Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week I’ll be ensorcelling you with the history of The Witcher. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from The Witcher Wiki.
Note: There are potentially NSFW images below, though nothing especially graphic. Just a heads-up.
36-year old businessman Andrzej Sapkowski began The Witcher with an unassuming writing contest submission to Polish science fiction and fantasy magazine Fantaskyka at the suggestion of his son. The story, simply titled “Wiedźmin,” won third prize and was published by Fantaskyka in 1986 to widespread critical acclaim. “Wiedźmin” centers on a cynical monster-slayer named Geralt of Rivia as he explores a fantasy world heavily influenced by Slavic mythology.
Unofficially translated into English as “The Hexer” or “The Spellmaker” during its early years, The Witcher grew into a recognizable series through the publication of three short story anthologies in Sapkowski’s native Poland between 1990 and 1993. An English version of Geralt’s debut tale finally appeared in Chosen by Fate: Zajdel Award Winner Anthology in 2000. Until the release of the first Witcher video game in 2007, this would remain the franchise’s only exposure to English-speaking audiences.
In the interim, however, The Witcher’s popularity in Eastern Europe gave rise to a variety of adaptations. Maciej Parowski, Bogusław Polch, and Sapkowski himself produced a comic book version from 1993 to 1995. A small Polish studio called Metropolis – founded by friends Adrian Chmielarz and Grzegorz Miechowsk in 1992 – then developed a playable video game prototype based on the series in 1996. Though it featured a dark aesthetic and a handful of critical moral choices, the no-longer-extant demo shared little in common with CD Projekt Red’s later adaptation. A relatively popular 13-episode 2002 Polish miniseries called Wiedźmin was narrowly preceded by a condensed feature film of the same name in 2001 that made use of its then-unreleased footage; the exceptionally high budget of this unmitigated disaster, which was so poorly-handled that screenwriter Michał Szczerbic had his name removed from its credits, reflects the still-rising profile of The Witcher in Poland during the early 2000s and presages its upcoming international popularity.
The Witcher (2007)
Warsaw-based CD Projekt S.A. built its reputation on an excellent Polish localization of BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate (1998). The studio had been founded in 1994 by Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński, both of whom had previously sold pirated copies of Western PC games at flea markets within the economically-depressed post-Soviet nation, with an eye to grow the presence of their favorite artistic medium within the country by making it economically viable. Following a string of initial successes, the studio hit its first serious hurdle when a project to produce a PC port of the PlayStation 2’s Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (2001) was cancelled by floundering publisher Interplay midway through development.
CD Projekt S.A. opted to diversify its portfolio and establish more creative control by opening a Łódź-based development studio called CD Projekt Red in 2002. Studio head Sebastien Zielińsk oversaw the year-long production of CD Projekt Red’s first demo, an isometric action role-playing game (RPG) based on The Witcher that bizarrely omitted Geralt. CD Projekt S.A. had acquired The Witcher license from Metropolis at the turn of the century and made a deal with Sapkowski to pay him a lump sum for the opportunity to produce a game based on his universe; in an interview with Eurogamer, the author confessed that he’d made the retrospectively ill-advised deal due to his lack of faith in the video game format. His skepticism initially seemed prescient, as CD Projekt Red’s first prototype was turned down by publishers across Europe and Zielińsk departed the studio by 2003.
Michał Kiciński took over the leadership position but delegated increasing responsibilities to storyboard artist Adam Badowski as The Witcher evolved over the next five years. The studio’s humble staff of 15 ballooned to 100, many hobbyists with little prior experience in the industry, as they adapted BioWare’s Aurora Engine to their needs rather than develop a new engine from scratch. BioWare had previously used that engine to power their hugely successful Neverwinter Nights (2002) and graciously offered it to CD Projekt Red, along with space to advertise The Witcher at their E3 booth in 2004, due to a positive relationship between CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwiński and BioWare’s Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka established during the Polish localization of Baldur’s Gate. The studio’s much more polished second attempt at The Witcher eventually attracted the attention of publisher Atari, who released it on PC in Europe and North America in October 2007.
