Feature Article

Life in the Open World of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Sex, alchemy, and monster hunting.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt may have recently been delayed to February 2015, but it's seemingly for good reason. After watching a live demo and talking with CD Projekt Red, it's clear that the developer will need as much time as possible to fill The Witcher 3's vast open world with interesting and reactive content. The game is massive in scope, with a world 35 times bigger than that of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and 50 hours of primary quest content, along with an additional 50 hours of side content. But size isn't everything; a world so large needs to be filled with things to do. For Geralt of Rivia, life in the open world of The Witcher 3 should be anything but dull.

"We created teams responsible only for the fact that this is an open world and needs to be perfect, seamless, without any point when you get bored," says Michal Platkow-Gilewski, head of marketing at CD Projekt Red, describing how the team staffed up to work on The Witcher 3. Part of this involves making it possible to travel to points of interest, such as mountains in the distance. "It is actually a mountain," Platkow-Gilewski continues. "You can climb there and go there. And for sure, there will be something interesting. We are not painting anything on the horizon."

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Not all of those points of interest will welcome Geralt with an open hearth and a pint of Mahakaman mead. He is a monster hunter by trade, and the world of The Witcher 3 is infested with all manner of hostile creatures. CD Projekt Red isn't going to babysit you as you peek into their lairs.

"If [players] are not ready, most probably they will die," laughs Platkow-Gilewski. "That's the hard way of knowing where to go."

Yet the developer isn't planning on doing a Dark Souls and killing you left and right. "There's a tutorial that will introduce you very smoothly to the plot and gameplay mechanisms," says Lucasz Babiel, QA analyst at CD Projekt Red. "That was the lesson we learned from The Witcher 2," he added, referring to how the Enhanced Edition for The Witcher 2 added a more forgiving opening section.

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But The Witcher 3's lessons don't end after its tutorial. The world will continue to teach you how to live in it long afterward. "It takes around 40 minutes on horseback to go from north to south, galloping in a straight line," says Platkow-Gilewski. "On the way to that point, you will gain a lot of experience, and you will know how to handle the game." With this approach, Platkow-Gilewski says CD Projekt Red wants to make the game as accessible as possible, "but there will be no dumbing down."

Life in The Witcher 3 is not about the destination. The game is specifically designed to distract you from your journey, to lure you off the beaten path with vistas, surprise quests, and challenging monster encounters. For the latter, you don't necessarily need to accept a quest to kill a monster before you actually kill it. "You can start with killing the monster, collecting the trophy, and then looking for someone who would like to pay you for that," Platkow-Gilewski explains. "Maybe he will say, 'Get lost! I was not aware of that monster!' Maybe he will be really thankful that you saved him or his village."

CD Projekt Red prefers this approach to the easier crutch of filling its open world with collectibles or random item drops--aspects which Babiel views as a distraction. "If it's mindless, we don't like it," he says.

"We want to attract gamers, to keep them entertained by the story, not the fact that maybe this super good sword will drop," Platkow-Gilewski adds.

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There will always be some kind of compromise when we want to have a story and an open world in one.

This speaks to the specific kind of open world CD Projekt Red is attempting to craft--one that is less of a sandbox and more story-driven. "There will always be some kind of compromise when we want to have a story and an open world in one," says Platkow-Gilewski. "But I think, from the story point of view, it makes sense. You just can't do whatever you want, like something stupid which could destroy the fun."

For this reason, you shouldn't expect the breadth of freedom of a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V. You can't, for example, run around town killing random non-player characters. "For me, that would be an immersion and story breaker," Platkow-Gilewski continues. "Here, we are playing the role of Geralt, of a Witcher, which is a predefined character. We know that he's not a serial killer going frenzy somewhere in the middle of a small, peaceful village."

Despite this restriction, a police system has been implemented to respond to players who push Geralt too far from his nature. If Geralt is acting unnaturally aggressive, guards will accost him and ask him to calm down. Or, if he has acted particularly violently, he may find himself in a combat encounter.

"Besides the police system, we have a reaction system," adds Babiel. "For example, if you draw your sword in a crowded place, NPCs will see that and react, shouting or running away." The result is an open world that does not offer complete sandbox freedom, but freedom within a specific narrative context.

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However, it is possible for Geralt to commit grand theft dinghy and steal a boat to explore the waters surrounding the world's various islands. CD Projekt Red hinted at several other aboveboard ways of obtaining water transportation--either by purchasing a boat, crafting one, or repairing a wreckage. Though boats can be used to explore the current island, they cannot be used to travel between regions. "Sometimes, on the sea, we have to use fast travel," says Platkow-Gilewski. "To reflect the real distance, you would have to travel for several hours in a boat. You would get bored." But water travel will not be without its own dangers; on the seas, Geralt may encounter mermaids who are dangerous in the water and can transform into hostile flying creatures. "They won't just hover somewhere next to you like in Baldur's Gate," says Platkow-Gilewski. "They will really fly around you, and they are really, really ugly."

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Less ugly is CD Projekt Red's approach to the series' depiction of sex. Geralt is defined in the Witcher books as a good lover, and he'll have his fair share of sexual adventures in The Witcher 3, though Platkow-Gilewski says that all of these romances will be strongly connected to the story. "It will never happen just for the sake of having more sex in the games," he continues. "That's not our point. It's not a Pokemon way, like 'collect them all.'"

Given The Witcher 3's focus on open-world monster hunting, Platkow-Gilewski didn't rule out the possibility of a monster encounter becoming more intimate. "It happened in the past," he hints. "It depends what kind of monsters Geralt will have to face. But it's not a way of beating the monster." Regardless of how monstrous Geralt's mistresses may be, CD Projekt Red is keeping The Witcher 3's sex scenes free of interactivity, avoiding the use of quick-time events in them--and in the rest of the game entirely.

CD Projekt Red has also overhauled the series' alchemy system, although Geralt won't be brewing any love potions. Platkow-Gilewski says that alchemy in The Witcher 2 was "not rewarding," because you had to somehow know in advance the type of enemies you were about to face in order to imbibe the right cocktail of magical buffs. "Now, you will have a few charges of the effect of the potion," Platkow-Gilewski continues. "It's not like you're drinking and have a certain period where you have to act really fast. You can use the specific effect of this potion when it's needed." CD Projekt Red believes this makes investing in the alchemy skill tree more viable than before, whilst the other two skill trees--sword mastery and magic--will be filled out with more active abilities rather than passive skills.

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You'll need to master a combination of all three skill trees before you encounter the eponymous Wild Hunt. This deadly and malevolent force exists in the background, and gradually becomes a more important element of both gameplay and the story. "It's not one creature," says Platkow-Gilewski. "It's something more complicated and bigger than that. Ultimately, you will have to face it." It's an encounter that CD Projekt Red describes as "epic," and it serves as the primary conflict in what will be the final instalment of Geralt's story. The developer doesn't intend to leave anyone hanging. "We believe that every good story needs to have an end," Platkow-Gilewski says. "We don't want to finish it like, you don't know if this really ends or not, and you're a little bit unsatisfied. It needs to be a strong punch."

We believe that every good story needs to have an end.

For Geralt of Rivia, life in The Witcher 3 sounds exciting, dangerous, and a little bit sexy. But ultimately, it sounds like it will also be meaningful, for CD Projekt Red is committed to concluding the story of this man whose life has been spent killing monsters.

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Daniel Hindes

Daniel Hindes is GameSpot's Australian editor. He really likes stealth games. And he's also right behind you.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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