CD Projekt Red's smash hit The Witcher 3 has been out since May but it's still placing very near the top of the most captivating games of the year even in the face of all the November releases. A single-player massively open world RPG fantasy hack and slash, it averaged a million units sold per week in the first six weeks of release and is giving the hugely anticipated and recently released Fallout 4 a run for its money (and GOTY awards) even now.
Part of what makes The Witcher 3 so great is the intuitive gameplay and the intricately crafted world in which the main player character, Geralt of Rivia, inhabits, but a large part of why it's so loved is because of the writing itself.
The overarching quest narrative, Geralt's search for his lost protege and Elder Blood heir Cirilla "Ciri" Riannon, is captivating in itself (and the parts where you get to play as Ciri make me want a whole game featuring her as the main character) but even the side-quests and NPCs are well thought out and carefully developed throughout.
Kotaku did a great piece recently based on an interview with lead The Witcher 3 quest designer Pawel Sasko and quest writer Karolina Stachyra regarding one of the most polarizing quests – the Bloody Baron – and it turns out that the influences behind that particular narrative are even more affecting than the quest itself.
The Bloody Baron
Geralt first encounters Philip Strenger, better known by his alias the Bloody Baron, when he travels to Crow's Perch in Velen as part of his search for Ciri.
The head of Crow's Perch, the Bloody Baron holds information central to Geralt's quest but like all good NPCs won't give Geralt what he seeks unless he does something for him first. And what the Baron seeks is his wife (Anna) and daughter (Tamara) who have recently disappeared.
If you've played the game you know how this goes – Geralt discovers that Anna and Tamara have fled Crow's Perch due to the Baron's drunken abusive behavior towards his wife, but sadder still is Anna's ultimate fate.
Discovering that she was pregnant with the Baron's child, Anna made a pact with the Ladies of the Wood (also known as the Crones) to get rid of the child, and was cursed to remain as their slave – a former shadow of herself – as a result.
The Lost Child
The final piece of the story is the Botchling, a creature that is born dead – the result of unwanted children who are buried without being granted a name or a proper funeral.
A twisted, decaying fetus-like creature, Botchings feed on the blood of pregnant women and are generally unpleasant – unless the curse upon them is lifted and they become Lubberkin, a guardian spirit.
Depending on which actions you choose during the Family Matters quest, Geralt and the Baron either kill or lift the curse on the Botchling; either way the Baron is forced to face the result of his sins – his dead child, Dea.
The Motivations Behind The Story
It's by no means a cheery story nor does it end well, but The Witcher 3 isn't a cheery happy game and the story of the Bloody Baron is not without its real world context, as Pawel Sasko elaborates:
"For me this story is very personal. I was born in a poor village in the Polish mountains and in my childhood I saw families broken by alcohol and violence. Being a child, I saw parents hitting kids and fighting with each other, while at the same time being in love and doing everything for their families."
He goes on to explain that after the game was released he received a great deal of feedback about the Bloody Baron quest, and different players had very different reactions to it depending on their own background and personal experiences with the subject matter, reflecting the choice they made in-game – to forgive the Baron his actions or not.
One player's story in particular cuts close to the bone, and shows us that even though The Witcher 3 is a video game set in a fantastical land it is not without its cathartic parallels to reality.
"One day there was a letter delivered to the office. It was sent by a father who had lost his daughter when she was a few months old. In his letter he wrote about his experience trying to save the Baron’s baby daughter which had turned into botchling, how desperately he wanted to save her. It was a moving story about him seeking redemption for the Baron, for this character who was carrying his beloved child in his hands. I was incredibly moved when I read it. If there was something we didn’t expect – it was these kinds of letters. Players were really touched by what we did and this is the biggest reward I could ever imagine."
The entire Bloody Baron plot line is morally difficult, which makes it a perfect representation of the game itself. As a Witcher, Geralt isn't exactly what you would call lovable; he's no knight in shining armor and (depending to an extent on the player preference) will not shy away from any means in order to achieve his goals. But at his core we still believe in him as a hero, at least as someone who generally tries to save people (just don't mention the unicorn sex scene).
Again your take on the morality of the Baron himself is a personal decision, but for Sasko the Baron and Geralt represent two halves of a coin, both lost men struggling to protect their families with differing results:
"For me the character of the Baron is a parallel to Geralt himself: two fathers who lost their loved ones, two adult men with blood on their hands, both involved in war, both with some personality issues, both capable of doing anything for their families."
The ultimate fate of the Baron does depend on the actions that you chose throughout the quest; either he retrieves his catatonic wife and rides off in search of a cure for her condition/curse or, unable to face up to what he put his family though, he hangs himself outside the Manor.
Anna's fate is also dependent upon what happens when the Crones send you to kill the spirit in the tree. If you kill it, the children in the woods die but Anna lives, whereas if you free it, instead the children live but Anna dies, and the Baron hangs himself. Unfortunately, there's no ideal ending to this sad narrative.
But in The Witcher 3 no one really gets a particularly happy ending, especially not if you're a magic-less peasant living in this fantastical world of sorceresses and monsters. And so the Bloody Baron storyline is indicative of the game as a whole, as writer Karolina Stachyra says:
"Pawel and I thought it would be interesting if a man who asks you to find his family turns out to be someone who actually ruined this family—but now realizes his mistakes and wants to atone for his sins. That leaves the player in a very interesting and complicated situation—and gives him/her a wide range of different feelings and emotions. And that is what Wild Hunt is about, at core."
Damn, now I'm even sadder that there's no sign of The Witcher 4 on the horizon for a very long time.
At least we've still got the ending of Geralt's story to come in the form of the Blood and Wine DLC, the last piece of The Witcher 3 arriving at some point early next year. Be gentle with us CD Projekt Red, there's only so much left to break now.