Tight and rewarding combat, complex storytelling, memorable characters, killer soundtrack and a fantastic collection of downloadable content have cemented “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” as one of the most beloved of the last decade. One facet of CD Projekt Red’s 2015 bestseller that is often overlooked, however, is that it successfully adapts the original book series from which it originates, vastly heightening the game playing experience
The titular witcher, Geralt of Rivia, and most of the characters populating the game’s world first appeared in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of fantasy novels and short stories from the early 1990s. Since Netflix released its less-than-stellar television adaptation of the books last year, “The Witcher,” it seems fitting to address the success of “The Witcher 3” as an adaptive work, from which Netflix would be well-served to take some cues. “The Witcher 3” effectively captured the best themes of the series in a way that was appropriate to the video game medium.
The most effective way “The Witcher 3” adapts Sapkowski’s novels is in capturing the moral ambiguity of Sapkowski’s gritty world by constantly forcing the player to make dialogue and gameplay choices, often timed, that will alter the course of the game. They span from sweeping decisions to more mundane ones, from participating in a plot to assassinate the racist, power-hungry king of one of the game’s warring factions, to choosing not to accept the monster-hunting fee from a peasant family who has taken in a traumatized orphan of the beast’s making.
One of Sapkowski’s earliest short stories in the “The Witcher” series, “The Lesser Evil,” deals extensively with the concept of hard choices and ultimatums. This theme pervades the rest of the stories, haunting the monster-hunting main character as he is constantly forced to choose the best path forward in a world colored in shades of gray.
Each decision made weighs heavily on the psyche of the player, and the game does not pull its punches in showing players the consequences of their actions. Fail to kill the king, and the closing preamble will throw the ongoing pogroms of magical beings in your face. Eliminate him, and it details the victory and dominion of the more progressive, but still authoritarian, Nilfgaardian empire. The choices the player makes compellingly heighten the stakes of the game.
Though the larger-scale decisions can indelibly alter the ecosystem of the game, it is the smaller decisions that often have more of an impact on the player. Money is scarce, and top-of-the-line resources are critical given the danger of the tasks. Choosing not to collect your monster-hunting fee from a peasant family, while satisfying your conscience, will also force you to skip on that piece of gear and endanger your life in contests to come. The choices you must make add a realism and a lasting impact to the way you play the game.
This difficulty is another effective way “The Witcher 3” uses its medium to convey the tone and themes of the book series. Sapkowski’s dark fantasy world is grim and unforgiving. Having grown up in a Poland ruled by the USSR and still reeling from the aftermath of World War II, Sapkowski intentionally painted a world that reflected the strife and inhumanity that became the norm in times of war and racial inequity. As a result, the novels are gritty and death is a constant companion for Geralt on his quest; throughout the series, his friends and enemies alike meet bloody demises, all with a backdrop of death and destruction on a massive scale.
Mortal gravity is captured elegantly in the difficulty scaling of “The Witcher 3.” Apart from the constant, sobering visual reminders of the bleak nature of the game’s world, the combat is unforgiving, even when playing in the game’s easier difficulty settings. The most minor combat encounter can bring Geralt to the brink of death, forcing the player to think strategically and carefully, and most of all recognize the mortality of the witcher in practically every moment of the experience. Attention to the constant threat of death makes the game all the more realistic and gripping.
“The Witcher 3” is a masterclass in using gameplay mechanics to convey messages. In CD Projekt Red’s hands, the soul-aching uncertainty felt by Geralt in Sapkowski’s novels is translated directly to meaningful in-game choices, and the brutal world of the books is realized in the game’s white-knuckle difficulty. It is this aspect of the game that sets it so far apart and secures its spot as a truly masterful work of adaptation, keeping the most compelling and thoughtful themes of the series alive.
Merely translating a work from one format to another can result in a perfectly passable adaptation, but the greatest ones are those that recognize the advantages and limitations both of the source medium and the adapted medium. CD Projekt Red nails this balance perfectly, allowing “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” to excel both in its own right and as compared to Sapkowski’s novels. As showrunner Lauren Hissrich gears up to enter production for season two of Netflix’s “The Witcher,” she would do well to look to this 2015 masterpiece and emulate the grace and respect of its adaptation.
Mac Riga is a junior in the College. START/SELECT will appear in print and online every other Friday.