We tend to look at open world games as playgrounds. Places to wander around in and make our own fun. See that mountain in the distance? You can climb it. But the more I play The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (the second expansion to The Witcher 3), the more I realize The Witcher has always been less about giving you glimpse of a new world and more about chronicling the life of Geralt of Rivia.
More than the previous expansion, Hearts of Stone (which focused more on a single tightly-wound story) Blood and Wine gives you a miniature Witcher 3; Geralt can explore a new landmass, further upgrade his armor sets to the Grandmaster level, and tinker with a new Skellige Gwent deck. But the best interactions in The Witcher series have always been with people, not systems. Geralt doesn’t explore dangerous caves to get the item inside so the merchant who sent him there will give him a more powerful sword. He does it because he needs to help someone. I’m there so I can take in another story. Geralt can explore Toussaint at his leisure, but it’s always in the service of uncovering these stories.
Don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t wander, though. The main questline in Blood and Wine has, so far, kept me barreling forward. After recording our Let’s Play video, I worried I’d spoiled some of the best moments Blood and Wine had to offer. But as Geralt was making his way – from marker to marker to find out who was behind all the murders and why – he stumbled, by chance, on a messenger who told him he had a bank account he’d long-forgotten, which had accrued a hefty interest. When I took Geralt to the bank to withdraw it, he began dealing with the most grotesque monster known to man: bureaucracy.
He couldn’t withdraw the money because he’d been declared legally dead a long time ago. He needed Permit A38 to reactivate his account, but needed Form 202 to get the A38. I won’t spoil the rest of story but as of this writing, Geralt is waiting a week for a banker to finally get him his money. Another quest, also found by chance, had Geralt recovering the testacles of a statue believed to have magic fertility powers.
I say “Geralt” here and not “me” because after three games of Witchering, Geralt has become someone I’m keeping tabs on rather than someone I’m embodying. My actions don’t define him like they might other videogame protagonists. I’ll come across a new character and Geralt is already familiar with them, like an errant knight who recognizes Geralt and wants to maim him for a past wrongdoing, or a Duchess who summoned Geralt to kill a monster after first meeting him years earlier. Geralt had already built his legend, the kind most RPG protagonists strive for, long before I met him, and Blood and Wine goes out its way to show me that.
Which is why the issue of urgency I have in most games of this size (why would I be running errands for a merchant when I need to save the world?) doesn’t bother me as much. Rather than placing them all on a concurrent, totally implausible timeline, I think of them as a disparate stories Uncle Geralt is telling me. They twist and turn and occasionally coincide and affect one another, sure. But the story of how Geralt help a Baron test out alternate-world Camera Obscura to bring his bedridden daughter pictures of the outside world exists both by itself and as part of larger narrative that tells me more about who Geralt is.
He isn’t just a monster killer. Blood and Wine has plenty of contracts and monsters to kill, but the quiet, funny and tensely political storylines make it clear that violence is only one of many options, so the times he opts for it, it’s a last resort (such as when he has to defend a gladiator who doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into). More than most videogame protagonists, he earns his place as the focus of the game; he’s a problem-solver, a man of the people, and a reliable friend. He isn’t a cypher everyone praises simply for being the protagonist of a story. When the errant knight demands satisfaction for Geralt having insulted him twicely, he responds by saying that “twicely oughta be enough.” It’s not what I would have made him say, but damn if I’m not glad he said it.
I still have plenty of hours left of Blood and Wine, but it’s making a tremendous early impression. It understands that, years from now, all we’ll have are stories to tell, and it’s making sure the ones it tells are good. I’m probably going to take my time with the rest of the expansion, since I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to all the people I’ve come across in the world of The Witcher. And who knows — I might just start reading the books these games are based on. I could always go for another story from Uncle Geralt.