Hands On with the Naked Fantasy of ‘The Witcher 3’
A very mature tale of swords and sorcery, the latest entry in the <i>Witcher</i> series isn't backwards in being forward with its bare flesh.
I'm quite literally talking arse with Marcin Iwinski, co-founder and joint CEO of CD Projekt RED, the Polish studio famous for the Witcher series of M-for-mature-rated fantasy role-playing games.
To date, that's all team has produced: interactive interpretations and derivations of story collections penned by author Andrezj Sapowski. There are new projects on the horizon, titles that don't tap into the world of strategically scarred monster-slaying protagonist Geralt of Rivia. Right now, though, we're in griffin country, and that villagers-chomping chimera isn't going to kill itself.
The cinematic opening to The Witcher 3 puts the sorceress Yennefer at the centre of a battle, with Geralt on her trail
But first, the butts. The Witcher has never shied from exposing the flesh of its characters, and the third game, subtitled Wild Hunt, opens with Geralt relaxing in a tub while a long-term (but rarely seen) love interest, Yennefer of Vengerberg, is reclining nearby, comfortably starkers, both characters comprising showcases for contemporary gaming's curvaceous 3D models. We don't see too much, early doors – just a glimpse of breast, some neatly textured toes, you know, the foreplay stuff. But Iwinski is quite clear when it comes to just how far you, as Geralt, can go.
"If you want to, you can have sex," he tells me, after I've spent three hours and change with the game, at a preview event held in the shadow of Stirling Castle, Scotland. "But that isn't an essential part of the game. At the same time, come on, we're adults. We don't need to be hiding things. With the previous game, the sexual content was heavily criticised, especially in the US. But we want to show the 'real' world – and that extends to how we portray the female characters. And, if you compare how we present female characters to some of what happens in, for example, Game of Thrones, we're really quite gentle."
CD Projekt RED are well aware of the sex symbol status of Geralt, too. Ahead of my trip north of the border – the game draws environmental inspiration from several locations, and felt the "ambiance of Scotland" was a perfect fit – I grab a drink with a games writer who's keen to commend the monster-slayer's assets. I was impressed enough by his toes, but there's a lot of love for the man's backside. Which is perhaps inevitable, given how much of the games' duration is spent ogling it from the other side of the screen.
"I mean, come on, he's a professional monster slayer," says Iwinski. "That's pretty cool. Look at his clothes, his weapons. He is the equivalent of a modern rock star, a superstar – and that's how I play him. You might play him differently, but that's the beauty of the game." And that "how you play" him factor is something we'll get to in a moment.
The success of Game of Thrones in the last few years – both its HBO television series and original novels by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire – has put CD Projekt RED in a great position regarding their own low-fantasy, high-violence offering. Dragons and magic have infiltrated the mainstream in a way that I certainly can't remember happening before in my lifetime – as much as I'd like to believe everyone was reading Fighting Fantasy books in the early 1990s, I doubt they were as widespread as copies of A Storm of Swords are today.
There is a massive audience for the product this predominantly Polish team is pitching; and combined with growing sales for new-gen consoles – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is being made for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC – it stands to make a significant impact. The first big-budget RPG out of the blocks with new-gen exclusivity, this is a game that could set a substantial precedent for what follows. "No pressure," laughs Iwinski. He's an awful liar.
"I think all of the other studios making big RPGs, like Bethesda (The Elder Scrolls, Fallout) and BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), are looking at us – but we're looking at them. There's a rivalry there, but it's a healthy challenge. Wild Hunt is a defining moment for us, as a studio: you could see the progression from the first game to the second, but for the third we've had this change in mechanics, and we're taking a more cinematic approach to the storytelling."
The game's engine, REDengine 3, is open-world-tailored tech debuting in Wild Hunt, representing another step into the unknown for CD Projekt RED. Experienced on Xbox One, it's certainly very handsome – although it'll look even better if you've spent some significant readies on your gaming PC. "If you have invested a couple of thousand bucks in your set-up, then it will look better," confirms Iwinski. "But that's the nature of the PC platform. For consoles, we took the decision to focus only on the new-gen systems about two years ago. The vision we had, and the story we wanted to tell, it just wouldn't fit on the consoles of the time, which even then were beginning to creak a bit. We wanted something that is going to blow you away – that's what we were aiming for, from the start."
From the beginning of the game itself, it's clear that lessons have been learned from the somewhat impenetrable menus of the second Witcher, the navigation of which stole too much time from the more appealing pursuit of hacking up nasties. The game made zero concessions for noobs; if you didn't know the language of the game, the nuances of its systems, it was a tough nut to crack. "We took a lot of time making sure that the new game is not overwhelming," says Iwinski. "A lot of people will only be picking up the series now, so we need to make it easy for them. But for the core players, we have a lot of stuff. The game has many layers and it's really up to you how you begin to approach them."
What the player cannot do is alter their character. You are Geralt of Rivia, save for the few scenarios where you're in the shoes of Ciri, another Witcher. There is no option to edit your appearance, your voice, your scars, although a variety of outfits become available as you play.
Says Iwinski: "For me, the defining coolness of the game, and this is always very personal, is the story. It's always very difficult to take a random character that the player has created and build a story around them. But you can shape your own Geralt. You could be a bastard in the game, always doing bad things, and we leave that up to you. It is very personal, even though all of the characters are already well defined. We wanted it this way, and we're really proud of it. I think people will really enjoy the story.
"You see there's a relationship with Triss (Merigold, another of Geralt's paramours) from the start – so if you take Geralt off to have sex with someone else, how does that make you feel? This story is all in your head. Of course there will be consequences later in the game after you commit to certain actions. Part of what's happening is on the screen, but part of it is in your head. I remember my decisions in The Witcher 2, and I was feeling bad about some of them – I wanted to go back and change them. I didn't like the Geralt I'd made."
I choose to play Geralt as a chivalrous good guy, but it'd be easy enough to twist his actions towards darker outcomes. There are so many side-quest options and dialogue trees to explore that, in just three hours, I was already getting the impression that the Geralt of Wild Hunt is the most malleable version yet of Sapowski's (and CD Projekt RED's) iconic White Wolf. And for this game's makers, it couldn't be coming out at a better time.
"There's more attention on this kind of fantasy than ever before," says Iwinski. "And this brand of fantasy storytelling isn't simply black and white – as we've seen with Game of Thrones, important characters can and do die, and people enjoy that. I hope that we're raising the bar, here."
Bars, underwear, whatever. It might be that your Geralt is so up and down with his leather trousers that he never buckles his belt. Or: you could just focus on the monsters, on the fluid combat and potential for exploration. There's a reason why Geralt's so well known around the now free-to-roam Continent: three games and over 20 years, factoring the books, into his career, he's still a dab hand with long, sharp, shiny things.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was previewed at a press event in Stirling, Scotland, with transportation and accommodation costs covered by the game's publisher, Bandai Namco.