The Witcher 3: Novigrad, Part Two

By Bob Case Posted Thursday May 10, 2018

Filed under: Video Games 32 comments

The bad part is over. Now it’s time for the good part!

Two of my favorite quests in the game are in the second half of the Novigrad storyline, and they’re both ones I’d like to cover in at least some detail, because I personally consider them to be examples of how to do it right. I skip over a lot of things in these posts, mostly because The Witcher 3 is a very long game and to cover everything in detail would take forever. But I’m not going to skip over these two quests, because (in my opinion) they’re instructive. They’re examples of two types of quest that you don’t often see anymore. I’ve named them the “nailbiter” and the “soother” (I’ll explain the names).

First up, the nailbiter. Caleb Menge, high-ranking thug in the employ of the Church of the Eternal Fire, is in possession of two pieces of information crucial to us: Dandelion’s location, and the location of the treasure looted from Dijkstra’s vault. Triss comes up with a plan for Geralt to “capture” her and deliver her to Menge, in hopes that Geralt can wheedle out the information he needs as payment. This requires Geralt to pay a part: he has to make the Witch Hunters believe that he doesn’t care about Triss, or even actively dislikes her. Triss, for her part, knows she’s likely to be tortured once she’s in Menge’s clutches.

This leads to a situation that is unfortunately relatively rare in modern RPGs: one where there’s meaningful gameplay to be had through dialogue. Geralt has to be careful what he says, what he admits to, how he reacts to provocation, and what information he presses for, because being careless will give the hustle away. And keeping Menge’s con won’t be easy – at a glance he looks like a dumb goon, but by now we know that, in his own way, he’s a canny operator.

Menge is paranoid about dopplers, one of many reasons that I suspect they played a bigger role in whatever the original incarnation of this questline was.
Menge is paranoid about dopplers, one of many reasons that I suspect they played a bigger role in whatever the original incarnation of this questline was.

I say that this is rare because too often in RPGs (or any kind of story-driven game) dialogue and gameplay are kept at arm’s length. Generally speaking, nowadays you can’t fail a dialogue section – the player can either exhaust all the various options or skip them, and their decision to do either the one or the other doesn’t affect anything else. But when talking to Menge and the Witch Hunters there are a variety of different ways to screw the pooch.

The game lays deliberate traps for the player, most of which tempt them to pull a sword out and start swinging out of an excess of gentlemanly sentiment towards Triss. Triss knows she’ll be mistreated at the very least, and likely tortured, but insists to Geralt that he keep his cool. This leads to us trying to poker face our way through a conversation in Menge’s office while we can hear the sounds of Triss having her fingernails torn outGeez next door. It’s impressively tense, which is why I’ve nicknamed this type of quest the “nailbiter.”The pun is unintentional.

It also does something clever: it asks us to trust Triss past the point where many of us are comfortable. In a bit of scene-setting that probably could’ve been better explained to the player, Triss is wearing fake Dimeritium shackles. Dimeritium is a metal that can render spellcasters helpless, so during most of the sceneTowards the end a guard tries to put real shackles on., Triss is capable of escaping at any time but endures for the sake of the charade.

CD Projekt’s overall posture towards female characters can be unpredictable – too often, they settle back into a familiar juvenility, but in The Witcher 3 they frequently reward the player for trusting in their competence and/or punish them for being protective past of the point of respect. This is a pattern that will return later, and in my opinion is crucial to the emotional core of the game.

This whole sequence is not long, and nor is it a big-ticket setpiece quest like some others, but it is an example of a well-constructed roleplaying situation. A roleplaying situation: something that’s surprisingly difficult to pull of in a CRPG. For all the debt the genre owes to tabletop gaming, the discouraging truth is that situations like this (playing an elaborate bluff on an NPC), which are (mechanically speaking) a snap with a live DM, are fraught with practical challenges when they move from the tabletop to the keyboard/controller.

