The setup of the main chunk of Hearts of Stone’s story goes like this: Olgierd von Everec, who first put up the contract to kill the monster in the Oxenfurt sewers, has made a deal with the devil-like figure Gaunter O’Dimm. In order to fulfill his end of the deal, O’Dimm enlists Geralt to make three of Olgierd’s wishes come true.
I get the distinct sense that the writers were given more of a leading role in this expansion, because this is the perfect excuse for them to do all the stuff they’ve probably always wanted with this setting and cast of characters. Olgierd’s wishes can be (and are) as off-the-wall as CDPR would like, and they take advantage: show Olgierd’s (now-dead) brother “the time of his life,” steal an entire house, and a third which is left unrevealed until Geralt has completed the first two.
I would say the writers chose their wishes well, because the first two are clean and promising setups for long set pieces featuring a body-swap comedy and an elaborate heist, respectively. In the first, Geralt attends a wedding while intermittently possessed by the spirit of Olgierd’s late brother Vlodimir, and in the other, he recruits a crew of charming sleazebags to steal a will (the “house”) of a wealthy merchant.
Rather than try and do a blow-by-blow of each of these two sequences, I thought I would just point out a list of things that I enjoyed, and which I think illustrate some of the unique advantages an expansion can have over a base game.
- The player can be presumed to be familiar enough with the characters, or at least the main character, that they’ll recognize contrast. While possessed by Vlodomir, Geralt wears a big grin, fancies himself a silver-tongued charmer, stands with his shoulders wide and his hands on his hips, and makes big, theatrical gestures, all things that are glaringly un-Geraltlike. It’s a running joke that wouldn’t land if we hadn’t spent an entire game playing the big white grump.
- It allows writers to reflect on, and refine, the characters they’ve created. Shani (our date for the wedding) thinks that Geralt could learn a thing or two from Vlodomir’s ability to enjoy himself and spend less than 80% of his time scowling, and I couldn’t help but think she had a point. It’s a point that Geralt grudgingly acknowledges, and it serves to add a bit more character to the character. To cap it all off, the contrast with the too often boorish and dishonest Vlodomir highlights Geralt’s oft-underappreciated good qualities as well.
- Callbacks and references to earlier parts of the game are an easy trick, but a useful one. The auction house sequence in particular is full of them. In the list of things that connect a player to a virtual world, “mild chuckle of recognition” is an underrated one.
- This might just be me, but I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a heist, not movies, not in games, not in books. It’s about as reliable a delivery mechanism for an entertaining and suspenseful story as there is: show the target, recruit the team, plan the score, have everything go wrong, and have our heroes somehow improvise their way out of the jam. Write more heists, everyone. In my opinion, we’re well short of saturation at this point.
The first two of the three wishes are both lighter in tone, so it’s good that the game makes us do them before the third. In the third, Geralt is to retrieve a certain rose that Olgierd gave his now-deceased wife. This third task brings in a darker tone to the story, as we travel to the now-ruined von Everec estate and defeat a mysterious, faceless creature only referred to as “the Caretaker.”
That done, we enter into a magical painting that we soon learn is a manifestation of Olgierd’s wife’s (her name is Iris) grief. It’s a long, mostly on-rails sequence which is heavy on backstory. That’s not generally a good combination, but in this case I found the backstory, and the character of Iris, compelling enough to hold my interest. To summarize: a side effect of her husband’s deal with O’Dimm led to a change in his personality, giving him the titular “heart of stone” – he gradually loses all feeling and affection towards the world, including towards him own wife. Their relationship falls apart and she dies isolated and abandoned in the mansion.
The version of her that the player encounters in the painting is just an echo of the original, but it led to what was for me the hardest decision in the expansion, maybe in the entire game. The choice does not summarize well, so instead I’ll give the dialogue leading up to it:
Geralt: Need to be honest. If I take the rose, you might cease to exist, as might the world you’ve built around you.
Iris: And what will happen then? Will I be free of the suffering, the sadness? Is it the void that awaits?
Geralt: I don’t know.
Iris: I don’t wish to suffer any longer… but I fear there will be cold and darkness, until… there is nothing at all.
Her existence is pure grief and regret, but isn’t that better than nothing at all? Grief and regret, after all, carry with them the memory of better times. Either way, does Geralt even have the right to make this decision? Complicating things are the mysterious creatures (a ghostly dog and cat) that are bound to this world against their will. Surely their wishes carry some weight as well.
For me, the single line that makes this exchange is “I don’t know.” The player is not given the answer. There are plenty of games and games writers that would have succumbed to the temptation of offering, one way or another, a “right” way out of this decision. I personally decided to take the rose, but not before exhausting every possible dialogue option in a futile search for another way out. I personally feel that leaving the right choice ambiguous is crucial to the tone CDPR is going for.
Either decision allows Geralt to advance the storyline, and meet Olgierd for a rather predictable twist in which O’Dimm fulfills his end of their bargain and arrives to take the man’s soul. At this point the player is given the choice of leaving Olgierd to his fate or intervening and trying to save him. Intervening leads to the ending that the internet tends to regard as the “good” one, but I’m not so sure. Olgierd is, frankly, a right bastard. Some of his right bastardry is explained by the “heart of stone” O’Dimm’s deal gave him, but does that excuse all he’s done? It certainly doesn’t provide any justice to those he and his band have hurt and killed.
In my playthrough, I did intervene (it leads to a sequence where you have to outsmart O’Dimm by finding a reflection of yourself in a “mirror” he can’t break – in this case, a pool of water), but that was more to spite O’Dimm than out of affection for Olgierd. For his part, the man of glass seems to take losing relatively well, offering Geralt a bit of sarcastic applause and what sound like grim promises made in one or several languages we can’t understand.
O’Dimm is a character I can’t quite put a finger on, seeming made of equal parts Witcher universe, literal genie, and Christian folklore, with a dash of cosmic horror thrown in here and there. We never quite learn exactly what in tarnation he is, which in my opinion is a good thing. Some flavors of villain are only diminished by a detailed backstory, and he’s one of them.
One final thing I want to mention is that I think they did a great job with his character model. He is utterly and completely normal-looking, unassuming, and unremarkable, which it seems to me is a surprisingly difficult thing to depict visually. If you passed him on the street you’d most likely forget him right away, which is just right for the character. It makes it that much more distressing when he stops time and then sticks a spoon in a guy’s eye.
So that’s Hearts of Stone. In my opinion, the deal-with-the-devil framing device is only average – it’s what’s inside the frame (the wedding sequence, the interactions with Shani, the dilemma of Iris, the variety of tone) that make it so good. Upcoming entries will look at the second expansion, Blood and Wine, and finally put a bow on the whole thing. See you then.
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