The Witcher 3 may teem with curious cryptids and magical malevolence, marking it as a distinctly fantastical experience that fits a neat and known mould. However, it also draws some of its best storytelling structures straight from the detective genre – Geralt, the game’s brooding protagonist, serves as a pretty nice means of texturing this.
Detective stories as a whole are an interesting beast to tango with. They can’t feature obvious solutions if they’re going to hold interest, but they can’t necessarily pull answers out of left field either. A good detective narrative should be built like a clue-puzzle, popularised by Agatha Christie in the early 20th century. The pieces of the puzzle are all there – codes, symbols and little intricacies – and stitching them together is something you naturally do as you make your way through the story. It’s about pacing and a denouement that ultimately feels earned and fair.
So let’s talk about The Witcher 3, where each of the game’s myriad denouements does feel earned and fair. Whether you’re hurtling through its main story or taking a break from monster-hunting to help an old gran retrieve her frying pan, each and every one of its stories sees you gradually follow loose and eloquent seams until, eventually, you can see the overarching tapestry instantly and all at once.
To describe it as a process like painting isn’t quite so accurate, because it’s not always a linear progression. Instead the solution already exists, and you’re hovering somewhere in its midst, gradually exploring every nook and cranny until the picture is fully mapped out. A pretty standard metaphor for a detective narrative, but an important one nonetheless, because it focuses more on investigation and realisation than it does on external phenomena occurring at specific points in real-time.
This is all made possible by The Witcher 3’s ostensibly simple, but unobtrusively eloquent, Witcher Senses system. While it’s true that this is nothing revolutionary in terms of mechanical complexity, and a variety of games from an eclectic mix of genres feature modes specifically tailored to discovery and investigation, The Witcher 3 manages to step it up a notch by intentionally placing emphasis on one very specific detail: Geralt’s status as a witcher.
Armchair detectives are abundantly visible across all forms of storytelling, but are particularly prominent in video games, where protagonists inherently hold the ability to know, or figure out, well… everything. This is a necessary and understandable conceit of interactive fiction in particular – stories can’t really happen unless the characters in said stories exist in the places in which they are told. That’s obvious.
But in The Witcher 3, you have a sort of hidden knowledge, a way of thinking that is genuinely incomparable to the minds of normal people. You’re not a Holmes-esque super genius whose machinations can all be tied back to that one, armour-clad word – “deduction” – nor are you an ex-NYPD, coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking, tall, dark and handsome rogue. You’re a guy who smears literal shit on the floor because you know it attracts a certain kind of monster. Your sense of smell has been altered in order to give you the ability to catch a whiff of the mouth-wateringly warm waft of a faraway feast, with the obvious conceit that this goes hand-in-hand with involuntarily inhaling the stink of nekker vomit in a stale farmland burrow down the road. (Ed’s note: nekkers are small, annoying creatures in the game that can be surprisingly dangerous when they attack en masse)
By marrying the usually boring concept of “deduction” to a character who has extensive and almost unique knowledge, stories in The Witcher 3 always wrap things up pretty tidily. Geralt can tell which manner of ghastly beast attacked an unfortunate caravan because he has read a rake of dusty old tomes about how strigas are picky eaters, while more myopic monsters just sort of… eat everything. (Ed’s note: strigas are human women who’ve been turned into terrifying, hateful creatures by a curse)
Geralt can hear, see and smell things that others can’t because he was subjected to violent and vigorous mutagens as a young boy. And despite viewing the world through weary eyes, said eyes have become sharp from having witnessed remarkable cruelty in all of its various forms. Geralt is no ordinary character, in that he possesses extraordinary talents and experience, and his status as a sort of monster detective is what allows the game’s stories to remain believable in spite of their inherent fantasy.
Whether it’s a chip in an upright wooden beam, a faint mycological scent in the breeze, or just a hole that has been outright gorged into a griffin carcass, it makes sense for Geralt to be able to solve the mysteries he occasions. As a result, The Witcher 3’s detective sections are remarkably airtight and consistently riveting. It’s one of the best-designed detective sims out there, despite never attempting to be made as one in the first place.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.