Players take on the role of Geralt in a story set after the character’s apparent death in the source literature. He is recovered by his fellow witchers and taken to their stronghold, Kaer Morhen, when they find him wounded and missing his memories following an off-screen adventure. Kaer Morhen is then attacked by an organization called the Salamandra and Geralt sets off to the Temerian capital of Vizima in pursuit of information on these antagonists. Over the course of the game, Geralt navigates complex regional politics by retaining neutrality or allying with one of Vizima’s two major factions: the rebellious Scoia’tael or the chivalric Order of the Flaming Rose.
Two major non-player characters (NPCs) from Sapkowski’s stories who would go on to play an outsized role in The Witcher 2 and The Witcher 3 likewise make their video game debut here. Dandelion, a flamboyant troubadour and long-time confidante of Geralt, appears first as a rival in The Witcher’s dice poker minigame before becoming a key component of several sidequests. Sorceress Triss Merigold, who is affiliated with the powerful if mysterious Lodge of Sorceresses, heals Geralt after he sustains major injuries in the course of his adventure. Geralt can engage in an optional romance with her, though this is facilitated by his loss of memory and will cause friction between the hero and his erstwhile lover Yennefer when she appears in a later game.
The unnamed continent on which The Witcher is set features a combination of bog-standard Tolkienesque tropes and uniquely Slavic elements. Elves and dwarves, who constitute precursors to the ruling humans and are confined to the margins of society at the time of Geralt’s quest, are largely informed by Twentieth Century Western fantasy literature. Magic and the monsters Geralt hunts, which appeared in the otherwise-low fantasy world during a supernatural historical event called the Conjoining of the Spheres, are instead often reminiscent of folktales and myths from eastern Europe. The Witcher’s oppressive atmosphere and political machinations likewise evoke Poland’s tumultuous real-world political history.
Gameplay articulates as a real-time action-RPG in which the player controls only his or her avatar rather than a party of adventurers. Geralt makes use of three fighting methods – fast, strong, and group styles respectively allow for quick but weak, slow but powerful, and wide-range attacks – to battle human and supernatural enemies as he pursues the Salamandra. The player must alternate between making use of a steel sword or a silver sword depending on which category of antagonist Geralt is engaged with. Similarly critical to success is the crafting of potions, oils, and bombs from accumulated reagents through a complex alchemy system. The player learns monster weaknesses by paying attention to in-game lore provided by NPCs and books.
While its combat and exploration mechanics are somewhat clunky, likely due to its overly ambitious scope and adaptation of an engine originally designed for slower-paced gameplay, The Witcher’s strong reputation among video game enthusiasts was built on a narrative that unfolds in an uncharacteristically nuanced fashion. Where contemporary Japanese RPGs rarely afforded the player much choice at all and Western RPGs tended to offer relatively simplistic good vs. evil morality systems, CD Projekt Red instead conveyed a complex world featuring shades of gray and few ideal outcomes. Consequences are often only felt long after the associated choice, preventing players from easily altering their decisions and instead forcing them to accept often-unhappy results.