A nice continuity nod: in the game, as in the books, Sorceresses don't like having their fingernails torn out.
A nice continuity nod: in the game, as in the books, Sorceresses don't like having their fingernails torn out.

This conversation with Menge can take several branching paths which can lead to several different outcomes. That means that CDP had to invest limited resources into making content that it’s likely a large percentage of players will never seeI played through the entire game twice without ever seeing one of the major outcomes of this quest, where you meet Menge’s spy.. I can understand why developers hesitate to do this sort of thing, but I encourage them to do it anyway. I believe that some of the unique magic to be found in well-done CRPGs can be found in their imperfect recreations of the tabletop experience.

This is one of the reasons I find myself getting unreasonably hyped for Cyberpunk 2077. The Witcher universe, as an intellectual property, had its origins in Sapkowski’s novels and short stories, rather than in pen-and-paper roleplaying. The Cyberpunk universe, on the other hand, does have its origins there, and the fact that Mike Pondsmith appears to have some level of hands-on involvement gives me hope that actual roleplaying will feature, as opposed to the too-usual segregation of story and gameplay. Or maybe I’m just setting myself up for disappointment – I guess we’ll know soon enough.Hopefully. I think a 2019 release is likely.

At the end of the quest, Menge is dead and Dandelion is still a captive. Our heroes have to convince the Church of the Eternal Fire to move him to Oxenfurt, where he’s scheduled to be executed, in the hopes that they can spring him en route. For this they require the services of a doppler, a creature that can take the shape of other people. A doppler friend of Dandelion’s named Dudu featured in his original heist of Dijkstra’s fault, but has since gone into hiding, and could be disguised as anyone. So, Geralt does the obvious thing and stages a play he hopes Dudu will show up to watch.

This is the “soother” – the quest that’s lighter in tone than the game surrounding it, giving some relief to the player and a pleasant contrast to everything else. Instead of growling threats at people and chopping up monsters with a swordOr in our case, punching them and setting them on fire., Geralt spends his time collaborating on a script, recruiting jugglers, and finally playing himself onstage.

Soothers can vary in tone. I consider the opera house sequence in Final Fantasy VI to be one, as well as Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC. In fact, Bioware romances in general could be grouped into the category. They’re particularly useful in a game like The Witcher 3, whose relentless grimness threatens to become overpowering without them. Excessive self-importance is, in my opinion, one of the most frequently committed sins in AAA gaming

A nice moment. Dudu the Doppler, who has a missing eye he can't disguise, takes Ciri's form - the first time Geralt has 'seen' her since she was a child.
A nice moment. Dudu the Doppler, who has a missing eye he can't disguise, takes Ciri's form - the first time Geralt has 'seen' her since she was a child.

With Dudu successfully recruited, Geralt and Zoltan ambush the prisoner convoy taking Dandelion to Oxenfurt. A guard takes off on horseback with him captive, and Geralt chases them to a house inhabited by a pair of dwarven painters.After the quest, the painters reward him with a portrait of Heierarch Himmelfart, the Church of the Eternal Fire’s equivalent of the Pope, and a character we never interact with in the game. It’s one of many strange details that only reinforce my suspicion that Novigrad must have had a bunch of last-minute cuts. By the time you actually rescue Dandelion, I’d guess that many players have lost track of why they were even after him in the first place. But he dutifully gives his piece of the “where is Ciri and what is she up to” puzzle: she was in possession of a phylactery, and had memorized a mysterious incantation with an unknown purpose, which Dandelion fortunately remembers.

And so ends the Novigrad section of the main quest. It started off weak but ended strong, which is better than the other way round if you ask me. My next entry will cover various types of side content, which is a big – and in my opinion, spotty – part of the game. See you then.



[1] Geez

[2] The pun is unintentional.

[3] Towards the end a guard tries to put real shackles on.

[4] I played through the entire game twice without ever seeing one of the major outcomes of this quest, where you meet Menge’s spy.

[5] Hopefully. I think a 2019 release is likely.

[6] Or in our case, punching them and setting them on fire.

