Skellige is too sprawling to be summarized in any kind of wieldy way, so instead I’ll pick out a couple of high-water marks I particularly liked and find instructive.
The Cave of Dreams
I suspect a good chunk of players don’t know this quest even exists. I know I missed it entirely on my first playthrough, and probably would have missed it again on my second, had I not learned about it on the internet in the meantime.
You can start it either by stumbling across “Blueboy” Lugos (son of Clan Drummond Jarl “Madman” Lugos) outside a cave in an out-of-the-way spot most probably won’t go to, or you’re directed towards the quest after completing a Witcher contract to unhaunt the local haunted lighthouse. The wrinkle is that Blueboy Lugos dies in an entirely different questline, so if you do that one before the lighthouse contract (which I would guess is the case for most people) you’ll never see this one.
In fact… I botched my current playthrough, and finished the bear attack quest long before (long enough that I had no saves to reload) remembering I wasn’t supposed to do that. So I had to pull screenshots off the internet.
In any case, Blueboy Lugos and his two friends Uve “Jabberjaw” and Jorulf the Wolverine (Skelligans have the most advanced nicknames of any culture in the Witcher universe) are preparing to explore the “Cave of Dreams,” which in the local folklore is said to be the place where you face your greatest fears. It’s something like a vision quest – you go in the cave, eat a variety of hallucinogenic herbs and mushrooms, and then trip out. And CDPR is up to the task of pulling this off.
Once inside, Blueboy and his two friends each face their respective greatest fears. Uve Jabberjaw fears insulting the King again (his did it once while drunk and tore his own tongue out to keep his honor), Jorulf the Wolverine faces his guilt over indirectly causing his father’s death by becoming distracted by Sirens, and Blueboy Lugos faces down a ghostly version of his own father. Finally, Geralt faces a ghostly Eredin and confronts his greatest fear – losing Ciri.
This is quite the long and involved sequence for an easily-missed sidequest that has no effect on anything else in the game. It’s a measure of the sheer size of The Witcher 3 that something like this, which would be a major setpiece in almost every other game, is almost an afterthought here.
However there’s something I find oddly frustrating about this. Here you get a trio of friends who are entertaining to be around, and each gets a nice bit of character development, and then one unceremoniously dies later and the other two are barely heard from again.
Is this game TOO big? CDPR has achieved an extraordinary and hitherto unseen combination of size and polish, but for all that part of me wonders if it couldn’t have been cut down a bit. It’s a strange combination of complaints, the inverse of that old joke: “The food is excellent! And the portions are so large!” But by scaling down some of the make-work tasks (treasures, monster nests), taking it a little bit easy on the map size, and maybe cutting, say, the weakest third of Witcher contracts, I wonder if they couldn’t have realized the potential of this sequence a bit better, integrated it a bit more smoothly into everything else.
This is a criticism that could frankly be directed at other RPGs moreso than it could this one. Somehow we’ve collectively decided that RPGs should be long. Like, “completionist playthroughs bump up against or exceed 100 hours” long. But one of my most satisfying roleplaying experiences recently has been Obsidian’s Tyranny. I enjoyed that game and played it several times, not feeling cheated at all by a game that you could knock out in 25 hours without rushing anything. Many of the classics of the genre (Deux Ex and the original Fallout come to mind) would be considered short games by today’s standards.
Overall, the game is strong enough that even criticisms of it exist in a speculative state half the time. But I do wish RPGs as a genre would relieve themselves of the belief that they have to be Baldur’s-Gate-2-long.
Cerys an Craite
In what amounts to a giant sidequest, Geralt must influence the decision of who is to be Skellige’s next king after the last one died. In the end it comes down to two claimants, Hjalmar and Cerys, the son and daughter of the powerful noble Crach an Craite. Each is trying to make a name for themselves via a great deed – Hjalmar wants to defeat Undvik’s frost giant, and Cerys wants to cure the Jarl of Spikeroog of a mysterious mental affliction.
Said Jarl, Udalryk, is experiencing terrible nightmares that lead him to both self-harm and a generally miserable existence. He believes the gods are punishing him for a childhood accident that left his brother, Aki, drowned. Cerys initially believes it to be a curse, but she and Geralt eventually determine that it’s the work of a deliciously creepy creature called a Hym, a spirit that attaches itself to guilty souls and feeds off of them.
The Hym can be beaten in a conventional boss fight, or Cerys can engineer a trick that sees Geralt toss an infant into a furnace – this causes the Hym to detach itself from Udalryk onto Geralt, who’s feeling guilty about his new status as a baby murderer. Fortunately, Cerys secretly spirits the (thankfully unmurdered) baby out of the back of the furnace as soon as it’s thrown in, relieving Geralt of his guilt and the Hym’s company along with it.
