The Witcher: Hearts of Stone, Part Two

By Bob Case Posted Friday Nov 9, 2018

Filed under: Video Games 27 comments

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.

I had to capture these screenshots on a different computer than usual, which is why they're either strangely cropped or, in this case, featuring a helpful windows update message in the lower right corner. That was a huge pain to get rid of. Thanks for that, Microsoft.
I had to capture these screenshots on a different computer than usual, which is why they're either strangely cropped or, in this case, featuring a helpful windows update message in the lower right corner. That was a huge pain to get rid of. Thanks for that, Microsoft.

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.

I believe this is the first dwarf with an eye patch we see in the game. I can't imagine why it took so long.
I believe this is the first dwarf with an eye patch we see in the game. I can't imagine why it took so long.

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.

That guy in the background, by the paintings? O'Dimm. The devs snuck him, in various disguises, into the backgrounds of a half-dozen or so scenes in the questline. Bit unsettling once it's pointed out to you.
That guy in the background, by the paintings? O'Dimm. The devs snuck him, in various disguises, into the backgrounds of a half-dozen or so scenes in the questline. Bit unsettling once it's pointed out to you.

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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27 thoughts on “The Witcher: Hearts of Stone, Part Two

  1. Gethsemani says:

    O’Dimm is very, very close to the traditional Swedish depiction of the devil. Someone who offer seemingly anything in return for your soul, with the caveat that any wish you make will be twisted and your wish ruined prior to him taking your soul. There are a few stories in Swedish folklore similar to the premise of Heart of Stone, where some clever person manages to make a very specific wish that on the surface seems to have made them outsmart the devil, but which eventually turns out to have a loophole that the Devil exploits to get his dues.

    O’Dimm is obviously the Witcher version of this, but he’s definitely close to Northern European folklore about the devil, especially the idea that wish fulfillment always comes at a great cost and that you can’t really outsmart the Devil.

    1. Zaxares says:

      It’s said in the Witcher universe that only 2 people have ever managed to outsmart O’Dimm. One is an unnamed man, and the second (so far) is Geralt should you choose to intervene on Olgierd’s behalf. Of course, O’Dimm does vow that he will be back one day, so Geralt may not be completely out of his clutches yet.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      As several people pointed out to me last week: he’s not just the Witcher version; he’s the Polish version – specifically a fun legend about a guy called Pan Twardowski who makes a very, very similar deal to Von Everic.

      And this 1936 film (Called Pan Twardowski, imaginitively) is an obvious inspiration:
      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b9/Franciszek_Brodniewicz.jpg

  2. camycamera says:

    I think letting G.O.D take his soul is the better option, having a “good” ending where you defeat actual Satan feels like a cop-out. You make a deal with the devil, that’s on you, there’s no way in hell that Geralt would want to mess with that shit, at least book Geralt. And Geralt certainly isn’t going to risk his own life for this guy (without knowing if he can even win or not because it’s a riddle of G.O.D’s choosing) who fucked up so badly and did so many bad things. Sure, everyone deserves a chance at redemption… But I’m not sure if that applies to someone who deals with the devil. Once you’ve sold your soul, there’s no getting it back. Plus, saving Olgierd ends up meaning that Geralt is gonna get a visit from G.O.D again one day…

    Also, after clenching his teeth and watching Olgierd’s soul being taken away, I think book Geralt would either outright refuse a reward and tell him to fuck off (because you never make deals with the unknown like that!), or (if you haven’t found her yet) ask him where to find Ciri over all the other choices. In my second playthrough, I chose the latter (even though I already knew the answers), it’s really awesome that the devs thought of that in the first place.

    1. Coming Second says:

      ‘Book’ Geralt isn’t Your Geralt, though. That’s kind of what the first game is about – giving Geralt a healthy dose of magic amnesia and then providing the opportunity to answer the question whether he is still the same guy Sarpowski wrote of, or whether you craft him into someone who makes different decisions.

      Honestly, whether you buy that or not, I’ve always found people insisting there’s a correct way Geralt acts in every situation very tiresome. If there were, then there wouldn’t be a choice in the first place. And there’s plenty of places throughout the games where the character of Geralt insists he act in a certain way. You cannot make him agree to Emhyr insisting that the reinforcements he sends to ward off the Wild Hunt are led by Voorhis, for instance, as practical as it may appear to the player to go along with that.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Quite. Arguing about the ‘correct’ Geralt response is missing the point of a Role-Playing game, to me.
        If I want the ‘real’ Geralt I can read the books.

      2. JakeyKakey says:

        Eh, that’s not quite true. You still play a fairly estabilished “Geralt” character and are forced to make choices within a relatively narrow “Geralt” spectrum.

        To the game’s credit there are a lot of choice you can make and they never feel out of character or contradictory to any previous choices (with one notable exception*), but you can totally try make an argument that no version of Geralt would realistically attempt to cross a near omnipotent godlike being for the sake of a guy he barely knows who is also kind of a massive prick.

