Meet Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, or Ciri to her friends. She’s a trained witcher, adopted daughter of Geralt of Rivia, heir to the throne of Nilfgaard — the largest empire in the world of The Witcher — and the last known possessor of the Elder Blood.
The last of those traits gives the young woman immense power, including the ability to travel between worlds. As Ciri comes of age, she has to learn to control her powers, evade her enemies, gather allies and save the world.
In other words, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a traditional fantasy story with a chosen hero at its center. It’s a trope we’ve seen hundreds of times before.
There’s just one slight twist: You don’t actually play the game as Ciri.
You’re not the chosen hero
If I had to pick one single reason that The Witcher 3 succeeds, it’s this: You play as Geralt for the overwhelming bulk of the game, not Ciri. You’re an associate of the traditional hero, not the star herself. Many of The Witcher 3’s greatest virtues spring from this decision, both in story and, perhaps surprisingly, in the game’s mechanics.
But let’s talk about that story first.
There are good reasons why many role-playing games are dominated by the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is the notion that there is a consistent story across different cultures of a young person’s fantastical coming-of-age. There is a set of specific rules like "refusing the call" that you’ll see in the monomyth’s rigid outline, but it tends to look like this in pop culture: A naïve, poor kid has a secret destiny, travels the world, becomes powerful and uses that power to defeat evil.
The Hero’s Journey wields huge influence over popular culture, thanks to George Lucas following it for Luke Skywalker’s story in Star Wars, and then everyone following Star Wars. You can still see it in stories like The Matrix, Harry Potter and, in a somewhat subverted sense, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
The advantages of the Hero’s Journey in an RPG make perfect sense, because it provides a consistent sense of progression. Embedded in the concept are excuses for the random character you’ve created to become important, to travel the world and, most importantly, to progress from a level 1 farm boy to a level 30 demigod with a dozen magical artifacts.
Yet while there are indeed advantages to every RPG being modeled after Star Wars, the net effect is ... every RPG has a story like Star Wars. There are potential advantages to going against the grain, as games like Fallout: New Vegas or Dragon Age 2 have attempted, with varying levels of success.
But most games don’t do that. Here’s a JRPG where a bored teenager sees his small village burned down, setting him on a quest to defeat an ancient evil. There are the first three Fallout games, where a youngster is shoved out of a safe community and forced to grow up in a violent wasteland. Hell, the titular "Origins" of the first Dragon Age were half a dozen different prologues, with every single one’s goal being to give the player character a tragedy they had to overcome by becoming the Hero of Ferelden.
The Witcher 3, however, manages to incorporate the best of both worlds: It has the conventional Hero’s Journey, the good-versus-evil fantasy storyline, while not being totally committed to it. Ciri’s story provides an easily comprehensible overarching narrative, while Geralt’s personal story has room for refreshingly small-scale tales. He’s a character that exists on the fringes of someone else’s Hero’s Journey.
The first two-thirds of The Witcher 3 is, in plot terms, dominated by the search for Ciri. Geralt is recruited by Ciri’s biological father, Emperor Emhyr var Emreis, to find the girl, but only has a few clues to work with. These lead to the three main regions of the game: the swamps of Velen, the city of Novigrad and the islands of Skellige.
Each of these settings has their own personality, and each has their own style of quest: an in-depth pair of character pieces in Velen, a detective uncovering a heist in Novigrad and a magical mystery in Skellige. You’ll get the chance to play Ciri for flashbacks to her crucial moments in these quests, but the bulk of the time is spent existing as a person within those environments.
This means that The Witcher 3 had to offer tremendous variety in tone, pacing and quest structure. Because you’re not a chosen hero on a quest for power and maturity, all sorts of possibilities appear.
The first? Simply doing your job. Many of the quests in the game are witcher contracts, where Geralt, who needs money and has the calling to travel and help people, takes assorted jobs to hunt down and kill local beasts, often learning about and helping small communities.
He also goes on treasure hunts, finds love (and lust), helps plot assassinations, plays cards, clears out bandits and races horses. Everything fits, without having the Fallout 4 problem of dramatic shifts between plot desperation and relaxing settlement building, or Dragon Age: Inquisition’s damaging division of plot missions from the rest of the world.
Because you’re not a chosen hero on a quest for power and maturity, all sorts of possibilities appear
But this doesn’t just manifest in quest structure. It’s also part of how The Witcher 3 feels in general. Geralt may be a superhuman witcher, but he has his limits. His movement has weight. He has to seek his openings in combat, and improving his abilities feels less like becoming a superhero and more like giving him the slight advantages he needs to continue to survive.
On the other hand, in Ciri’s player-controlled sequences, she dashes across the screen effortlessly while destroying the sorts of opponents that may cause Geralt to struggle. The deeper you get into the game, the more powerful Ciri feels relative to everyone else. Geralt’s progression is more grounded.
As The Witcher 3 comes to its conclusion, the previously hidden advantages of this method of storytelling are made quite clear. The Witcher 3 isn’t normally considered a "dad game" like The Last of Us or the first season of The Walking Dead, but your occasional paternal choices, scattered through the game, inform key elements of the ending. Likewise, in the two expansions, Geralt can simply move onto smaller-scale curses and threats, because that’s what he does. Saving the world in Ciri’s story was just a nice side project for Geralt of Rivia. That’s what made it worth doing.