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.
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.