Its compelling world and story made The Witcher a cult classic, if not a household name, among worldwide players in 2007. A graphically and mechanically enhanced edition in 2008 was followed by a 2009 director’s cut which reintroduced previously-cut imagery on controversial portrait cards depicting women with whom Geralt has had sex. A prequel expansion pack called The Witcher Outcast, which was being developed by Canada’s roXidy, was canceled in 2008 by CD Projekt Red; a planned The Witcher home console port by studio Widescreen Games was likewise canceled in 2009 amid claims by the second-party French studio that CD Projekt Red had neglected to pay them and a response from the original developer indicating that Widescreen Games had failed to deliver content on-schedule. These missteps did not negatively impact the positive reception received by the game among PC RPG enthusiasts. With the contemporary rise in visibility of Eastern European video games inaugurated by GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl in March 2007, The Witcher was poised to ascend to worldwide popularity as soon as CD Projekt Red could sand off some of its rougher edges.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (2011)
Challenges during development of the PC and console versions of The Witcher directly informed major changes made during the production of its sequel in the late 2000s. BioWare’s Aurora was abandoned in favor of a combination of middleware, including already-popular Havok physics, and a new in-house game engine called REDengine. CD Projekt Red’s move towards proprietary tools designed in tandem with The Witcher 2 was built on a longstanding plan to publish their new title on home consoles as well as PC. While home console ports were naturally anticipated to feature visual limitations, the original version of the game was actually too graphically-intensive to make use of its most impressive visual flourishes – especially Bokeh-inspired depth of field effects and so-called “ubersampling” used to reduce the appearance of jagged edges – even on contemporary home PCs at the time of its initial May 2011 release. The game would need to grow into technology capable of rendering it as intended.
Uninterested in waiting for the future, and increasingly aware that they had a unique opportunity to make a name for themselves in the West as one of the seventh home console generation’s most ambitious RPG developers, CD Projekt Red meanwhile produced a version for the Xbox 360. The negative experience working with an outside contractor for the port of The Witcher likely played a role in the studio opting to internally design its sequel’s home console variant. This proved to be a wise choice, as adaptation was particularly challenging; CD Projekt Red would end up rewriting much of the game’s code and fully redesigning its lighting system to account for the Xbox 360’s memory limitations. The final product is a technical marvel, with the additional year of work producing a port that some critics consider superior to the PC original. The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings – Enhanced Edition launched on the Xbox 360 and Windows PC platforms, with owners of the prior year’s version receiving this update as a free download, in April 2012.
The game retains its predecessor’s emphasis on narrative depth, though it pivots away from Slavic fairy tales and towards political complexity. Player character Geralt is introduced being interrogated for his apparent assassination of Temaria’s King Foltest. During a breezy prologue, which doubles as a tutorial for its gameplay, Geralt demonstrates his innocence and outlines the story of how he became a confidante to Foltest before being framed for his murder. Interrogator Vernon Roche frees Geralt and sets off alongside him and The Witcher’s Triss Marigold as they seek to uncover the true assassin.
The Witcher 2’s plot unfolds in a fashion nearly unique among its contemporaries. Following a confrontation with a Scoia’tael-affiliated elf named Iorveth, Geralt confirms that Iorveth’s treacherous witcher ally Letho is the eponymous assassin and unsuccessfully attempts to capture him during a territorial squabble in the Temarian/Kaedwanian border town of Flotsam. As Letho kidnaps Triss, the player is forced to choose between immediately leaving Flotsam with Iorveth or aiding Roche in putting down a local warlord’s rebellion; this determines which of two major factions Geralt is associated with in The Witcher 2’s second chapter, set amid a rebellion against Kaedwan’s King Henselt in the country of Aedirn. A third chapter, which broadly condenses the story back into a single track, likewise reflects major decisions made during Chapter Two alongside the compounding consequences of Geralt’s earlier choices. The game’s epilogue then diverges into one of 16 distinctive world states. The survival of Geralt’s allies and enemies, as well as the status of multiple political actors and social classes, is entirely dependent on the player’s chosen path.
Gameplay in The Witcher 2 is a noticeable departure from that of The Witcher. The interface itself has been heavily redesigned, for better or worse, to enhance its functionality for players making use of a traditional console-style controller rather than a keyboard and mouse. Combat is similarly overhauled, as the player no longer simply taps a button to attack and instead makes use of traps, rolling away from enemy attacks, and thrown weapons. Sword duels remains the core of the experience, but it is augmented through the frequent use of signs (read: spells) to enhance Geralt’s strength or inflict direct damage on foes. Inspired by FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls (2009) and Dark Souls (2011), these changes to the franchise’s mechanical palette increase the difficulty level but also improve the player’s sense of control during combat encounters.
