How White Orchard Brilliantly Sets the Stage for Everything to Come in The Witcher 3

CD Projekt Red and former Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw weigh in on what makes White Orchard special.

Feature by Caty McCarthy, .

Spoilers for The Witcher 3 abound.

I still remember the exact moment that I fell in love with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt clearly. I was doing one of the early side quests, where an elderly woman sent me to break into an abandoned hunt to retrieve her frying pan that was borrowed by a man who hadn't returned it. At one point, the old lady sees another man enter and leave the hut the man's staying in; though the man never returned. Above all else, she wants her pan back.

So I, or Geralt rather, took on the task. "Never taken on a pan contract before," Geralt tells the old lady dryly. He breaks into the hut using a magic spell ("Aard," which blows a gust of wind to break down doors and other things). The man's dead, as assumed, with his throat slit. After looking around the hut, Geralt discovers that the man was a spy—and it's likely he was assassinated by a Nilfgaardian, or someone else. Geralt finds the pan though, and returns it to its rightful owner. He's paid for his efforts, and continues on his journey.

It's a small mundane side quest, but it packs more of a punch than most RPGs have in even their main quests. A lot is crammed into it: the diversity of the sorts of tasks Geralt is asked to embark on, the political climate of the war torn world and how all its small towns are caught in between it is put into a digestible perspective, Geralt's dry sense of humor surfaces for the first time. That's the beauty of The Witcher 3's side quests, and the introductory area White Orchard is full of similar experiences—giving us all just a taste of what's to come.

Tutorials, in general, are kind of the bane of most games. Some are too hand-holdy. Others are obtuse. The worst relegate teaching you how to play solely in text menus, never through action. In The Witcher 3, you are first guided through the basics via the eyes of young Ciri, Geralt's surrogate daughter. Then, many years later, Geralt trots away from his home alongside an old friend, and is introduced to the grander world of The Witcher 3.

But before overwhelming the player in The Witcher 3's vastness, White Orchard is deployed as a test. The area itself is large enough, introducing the player to all the basics through just what is necessary—action. It's akin to The Great Plateau in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where Link must learn how to survive before he attains his handy glider to leap off that big cliff safely.

The Witcher 3 has gotten quite the reputation in the past three years since it first released on May 19, 2015. Where once it was buggy with a clunky inventory to sort through, over the months and even years The Witcher 3 has become more polished. Even with all these improvements though, one element has remained sterling: how it eases players, new and old, into the lands of Velen and beyond.

This all begins, of course, in White Orchard. White Orchard is the micro open area that Geralt begins his long journey in searching for his long storied love Yennefer and his surrogate daughter Ciri, who's on the run from the ominous Wild Hunt. White Orchard feels big, too, even just effectively being an elaborate tutorial. There are monster nests to clear out, quests to pick up from billboards, a pub to drink at, people and beasts to fight against in spades. It's a mini-open world designed to provide a glimpse of everything The Witcher 3 has to offer.

"The story in the prologue [before White Orchard] is constructed in such a way to show [everything] visually, using the hero's daughter as an example," CD Projekt Red's story director Marcin Blacha writes to me over email. "During the prologue, it is Ciri who trains to become a witcher. The player can then learn the ways of monster hunting and what techniques witchers use. Then the sentiment the townsfolk have towards witchers. They see Geralt facing ingratitude coming from people whom he protects and even though he gives his best to stay neutral, people will often try to drag him into the politics game."

The prologue, beyond the extended flashback, bleeds into the White Orchard area where Geralt begins his extraordinarily daunting adventure that will take him across multiple large regions. A hundred or so hours later, White Orchard is also where the main storyline ends, with Ciri making a determined choice depending on Geralt's actions over the course of the campaign. (In some cases, Ciri might not even be there at all and Geralt will be elsewhere, doomed to be sad and alone.)

The extended prologue is perhaps best described by Blacha himself: it's "an entire world in miniature." The tutorial at Kaer Morhen and Geralt's test-open world in White Orchard telegraph every sort of challenge that will pop up across the entire game, from beast hunting to running errands for townsfolk. "It shows all of the problems the player will have to solve later on," Blacha writes. "Just on a smaller scale and it does so by slowly immersing the player into the game world."

Even other developers outside of CD Projekt Red, like famed Dragon Age creative director Mike Laidlaw, point to White Orchard as a highpoint of The Witcher 3. "I think White Orchard is one of the best onboarding sequences in gaming. It's exceptional," Laidlaw says. "Having Vesemir being present to onboard you to the Witcher universe, to be that second set of ears and eyes who goes, 'Ah well, we're going to hunt a Griffin, sure.' Showing you that Witcher stuff is deadly through the sick lady in the alchemist. Showing you how alchemy works just through the Griffin hunt. They established all the core things in the game, and set forward this incredibly clear value proposition of what [it's] gonna be like, what your character is going to be like, and what your capabilities are gonna be like, and delivering that to the point where you totally know what you're in for if you want to keep playing [it]. But also they set so many awesome hooks with things like Yen disappearing, and there was more than enough to keep you going. But I knew exactly what I was in for: I had learned how to play, I had learned how to hunt, I'd learned how to do a contract, and track."