[7] After the quest, the painters reward him with a portrait of Heierarch Himmelfart, the Church of the Eternal Fire’s equivalent of the Pope, and a character we never interact with in the game. It’s one of many strange details that only reinforce my suspicion that Novigrad must have had a bunch of last-minute cuts.

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32 thoughts on “The Witcher 3: Novigrad, Part Two

  1. Mattias42 says:

    …That ‘pope’ painting wasn’t added as a tie-in with Blood & Wine?

    Mad props for making sure every painting in the game still worked in the expansion’s one tiny gimmick using them then. That can’t have been quick, cheap or easy.

    1. baud says:

      Or maybe they already had in mind such gimmick for an extension while working on the main game and laid the groundwork for it.

  2. baud says:

    Some of my best memories of playing RPG are the trial sequences on Manaan in KOTOR. There’s one where you have to defend a criminal, plus the two where you’re arrested after the story mission.

    1. HiJohn says:

      While the trials in KoTOR are more consequential and have higher narrative stakes, I think I prefer Bioware’s earlier effort in Neverwinter Nights. The trial there is only a side quest and the mechanics are a little contrived, but you get immediate and useful feedback about jurors’ opinions and the likely verdict as you make arguments and introduce evidence. In KoTOR, you have to remember which of the indistinguishable fish-men believes what and there’s no way to tell which way any of them are leaning at any given moment. The other thing I like about it is that there’s no option that makes the trial moot. In Sunry’s trial in KoTOR, there’s the Republic data recording and in the Sith embassy trial there’s the Sith Master’s diary. Knowing that those things exist, it’s pretty much impossible for me not to use them.

      1. Joshua says:

        Also in contrast is the trial in NWN 2, where you get a lot of interesting witness testimony that makes you reflect on the choices you made in the past and the decisions that Sand needs to make in the present during the trial…..all to have it thrown out the window and end up with a trial by combat regardless of the outcome of the trial, making the whole extended sequence moot.

    2. King Marth says:

      Can’t let mention of video game trials go by without mentioning Chrono Trigger. Even though that basically just poked fun at console RPG shorthand (used the convenient respawning health-restoring pouch? It was some poor old man’s lunch!) and the outcome doesn’t change much, it was an excellent continuation of the general theme that your actions were meaningful and could change history.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        So here’s the thing: that Chorno Trigger trial often comes up as a great example of gameplay coming to bite you in the ass, but to me it was a somewhat nasty, unexpected trick:

        (Spoilers for Chrono Trigger, the ~20-year old game)

        Game: Here’s a fun carnival and a random girl who you’ve met! Awesome! Let’s explore!
        Me: Woo! This is fun! Say, what’s this pink thing?

        Not that it’s a massive problem – other people misinterpreting your actions is a common pitfall in all sorts of situations.
        But still.

  3. BlueBlazeSpear says:

    It’s such a pleasure to me when an RPG can bridge that gap between story, dialogue, and gameplay.

    One of my very favorite moments in an RPG game is Tali’s loyalty quest in Mass Effect 2. A significant portion of it hangs on dialogue choices made during Tali’s trial in front of the admiralty board. And it can go various ways.

    If your charm/intimidate scores are high enough, you can sweet talk/threaten the admiralty board into backing Tali. Or you can do as Tali asks and lie, getting her exiled, but also keeping her loyalty. Or, if you had let the Quarians take Veetor at Freedom’s Progress and kept Kal’Reegar alive at Haestrom, as well as talk to the admirals to learn their motivations before the trial, you can call them out for using the trial as an excuse to advance their own agendas, and Kal’Reegar and Veetor will get the crowd behind you and the admirals will vote in your favor. Or you can just show the evidence that it was her father up to no good and that she was innocent, which will keep Tali from being exiled, but will also keep her from being loyal to you. I just love all of these little nuances to this entire scene and how choices you made earlier and influence how things go.

