This past week, I spent a good amount of time playing through the early hours in The Witcher 3. I’ve been plugging away at the game for a while but have spent weeks away as I finish up the school year in my day job. The more I sink into the game, the more struck I am at how unique and special it truly is. It’s also dark. Really, really dark.
Fair warning, we’re heading into spoiler territory. Come back later if you haven’t finished Crow’s Perch.
It’s taken me a while to really sink into the game, slowly chipping away at it in my spare hours. Up until this past weekend, I had spent my hours discovering the undiscovered, hunting down witcher gear, and completing sidequests. You can only go so long doing this before you lose the main thread of the story, however, so I forced myself to get back on track. I’d left off in Velen, having just picked up Kiera Metz and scouring the mage’s hideout.
From there, I was left with a choice. Hunt down the witches of Crookback Bog or travel on horseback to meet the fabled Bloody Baron. I’d heard other players talk about the Baron questline, so I made my way to Crow’s Perch with a bulletin board posting in hand.
Sidenote: Does anyone else worry about one quest locking out another? I do, and I blame Bethesda for that particular strain of anxiety.
Anyway, what unfolds is really a sordid tale. The Baron is little more than a drunken bear who takes his frustration out on those around him. When you arrive, he borders on brokenness, with his wife and his daughter missing with signs of a struggle in their room. He sends you to find them but as you scour the trail, things take a decidedly darker turn.
Come to find out, it was the baron who caused the struggle. Flying into a drunken, blackout rage, he attacked his pregnant wife. The blood on the floor, holes in the wall, and broken, bludgeon-like candlestick all paint a dark, graphic picture. When the baron awoke, he found his family gone. One thing remained: the lost baby. He buried it, nameless, without ceremony.
As you work your way through the series of quests, you come to find that the baby has arisen as a monster. They call it a botchling and it turns my stomach a little bit to say it. As a witcher, you have to lay this baby to rest, convince the father to give it a name and finally give it the love and acceptance it deserved. The botchling, when you first meet it, is a crawling thing with a terrible face. But it’s still a baby, pulling its umbilical cord to keep from getting tangled. It’s shocking and more than a little hearbreaking. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
What struck me about this quest wasn’t just its inherent darkness. It’s that, somehow, CD Projekt Red made me feel bad for the Baron. As you talk to him, it’s clear that he is a terrible, slovenly person. But, he wasn’t all bad. He loved his daughter, Tamara, called her the pearl of his eye, and sends you out with her favorite doll, knowing she might never come home. He’s in pain, always clouded by sorrow and clutched with remorse for things he cannot undo. Maybe it takes knowing that kind of regret, or maybe it’s normal empathy, but I couldn’t bring myself to be cruel to the man. It was an option, and I reloaded a save just to take it back when I had done it.
The scene where he stands in the rain, holding the thing that was the daughter and tells her, tearfully, that her name is Dea, that he bestows upon her all the love and acceptance she deserved but did not receive, and to go, be at rest, touched me profoundly. I am a father of a one year old boy, and my wife is ten weeks along with our second baby. This scene broke my heart for that baby. It made me think of how lost I would be if anything happened to my children. The Baron deserves no sympathy. But, despite it all, I believed he didn’t mean for this to happen, even as he did something terrible by abusing his wife.
I had to step away after all was said and done. I promised him I would find his daughter and ensure her safety, and then powered down, staggered from the quest line I had just experienced. I felt heavy and cloudy, like it should be raining outside but wasn’t, a lot like a powerful book.
It would have been so easy for CD Projekt Red to go wrong and fall into prey to cheap shock value. I’m still not entirely sure it hasn’t, not completely. This is a sensitive subject and, I’m sure there are players more struck than myself seeing the baby crawling on the muddy ground. Some probably ventured no further than the gross bestiary entry. But it’s also handled with appropriate care. It is a testament to the writers at CD Projekt Red that the scenario is as nuanced and multi-faceted as it is. You can feel for Anna and Tamara, but also for the Baron, when most of us would only want to string him up by his toes. You walk away feeling disturbed, but not exploited. You walk away feeling just as you should.
This quest exemplifies one reason why people love The Witcher 3. CD Projekt is fearless. They take on content most game studios wouldn’t go near -- you’ll never see this in Dragon Age: Inquisition or Mass Effect: Andromeda -- but they take it on seriously. Some people describe the game as gritty and mature, but well-realized might be a better term description. It’s like playing through an epic fantasy novel instead of a game. That’s a testament to not only how far video games have come but also to how talented CD Projekt Red really is. This would have been a very different column ever they were any less.
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Finally, Shroud of the Avatar is back with another scheduled newsletter, this time focusing on Release 19 and player-created content. In fact, the grand tour video is player created! The game is really coming along and is well worth a look.