Note: This post was first published on July 1, 2016 on my original website.
The base game alone would have been the best. With the Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine expansions, it's simply the most rich, generous video game role-playing experience ever made. If you told me I could only play one game for the rest of my life, it would be a tough choice between The Witcher 3 and Crusader Kings 2. I would probably choose The Witcher 3.
It's an RPG that's about a weird little family, the only kind of family a Witcher, over a hundred years old, sterile, and regarded by most people with distrust and superstition can assemble. It starts slow because spends the time to introduce you to these characters, so that even though I never got very far in any previous Witcher game, I felt a deep attachment to them by the end.
It absolutely nails the feeling of being a Witcher. You're the monster-hunting CSI of fantasy medieval Europe. Only instead of ending your job by making an arrest, you have to risk life and limb against a werewolf or a griffin, or something far more terrifying and less knowable.
It's soaked in detail. There's a scene where Geralt is being taught to bow properly, as he's about to meet an Emperor. Geralt is clearly unimpressed. You can bow incorrectly during your lesson. They took the time to animate this awkward bow of Geralt's and then animate several ways of doing it awkwardly wrong in addition to the right one. And then when you meet the Emperor, you have the option to refuse to bow, after all of that.
The world is not living in the sense of a Bethesda RPG. You won't spend your time tracking NPC schedules. But it's living in the sense that the people around you have definite agendas, and if you refuse to participate or intervene long enough, they won't wait. (Lest this cause anxiety, there are no timers, just elegant moments in the story where it makes sense that time moves forward and so do events.)
And the game never falls into the easy trap of making you too important. People look to Geralt to do a particular type of job. The rich and the poor alike use him. His skill puts him in the middle of all manner of plots and conspiracies that he'd rather have nothing to do with. But his attachments prove strangely warm. Witchers are not meant to feel, but nevertheless there's a warmth in Geralt's meeting with familiar friends, and even with some long time adversaries.
He's not the Chosen One. Ciri is. Ciri will make her own choices, impacted by the love and respect she holds for Geralt as her adoptive father, but they will nevertheless be her own choices, shaped by her moral compass, executed with her courage. The most heroic thing Geralt can do is accept that she's grown and hope that she's picked up the tools she needs to survive along the way.
There have been many games that touch on themes of parenthood lately; most of them putting the player in the role of patriarch and protector. The Witcher 3 states unequivocally that Geralt cannot protect Ciri. It is a parenthood story about letting go, and realizing that even if your grown child doesn't choose the exact path you'd have picked for them, they are still the person you raised them to be--guided by the principles you taught them, and looking to you for approval and assurance.
This is thematically deliberate. Parents (mostly fathers, alas) and their grown or nearly-grown children are everywhere in this game. The major side quests are all geared toward laying out the political stakes of the world, and setting up these primary themes, so that when the nature of Geralt's role in the endgame becomes clear, the player is primed for it. It shows such incredible narrative care, such as is rarely seen in games where more overtly plot-y elements take center stage over character work. The Witcher 3, like the best stories, manages to show how the two are inextricably intertwined.
The Geralt I played was not a moralizer. He knew that his life, his trade, was a violent one; that he'd taken lives in the heat of the moment and many more times in self-defense. But he was also, you might say, a sentimentalist. At the end of the day, he wouldn't pass up an opportunity to make the hard world a bit softer, a bit kinder, even at his own expense.
And it's because Geralt is so well-drawn, and his job as a Witcher is portrayed so well in every facet of the game, that I was able to have such a clear portrait of this character, the choices he would make.
I've gone on too long, and I could keep going on. There's such humor in this game. Such affection between friends and rivals. There's a blink-and-you-miss-it joke about nominalism on the critical path! Money is tight, so you actually need to do your witching job to earn it, which is yet another way that the game grounds you in the setting. Geralt moves with such grace and yet such weight and physicality. It's a beautifully rendered world, and it becomes still more beautiful in the Blood and Wine expansion, which is every bit as good as the base game but also sunny.
Both of the DLC are also completely excellent additions. Hearts of Stone is a dark, imaginative dance with the devil, with one of the most compelling pure villains in all of video games. Blood and Wine is a full-fledged expansion, with an entirely new region to explore, and the perfect sunset for Geralt.
One month. That's how long I managed to wait after finishing Blood and Wine to start a new playthrough. I'm taking my time on this one, seeing things I completely missed the first time through. Just being in Geralt's shoes again feels so good, so right. I don't know if there will ever be anything like it ever again. I feel so grateful that this exists.