    But the Triss torture dialogue probably lines up better with another ME2 loyalty mission with Thane when you have to good cop/bad cop a bad guy in custody and have to walk the line between being nice and pummeling the information out of him, especially if you’re thinking about the paragon/renegade points you’re piling up in the process.

    I always blow it with that Triss scene by the way. I may be a Yennefer/Geralt guy through and through, but I still enjoy the Triss character well enough that I’ve never been able to get through the whole conversation before I start hacking guys. To this day, I don’t even know all the information you can get out of that dialogue. I like to think that means that there’s solid writing for the character of Triss that not only am I unable to let her be tortured, but then I feel bad when she chastises Geralt for not sticking to the plan afterward.

    1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      Nothing. You can get nothing out of the dialogue you can’t pull off his desk and corpse after you kill him. In fact, the latter parts of the dialogue are infuriatingly vague and non-responsive. The game is actively wasting your time.

      That actually bothered me quite a bit. I botched this 4 times, and finally managed, by trial and error, to get all the way through the sequence without it breaking down into a fight (you have to chart a very specific course -if you act to gruff about seeing Menge, they also draw on you). At which point there is no significant difference. And I want to defend this as a role-playing choice, because the Geralt I was playing would totally go along with this, the game just played hide the ball on how to do it.

      Also, the game railroads you into not telling Djikstra where his treasure is.

      It probably works if you just play through it and see what happens. But if you are trying to play a character who is engaging in the spywork, the railroad tracks become really, really, apparent. It’s like a DM who didn’t actually expect you to not try fighting your way through the level, and therefore hasn’t written the dialogue in advance and is winging it.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      The problem I have with the ME2 Tali quest is this: You have 4 options.

      1. Good: Do the ‘right’ thing, lose Tali’s loyalty.
      2. Neutral: Let the trial continue without your direct input. Depending on the way you’ve dealt with other, previous quests, Tali will be damned/pardoned based on how much other NPCs get involved who you’ve interacted with before. (BTW this is an AWESOME way for a quest outcome to go; really helps make a coherent game.)
      3. Bad: Lie, keep Tali’s loyalty.


      Then there’s 4.: Just pick the Blue/Red Option And Win, because you have enough Paragon Renegade points. This solves the problems in almost the entire game and completely thwarts any roleplay you might be tempted to do – and also incentivises you to just go full Paragon/Renegade rather than bother roleplaying AT ALL at any other point. Like, just colour-code your responses, no need to even read what your character’s going to say.

      1. Opagla says:

        Yeah, the Paragon/Renegade system really spoils the role playing aspect of the ME series to a point were it’s really hard for me to categorize those games as RPGs at all.

        1. BlueBlazeSpear says:

          I don’t think that this is a popular opinion among the Mass Effect fandom, but it’s an opinion that I thoroughly agree with.

          I fully support the idea of giving our character a wide array of choices morality-wise, but I don’t care for the part where it’s tied to a carry-over light side/dark side mechanic from KOTOR. I don’t like the meta-gaming that results where I’m making choices to dump points into a table somewhere instead of, you know, role playing my role playing game. I’m all for having paragon and renegade choices; I just don’t think that they should be so heavily tied to a game mechanic that the game basically forces you to consistently go one way or another.

          I like that they tried to fix this in Andromeda, but I’m bummed that they placed it with something that’s even less satisfying. It was the right idea with the wrong execution.

          1. Opagla says:

            Maybe if they hid from the player the Paragon/Renegade points system and also made all the dialogue options to have the same color text (white), then it would make for a more seemingly natural choice and consequence system, rather then a go 100% blue/red because it always works.

            1. Admiral Akbar says:

              Expert mode in Pillars of Eternity / Tyranny

      2. ElementalAlchemist says:

        just go full Paragon/Renegade rather than bother roleplaying AT ALL

        But Tali likes it when I shout.

      3. BlueBlazeSpear says:

        I totally hear you on that. During Tali’s quest, I actually go the neutral route even though I always have enough Paragon points for the blue option. It just makes more sense and it cashes in on choices made earlier and lets us actually apply the knowledge we learn from the admirals. It’s not as easy, but it’s more satisfying. And it doesn’t let the meta-gaming trump the in-world gaming.