        *One of the outcomes of the Radovid/Dykstra stuff, especially if you went for a particular route in W2.

      3. Jeff says:

        The only thing I insist is the “correct” Geralt is in terms of competence.

        I have a buddy who had a Geralt that I insist is “wrong”, because he didn’t pay attention and didn’t sufficiently investigate anything, resulting in horrendous (in-universe) consequences.

        He insisted that his Geralt was the correct one because he’s not being paid to investigate thoroughly and resolve things “properly”, but had to concede that was an invalid argument since if that was true, his Geralt wouldn’t have become involved in the first place. His failing to “properly” resolve quests basically resulted in a Geralt that pokes his nose into everything and screws everything up to the detriment of literally everybody involved.

        His second playthrough (to get a desired setup before moving into Blood and Wine) he was more thorough, and in our chats he kept telling me “OMG, did you know this-and-that” and my response was basically, “Yes, yes I knew because I actually paid attention and properly investigated and that’s why I said your Geralt was wrong!

        We ended up with very different endings that we both felt were true to our Geralts, and I have no problem with that. It’s just that Geralt, regardless of mindset, should not be grossly incompetent!

    2. Synapse says:

      I wouldn’t say the other ending isnt that much of a cop out, as he is (one of??) the incarnation of evil, he cannot even be truly defeated which is acknowledged prior as well. I will say neither ending i would be comfortable in qualifying as “good” but that’s also why it makes it so great. Either ending is just uncomfortable enough to get you thinking if you made the right choice.

      1. Synapse says:

        I mean i dont think the other ending is that much of a cop out my bad.

    3. Sartharina says:

      Eh, as a Witcher, Geralt’s perfectly fine with messing with all sorts of supernatural shit. This is just another case of him protecting a terrible person from a terrible supernatural entity.

  3. Christopher says:

    This series is doing a really good job on selling me on the game.

    1. Tizzy says:

      I played the game long after it came out. I had played Witcher 2 shortly before. This one still managed to exceed my already hyped up expectations. I’d say go for it!

      By the way: thank you to Bob for this series. It helped me appreciate some moments of the game in a new light, and prompted me to start a new full playthrough.

  4. Synapse says:

    Yep had pretty 100% same thoughts as you did Bob in regards to the rose decision even the delivery of “I don’t know” matched perfectly with all the thoughts in my head during the moment. Ultimately i decided to take the rose, but oof that feeling of perhaps condemning her to “Nothing” i can’t really describe it in words how i felt after. Only other time i felt that similarly was in PS:T.

    1. Henson says:

      I actually didn’t find this to be a very difficult choice to make. Sure, you don’t know what awaits Iris if you take her rose, but there’s no real reason to think it’s any different from what happens to anyone else when they die. If oblivion awaits, it awaits for us all.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Me neither, really.
        Potentially-endless misery, dread and regret vs an end to it all? There’s no reason to expect her situation’s ever going to change – she’s long dead, after all, and only really exists as a ghost. And possibly has been resurrected/created by O’Dimm for the sole sake of fulfilling his bargain.

        I had a similar feeling when I was hunting the female ‘wraith’ monsters (noonwraith, duskwraith): what happened to them was awful, and I pitied them – but killing them was a mercy, given how mindless and simple (and dangerous to others!) they’d become.

      2. Coming Second says:

        Yeah. To me the situation seemed fairly similar to seeing someone suffer badly to an incurable condition in real life. Do you let them carry on with it interminably, or do you help them out of their misery? It’s a question determined by the person’s own opinion on the matter of course, but I think for most people the answer is clear.

        There’s also the question of the estate itself. Leaving it haunted, even supposing the Caretaker and other resident ghouls don’t re-emerge, seems irresponsible in the extreme.

  5. Benjamin Hilton says:

    I like super bunny hop’s view on the fact that people have decided which is the “good” ending. He posits that its a reflection of the importance society puts on choice. Even though Olgierd is a bad man, by saving him he still has the chance to choose to change, therefore a “good” ending.

  6. NPC says:

    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.

    *Adjusts glasses* Well, acktchually…

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      Wow.

      Also that’s kinda a good idea. Why invent a new language when there are so many “obscure”* modern languages that most of the audience won’t be able to interpret. Also have the other thing switch a bit between langauges and there you go. Something sounding allien, but simple to do.

      * I don’t mean like dead, they may have speakers, but the majority of the playerbase might not be familiar with them. Bonus points if it’s one of the languages that doesn’t belong to or seems so to any of the major language groups.

  7. Vinsomer says:

    I really do love Hearts of Stone. G.O.D is downright one of my favourite villains in videogames, ever.

    Part of what makes him so great is that he really sells the Witcher universe as one where magic is strange and bizarre. Much like with the unseen Elder, there’s this worrying realisation that there are forces out there that are more dangerous and powerful than anyone realises, and all it would take for them to severely mess up mankind’s day is to actually see us as more than playthings or annoyances.

