Trigger warning for discussion of death and suicide.
While in the midst of quarantine I started a new Witcher: Wild Hunt save file, looking for a bit of comfort in an otherwise stressful world (as well as an opportunity to finally 100% the list of achievements.) My creativity—like many others', I'm sure—took a severe hit when the pandemic began, as evidenced by the dearth of posts on this blog, and it's only now beginning to recover with the help of some old favorites. Hence, Witcher. My quest for familiar, comforting content led me to booting up just the expansions, ensuring I began the game at a high level and with plenty of resources. I have since spent my time wandering Velen, completing side-quests at my leisure and otherwise just enjoying my time on the Continent. There's no Ciri to save, no Wild Hunt to defeat, not even a Beast of Beauclair to investigate until I decide to answer the Dutchess' summons. In many ways, this stripped-down version of the game feels more authentically witcher-y. My only goals are to keep some coin in my purse and solve the monster problems of everyday people as I run into them. There's an authenticity in taking it easy.
Along with making me feel like I was actually experiencing the life of the average witcher, these changes helped highlight CD Projekt Red's talent for detailed world-building; what I think of as untold stories in video games. It's by no means an inspired argument to say that Wild Hunt is a richly detailed game. The praise heaped upon Witcher for its immersion - everything from a changing ecosystem, to drunk barbers giving you the wrong haircut - is going strong seven years and counting. Combine that with Wild Hunt's impressive size, branching storytelling, and penchant for Easter eggs and you've got a solid recipe for investment. xLetalis' YouTube channel is based on this recipe, producing hundreds of Wild Hunt videos, the majority of which focus on hidden dialogue, alternate choices, and a "5 Things You Missed in ___" format that usually results in a slew of comments where even seasoned Witcher players admit that, huh, they never knew that. The fact that these videos likewise tend to accumulate humorous comments about how xLetalis will still be making videos fifty years from now speak to the depth that CD Projekt Red has produced, at least when it comes to making that world feel rich enough for continued exploration.
However, immersion is just as much about what we're not shown as what we are. The real world is made up of a million things we don't know and, crucially, can't easily find out. Who killed JonBenét Ramsey? How does your microwave work? What's that woman yelling about who passed you on the street? Sure, we could invade her privacy to ask, spend some time researching, or delve into a number of theories that have developed over the years, but the fact remains that our lives are populated by unanswered questions. Some mysteries won't be solved in our lifetimes (if ever), some topics we just don't have time to research, or are too specialized for that google search, and unless we're interested in being incredibly rude, we're hopefully not inclined to demand the context of a private conversation. Crafting a world where not all of our questions are answered is necessary to making it feel lived in.
Wild Hunt excels at this, not only through the wealth of material the player may choose to never engage with—the parts of the map left unexplored, a dismissed dialogue choice—but also the amount we're not permitted to engage with. One version of this limitation is the background NPC. We know they exist to serve a particular function in the narrative or gameplay, if they do anything other than filling up space. Regardless, they're not fully realized characters and even if they were, it's impossible to code them with answers to everything we might want to know about them. We accept this and many games lean into that limitation, making background NPCs generic, one-liner nobodies whose personality and lives we're not interested in pursuing. Wild Hunt, however, works hard to make even the most nobody NPC into a somebody and those tantalizing hints make a world of difference. A while back I was passing through the town of Midcopse when I happened across a little girl—name "Girl"—and her presumed brother—"Boy."
"When I grow up, I want to be a lad!" she cries, tossing rocks into the stream.
The generated dialogue caught my eye largely due to the backlash CDPR has received about the arguably transphobic content in Cyberpunk 2077 (just one of many accusations leveled at their latest game). Though capable of crafting fantastic, spell-binding stories, CDPR is not necessarily known for its progressive stories and thus I approached this NPC with cautious curiosity. I was unable to generate the same line for a screenshot—you'll have to take me at my word that it exists—but the little girl did comment on my pendant and ask me several times to admire her muscles.
Was this girl meant to be a generic, tomboy character? Was her comment something akin to (nearly non-existent) trans representation in the Witcher series? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Or rather, it quite obviously does matter in the larger conversation of depicting minority identities in video games, but for the purposes of this post, an ambiguous glimpse into this character's identity does wonders for my personal immersion. The fact of the matter is, I'm offered no answers to my questions about her dialogue and my inability to secure them is, paradoxically, quite satisfying. We may want to know everything about this video game world, but the developer's insistence (or, more likely, inability) to offer that creates a more realistic experience. As established, I don't get to know everything in real life either.
However, this is both a small and, in some respects, odd example of the phenomenon. A much better example exists just a little ways North at the Forest Hut. I didn't pay this area much mind on my first play-through. Indeed, I have a vague recollection of being disappointed by the hut, considering there were no quests to complete and the only loot you can find are some water skins and a hide. Not exactly exciting stuff. It seems that this place exists only to provide a fast travel point in a game where I'm always inclined to walk or ride Roach. How disappointing.
