Strictly speaking, The Witcher 3 has a prologue (in White Orchard) and three acts, which I guess is four parts total. More generally speaking, it has two parts: the stuff that happens before the battle at Kaer Morhen, and the stuff that happens after it.
The battle at Kaer Morhen is the first major emotional climax of the game. The second will come at the ending. This is an important bit for the game to get right, and in my opinion, it gets it right. Pulling this sort of thing off is not easy, as evidenced by the number of games that have botched it over the years. I’ll get into some examples in a bit, but first let’s set the scene: we finally have a way to find Ciri, Geralt and Yen’s adoptive daughter, for whom we’ve been searching this whole time. Avallac’h has secreted her away on a mysterious island called the Isle of Mists.
One of the things CDPR successfully pulled off – for me at least, on my first playthrough – was making me worry that Ciri might be dead. This is tricky territory for a game narrative to navigate. Obviously, the average player understands that it’s unlikely that a major character will die offscreen. And yet the world of the Witcher universe seemed wild and unpredictable enough that I did, in fact, worry about exactly that. I worried if Ciri was Uma (the weird baby thing), and that maybe the trial of grasses would kill her. Later, on the Isle of Mists, I worried if I would be too late to save her. There’s one particularly excruciating shot where Geralt finally sees her comatose body in a hut on said isle, and I imagine most players (or, at least, me) will have their hearts in their throats for it.
(Then, they’re cheeky enough to throw in a teaser for Cyberpunk 2077. In this clip, the relevant part is at the 2:45 mark if you want to indulge in a bit of cheek.)
Ciri teleports Geralt and herself back to Kaer Morhen, and, since the Wild Hunt can track her when she teleports, we know they’ll be hard on her heels. Which is why, prior to retrieving Ciri, Geralt recruits various compatriots from the series so far to assist him in defending against their imminent attack: Eskel, Lambert, and Vesemir (his Witcher bros), Keira Metz (optional sorceress), Yennefer and Triss (non-optional sorceresses), Letho of Gulet (a heavy from the second game, one of my personal favorite characters), Roche and Ves (from the Blue Stripes commando group, also from the second game), Ermion (a druid from Skellige), Hjalmar (brother to Skellige’s new Queen, I wonder if Cerys shows up if you don’t pick her for Queen?), also from Skellige, and others that I hope I’m not forgetting.
CDPR does a clever thing here: they devise a gameplay device whereby the player feels rewarded for a dozen or so sidequests they had the option of completing prior to this. Most of the characters named in the above paragraph were recruited (or not recruited) in some quest or another earlier in a typical playthrough, or are characters we’re familiar with from the previous games.I still can’t help but be disappointed that we never saw Iorveth or Siegfried.
All in all, this creates a very satisfying sense of things coming together. The player is further satisfied by coming back to the familiar grounds of Kaer Morhen, which we saw first in the prologue (and, for those who remember, the first game in the series – even the layout will be familiar) and later during the quests we complete with Eskel, Lambert, Vesemir, and Yennefer.
Basically, the game has established an emotional connection to this place and the people in it. That sounds simple when you describe it like that, but it’s proven to be difficult in practice. I can think of many games where some character or another died, and the game obviously expected me to be torn up about it – and yet I wasn’t. One example is with Dishonored and the Empress, another is with Andromeda and Ryder’s father, and Ubisoft’s major releases average 1.5 of these moments per game. They, for the most part, don’t work, or least they don’t work that well. But the one in the Witcher 3 does. I’ll describe it now, and though I’ve kind of been working under a blanket spoiler alert this whole time, I’ll issue another now: there is a spoiler incoming. I put this under the “continue reading” link on purpose.
First, the scene: the Wild Hunt is about to attack. Yennefer is ready with a magical whatsit or whatever that will force them to teleport in away from the castle, so Geralt and his Witcher buddies can ambush them in the forest outside the walls. This is where the fighting starts.
