Before we continue with the main quest, I’d like to take some steps to advance the game’s biggest and most elaborate side questI’ve decided to run this whole ‘Gwent is the main quest’ gag deep into the ground, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.: the search for Geralt’s adoptive daughter Ciri.
Now for an aside that concerns games and their presumed audience.
Without going into exhaustive detail, at some point in the eighties the game industry collectively decided that they were going to consider young boys to be their core audience. I’m quite familiar with this, since I was on the receiving end of it, and am pretty close to the bulls-eye consumer for this model. I played Super Mario Bros. and Zelda when I was in elementary school, Wolfenstein and Doom when I was in middle school, and Final Fantasy when I was in high school. At some point I played Fallout, which detoured me slightly (though permanently) off the beaten path, but broadly speaking their whole “market to young boys” thing definitely worked in my case.
This strategy was the product of an industry trying to find its legs again after a painful crash. But what started as a temporary tactical move calcified into habit, and the (AAA at least) games industry has kept making and marketing games mostly towards me and people like me ever since. Of course, now my generation is well into its thirties, so I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that starting around five years ago a new kind-of-genre has emerged that I’ve come to call the “Dad Game.”
The Dad Game is very much like any other game, except the male protagonist is more likely to have a beard and probably has an adorable little tyke to take care of in between shooting zombies or whatever. The Last of Us was probably the first major example, but there’s also Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and now even the upcoming God of War is getting in on the dad action. There are multiple other games that aren’t explicit Dad Games but nonetheless foreground some kind of protector/vulnerable one relationship. Sometimes it’s with a relative (this was the case with the first Watch Dogs), and sometimes it’s the player who’s the presumptive “dad,” and the (often female) protagonist is the offspring to be protected (I personally suspect this is the dynamic – conscious or not – that led Lara Croft to take so much physical punishment in the 2013 Tomb Raider).
Now what exactly the emergence of the Dad Game says about the games industry or even society as a whole isn’t a question I’m going to tackle at the moment, but I think it’s safe to say that The Witcher 3 has a fair bit of the Dad Game in its DNA. It’s also, in my opinion, the best of the Dad Games, and in some ways a deconstruction of the concept (with apologies for using the overused d-word). We’ll come back to this later – for now, that’s enough theory. It’s time to get down to business. Geralt has grown a beard, the adorable little tyke we met in the prologue is in danger, and we have to find her.
The Emperor only gave us one lead – one of his spies in Velen, a man named Hendrik, has been gathering clues as to Ciri’s possible whereabouts. Upon arriving, a local inkeep directs us towards a town called Heatherton, which is deserted and mysteriously (unlike the surrounding countryside) covered in snow. There is one survivor, though we have to fight off some wild dogs to get to him. Having to fight more than one enemy at a time in our current state is always tricky, but kiting the dogs around the well in the middle of town works after a couple of tries, and the town’s sole survivor recounts the unsettling story of a Wild Hunt attack.
(As an aside, I’m currently out of town, and don’t have access to my own screenshots. The ones used in this post I pulled off Google.)
If there’s one type of scene CD Projekt has mastered, it’s the “terrified peasant recounts supernatural calamity” scene. I personally very much got a sense of the menace of the Wild Hunt from the villager’s tale – I especially liked the detail about how the frogs went silent before the attack. So the Wild Hunt shows up out of nowhere, and is accompanied by a mysterious sudden frost, and they seem to be after Ciri for some reason. After talking to the villager, we search Hendrik’s house. The man himself has been tortured to death, but the Wild Hunt’s tradecraft seems to be lacking – they never checked for the old key-hidden-in-the-boot trick. Geralt finds the key and uses to open a hidden basement containing Henrik’s notes, including his leads on Ciri.
The notes open up three quests directing us to three different places: Velen (the war-ravaged countryside we’re currently in), Novigrad (the as-yet-untouched wealthy city to the north), and Skellige (the Scandanavian-flavored islands to the west). In theory, you can do these quests in any order. In practice, the game’s leveling curve clearly encourages you to do Velen first, Novigrad second, and Skellige third. Since I want this playthrough to be weird, I resolve to do Skellige first, leveling mechanics be damned.
First I have to get past the Pontar river to the north. All the crossings are controlled by the Redanians, and you need a pass to get past their blockades. Fortunately I’ve leveled up my Axii and can use it to hoodwink a local black marketeer into giving me a discount on a counterfeit one, and I’m on my way to Novigrad.
In Novigrad, you can buy passage to Skellige for a thousand crowns. The only hiccup is that I’m broke. I personally forgot about the cost of the journey, and since I haven’t been looting gear to sell but have been spending what few coins I’ve scrounged on Gwent cards, passage to Skellige is not going to happen until Geralt makes a little scratch. So, I decide to futz around in Novigrad for a bit.
Novigrad is a piece of work. It’s the city I’ve been waiting for my whole RPG career, I think. So many cities in games are billed as a metropoli but populated like ghost towns, or their placement makes no sense, or they look nice but are ultimately shallow, or something. Not Novigrad – instead, CD Projekt is the first to give a city like this the same sense of life and reality that Ubisoft has in the Assassin’s Creed series.
What’s more, there’s something to be found in almost every nook and cranny. I’ve already played through this game two times, but within twenty minutes of entering the city I stumble across a quest I’ve never done before – a quick but interesting search through a library to find a book left for me by Jacques de Aldersberg, the villain from the first game. I’m continually impressed that the developers found time to put touches like that in while also making a great honking big AAA RPG.
You “start” Novigrad’s questline by wandering into Heierarch Square in the center of the city. This triggers a cutscene where Caleb Menge, chief legbreaker for the Church of the Eternal Fire, is burning undesirables at the stake. By the time you get to this part of the game, you’ve almost certainly come across the Church of the Eternal fire before. I didn’t cover it earlier, but after arriving at Hanged Man’s Tree in Velen I knocked out a quick quest where Geralt is manipulated into destroying evidence for a Priest of the Eternal Fire who has a side business peddling Skooma (a fictional addictive drug that I guess is something like Opium). EDIT: Oh posh and bother, it’s fisstech, not skooma. I got my pretend fantasy drugs mixed up. Skooma is from the Elder Scrolls series.
They’re an unpleasant bunch who dislike Witchers and other nonhumans and rarely have any redeeming characteristics. I also think they’re a setting hook that never quite lives up to its potential. For now, they’ve run afoul of my Geralt, who is not only a Witcher but also a volunteer fire code inspector.
This was a point at which my “naked punchman” build started to run into cold hard reality. I did advance Novigrad’s main questline a few steps, but at one point I had to fight a level 10 drowner and I just plain could not kill it. Punches do negligible damage to monsters, and I knew that. But I was counting on Igni to get me through. Igni sometimes makes monsters catch fire, which does ticking damage based (I believe) on a percentage of their health, perfect for stuff that’s higher level than I am. But something about the way sign intensity and sign resistance works seems to reduce the chances that I’ll set a higher-level mob on fire. I must have hit that slimy little brat with twenty or thirty Ignis and I never once got the ticking damage effect.
I don’t mind a weird playthrough in terms of the order I do things in, but I also don’t want to be janking around from quest to quest in a way that makes the playthrough disorienting, so I reload an earlier save before the drowner fight. I’m still only level 3, and I think I have to knock out at least one or two more levels before I can win those sewer fights. I do want to advance the Novigrad questline a bit early, for reasons I’ll reveal later. For now, though, we’re going to at least temporarily play the game as it was meant to be played and head back to Velen. We’ll pick up there next week.
 I’ve decided to run this whole ‘Gwent is the main quest’ gag deep into the ground, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
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