But disappointment is in the eye of the beholder and it depends largely on what you expect to get out of the game. Change those expectations and you can drastically change your enjoyment too. This second time around I've been paying far more attention to all the details—letters, dialogue, the decor of an establishment—and our Forest Hut is no exception. Paying attention to something other than the fast travel and the lack of an exclamation point (depicting a quest), I found a surprising number of intriguing details. Such as the woman and her presumed child on the bed, a cloud of flies implying they'd been dead for some time. Or the decorative flowers surrounding them and the still lit candles. There’s also the man outside, hanging from the tree. As with most things in the Witcher franchise, this mystery wasn't a kind one.
It’s still a mystery though and I wasn't the only player intrigued by it. Plugging "Witcher 3 Forest Hut" into google will bring up a Reddit thread titled "Forest Hut Story" with the poster asking if anyone knew what had happened here and if it was a part of the story that they just hadn't gotten to yet. They're "really curious” to know more. A couple posters confirm that they'd also found the hut in question and from there they begin theorizing together, crafting potential scenarios based on these details. One fan, Itsamee, writes
From what i've gathered, the bandits nearby hung the man (reason unknown). His wife was obviously heartbroken, she couldn't live any longer. She also didn't want to leave her daughter so she took her along. She decorated the floor with flowers and candles, probably took some kind of poison, gave some to her daughter and cuddled until they fell into an eternal sleep.
From what I've personally been able to gather, there's no evidence that the man died as a result of bandits. Likely, perhaps, given the number of bandit camps nearby, but hardly proven. Itsamee then extrapolates from this assumption to conclude that the woman was "obviously" heartbroken and took her own life, though we don't know that for sure either. Nor that she decorated their home, nor that she took poison. It's, again, arguably likely given details like the empty jug by the side of the bead, but hardly a sure thing.
Evidence of this exists in BoberinoJones' story that reverses the events. They believe that bandits arrived and harmed the women and her child, resulting in their death. From there the husband came home, found the tragedy, laid out the flowers in his family's honor, and proceeded to hang himself. There is, after all, an overturned stool by his feet. However, another commenter points out that this is unlikely to be a suicide given the hood over his head and the fact that his hands are bound behind his back.
Similar threads go back and forth on these details. Do the endregas you encounter—one of Wild Hunt’s dangerous mobs—have any importance? Were the Nilfgaardian soldiers involved? Was it bandits all along? The plague? Something that didn’t leave its mark beyond meager belongings strewn about and three bodies? The game itself provides no answers, with the location description only discussing life before the tragedy:
Though his friends advised against building a house in the middle of the woods, Hans refused to listen and did things his way. When the war broke out and laid waste to this region, Hans and his family lived in peace, untouched by the troubles of the wider world until one fateful night…
The specifics of what makes the woods dangerous and which of those (many) dangers proved to be Hans’ downfall is never discussed. Rather, the takeaway here are the unanswered questions and the players' desire to search out answers regardless—and if they can't find any, they're create them. I would argue that this forum work is, at its core, a form of fanfiction, wherein fans who are inspired by and even frustrated by the text take matters into their own hands to write the story themselves. The fact that they're doing this work on a thread instead of on a site that explicitly hosts fic, presenting their stories as a theoretical argument rather than straightforward fiction, does not erase the foundational work of filling in the canon’s gaps.
More than just generating content for other fans to engage with, this kind of storytelling adds to our overall sense of immersion in the game. Though "immersion" is, admittedly, a bit of a buzz word nowadays, with a subjective and hard to define meaning, I've personally found that part of my immersion stems from how well the game is able to hide that it's a game. For example, starting Wild Hunt at level 34 meant that I'm currently one-shotting (or one-slashing) all the enemies in Velen. That's not so great for a combat challenge, but excellent for maintaining the illusion that I am a skilled monster hunter enhanced by mutations, more powerful than any starving bandit or small pack of drowners. The first time around, nothing broke my immersion quite like dying to a couple of nekkers, or single sailor. Ah, that's right, I'm playing a game in which I need to engage in level progression. I'm not actually Geralt of Rivia, witcher extraordinaire. Similarly, the existence of a hut with no definitive story makes it feel like I'm actually wandering the wilderness of Velen, discovering only what's been left behind, rather than participating in a constructed narrative where my expectations of receiving fulfilling conclusions are being met. If every area had a neat and tidy purpose, complete with an equally neat and tidy story laid out for me to engage with, then I'd be more inclined to think, "Of course, this is a constructed piece of media meant to entertain me. I’m not actually in the wilds of Velen where questions abound." By denying me that satisfaction, Wild Hunt succeeds in providing me with something that's arguably worth more: the chance to get lost in the game now and explore story possibilities later.
Wild Hunt is full of such open-ended areas and scenarios, details that inspire your imagination while refusing to hold your hand. Some questions have more obvious answers—when I see bodies trussed up by the fire after defeating a group labeled "cannibals," it's easy to come to some basic conclusions—but other aspects, like our Forest Hut, are more intriguing in their ambiguity. Whatever faults CDPR may have (and there are plenty) I think any storyteller should take note of their ability to hold back. Sometimes, crafting a world that feels real to the player, a place that exists outside of our initial interaction with it, stems as much from what we're not shown as what we are.
Didi. “Youtube Comment.” Witcher 3 Secret: Ask the Gods to Change the Weather. xLetalis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkwngBL6E_0&t=242s.
Personal screenshots. The Witcher: Wild Hunt.