It's also a jumping off point for players getting to know (or be reacquainted with) Geralt, whether they've spent the past two games with him or not. For Blacha, making Geralt and the rest of the characters in The Witcher 3 feel familiar even if they weren't was essential, and key to ushering players into the already-dense lore of The Witcher series. For instance, characters from past games always greet Geralt warmly (or not so warmly) because they've known him for quite some time. The interactions are written naturally, as opposed to Geralt being bombarded with expository dumps. "That’s how lilac and gooseberries came to be," Blacha tells me. Lilac and gooseberries, the signature "scent" of one of Geralt's love interests Yennefer, is also a foothold in the novel series The Witcher is based on as well. "Geralt can recognize these unique scents by smelling a letter written by Yennefer, thus triggering memories he shares with his friend. The player realizes Geralt talks of someone truly important to him if he can remember such details."

And when you exit White Orchard and move into Velen, it's a bewildering moment. I still remember opening up the in-game map, plotting where I should head to next after aimlessly wandering around and getting into skirmishes with Drowners. I found that Velen was massive, far bigger than White Orchard was. It was shocking to me, especially after toiling away in White Orchard for far longer than was necessary. I remember at an early point believing that White Orchard would be all that I was getting—and I was fine with that fact because of the sheer volume of things to do and diversity of its quests. I was oh-so wrong. It was only the beginning.

Ciri and Geralt share a quiet moment in a snow-covered White Orchard.

That's because White Orchard is an easy space to get lost in. It's beautiful, quaint, with plenty to explore. For some games, the scope of White Orchard would be enough to fill an entire game. It's also where the narrative depth in even the slightest of quests first shows its true colors, like the frying pan quest that still sticks out clear in my mind when I think of its opening moments. Blacha elaborates on this, using the first big hunt of a wild griffin as an example. "As White Orchard is attacked by a griffin who pursues shepherds after Nilfgaard soldiers killed its brooding mate, we know the relations between the cause, the effect, and the revenge for the act are the same for both people and beasts," writes Blacha. The people are mad at the griffin for killing their comrades, just as the griffin is enraged over the murder of their mate. Everyone in this scenario is motivated by love and loss.

Geralt, being essentially a mutated being himself, is usually understanding of both sides of any conflict: of the monsters and the humans. Sometimes, he's even more compassionate with the monsters' side, because he knows how it feels to be ostracized from society. And still, Geralt is famously everyone's dreaded errand boy, and is usually accosted by regular people at every turn just for being a witcher with mutated abilities. The Witcher 3 constantly reminds you that being a witcher is a job—and a bad one at that. He hunts and does others' bidding for mere pennies, like a bad minimum wage job in the service industry with horrible customers. From tracking down an arsonist to making a morally difficult choice in giving a potentially deadly witcher potion to an ailing girl, White Orchard's tiny community feels alive in ways most game towns don't, and it shows this in the many tasks Geralt aids with its locals in.

And it's that care for even the tiniest details that has helped The Witcher 3 remain in the video game zeitgeist, even three years after its release. Often with big games, their memory fades like precipitously over time. There have been a few standout titles over the current console generation—Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, Bloodborne—but most feel doomed as fleeting technical achievements, where we forget them almost as soon as we stop playing them outside of the most dedicated of fans. And yet three years later, we're still writing about The Witcher 3, developers are citing it as an inspiration now more than ever, fans are salivating over any hint at its upcoming successor: the mysterious Cyberpunk 2077. The Witcher 3 will likely go down as an all-time great in not just the RPG genre, but all of video games. Even as Laidlaw tells us himself: "all RPG makers should be studying how Witcher 3 keeps its engagement high."

And it all started in a little orchard with nothing more than some quests, wide open nature, and a griffin to hunt. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to dive back into The Witcher 3 again, as I have some old friends to get reacquainted with.

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for Iambiz #1 Iambiz 4 months ago
    Does that scene with Ciri and Geralt in White Orchard (pictured above) actually happen in the game? I don't remember ever travelling with her there.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove 4 months ago
    The "in media res" character/plot/world facts presentation is a largely unnoticed and even less accomplished feat. Perhaps some don't like not knowing a thing at a given moment, as if that was an uncommon experience in life (read: not really)?
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    I never thought about it like this at all, but it makes a lot of sense. I was also amazed at the size and complexity of Velen after spending way too long in White Orchard, and then Skellige on top of that. Love how different each broad region was too.

