “The lady of the lake” ? It’s preposterous and it’s only seen today as a curiosity ; anyway it proves that first person view has nothing to do with immersion in visual narratives. I like to have a sense of scale unifying my character and the world, and you can’t have that in first person view. Moreover, when I walk, the scenery doesn’t bounce and no schlong-like appendix waving a gun/knife/whatever precedes me everywhere I go… I understand why one would enjoy that, but it has nothing to do with aesthetics, nor immersion.

        • Stevostin says:

          Word issue IMO – you’re mixing immersion with interest or something. Immersion as I meant it (and I think it’s the most common use for the word) is the illusion of being there. Do you ever see yourself from above ? I guess not. So if you don’t respect that solid rule from reality, you’re compromising on immersion, exactly as a top down view for a race game is a compromise on the speed feeling. Now sometimes there are good reason for the compromise – in TW3 I assume it’s for a better representation of fights. Also some people just get sick with 1st person view so there’s a net customer loss if you opt in. In all cases… strictly speaking about immersion… ie the illusion of being there… it’s always a big step down if you can’t produce a first person view.

          Does it prevent the story, or the world, to be interesting and attaching ? Certainly not. These things can be interesting in books, movies, etc so obviously that doesn’t need immersion. We can love the Shire without a first person view. But there’s a point to be made about using the media. Good writing is good but if that’s something that’s good as well in a book, then videogame does little in the process to produce a stronger experience. That’s probably why Bethesda’s RPG vastly outsells the Mass Effects or the Witchers of the world despite what’s considered generally to be lesser writing. Because they focus before everything else on the feeling of “being there” – something only video games can provide.

          • ohminus says:

            See, that’s where people may thoroughly disagree. First of all, the issue is not “Do you ever see yourself…” at all. We’re talking about a Witcher with superhuman senses who very much can hear, feel etc. what’s happening behind him and has exceptional spatial awareness of his surroundings – if he didn’t, he’d be dead pretty quickly, shredded by drowners crowding him from all sides.

            That aside, a first person view does not immersion make. The feeling of “being there” is just as much dependent on the place feeling like a real place, with the world around you giving you credible feedback. And that’s where Bethesda regularly fails, offering interactivity and features as an end in and of themselves and not as means. A real place will tell you now and then “No, you can’t do that.”

            Aside from that, I saw an article the other day pointing out how well-designed the nature in Witcher 3 was, with all the plants that exist in RL being placed quite where you’d expect them. Compare that to Skyrim, where you can find lavender, a mediterranean plant, in a tundra environment, and it’s like someone kicked you in the naughty bits in the middle of your attempt to immerse yourself in the environment.

      • Rich says:

        It’s just as easy, if not more so, to immerse yourself in a well written character than it is for a blank slate like Skyrim’s protagonist. Fallout 4 is even worse, since there is a character who pops up whenever you talk to someone, but is completely absent for the rest of the game. Seriously, who cares about Sean?

        • Stevostin says:

          Well written as “I’d like to read that in a book” is probably opposite to immersive. That’s one of the thing that put me off badly in TW2: hey, play that very defined character, not a chance in the world you can play yours. Another scream in my hears “that’s not you, you’re not there, it’s that guy Gerhald, he has a personality that you don’t drive and barely influence and you tell him to do stuff from a distance”.

          Good writing for immersion is to me something like Fallout New Vegas. The word have nothing amazing, but it takes a lot of effort to offer you a large range of choices. Dull writing actually help to have you imagine how you say it, provided there are no voice actor (terrible mistake in F4 IMO)

          • Sheng-ji says:

            I always feel really sorry for people who can’t roleplay, can’t get immersed in a game unless they define their own character. If your stories have to cater for any character, then they are bland, lacking in any real oomph. How would the story of the Bloody Baron have played out if you wanted to play a Halfling mummer, you would have had to have a “glib” option on every dialogue choice, absolutely undermining the power of the story being told. Hence why you get those moments in Skyrim where you tell the Jarl to f off, and instead of having you hung outside the city gates, he continues giving you the quest.

      • Random says:

        This debate pops up every now and then and seeing as I seem to be on a hopeless crusade to kill it by declaring it invalid, I will recycle and edit an older comment of mine which makes sense here.

        It’s not a game that possesses the property of being immersive or not, it’s the player who’s immersed in it or not. If some people feel immersed when playing a game and others don’t, is it immersive? The question doesn’t make sense. And there is a significant number of people (seemingly a minority, although I don’t have any numbers to throw around) who play third person games for the very purpose of better immersion. I am one of them.