This starts a series of scenes in which Geralt and his compatriots are forced to fall back again and again. There’s a clever pattern established here: all seems lost, and it seems like we’re about to lose a named character, but then we don’t. For example, for a second it looks like Letho has died, but it turns out he was just hiding under a Wild Hunt warrior’s corpse. Then, there’s a second where it looks like Lambert is about to be overwhelmed, but then Keira Metz’s magic saves him at the last minute.
As experienced RPG experts, we of course know exactly what’s going on here: we made all of the “right” choices in previous sidequests, and as a reward we’re going to see all of our favorite characters survive The Witcher 3’s equivalent of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission. Except, of course, that doesn’t happen, and we’ve finally arrived at the big spoiler (this is your last chance to bail): Vesemir dies.
Ciri is cornered, and the Wild Hunt is about to get her, and they (specifically Eredin, the King, and Imlerith, his jerkoff goon equivalent of a first-chair violinist) threaten Vesemir to tempt her into their clutches. It’s difficult to just describe how affecting this moment is. In the games I mentioned above (like Dishonored and Andromeda), the sympathetic mentor figure dies in the first act, before we’ve even had a chance to get to know them. But here, Vesemir is the curmudgeonly old crank we’ve known since way back at White Orchard (or earlier, if you played the earlier games in the series), and the game has earned an emotional connection between not only him and Geralt but him and Ciri as well.
What’s more, Vesemir was an easy guy to like, which makes the people that killed him easy to hate.
This is important, because this is the first time in the game where I felt a personal sense of resentment towards its villain, who prior to this seemed rather distant and abstract. He killed the man who dozed off while teaching Ciri about ghouls and alghouls, who hunted the Royal Griffin with us, and who left behind the floppy hat Lambert donned to impersonate him. For me at least, this raised my investment.
And man, Ciri was pissed.
One of the things I (and others) have lamented about AAA games is their often-clumsy attempts to be “cinematic.” But this whole sequence featured a (in my opinion) successful attempt at using the language of cinema to ratchet up the emotional stakes of the story. The whole setpiece is long, and much like a successful oner (the warning: tvtropes warning doesn’t carry quite the weight it once did, but it still carries some), it keeps amping up the tension more and more until the audience is craving release.
That release finally comes with Ciri’s expression of raw rage and grief, which drives off the Wild Hunt (their first moment of weakness), and brings Avallac’h out of his recuperation to turn her off. There’s a messiness and a sense of wildness here that I personally thought was effective. We (the player) still don’t entirely understand the limits and rules that govern Ciri’s power – and neither do the enemy, which makes it that much more unnerving.
I’ve (pretty much arbitrarily) divided this sequence up into two parts, and we’ll get to the next part in the next entry, but there’s something I wanted to close on: Vesemir’s funeral. Here, as elsewhere, CDPR demonstrate their knack for timing. It’s important that, after such a long, uninterrupted action sequence, the player gets a little downtime, and the game provides it by giving us an opportunity to process what just happened, and the death of Vesemir, at his funeral.
While Vesemir’s body burns, Geralt can talk to Ciri, Letho, Roche, Ves, Ermion, Eskel, Lambert, Keira, Hjalmar, and, perhaps most importantly, Zoltan, who advises him to strike back against the Wild Hunt while they have the advantage. It’s hard for me to exaggerate just how right CDPR got the emotional beats for every character here. With Eskel planning to abandon Kaer Morhen to the march of time, with Letho having nothing in his future but running from his eventual reckoning, with Ciri’s guilt, and with Zoltan’s reliable good sense and courage, everything is right even in the aftermath.
I don’t know quite what else to say. Many games have attempted this type of blockbuster get-the-player-emotionally-invested-in-the-proceedings sequence, but, for my money, no other developer has pulled it off this well. (The closest, in the semi-cinematic-RPG genre at least, is the final act of Mass Effect 1, in my opinion).
These dialogues mark the end of the Battle for Kaer Morhen sequence, but we’re not quite done yet. This is the start of the second section of the game, and the start in some ways is a bit rocky. We’ll discuss how and why in the next entry.
 I still can’t help but be disappointed that we never saw Iorveth or Siegfried.
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