Skellige is the third of the game’s three major areas, and a nice tonal contrast from the first two. Velen smells like peat and wet leaves. Novigrad, of course, smells like sewage. Skellige, however, smells like pine needles and juniper. How do I know what fictional locations smell like? I just do. You know I’m right.
The historical inspirations here are a mashup of Norse and the odd bit of Celtic, particularly in the language. Skellige’s inhabitants supplement their income by periodically raiding sea traffic and coastal settlements in the Viking style. I think we’re meant to like the Skelligers. They have physical courage, an independent streak that appeals to a modern audience, and are loyal to their friends and honorable to their own.
For all that, I can’t shake the knowledge that this lot make their fortunes (such as they are) through armed robbery. This is a consistent problem in fiction that makes protagonists out of Vikings and Pirates and the like. Thematically, they like to play up the whole freedom and independence thing, and play down the fact that these supposed good guys are essentially stickup gangs with boats. Just once I’d like to see a piece of fiction grapple with that issue more thoroughly.
In terms of overall gameplay experience, I’d say that Skellige is my favorite of the three main areas, though they all have their strong and weak points. First reaching the isles – and realizing the size of them – was a memorable experience during my first playthrough, a sort of “damn, this game really is big” moment. I took some time to ride Roach around at a canter, just listening to the music.
That’s a good sign, when a game’s mood is well-conveyed enough to get the player to slow down and soak it all in. The most comparable thing I can remember is first riding into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption.
Upon arriving at Kaer Trolde, we witness the funeral of the recently departed King Bran, setting up the “who will be the next King/Queen” dilemma that drives many of the region’s quests. It’s also our first opportunity to interact with Yennefer since the prologue. Which means that there’s no more putting it off. It’s high time we got stuck in and settled this once and for all.
Triss vs. Yen: The Definitive, Official, Final, Legally Binding Answer
I may be exaggerating. I’ve found the whole Triss vs. Yen debate to be remarkably civil and amicable by fandom shipping debate standards, but there is a debate. It often cleaves along book-game lines, as Yen/Geralt is the book-canon pairing, whereas game-only fans are more familiar with Triss from her presence in the first two installments.
Personally, I’m a Triss man. I can’t explain it better than to say that I actually enjoyed Triss’s company, and liked talking to her, whereas with Yen I was always bracing myself for the next insult. That said, the more I thought about the choice between the two the less I liked it, and the more I found it to encapsulate some of CD Projekt’s foibles when depicting female characters.
Yen, in my opinion, is the more fully realized of the two. Triss is likeable, agreeable, smitten with Geralt, and likes to do the right thing. All things we the players are disposed to like, and yet I often felt like there should have been additional dimensions to her, ones that I kept looking for but never quite found.
Yen, by contrast, is the one who has a discernible personality that exists independently of Geralt. She’s fiercely protectively of Ciri, impatient with obstacles (sometimes to a fault), justifiably confident in her own abilities, and has a ruthless streak strong enough to occasionally be unsettling. She’s also much more likely to challenge Geralt, and is often persuasive in doing so.
The problem, for me, is that Yen’s behavior often bumps against being emotionally and even physically abusive. There’s one sequence in Freya’s garden where, in the middle of her usual needling, she briefly relents and makes a show of affection, only to return to her usual dismissiveness right afterwards, a pattern familiar to those familiar with abuse. Much later, at Kaer Morhen, she gets frustrated with Geralt and teleports him hundreds of feet over a nearby lake, to fall into the water. Of course it’s played for comedy, but I had a hard time finding it funny.
In genre fiction of every type and medium, there’s a common dichotomy to be found between strong female characters and “strong” female characters. The former have coherent characterization and narrative agency that grows naturally from said characterization. The latter tend to substitute belligerence for “strength” and can come off as a back-patting exercise for their (usually male) writers.
Yen is that rare character who’s both strong and “strong” at the same time. I can’t quite find it in me to either endorse or condemn her. Complicating this issue is the fact that I suspect the developers themselves are on Team Triss. Triss was in the first two games (Yen wasn’t), players completing a typical playthrough will have the opportunity to complete Triss’s romance sequence before ever having the opportunity to start Yen’s, and in general Triss comes off more as the “right” option.
The first Witcher game famously featured a rather juvenile mechanic whereby Geralt could navigate your way inside the pants of various female NPCs and commemorate his conquests by collecting explicit playing card versions of them. Generally speaking, the series has outgrown that sort of thing. But habits like that die hard, and when they do remain they’re slippery and hard to pin down from a critical perspective. I don’t at all mean to say that the Witcher 3’s romances are just exercises in rank misogyny. They’re not. But I’d be lying if I said that the options available to the player left zero sourness in my mouth afterwards.
Which is why I have some wariness in me for Cyberpunk 2077, given that the only glimpse we’ve seen of that game so far features an attractive woman wearing relatively little clothing. It’s not egregious. It alone is not enough to throw stones. But it is enough to be suspicious.
Now onto to something I can uncritically praise. The Undvik sequence was among my favorite parts of the entire game. A short summary of the setup: Crach an Craite (a powerful Skellige noble) has a son named Hjalmar. Hjalmar, seeking to make a name for himself, has gathered up a crew of rowdies to sail to Undvik, a once-prosperous isle that has since been abandoned after it was terrorized by a fearsome frost giant.
Undvik is something like an island-sized dungeon. Upon arrival, Geralt tracks down the now-scattered and disorganized survivors of Hjalmar’s original expedition, and sees the aftermath of the giant’s work. Speaking for myself, I was kind of scared on Undvik. It really felt like I was on a dangerous, deserted island, far away from any kind of help, facing a terrifying creature I wasn’t sure I was up to fighting.
The whole sequence also does well to characterize Hjalmar, who all things considered is not a major character. You see him change from a brash, cocky type to a more sober and humbled one, which makes it easier to endorse him as King later, if you choose to do so. (You can also pick his sister Cerys.)
I’m not going to cover all of Skellige in great detail. A big chunk of the area’s major quests are actually optional (you can just do Yennefer’s stuff and pretty much ignore the politics, if you’re inclined). However, there will be one more post about Skellige before we move on to the big Kaer Morhen setpiece. See you next week.
Spec Ops: The Line
A videogame that judges its audience, criticizes its genre, and hates its premise. How did this thing get made?
PC Hardware is Toast
This is why shopping for graphics cards is so stupid and miserable.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
Grand Theft Railroad
Grand Theft Auto is a lousy, cheating jerk of a game.
Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3
Yeah, this game is a classic. But the story is idiotic, incoherent, thematically confused, and patronizing.