“Every time I am home in Germany, I have to take it from the wall and into my hands for a while.”
Philipp Weber is a quest designer on The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. He got the job after impressing CD Projekt with Lykaon, a Witcher 2 mod he designed that took top prize in the company’s Redkit Beta Competition. But the job’s not all he got out of it. "Since the competition," Weber says in an email, "the Witcher sword I won, 'Aerondight', which Geralt can get in the first Witcher game, has an honourable place on my wall."
Peter Gelencser, level designer on Wild Hunt, is also a fresh face, so to speak. "I only joined them in February 2013," he tells me in a small office in Namco Bandai's Sydney base, its walls lined with kitschy merchandise. "I got in the game when they were actually starting to develop the empty spaces between key story points, so I had lots to work with." I start to ask him how he found it, but he doesn’t wait: "It was brilliant," he says, smiling and chuckling at his fortune.
Both describe the job as a dream come true – Philipp opens his answers with, "It has truly been one of the best experiences of my life". They’re the kids let loose in the candy store, but they’re also the kids who’ve been told that they have to do stocktake after every sugar-binge. Their excitement is infectious, but they're also here to sell a game, and you can tell when they're toeing the party line.
It's most obvious when they're talking about the importance of being faithful to Andrzej Sapkowski's original books. "It's mostly the lore," Peter says, "maintaining the relation between grittiness and fantasy: how much fantastic content can we allow ourselves to use? Like, we cannot go full Lord of the Rings, with the infinite Elven towers spamming all over the landscape, yet we need something to make our locations interesting, a little bit beyond the medieval standard."
Similarly, Philipp writes that it was important to stay true to Sapkowski’s world, "and of course we all are big fans, so we would not want to change that in any way. But,” he says, moving on to the next line, “Wild Hunt tells an original story that will be equally enjoyable for people who have not read the novels or played a Witcher game so far, so we had the freedom to come up with our own ideas..." At times, it feels less like an interview about the creative process and more an elevator pitch. But then, these events are all about the pitch. It's the elephant in the room crammed with anime toys.
When they're off the PR-speak track, Peter and Philipp leap into life. Talking about the thriving autonomous communities he's worked on, Philipp goes into an exciting – excited – amount of detail. "From a fisher who gets up early in the morning in a remote village on Ard Skellig to a merchant in Novigrad who goes to a concert in the suburbs to dance like no one is watching - we wanted to tell little stories with all the people,” he writes. “We wanted them to actually have a life. A family works at daytime while the children play in the fields, they eat dinner in the evening and before they go to bed, the father might play a song on his flute while the rest of the family watches." My own experience of Wild Hunt is that this intention is currently only haphazardly realised, but even so I can see what Philipp’s talking about in the game, and it’s pretty neat.
Likewise, Peter talks about building the spaces with enthralling thoughtfulness and detail. Peter digs deep into the technical details of Wild Hunt’s 'natural, proportionate system' of world-building; the need to place villages after creating the terrain, rather than building a world around urban plot points; the influence of lore on the look and rhythm of a place. But he also talks about the importance of aesthetic as "subconscious expressed on the terrain": "Sometimes, if you want to make a place authentic and make it feel natural, you just maintain visible distance. A nice valley between two castles or two mountains. Sometimes we just go with that, and place wild horses who run there, just for the sake of beauty."
Likewise, when explaining the importance of colour and light to Wild Hunt's storytelling, he stumbles over his words like someone who has a lot of thoughts to get out and is trying to do it all at once. "There's a lot of beauty to be found in naturally-occurring phenomena, colour-wise and everything, and of course we learn a lot from movies: how to communicate certain moods with certain colour compositions that both feel natural and radiate something familiar." Peter points to Caer Morn as an illustration of this, explaining that "the colour of the sky and the clouds and the overall colour scheme result in something that communicates almost a taste of the crisp air that you can bite into."
There's one facet of Wild Hunt that both Philipp and Peter are equally enthusiastic about : the monster hunts. Philipp singles them out as great quest design: "We track down monsters by investigating and following leads, but we will also talk to people, make choices, explore and we might have to fight many more difficult obstacles before we are at our goal, so no monster hunt will ever play like the previous one."
Peter brings his own perspective. "Our hubs and game regions are really incredibly large," he explains, "so that lets us use the place very, very creatively." Peter points to the cave systems in Temeria, which run underground "for great, great distances"; then he starts talking about "a place on Skellige, which used to be a huge wooden fortification, which has been created ages ago in the game lore." He moves from the rhythm of a campfire storyteller to that of a proud architect: "We converted it into a nest for a monster, and that results in something very interesting to look at because a nest is also made of wooden sticks, and considering the scale of the griffin, a wooden fortification is full of 'wooden sticks' so that kind of blends nicely together, and so we created a massive, massive nest."
Even with the dichotomy in the talk, the party line versus the excitement of being a creator, it's clear the team - and Philipp and Peter in particular - have a lot of affection for the series and its Game of Thrones-esque moral complexity. "Not every quest will decide the fate of a whole city; sometimes, we might only change the life of a single peasant," Philipp says of the game's system for registering player choice, designed to achieve a delayed gratification more reflective of decision-making in the real world. “Most importantly, though, we want the player to really 'roleplay' the Witcher and think about what he is doing. If choices are always clear, then you tend to strictly follow a certain given path without even thinking about it. If the player actually came to a conclusion by thinking rather than by clicking on a 'good' or 'bad' choice, this is a much more rewarding experience."
Which brings us to the big question, one best asked in rooms lined with boxes that say 'Suitable for ages 8 and up': is Wild Hunt an 'adult' story? "A lot of it comes from challenging the player," Philipp considers. "The game will address topics that might not fit into a simple good or bad theme and players will sometimes have to choose a lesser evil rather than getting a happy end...If people actually start to think and challenge themselves, then I think we succeeded in creating a mature plot."
Philipp seems to be conscious of the discussions around Wild Hunt and the Witcher series' attitude to sex and sexuality, too (the first game's approach to sex was notoriously juvenile). He adds, unprompted, "Of course, our story deals with sex and violence, although that does not 'make' a mature story for us. But it can be part of it, as it simply is part of life. We wanted to go away from treating sex as some sort of gratification for the player, but instead treat it as a normal part of human interaction."
Geralt's sword, Aerondight, still hangs on Philipp's wall, a relic of his origin story. As that replica sword is to Philipp, so The Witcher is to CD Projekt: a figure of the past, representative of decisions to be built on, improved on, and maybe, ultimately, moved away from. At least, that’s how it sounds, coming from Peter and Philipp. There are always things to build on.
◆ You can read Adam Goodall's hands-on preview of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt here.