A menu-based skill tree, perhaps the unifying element of 2010s AAA video games, allows the player to customize Geralt’s growth as he gains experience points by battling enemies and completing quests. Swordsmanship, Signs, and Alchemy paths respectively promote Geralt’s melee abilities, magical power, and capacity to craft potions and bombs. Since it is not possible to max out all three branches, every player will experience the game with a slightly different character build.
Contemporary critical reception to The Witcher 2 was largely positive. Its plot, character development, and player agency are all more richly detailed than those of its direct predecessor and resulted in numerous awards. Still, the transition away from The Witcher’s PC interface left some players frustrated with The Witcher 2’s clunky combat controls. More recent retrospectives, like that of journalist George Weidman, have likewise perceived an erosion of the franchise’s distinctive identity in its reduced emphasis on fairy tales while still lavishing praise on its overall level of polish. Whatever its successes or failures, The Witcher 2 remains an indelible part of the video game landscape for its role pushing The Witcher and CD Projekt Red from being a niche Polish PC game developer to an internationally-recognized mainstream creative voice in the medium.
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (2015)
Bloomberg News’ Jason Schreier, in his book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels (2017), offers a detailed behind-the-scenes look at The Witcher 3’s development process. The project began during 2011 and CD Project Red’s team grew from what was already the largest staff roster in the studio’s history – at 150 – to 250 before completion four years later in 2015. In spite of this comparative abundance of resources, the studio recalled its humble origins and opted to focus on the core experience rather than dramatically upending the series’ underlying systems. The Witcher 2’s gameplay remained the template for The Witcher 3’s fundamental mechanics.
With its basic systems in place already, CD Projekt Red concentrated on dramatically expanding the game’s scope. Prior games had offered limited areas to explore, separated into discrete chapters, but director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz (formerly the leader of the studio’s quest division) wanted to create the franchise’s first truly open setting. Bethesda’s Skyrim had established the standard for open-world games on home consoles in 2011 and CD Projekt Red would need to meet or exceed it to make their name as well-known as North American and Japanese competitors. To that end, three massive locations were designed to offer free-roaming exploration by foot or using Geralt’s horse Roach: war-torn Velen, urban Novigrad, and the picturesque island chain of Skellige.
Lest these regions offer beauty at the expense of meaningful gameplay, though, CD Projekt Red went all-in on its quest design. Novelist Jakub Szamałek was hired as lead scriptwriter and Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz took over his older brother’s former division, setting about designing the genre’s most complex sidequests using the principle that each one should include some memorable set-piece, twist, or character development; fetch quests of the sort popularized in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and by this time intertwined even with single-player Western RPGs were to be entirely eschewed. This plan proved fruitful, as The Witcher 3 would single-handedly set the stage for future RPG quest design, but the complexity and density of this optional content was only made possible through seemingly endless re-writing and playtesting efforts. The game was consequently pushed back from its planned 2014 release in order to ensure that it avoided the glitches which had become associated with projects of this scale. In spite of some minor controversy over whether it looked as good as it had an E3 preview in 2014, The Witcher 3 was widely lauded as the best game of the year at the time of its release on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 in May 2015.
Players again step into the role of Geralt as he pursues his missing adopted daughter Ciri, who is revealed during the game’s early hours to be the biological daughter of Nilfgaardian Emperor Emhyr var Emreis. The pursuit of Ciri is framed as a race against time to save her from a sinister supernatural army called the Wild Hunt in the midst of an invasion of the Northern Kingdoms by the powerful Nilfgaardian Empire. Geralt is joined for the first time by additional characters from Sapkowski’s book series, including mentor Vesimir and sorceress Yennefer, while old allies, including Dandelion and Triss Merigold, return once again. The love triangle between Geralt, Yennefer, and Triss is especially prominent as the player has the opportunity to choose which (if either) of Geralt’s former lovers he romances amid accusations of infidelity from both. Two years of painstaking voice acting and motion capture work by CD Projekt Red ensures that the relationships of all characters is enhanced through some of the medium’s most richly-defined characters. An unprecedented 36 total endings are available based on the player’s choices.