    Agree the world-building and characters are excellent, but I played before the combat patch and really disliked the gameplay as a result.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #4 hiptanaka 4 months ago
    I kinda started off on the wrong foot with The Witcher 3, because I approached it as an exploration game. The earliest instance of that was in the White Orchard. I was exploring off the beaten path to see what I could find, and came across an area in the woods where a bunch of trees had been shredded, and there was blood on the ground. I got excited about where it could lead and started to look around, but I found nothing out of interest nearby, and the "witcher senses" revealed nothing to interact with, so I left. An hour or so later I got a quest related to an event in the forest, and now, suddenly, using my witcher senses in the same place, I found a track leading somewhere.

    Over the course of the game, there were a bunch of situations like these, where I found suspicious things leading nowhere, unless I had first triggered a quest to take me there. I always enjoyed the atmosphere, though, and the little stories you get involved with are engaging, so I've been thinking about picking it up again and playing it more like it expects you to.Edited 2 times. Last edited May 2018 by hiptanaka
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  • Avatar for catymcc #5 catymcc 4 months ago
    @Iambiz It's one of the game's endings. (the best one IMO)
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #6 NiceGuyNeon 4 months ago
    I finally played Witcher 3 and its two expansions during my winter break this year (it took a while to upgrade my PC to run it, and it took a while to reach winter break, but i bought this game at launch lol)

    I think Witcher 3 is in the conversation of my all-time favorite games along with Breath of the Wild and Dark Souls. I think they're the three best games available to play right now. I agree that usually I forget about what I was playing once I move on. But I have not forgotten Witcher 3. I have either done every quest in the game or have done every quest I could find and the only other instance I can think of a game where I did that was Breath of the Wild.

    Witcher 3's White Orchard area does a damn good job of foreshadowing everything you're going to come across, just like the Undead Asylum in Dark Souls and the Plateau in Breath of the Wild. You learn pretty organically on your own and just know what you're in for for the rest of the game. I really like that description in the piece about an entire world in miniature.

    I remember I initially thought Velen was too big, and it's massive and even over 100 hours into the game I still have not visited every location on the map at least as far as I'm aware. I loved The Witcher but it was very rough. I loved The Witcher 2 for its branching storyline, but playing this open world Witcher 3 they nailed it. There's a feeling of discovery and danger around every corner of the map that's missing from almost every open world game with the exception of Breath of the Wild which has a much better open world, though the quests in Witcher 3 are better so it evens out for me.

    The Witcher 3 is an adventure of a lifetime. If you play videogames and have not played it you are doing yourself a disservice. There's a reason PCgamer keeps ranking it as the number 1 game on their top 100 list every year. Dark Souls is number 2, I'm still not sure if I agree with that positioning of Dark Souls or not since it's as deserving of being number 1, they're so close to each other for me. They are lucky they don't have to rank Breath of the Wild with those two, I'd have the hardest time picking one over the other lolEdited May 2018 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for Gerwant #7 Gerwant 4 months ago
    The man who borrowed pan and assassinated this guy was Thalar. Geralt could even find his monocle in this hut.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #8 DogNozzle 4 months ago
    @Gerwant That's cool... would this have been obvious/significant to players who'd played the previous games? I only played Witcher 3 and was always kind of shaky on who this guy was and what I was supposed to think when I eventually met him (much later in the game of course).
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #9 NiceGuyNeon 4 months ago
    @DogNozzle I don't think these are significant so much as they're kind of fun things to spot. There's a lot of callbacks to the first two games and the novels. Obviously you don't need to have read or played everything, but they do give you some of those nifty, sometimes subtle like this pan quest and sometimes not so subtle like The Last Wish quest (the first book was called The Last Wish).
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  • Avatar for jcchg #10 jcchg 4 months ago
    The attention to detail is what keeps you engaged and cause that sense of immersion, from every NPC with its own animations and patterns, to conversations, action-reaction in all means and finding little stories outside quests (people crying next to a burned village, a horse dead next to a submerged body, a secret passage...).
    @hiptanaka You have to follow the main quest ("Lilac and gooseberries") for 15-20 minutes from the start, you speak with the Nilfgardian commander, and actually you can go straightforward to that trail of blood and skip the beginning of "The beast of White Orchard". You made one of the game's virtues, that you can omit part of a quest and still get to an end, or shelve it and complete it later, look like a drawback. Start exploring beforen that initial 20 minutes is odd.
    @VotesForCows There was never any "combat patch".
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 4 months ago
    @jcchg There was a patch that changed how Geralt moved in combat. Call it what you want.
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  • Avatar for Ilikedags #12 Ilikedags 3 months ago
    Is this game even old enough to have influenced anything yet? If a game dev played white orchid on the day of release and was inspired by it, would that game even be out yet? Brilliant opening to a game, though.
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