  4. Carlos García says:

    Oh, I loved this scene. I also miss that kind of stuff in games. Everytime I find a conversation and I know I can just click through every choice I feel disappointing at the game for making conversations meaningless.
    I got to the end in my playthrough (it was tought, I wanted so much to have Geralt take his sword out and hack everyone), sadly abandoned shortly after (I like TW3 quite a lot, but I got too many games, damn Steam sales). Seems it’s time to pick it up and try to keep ahead of your series.
    I also felt satisfying they dared to do this scene, but I won’t ellaborate as I think it might too easily send me into rules say don’t talk of this territory.

  5. Tizzy says:

    Witcher 3 has a ridiculously large amount of content compared to other games, I only played through it once,and yet the percentage of it that’s memorable exceeds any other game I can think of. These quests are a perfect example. It’s all good, no fillers. Few games can boast of that. Most are barely memorable at all.

  6. MadTinkerer says:

    I think a 2019 release is likely.

    Bah. A 2020 release would be far more appropriate.

  7. top6 says:

    I messed up the Trish scene and in about 10 seconds was fighting everyone in the building. This is where the Novigrad quest really lost me. They spent so much time building up tension i and the real terror that the Church of the Eternal Fire is inflicting on very powerful people, but after I slaughter Mange and about 20 church thugs in the middle of the city, Triss and I are able to walk out the door with no consequences whatsoever. The city just stopped seeming alive to me at that point.

    Don’t get me wrong, Novigrad is still an amazing accomplishment. I really can’t complain because I got hours of entertainment just walking around it. Overall though I preferred the game in more rural settings.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      That’s disappointing. Would have been amazing if the game had switched to a buddy style comedy at that point, where Geralt and Triss exchange witty banter as they sack the CoET all the way from the Outpost to the Grand Picket.

    2. Zekiel says:

      I get your point, but I feel you’re being a little unfair in your characterisation – the game puts effort into demonstrating that when you kill all the witcher hunters (which I found quite tough in itself), Triss then sets the building on fire to cover your tracks. So yes, you do get away scot-free, but there is a reason provided for why you get away.

      1. top6 says:

        Fair, and obviously it would have been impossible to build a branch like that without sacrificing the rest of the story.

        I loved the game but for the second half of Novigrad, which was the only time it felt like a chore and I just wanted to move on. In fairness, this may because I was so taken with Novigrad when I first arrived and spent so much time just walking around that by the time I was that far in the main quest I had spent a loooooonnnnnggggg time there.

  8. skeeto says:

    I had no idea the scheme with Triss would actually go anywhere like that. In both my playthroughs I ended up fighting the guards at the gate and slaughtered my way through the whole thing.

  9. Darth Tiffany says:

    I actually kind of love that the Church of the Eternal Fire doesn’t play a role in the main plot beyond being a huge and influential background institution going through the fantasy equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s an enormous subversion of video game expectations to introduce Evil Organization That Is Oppressing All The Nice People and then NOT have the player character be directly involved in its downfall, after which the area is “saved,” everyone loves you, and no one will ever be in danger ever again. It’s a great concession to reality that this institution exists, has existed for a long time, and there isn’t much any one person can do about it.

    *One note regarding the Hierarch: You DO meet him, albeit briefly, as a spectator in Whoreson’s arena. He happens to look just like Pope John Paul II, which is a pretty ballsy move for a Polish developer.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      It’s always a bit underwhelming if a game has the player – just one person! – decide the entire fate of an entire country/organisation, or leave nothing but perfection in their wake. Sure it’s satisfying, but it’s just not realistic.
      This is one of the reasons I love Fallout: New Vegas so much: for all the player’s power, they are still stuck choosing the least bad of all the options presented to them, and very often there isn’t your usual crystal-clear right option. You just make the best of what you’ve got.

