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."
In 2015, post-Game of Thrones, The Witcher series tells a fashionable sort of low-fantasy story. But at the time, it was unusual for a fantasy RPG to be so firmly rooted in and driven by character as opposed to fantastical elements.
"I think [George R.R.] Martin and [Witcher author Andrzej] Sapkowski have something in common, but it's not specifically their books — or more precisely, the distinct stories these two writers tell differ in terms of mood, tempo, protagonists, the lore of the worlds they've created, and so forth," said Stępień. "What they share is the assumption that their protagonists, and most characters, in fact, are motivated by largely mundane matters and that their motives are often purely egotistical."
But the other thing that defined The Witcher from the start was its alien-ness. The Witcher was not drawing from Tolkien, Shakespeare, and King Arthur stories for its inspiration, but the culture and history of a specific region.
Borys Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz, the Lead Writer for the English edition of the game, explained, "The grim, conflict-ridden, monster-infested world, wherein life is tenuous and war or the prospect of it are ever-present: Arguably, this is a reflection of centuries of Polish and northern/eastern European history. Poland and much of eastern Europe consists of vast plains across which, over the centuries, armies have marched repeatedly, in one direction or another. And the associated imagery seems indelible to us - burning villages, soldiers taking down border barriers and markers, planting new posts to mark out conquered territory, refugees streaming across the landscape…"
Contrary to what current-events watchers might think, Nilfgaard isn't an analog to an imperialist Russia, or a German empire, in Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz's view. In terms of the politics of Northern Realms, they are closer to the Tatar and Turkish force that menaced the southern plains of Eastern Europe for centuries. But of course, the partition of Poland and its occupation and political subjugation in the 20th century are all events that resonate throughout the fiction of The Witcher.
Still, there are places that The Witcher is more pointed in its influences.
"Take King Foltest of Temeria," Pugacz-Muraskiewicz said. "On the surface he's a strong, bellicose monarch. Underneath, he’s deeply tainted [by a] daughter born of his incestuous union with his own sister, a daughter who at one point threatens his reign. Compare him to Poland's King John III Sobieski, arguably one of the country's most impressive rulers, who commanded the forces that lifted the siege of Vienna to end the Ottoman incursion into Europe in the 17th century. At the same time, he married a syphilitic widow, was afflicted himself, and lived with the complications, which were nothing to scoff at."
Or there is the rise of the Church of Eternal Fighter and its militant wing, The Order of the Flaming Rose. It's a story that lurks in the background of The Witcher games, but by the time you reach The Witcher 3, the Church has enough political and military power to operate with impunity. Their rise in The Witcher parallels the virulent influence of the Teutonic Order and the crusades to Christianize the European periphery in the Middle Ages.
"[This topic] could potentially spawn a minor dissertation," he admitted. "I haven't even intimated at the more literary and cultural references [in the Witcher series], like the friction between the Romantic and Positivist worldviews, the coexistence of superstition and science, the Frozen or Ice Plains at the tail end of the game as reflecting a strong trope in Polish culture: namely, the revisiting of past triumphs and tragedies."
But this is the stuff that unites The Witcher series, despite the ways that CD Projekt constantly changed their vision for the game based on their resources and experience. It's why, long before The Witcher could be anyone's idea of a blockbuster franchise, it was important to the people who played it.
"This is a truism, but deep transformation and adaptation have been key. Foltest and Radovid are not direct references to Sobieski or any other monarch, Nilfgaard is not the Ottoman Empire, nor the Soviet, nor any other, the Scoia'tael guerillas are not Home Army fighters, nor, for that matter, are they Apache warriors, and the Order of the Flaming Rose is not the Teutonic Knights," Pugacz-Muraskiewcz said.
"These things are at one and the same time none of their references and all of their references. And that is exactly the nature of resonance."