‘The Witcher 3’ Understands War
This Polish meditation on morality and war makes for the best game of the year
It was an amazing year for video games. Sole survivors explored the wastes of the American dream in Fallout 4. A brilliant auteur tricked players into fighting nuclear proliferation in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The popular Call of Duty franchise explored the psychic toll of combat.
Fallout and Call of Duty were fun. Metal Gear was fun and brilliant. But The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was on another level. It was the best game I played in 2015 and one of the best games I’ve ever played in my entire life. Polish developer CD Projekt crafted an immersive world, told a compelling story and made every moment fun to experience.
But more than that, CD Projekt took a staple video game setting — war — and presented it in a way games rarely do. War is awful. It shatters lives, separates families and ravages the land. The Witcher 3 understands that.
The games take place in a medieval fantasy setting called the Northern Kingdoms, a collection of small territories interconnected by trade and treaties. The Northern Kingdoms are a stand-in for Poland, and the franchise is similarly steeped in Polish folk tales and cultural traditions.
The Witcher 3 is also set during a war. The Nilfgaardian Empire to the south, a fantasy version of the Holy Roman Empire, invades the Northern Kingdoms and seeks to absorb it into its empire. The player controls the witcher Geralt of Rivia. Witchers are bounty hunters who specialize in tracking down griffins, ghosts and ghouls.
Such beasts flourish during war, so Geralt is busy.
Many video games are power fantasies, and most that involve warfare depict the glory of combat and put the player in the lead role. Not so in The Witcher 3. Geralt has his own motivations, and he does his best to avoid politics and the larger conflict between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms.
And CD Projekt never depicts war as glorious or fun. Soldiers describe combat as a lot of boredom and waiting punctuated by moments of frenzied madness. The Northern War of the The Witcher 3 is all about waiting, survival and boredom.
Geralt travels the Northern Kingdoms and interacts with civilians and soldiers alike. It would be easy to view the Empire as an evil oppressor and the North as the noble resister of occupation, but it’s not that simple.
The Nilfgaardians are both reasonable and cruel. Early in the game, Geralt needs to make a deal with an Empire garrison commander occupying a small farming village. He walks in to find the commander negotiating with a farmer. His men need rye and the farmers have it.
“Look at my hands,” the commander says. “See the callouses? These are the hands of a farmer. So we speak, peasant to peasant. How much can you give?”
“Forty bushels,” the peasant replies. “There’d be more sir, but our lads took from us earlier and…”
“You’ll give 30,” the commander cuts him off. “That will do.”
Later, the farmer returns with sacks of grain. The commander opens up the bushels and finds that all the rye is rotten. Angry, he orders the farmer whipped. The sound of the lashes and screams fill the air as Geralt walks away from the garrison. The commander explains that he tried to be reasonable with the villagers, but they spit on his generosity.
There is no good or bad in this world, just competing interests.
The soldiers in this world are rarely interested in glory or conquest. They want food in their stomachs, a safe place to sleep and equipment that works. Geralt never comes across grand battles, but is present at the moments between.
Dead bodies litter the ground of the Northern Kingdoms. Nilfgaardians and Northerners alike rot in the sun. People hang from trees, a sign posted in front of their swinging and bloated bodies lists their crimes — desertion, stealing provisions and rape. The North and the South hang criminals in equal measure. Refugees huddle outside of the few cities untouched by the war. Soldiers demand the proper paperwork and keep the rabble from flooding the last civilized outposts in the North.
Civilians cling to tradition and appease whichever army is currently occupying them. They know it could all change tomorrow. There are no heroes, just men and women desperate to survive. This sense of despair and struggle permeates The Witcher 3.
It’s less Call of Duty and more This War of Mine — a rare game that makes no judgement, depicts war in all its horror and focuses on the moral deterioration of everyone conflict touches. That CD Projekt made the game fun and engaging, as well as depressing and deep, is a testament to its talent.