Though its mechanics are informed by The Witcher 2, The Witcher 3 features a handful of noteworthy new embellishments that make it the series’ most player-friendly entry so far. Riding the aforementioned Roach introduces mounted combat to the franchise while also making rapid long-distance traversal possible. With regard to movement around its vertically- and horizontally-expansive setting, Geralt can now swim and climb as well. Witcher senses, which produce a desaturated fish-eye visual filter switched on or off at the tap of a button, allow the player to identify environmental features of note or signposts to their next objective in a questline. Battles are very similar to the preceding game, as Geralt makes use of a combination of heavy and light sword-strikes while dodging or blocking attacks and activating magical signs. These abilities can again be enhanced through a menu-based skill tree once enough experience points are accumulated from quests and combat encounters.
Sidequests can be separated into two major categories: those which the player discovers and participates in organically while exploring the world and witcher contracts. The former are not dissimilar to those of other games or earlier Witcher titles, except insofar as they are significantly better-written. The latter constitute one of The Witcher 3’s most memorable flourishes, as they help to find an ideal middle ground between The Witcher’s dark fairy tale themes and the political machinations of The Witcher 2; while the main plot of The Witcher 3 primarily resembles its direct predecessor, witcher contracts emphasize the franchise’s distinctively Slavic folk elements by offering the opportunity to research and hunt down powerful monsters.
Though the game was initially designed around narrative-heavy sidequests, fears among the developer team that the world was still too empty caused CD Projekt Red to integrate locations of interest throughout the Northern Kingdoms and Skellige. These include places of power, which instantly enhance Geralt’s abilities, explorable ruins and item scavenger hunts. While these minor diversions lack the substance of the two aforementioned sidequest types, they successfully promote exploration of otherwise-far flung corners of the game world and serve to retain the player’s attention during The Witcher 3’s lengthy campaign.
The Witcher 3’s last major addition to the series’ gameplay is the integration of a collectible card game called Gwent. Cards, acquired either during exploration or won in Gwent duels with NPCs, contribute to a pool from which Geralt can build a deck. Though the original concept called for three players at a time, the implementation present in the final game sees Geralt and one NPC laying down cards in three rows to simulate a military battle. Each card has unique combat stats and abilities that enhance the player’s situation or manipulate their opponent’s play field while the two players vie for the highest overall score. Cards are one of the few exceptions to the game’s otherwise immersive world-building, as many feature noteworthy characters from the game’s main plot.
The Witcher 3 shipped a staggering 10,000,000 copies worldwide by March 2016. CD Projekt Red released 16 pieces of free downloadable content, including substantial sidequests and a New Game+ mode alongside cosmetic changes. Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, large-scale expansions made available for purchase in October 2015 and May 2016, respectively concern Geralt’s investigation of a cursed nobleman and exploration of a colorful new region called Toussaint. Perhaps the most impressive post-launch update to The Witcher 3, though, is a 2019 Nintendo Switch version developed by Saber Interactive. While it lacks the high-definition textures of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions as well as the unlocked framerate of the PC version, it is a highly playable technical milesetone widely considered impossible before it was released. Saber Interactive had established a new bar for what could be expected on Nintendo’s comparatively underpowered portable device overnight.