        I think this is worth recognizing as a subjective issue, so that the debate can move from the pointless “what’s more immersive” and “why doesn’t everyone see that X is” to the much more interesting “what makes first/third person much more immersive to some people and much less so to others and what does each group have in common”, a better understanding of which, I believe, would help developers make better games.

        I understand that the idea that 3rd person can be more immersive can seem absurd to many people and yet it is a subjective fact to me and many others, so I will do my best to explain.

        Let’s loosely define immersion as a combination of feeling like being in the world, being engaged with what’s happening there and experiencing it as if it were happening to oneself.

        First person games make me feel like I’m controlling a weightless incorporeal camera stiffly floating through the world with blinders on. The movement doesn’t feel human at all, I have no physical sense of being there and when characters are talking to me, I always and without exception feel like they’re weirdly talking into a camera and not to me (I can very well imagine that VR is a whole different thing, especially if/when we get to the point where one’s own body can be rendered in-game 1:1, but I haven’t had a chance to experience it yet).

        Some first person games do a better job of this with the right amount of head bobbing, climbing-over-stuff animations and rendering a visible character body, but to me it’s not enough (this includes Mirror’s Edge, which does a lot of things very very right in this respect). Generally speaking first person completely shatters my immersion and I find myself incapable of any suspension of disbelief that I’m actually there. Guns feel better to me in third person too (when done well).

        I enjoy some more abstract first person games with great mechanics, which don’t even try to pretend that I’m a human being moving in a human way (e.g. Quake, Portal and likely the new Doom and Titanfall 2, which I haven’t had a chance to play yet). Other than that I consciously avoid first person games.

        The two most immersive games I have ever played (and probably my all-time favourites) are Mass Effect 3 and Metal Gear Solid V and that definitely wouldn’t be the case if they had a forced first person perspective.

        Showing me how the character I’m playing is moving through the world and how they are affected by it makes it much easier for me to imagine that I’m actually there. The quality of the animations makes all the difference here, if they’re not done well they have the opposite effect and I’d rather play the game in first person.

        The point is – no game can actually make me feel like I’m there, but a well done third person game gives me better tools to imagine that I am. I’d rather control a beautifully animated character, whose movements and appearance help me feel what they feel and forget that I’m not them, than push a weird camera around which at no point stops feeling off to me. (Except, as already mentioned, for completely over the top games, which are all about the mechanics and not the immersion. I won’t be suggesting that a third person Quake would work better.)

        Here’s some more perspectives on this:

        link to gamestudies.org
        link to kotaku.com.au
        link to reddit.com
        link to reddit.com

        My personal theory (and I don’t have much to back it up, so it certainly borders on speculation) is that it’s a combination of three factors that determines one’s preference, immersion-wise:

        – The value one places on movement/physicality and how active one is in real life – I would suspect that for example amateur/professional athletes, dancers and martial artists are more likely to require a better presentation of movement in a game (than a first person perspective can deliver) to suspend disbelief as compared to people with a more sedentary lifestyle.

        – The sense of identity – having a strong one, that is a clear and rather rigid definition of who one is might make it harder to put oneself in a character’s shoes, to mentally become the character, when watching them from a third person perspective.

        – Having held a sword or fired a gun in real life. No matter how great the guns feel (the new Wolfenstein games for example), it’s just a very very different thing to the real thing (first person shooting often makes me feel as if I’m holding a rifle right in front of my face, rather than on the side) and can make the suspension of disbelief harder. Melee combat in general feels incredibly off in first person to me, it completely fails to communicate the momentum and full body movement that any real martial art entails.

        If first person works for you, that’s great, it certainly does for many many people. It’s just nowhere near a universal human thing.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        You’re get nitpicky about the semantics, but to me you’re “immersed” when you forget about the world outside the game. Civ V is immersive if you ask me.

        • Jokerme says:

          Yep. Arguing semantics and not making much sense. If you find it immersive, it is immersive, there is nothing else to it. Immersion is overrated anyway.

        • jcvandan says:

          Yep, this. The OP is either a) a fool, or b) someone who has unfortunately never lost himself in a game unless it has a first person view. I find b) very hard to believe so he is most certainly a fool.

  5. Zenicetus says:

    Nicely written, that. The environment design and weather was a joy to experience in that game. Even the underwater areas were interesting. It’s a shame we probably won’t see much of a “living outdoors” like that in the upcoming Cyberpunk game, but maybe we’ll at least see some rainy streets. Gotta have rainy streets to reflect neon signs and holograms in a classic cyberpunk setting.

    I think this is yet another failure in ME Andromeda — that they didn’t let you relax and appreciate many of the environments, because the planets were always trying to KILL YOU with cold, radiation, or heat. No walking around just for fun, to appreciate the scenery. By the time you “fixed” each planet so that didn’t happen, you were already through most of the local quests and ready to move on.