    2. Mr. Wolf says:

      You technically see the Hierarch one other time: when using Yen’s megascope. You know the scene.

      “Cead’mil, bloede dhoine, hocus pocus, abracadabra , arse blathanna”

  10. BlueHorus says:

    As this series goes on, I am more an more sold on Witcher 3. This sounds more & more like all the things I like in a game.
    I bounced off it intially (it’s still in my library, such is the curse of the Steam Sale), but if Bob’s review conintues, I may well re-install and try again.

    In other news: The (newer, Harebrained Schemes) Shadowrun games have similar, awesome features; a couple of (spoiler-free) memorable moments are at least three very detailed persuasion/conversation encounters where there are several options – some options are false flags that set you back, some only appear if you’ve done the proper in-character research, and some achieve nothing. And – crucially – the game can continue regardless of whether you succeed or fail in the test.
    As close as I’ve ever seen to ‘actually talking to a real human being’ rendered in game format. Remember Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s converstation encounters? Like that, but deeper.

    1. Tizzy says:

      Actually, if it hadn’t been for Bob’s guest spot on Diecast #174, I’d have missed those Harebrained Scheme games. They were definitely worth it (fun turn-based combat too, but I have to say, turn-based is such a deceptively paced time sink sometimes).

      And Witcher 3 is definitely worth your time. It’s shocking the number of missions that have actual story tied to it, rather than perfunctory setup/payoff. And many have you pick sides, and among those, most have no objective good side. Just trying to make the best out of an unpleasant situation.

  11. Eric says:

    CD Projekt’s overall posture towards female characters can be unpredictable – too often, they settle back into a familiar juvenility, but in The Witcher 3 they frequently reward the player for trusting in their competence and/or punish them for being protective past of the point of respect. This is a pattern that will return later, and in my opinion is crucial to the emotional core of the game.

    Not to spoil your future posts, but I’d just like to highlight some of the examples where this does (and doesn’t) occur:

    (Spoilers ahead)

    – If you trust Keira (or at least, allow her to do what she plans) she gets herself killed.
    – If you don’t help Ves in An Eye for an Eye, she dies. I’m not sure if ignoring the quest outright also results in her death, but it seems like it logically ought to.
    – There’s an unmarked quest where you can come to a woman’s defense against a man’s sexual profanity, only to find that they were merely roleplaying.
    – There’s a she-elf being harassed by humans who will scold you for trying to involve yourself. She looks exactly the same as the she-elf trapped in a burning hut in another quest, who was quite grateful for your protection then. I could never figure out if these were supposed to be the same.
    – Lastly, insisting on accompanying Ciri in her meeting with the Lodge contributes to the likeliness that Ciri dies in the ending.

    (End of spoilers)

    Although this is not an exhaustive list of examples, I think the overall picture in The Witcher 3 is that the penalties for allowing female characters to fend for themselves tend to greatly outweigh the penalties for being over-protective.

  12. Zekiel says:

    I love this identification of the “soother” type of quest, and I love those types of segments in RPGs. My favourite quest in the original Witcher is the one where you have to arrange a party for your friends (I forget why, probably lecherous knowing the game), get drunk and then stagger home afterwards. My favourite bits of the Mass Effect games are hanging out with Garrus shooting cans (the Citidel DLC sounds great, but I’d moved on by the time that came out).

    I liked putting on the play in Witcher 3, although this was tempered slightly that by the time I’d got to it I was rather fed up with the “Find Dandelion” questline. I really don’t know why it goes on for such a long time!

  13. Mako says:

    You had allowed Triss to be tortured? You monster!

    Seriously, for me the charade has concluded when I had no choice but to allow Triss to be taken away or start a fight. There’s actually an option to try and prevent the goons from taking Triss away (you have to attempt using Axii), but it always fails (Triss lampshades this, saying there are “too many people too close to you”). I like to take that option as a sort of desperate effort to protect Triss. She disapproves, but doesn’t really chew Geralt out too much over it.

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