The whole thing is cleverly and evocatively done, well enough that it makes me wonder how CDPR would do if they ever made a horror game. My personal horror preferences eschew jumpscares and gore in favor of the sticky, heavy feeling that comes of the right balance of regret, shame, helplessness, and the uncanny invading the mundane. Not that CDPR has no jumpscare chops – there were moments in this quest, “A Towerful of Mice,” and others that gave me a good startle – but this is where I was most frightened, even though they never lean all the way into the horror aspect (which would not be entirely appropriate for the genre anyway).
It also helps characterize Cerys in opposition to her brother Hjalmar. Both here and in her later investigation of the massacre at Kaer Trolde, Cerys shows initiative, cunning, and an even keel. By contrast, Hjalmar (though he’s not without his admirable qualities) tends to run headfirst into every obstacle and let others clean up for him afterwards. So when it came time to pick the isles’ next monarch, I chose Cerys again, even though I had initially planned to pick Hjalmar this time for the sake of variety. This often happens to me in RPGs – I plan to make different choices on a second/third playthrough, only to find myself making the same ones again because I can’t bring myself to change them. Oddly, I don’t (usually) find this restricting when it happens. I think it’s a sign of good immersion.
That wraps up Skellige. Next up, the characters convene at Kaer Morhen, starting a sequence of events that sees them finally find Ciri. But first, there’s something I should probably acknowledge.
The Cyberpunk 2077 Trailer
Back when I first started this series, Cyberpunk 2077 was on my mind, and I wanted to use a deep dive into The Witcher 3 to make highly dubious predictions about the quality of CDPR’s upcoming (still no release date, though sometime in 2019 is likely according to the cognoscenti) game. So I’d be remiss not to remark on the first official update we’ve had on that project in years.
As most of you probably already know, CDPR released a new trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 at this year’s E3, and it went like this:
There was also a gameplay demo shown to members of the press behind closed doors. The reactions to the above ran the gamut, but three in particular stood out: the surprising amount of daylight (cyberpunk as a genre tends to favor nighttime, the rainier the better), the fact that the protagonist appears to be yet another stubbly white guy with a strong jawline, and the revelation that the game would be played from the first-person perspective.
As far as the protagonist is concerned, it appears that the guy we saw in the trailer is just one possible protagonist, and there’s a full range of character creation options available, which is good news.
As for the unexpected colorfulness, I personally like it. For one because AAA gaming tends towards the excessively washed-out gray/brown spectrum, and for another because cyberpunk, like it’s ancestor-genre noir, is susceptible to monotony of tone. The developers claim there will be a full day/night cycle, and there were a couple nighttime shots in the trailer that passed muster with me personally.
This isn’t an area I’m worried about. There’s no rule that says dystopias can’t have variety. When you consider that the dystopian elements of the current IRL setting we live in now have tacked as close to Aldous Huxley as William Gibson, I think it would be missing a trick not to include a bit of sunlight and glitz.
As for the first-person perspective, you wouldn’t think this would even be news. A half-dozen or more major first-person games come out every year and no one bats an eye. Why so much ruckus over this?
Consider, I guess, that the only games CDPR has ever made are The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3. (And the Gwent standalone game, but that’s something like a spinoff.) I can’t think of another major developer so associated with a single franchaise. It’s honestly a bit jarring to see them do anything else. Cars? Machine guns? Neon jackets? Even the music was unexpected. Even though it doesn’t make sense, a part of me was expecting this game to have the same “Hans Zimmer meets Bulgarian Folk Choir” style as The Witcher, not the driving, synth-heavy beat we got.
Instead, we got something completely different. Upon reflection it shouldn’t be surprising, but tell that to my confused brain. It’s like walking into your local Chipotle and seeing that the staff are all wearing scuba gear. There’s no particular reason to think it will affect the quality of your burrito, but a part of you is still going to feel off guard.
I personally remain hyped, though also sympathetic to those who have difficulty with the first-person perspective due to motion sickness. One of the things that’s particularly encouraging to me is the presence of Mike Pondsmith. Pondsmith, if you don’t know him, is the creator of the tabletop setting (originally called “Cyberpunk 2020”), and with me he has the credibility of an old-school pen-and-paper guy.
Seeing him so openly involved in the project makes me feel like CD Projekt still retains enough of their original scrappiness to pull this thing off with some soul. Back in the day, they acquired the videogame rights to the Witcher universe for what in retrospect has been a song. I wonder if ten years from now I’ll be writing the same thing about Cyberpunk 2020/2077. They retain that (admirable, in this case) nerdy faith that the world will be rewarded by sharing in their underappreciated obsessions.
Though there’s no gameplay available to the public, those reporting back from CDPR’s demo have been almost universally glowing in their descriptions. Of course, a demo is not a game. (One particularly unsettling report was that this was the best E3 demo since 2012’s Star Wars 1313.)
Who knows if we’ll see anything else soon, or if it’ll be another long stretch of radio silence. Either way I’ll be paying attention. But the next entry will be back to The Witcher 3 – see you then.
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