    • Ex Lion Tamer says:

      Great point about the contrast with Andromeda, which I’ve also been playing lately. I see the ways in which they tried to recapture the feel of exploration from the first game’s uncharted worlds, but in ME1 you could stand and appreciate the starry skybox on a world with thin atmosphere, just as Alec does here. No longer possible in Andromeda for most of the game, and to your point, less reason to stick around once it finally is.

      The Witcher 3 just nails atmosphere in a way recent science fiction settings haven’t (to my great disappointment). Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will give us some of that, but I’d love to see something on this level in a space exploration setting.

    • Wulfram says:

      I don’t find the environmental limits particularly limiting as far as enjoying the environment goes.

      The big problem with MEA’s environments for me was it having too much HUD stuff on the screen. But now you can mod that away

  6. thomasmolby says:

    Windy trees!

  7. Premium User Badge

    tenochtitlan says:

    All those beautiful landscapes and you’re standing there in this garish yellow outfit that the Witcher devs seem so fond of putting in the game in fifteen variations :)

  8. Rince says:

    I would love a Witcher spin-off where you could create your own character.

    • CartonofMilk says:

      you and me both..its basically what kept me from getting into witcher 3 and playing it more than my initial 12 hours or so. I’ve never met a RPG with a predetermined character that i liked. The world looks great but the immersion doesn’t work because to be immersed i’d have to care about my character

      • Rich says:

        I’m the complete opposite; I managed to lose myself in Geralt’s story more than any other game I’ve played… With the possible exception of Grim Fandango. I just dig well voiced, well acted and, most of all, well written characters. I enjoy games like Skyrim and Fallout 4, but I just don’t care about the world or anyone in it.
        Fallout New Vegas was an exception though, as there were enough good characters. Sadly I ran out of steam in the middle of Old World Blues, as it was pretty much all dungeon crawling.

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        I still felt immersed, but when I accidentally ran off a cliff, or ran into a bunch of really hard monsters, instead of swearing at myself, I’d say “bloody hell Geralt”.
        So I like playing established characters, because I can blame my failings on them.
        (and I can use their moral compass in quests)

    • Corwin71 says:

      The Witcher is, in every way, Geralt’s story. CD Projekt Red hd the exceedingly rare opportunity to fully flesh out a character in a videogame. I think it’s a good thing that Geralt wasn’t fully to everyone’s taste, too (because of his deadpan delivery, for example) because, again, he is who he is and you’re experiencing and guiding his story, not engaging in extending wish fulfillment. We get that from lots of games, and it’s rarely as satisfying as the Witcher narrative.

      Now in Cyberpunk 2077, we’ll get the chance to create a character, and that’ll be a nice change that I welcome. But I’m glad that I got to know Geralt of Rivia, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in gaming.

  9. Jenuall says:

    “Wind’s howling”

    The weather was pretty epic in TW3, even if the trees do move just a tad too much to be believable.

    The recent Eurogamer article regarding the landscape and vegetation in this game was also a great read, I hadn’t consciously registered many of the things which the writer describes as being accurate about the natural world in this game but I genuinely believe that is a huge part of what makes the whole thing resonate so well. Other open world fantasy games environments just feel so stale and manufactured in comparison.

  10. criskywalker says:

    I’m just the same. I’ve played more than 100 hours and nowhere near to the end.

    I just roam around maybe doing a quest or two every few months and have no intention of unistalling it.

  11. causticnl says:

    so its only the graphics, okay.

    • Corwin71 says:

      It’s a shame that not a soul has every written volumes about the characters and plot and writing and so on and on and on in the Witcher 3, and left it so easy for you to draw this in-depth conclusion.

  12. poliovaccine says:

    I have this same problem with Fallout New Vegas, actually. Though I *have* finished that. It just took me way too long, because the wandering was as enjoyable as anything else in the game.

    (Those folks who complain that deserts are “boring” and have “nothing in them” just baffle me… I love cities too, but I can only imagine those people have never so much as driven through a real desert.)

  13. zero signal says:

    There was a moment where I was standing by the big lake near Kaer Morhen and I realised I was actually lonely in the wilderness. I’ve rarely had that feeling in a game before, and I’m pretty certain that it’s because of the convincing fidelity of the game’s visuals.

    • elvirais says:

      I love that :) You can just ride into the forests, wind howling, all the trees waving… indeed that feeling of loneliness, never experienced that in a game before.

