By Grayson Mugford
The first entry in a region-by-region examination of setting in the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Significance of a Broken World:
Examining the role of a limited landscape in the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
From both a narrative and atmospheric perspective, the team behind the Witcher 3: Wild hunt took a risk when designating Velen to be the starting point for Geralt’s journey. Excluding the brief prologue in White Orchard and the fact that the game’s open world does allow for this initial visit to be brief, there is little doubt that this region was designed to be the backdrop to the narrative’s early hours. And, with that intent in mind, the choice of Velen’s design seems all the more counter-intuitive. The high fantasy that dominates most pop-culture in our post-Tolkien existence immediately brings to mind sweeping mountain ranges, rolling plains, or marbled cityscapes. Yet, the broken world that the Witcher 3 presents as its inceptive locale is a war torn wasteland of fetid swamps, crumbling towns, and threats more rooted in toxin and rot than fearsome dragons or rogue knights. Even as the region opens up to reveal the more classic gallery of monsters and plots, there is no denying that the scope of this initial chapter seems intentionally limited.
This limitation is created by two key aesthetic factors and one narrative one. First, Velen is limited by relatively flat terrain and is actively reclaimed by an encroaching swamp. Second, the civilization and architecture of Velen is small and at constant risk of removal. Third, the plot’s progression itself heightens this sense of limitation. In order to understand the true value of Velen’s wasteland as both a setting and a narrative backdrop, you must consider all three.
Despite some geographic variation, Velen is defined by its swamps. For a setting to be so dominated by a muddy and unappealing feature is something of an anomaly in fantasy storytelling. And yet, the prioritization of this particular feature points to an important relationship that defines the rest of the region. The swamp is reclaimative, it seeks to regain at least that which has been taken away. In this case, the many towns and settlements that Geralt comes across are in some battle against the reclamation of the swamp. Residents are abducted. Supplies are pilfered. And often, the very towns themselves are sunk back into the ground.
As such, this reclaimative aim of the swamp informs a majority of the plot lines within both primary quests and the region’s many side quests and narratives. The humans of Velen are defined by this conflict (a point I will elaborate on in the next section). However, more importantly, the antagonists of this region can also be understood by it. The creatures of the swamp, all the way from the lowest monsters to the most powerful witches, are motivated by some form of defense. The humans of Velen build atop the swamp and the swamp’s creatures seek to reclaim that space just as the swamp itself fights to regain what it sees as its property.
The unique setting of Velen provides a blanket motivation for a geographic feature as well as everything that lives within it. In this way, the seemingly dingy, dirty, and limited swamp necessitates a compelling enemy and a compelling story.
The primary settlement of Velen is Crow’s Perch, a fortified yet decaying bastion that rises out of the relatively flat setting. And, just as the swamp informs the uniqueness of the creatures within, the physical structure of this and other towns shape their own inhabitants. The image of the settlements of Velen, weakened by the war, is one of a losing fight. The smaller towns are often undefended and have seen nothing but trouble. Crow’s Perch, though well guarded, shows signs of this decay as well. It’s dirty, corrupt, and mistrusting…a broken city. However, this can be attributed to the purpose of its rampart, separation. By their very design, the settlements of Velen exist in spite of the swamp and surrounding areas. This can be justified by the very tangible threat that those areas pose, but nevertheless, the architecture of Velen is oppositional. This can help explain the characteristics of fear that dominate the locals of the area. Moreover, this relationship heavily informs plot development itself, with distrust of outsiders playing a key motivation in the exceptional Bloody Baron questline as well as a plethora of secondary narratives.
The narrative design of Velen’s regional plot (also known as the Bloody Baron questline) highlights the importance of a limited, broken setting. Though obviously non-linear, the Velen quest line has a few key geographic centers. The most important of these is Crow’s Perch. This is the first major settlement that Geralt encounters, yet, as mentioned before, it is a broken, sinking city. Yet, as the plot progresses, Geralt is forced to explore the region’s thick brush and mud often without the need to return to the limited metropolis that is Crow’s Perch. Interestingly, Geralt has one brief moment in Oxenfurt, a real city, with different aesthetics and a differently inflected landscape. However, this is short-lived, and soon he is forced back to the swamp for the conclusion of the narrative. In all, from a setting point of view, this plot can be demarcated by tantalizing, but brief glimpses of grander settings.
This constant return to the swamp is important to creating the compelling plot behind the Velen questline. Geralt has the opportunity to escape the limited setting, to something urban, something sweeping, something intact. Yet only by returning to this seemingly small setting do the layers of the plot unfold.. This tension between glimpses of something grand and the depth of something small creates an unexpected dynamic that raises the stakes of the narrative without broadening the setting. This tension drives the profundity of Velen’s questline until its very end.
An Inflected World:
All plots are impacted by their settings to some degree. This relationship can be known as a setting’s ‘inflection’, the degree to which a landscape impacts the activities and characters that
it hosts. Often that impact limits a setting to a pleasing backdrop or an inconsequential stage. However, Velen manages to gain significance through its unconventional construction. It is small, dirty, and broken. And yet, these are the very characteristics that create compelling antagonists, protagonists, and plots, spurred on by their own imperfect world. Velen is a broken stage, and its irregularities force unique movements, painful mistakes, and dire consequences. The result is something profound and utterly unique in the world of fantasy.