    I can’t believe you didn’t talk about Shakeslock. That character proved how terrifying G.O.D is. He pissed Gaunter off, and found a way to evade Gaunter, but at the cost of ever living a normal life ever again, confined to the area of a single protective rune. And, in letting in you, Gaunter’s servant, he unwilling allowed the evil into his house that killed him, final destination style. For me, there was this deep realisation that I was playing the bad guy, and not just the bad guy because I was tricked, or because I did a few bad things. That Gaunter’s brand of evil is something deeper, something intrinsically malevolent in a way that even the most monstrous scumbags we’ve put away weren’t, and accepting that as Geralt maybe was worse than the watery grave he escaped.

    One thing that i didn’t particularly like is the ending choice. I feel like going down to riddles is kind of… an easy option? I also think that there’s no downside to accepting anything from Gaunter. When I played, I rejected Gaunter’s help. I wanted nothing to do with him. But for players who chose to accept a reward from him there’s no flip side. We don’t play for years so we don’t get to see the often long-term, unforeseen damage that dealing with the devil causes.

    1. BlueHorus says:

      One thing that i didn’t particularly like is the ending choice. I feel like going down to riddles is kind of… an easy option? I also think that there’s no downside to accepting anything from Gaunter. When I played, I rejected Gaunter’s help. I wanted nothing to do with him. But for players who chose to accept a reward from him there’s no flip side. We don’t play for years so we don’t get to see the often long-term, unforeseen damage that dealing with the devil causes.

      Yeah – even though I went with the ‘save Von Everic’ route, I do remember a) being surprised I could, and b) kinda regretting it afterwards.
      But I bet there would have been complaints if it were impossible to outwit him or fight back.

      At least if you challenge him and win he makes dire threats that imply he’ll be back…

    2. Nick Powell says:

      One thing that i didn’t particularly like is the ending choice. I feel like going down to riddles is kind of… an easy option?

      Yeah, my first time through I didn’t challenge O’Dimm at the end because I decided that, realistically, Geralt would know there’s no way he could ever beat such a powerful creature. Then I played through it again just to see what happened.

  8. Nick Powell says:

    I have a theory about the ending. When I first played it I wondered how it was possible that O’Dimm could be beaten by such a simple riddle. Of course, the reason he lost was that he intended to cheat and break all the mirrors so you couldn’t find his reflection, but there was a way to solve the riddle anyway that he hadn’t seen.

    So my theory is this: O’Dimm may be powerful, but the contracts he creates are more powerful still. He invokes some higher power to create a binding agreement that both parties are subject to. He believes he’s clever enough to twist the terms of the contract in his favour and never lose, but the contracts are always required to be ‘fair’ (at least in part) to both parties, which is why his final challenge to Geralt contained a convenient loophole that let Geralt win.

    You can see the same thing happening at other points in the game too – The reason Olgierd’s ‘impossible’ wishes are all ultimately attainable is that reality won’t accept a contract that can’t be completed. Hence the contrived coincidences that let Geralt get on with them.

    I also suspect that the Crones (and the tree spirit) use the same power for the agreements they make with their subjects/victims. The reason they actually help the villagers who pray to them is that the contracts force them to, and the reason the tree spirit actually goes and saves the children if you free it (even though there’s nothing stopping it from just running away) is that it’s made a binding verbal agreement with Geralt to exchange their lives for its own freedom.

    Anyway, I hope all that was fairly clear and not too rambly. I realise you could explain all of the above by just pointing out that CDPR probably didn’t want to write a story that you couldn’t actually complete but I prefer my idea.

    1. Guest says:

      I get the same feeling. It’s one of my favourite sorts of devils (The Tattered Prince in ASOIAF would be another-albeit very different and much more grounded). They’re inhumanly cruel, but they love the game of making these deals, but they’re bound by those deals. They’re not always great sports about losing, but despite appearances, they can lose. I like to think the same as you, Gaunter has the power to offer and broker such a deal, but he’s not the ultimate enforcer, and he has to play by the rules, it’s the same reason he can’t just take people’s souls or whatever he wants, and has to play for them.

  9. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    I also went after O’Dimm not out of sympathy for that douchebag Olgierd, but because O’Dimm is a menace and, frankly, he didn’t hold his end of the bargain. Nobody asked him to turn Olgried into a sociopath, that wasn’t the deal.

    One thing I really liked though is that if you choose O’Dimm and asks him how to protect Ciri, he absolutely gives you the right advice with empathy. It makes his character even deeper.

  10. Dude says:

    Uninformed choice has been one of the running themes of the series until 3’s greater scale forced them to pack most of the best writing into side quests.

    TW1’s “oops I started the spanish inquisition by doing the right thing” and TW2’s choice of bastards represent the heart of what makes the writing in these games so good. The writers don’t let the player make the “right” choice easily, and choice is where roleplay is created. Actually having to engage with a problem from a characters perspective is a prime way for game designers to get you to play as that character. A choice where you know the outcomes in advance (paragon/renegade) do let you customise your character but do a lot less to actually put you in their shoes.

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