  14. Someoldguy says:

    I can’t quite bring myself to roam endlessly and stare at the sky when I play, but I have been quite content to walk or amble on horseback to every location on the map rather than quick travel around. A real pleasure of a world to stroll around and soak in the atmosphere. Even the villages and cities feel more alive than those in other games.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I love the various environments in Horizon: Zero Dawn for a similar reason. There’s deserts, snowy areas, forests and jungles, and it’s lovely to wander through them. Especially with the day/night cycle. It doesn’t do enough with weather though, compared to The Witcher 3.

    I do feel like I should try TW3, but after I quite enjoyed the first Witcher, I bounced off the second game hard. So I guess I worry that the 3rd game will be too similar to the 2nd, and I’ll get similarly frustrated with the UI/controls/combat.

    • elvirais says:

      Could never get into the first and second, partly cause of the horrible control schemes, the third one plays much smoother, it’s a big difference.

    • K_Sezegedin says:

      Yeah 3 is what you’d get if you took the second game and made it work well.

      Still some baffling UI decisions though they can be minimized with mods – Friendly HUD + Sort Everything + All Objectives on Map smooth off the most glaring edges.

    • zero signal says:

      Witcher 3 is better than 1 in every way that I can recall. The combat is better (more tactical than 1, less difficult than 2), the environments are more fun to explore yet there’s much less compulsory backtracking (bye bye interminable swamp). Don’t think twice, buy and play.

    • denislaminaccia says:

      I also loved Witcher 1 and utterly disliked the 2nd. The 3rd, however has left me flabbergasted, because I did not expect any game to be that good. It is already two years old, but still the best game around by any criteria.

  16. zat0ichi says:

    I to have not finished this. Savouring it.

    MODS! – STL and HD rewoworked are a must IMO
    STL messes up a few bits but on the whole it truly is more betterer than the original.

    (no fall damage and clouds are good as well)

  17. monstermagnet says:

    Great piece of writing there, Alec. I’ve just finished The Sword of Destiny audio book. Listen: I swore I would never get on with audio books, but Peter Kenny, the narrator of all the Witcher audio books, is nothing short of amazing. Truly. Anyway, I never finished the game either, and I’m going to pick it up again right now.

  18. Ben King says:

    After a few days mucking around the dark underbelly of Novigrad I inadvertently unleashed a torrential bloodbath last week… It felt like every conversation ended up with me blundering inevitably into a whirlwind of steel and gore, though truth be told I generally refuse to replay quests for “Good” endings. I felt pretty bad about it, Geralt less so, but I suspect he was also a bit humiliated at the body count. For some reason or another shortly afterwards I found myself emerging from the woods on horseback into a rolling grassy field and galloping alongside a herd of wild horses. It was a pristine moment, and a total joy, but I felt guilty for slowing Roach to a trot to take it all in. I’m looking forward to finding those plains again sometime after a quest well done. It seemed like a fine place to rest on a hillock and enjoy a meal of bread and honey comb.

  19. Norbert says:

    I am waiting until I build a new PC to go back to the game and play it with all the DLCs on and the graphics to the max. No fast travel, no UI, just me and wild hunt. I will probably spend 1000 hours in there cause it’s at least what it deserves of my lifetime.

    • Javier says:

      The fact that I upgraded my PC after years not long before this game came out was one of the best decisions I never knew I had made. But, oh trust me, you’ll want to stay away from the Wild Hunt ;D

  20. Relkin109 says:

    Think you’ll ever get to Toussaint in Blood and Wine? Because holy shit is that map gorgeous.

    • LTK says:

      I’m reading the Lady of the Lake and in that book, Geralt and his friends spend some time in Toussaint. Reading about it makes me yearn for the place like I used to go on holiday there.

  21. funky_badger says:

    I love this game so much. I have literally dropped the controller, turned off all the gui (maybe not in that order), and just sat there and watched the birch trees sway in the pre-storm sunset light. Utterly beautiful.

  22. IvegotanAtariST says:

    I find weather in game worlds to be wonderfully atmospheric and immersive especially if it’s more than simply cosmetic and actually affects the gameplay. Do any of the RPS faithful know of any other games that feature this sort of thing?

  23. AskForBarry says:

    Inspired by this article, I will go _outside_! To explore!
    Maybe I could learn a few fern species?

    Edit: Oooh, it is actually possible to edit now!

  24. Random says:

    This was beautifully written and makes me wish I could tolerate the fantasy setting to give The Witcher a shot. Seeing the quality of this game, I’m really looking forward to what CDPR will do with Cyberpunk 2077 – that might end up being just my kinda thing.

  25. hobnob says:

    Pretty countryside, yadda yadda. You just gonna stand there staring at that Moleyarrow or ya gonna pick it? Well are ya??