For a series that has only existed in video game form since 2007, The Witcher has racked up an impressive number of spinoffs. The first was The Witcher: Crimson Trail (2007), which remains noteworthy for being the only Witcher title not published by CD Projekt Red. The studio licensed its intellectual property (IP) out to Hands-On Mobile, which had Breakpoint Games develop the tie-in for J2ME devices. Eschewing the series’ heavy narrative and complex role-playing mechanics, this mobile phone game plays as a straightforward side-scrolling action-adventure title in the style of early Castlevania releases. Like most mobile software produced before the advent of smart devices, Crimson Trail is no longer available through official channels at the time of writing in May 2020.
The next spinoff was The Witcher VS., a Flash-based browser title developed by one2tribe and published online by CD Projekt Red in 2008. Players create a character built on one of three class templates – Witcher, Sorceress, or Frightener – and level them up by defeating other real-world players in asynchronous turn-based duels. Though a port to iOS was released in 2011, all versions of The Witcher VS. have been discontinued since May 31, 2012.
The Witcher Adventure Game, a digital adaptation of a board game developed in collaboration between CD Projekt Red and Fantasy Flight Games, was published on iOS, Android, Mac, and PC platforms in 2014. Players choose between four playable characters – Geralt, Triss, Dandelion, and dwarven adventurer Yarpen Zigrin – as they roll virtual dice, strengthen their character, and travel around The Witcher’s world. The game even includes quests to complete by accumulating items and visiting specified locations. Reviews were mixed, tending to praise and criticize the game in equal measure for its density of complex mechanics.
The fourth Witcher spinoff was The Witcher: Battle Arena. This multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) was developed by Fuero Games and published on mobile platforms by CD Projekt Red in 2014. Up to six players could choose one of 16 avatars – including series standards as well as less-common characters like The Witcher 2’s Iorveth and monsters like the succubus or golem – to battle one another in real-time as they tried to capture and hold three points on a map depicted from an overhead perspective. Unfortunately, the game’s servers were shut down in 2015.
A standalone free-to-play version of The Witcher 3’s Gwent was released on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2018. Developed internally by a team of over 100 CD Projekt Red staff members, Gwent significantly expands and refines the collectible card game into a competitive multiplayer version which does not allow any individual player to become overpowered as they might have in its single-player minigame variant. As with many multiplayer games of the 2010s, players can choose between casual and ranked modes depending on whether they want to track their progress on online leaderboards. Microtransactions allow the player to purchase booster packs of cards using real-world currency. An arena mode, in which players build a deck from a random selection of cards to participate in a run of nine games to win awards, is centered on The Witcher 3 NPC Gaunter O’Dimm.
The latest Witcher spinoff was simultaneously released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2018 and on the Switch in January 2020 under the name Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. This is built on the basic mechanics of Gwent, but includes a lengthy narrative focusing on Queen Meve of Lyria and Rivia as she attempts to protect the Northern Kingdoms from Nilfgaardian aggression. Between card games, the player navigates the world map from an overhead perspective and takes on sidequests while making choices during cutscenes to shape the narrative arc.
CD Projekt has grown from a small localizer of Interplay RPGs to one of the titans of European game development over the last two decades. In the process, it has revolutionized video game morality systems and sidequests, fulfilling the promise of narrative content suggested by its literary origins. The increased international visibility of CD Projekt Red’s workplace culture has also brought it under critical scrutiny, particularly for poor working conditions and transphobic social media posts. In spite of these issues, The Witcher 3 saw more new players in 2019 than any time since its 2015 release thanks to the debut of a Netflix adaptation of Sapkowski’s books. There have been no announcements concerning a new title in The Witcher video game series, as CD Projekt Red has been heavily focused on developing and promoting Cyberpunk 2077 (expected in 2020), but it seems only a matter of time until Geralt comes out of retirement.
Which is your favorite The Witcher game? How about your least favorite? Tell us about your favorite quest or NPC. How much naked Geralt is too much naked Geralt? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #90: Mortal Kombat – May 15
- #91: Masters of Orion – May 22
- #92: Mega Man Zero – May 29
- #93: Panzer Dragoon – June 5
- #94: Animal Crossing – June 12