Hanged Man's Tree. All screencaps courtesy of the author
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It's not enough for a video game just to be big anymore. Scale isn't as impressive as it used to be: Now it's detail and variety that define the best virtual worlds. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a sweeping fantasy RPG by CD Projekt RED, is a great example of this. Its world is vast, but also rich with fine, handcrafted detail. From bustling, metropolitan cities like Novigrad to the rocky, wind-battered coastlines of Skellige, it's one of the prettiest, most transporting imaginary places in games.
Based on the books of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, the fictional history, politics, and culture of his stories, as well as Slavic folklore, permeate every corner of the game world, which gives it a rich, believable texture. Load up your in-game map and you'll find it dotted with question marks that represent unexplored locations—an enticing invitation to get on your horse, ignore the quest at hand, and explore. Here are just a few of the places you'll discover.
This ancient elfin tower sits at the highest point of Undvik, a small island located east of Skellige's main island, Ard Skellig. To reach it you have to cross a natural bridge of volcanic rock, which offers stunning views of the surrounding archipelago.
Hanged Man's Tree
Overlooking the village of Mulbrydale in northern Velen, this giant tree is a grim reminder of the cruelty of war. The corpses of deserters and criminals, faces obscured by execution hoods, hang from its gnarled branches, swaying in the breeze.
Nestled among the misty mountains of Kaedwen, this towering stone fortress was once a school for witchers and an impenetrable stronghold, but has since become a crumbling, neglected ruin. Series hero Geralt, a powerful witcher, grew up here.
With 13 districts and a population of around 30,000, Novigrad is the largest city in The Witcher 3. Landmarks include Grand Picket, a large Eternal Fire temple that dominates the skyline, and the world-famous Passiflora brothel.
This walled village is located in the heart of Velen. It's the seat of the Bloody Baron, the region's ruler, and is only accessible via a rickety wooden bridge. A red keep built at the top of the hill offers a grand view of the surrounding countryside.
The world of The Witcher 3 is littered with small villages and settlements populated by farmers and peasants. Downwarren is a modest, but picturesque, example. It can be found near Crookback Bog in the No Man's Land region of Velen.
This garden was built by the people of Hindarsfjall in honor of Freya, the goddess of fertility, love, and beauty. It used to be filled with thousands of colorful flowers, but is now sadly abandoned, overgrown, and tangled with vines.
This is the northernmost lighthouse on Ard Skellig, built by the followers of Jarl Skjordal. Its keeper, Mikkjal, has attracted the ire of a powerful spirit called a Penitent, making it a dangerous place for travelers—but not witchers.
A prosperous village, famous for its orchards. Its name comes from the white flowers that bloom in spring. After the prologue, this is the first, and smallest, area you visit in The Witcher 3, but there's still a lot to explore, including a forest and a haunted cemetery.
Kaer Trolde Harbour
One of the busiest harbors in Skellige and the port of Kaer Trolde, a fortress established by Crach an Craite, the Jarl of Ard Skellig. Goods from all over the world are traded here, despite the meddling of a local Water Hag.
This is the name given to the highest mountain peak of An Skellig, one of the Skellige archipelago's biggest islands. It's named after the mythical bear Yngvar who, according to legend, was defeated by a local hero named Tyr.
This expanse of wetland in Velen is ruled by a coven of powerful witches known as the Ladies of the Wood. It's a dense, wooded landscape filled with monsters, but in the center is a small village populated by a group of orphaned children.
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Located south of Novigrad, this city is home to the famous University of Oxenfurt. Its narrow streets are lined with workshops, studios, taverns, and stalls, and it's the favorite city of Geralt's closest friend, the bard Dandelion.
This unusual rock formation on the northern shores of Ard Skellig is a quirk of nature, but the islanders believe they're the remains of giants punished by an angry god and turned into stone. Pirates often set up camp under its natural arches.
This abandoned fishing village lies on the northern shores of Undvik. Fishermen used to catch marlin here, but more recently the Nilfgaardian Empire used it as a military camp. From here you can see Tor Gvalch'ca looming in the distance.