The Witcher 3's first expansion, Heart of Stone, contains three main quests. The first involves getting a ghost laid at a wedding. The second is a heist that goes wrong. The third is, well. The third is going to stay with me for a very long time.
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You've got three main quests because the star of the expansion, immortal party machine Olgierd von Everec, has three favours to ask of you. The third of his requests involves bringing him a flower that he gave to his wife. Sounds like an easy thing to ask, but just like the other two quests, it's anything but.
See, Olgierd's wife is dead. And has been for a while. And her house is a wreck. There's no way you can just walk in and magically find this flower just sitting there.
Oh wait, yes there is, because this is The Witcher 3, and just when things look like they're about to get too simple — or hopeless — along comes some crazy shit.
Here's how it all goes down.
First up, in the real world (more on this later), after finding the house is a ruin and there's nobody home, you notice somebody hanging out in the garden: the caretaker, a giant man with no face. Things are about to get very Bloodborne. You have to fight this hulk, who has a magic shovel and can summon the undead to heal him. It's a tough fight, but after killing him you actually get to keep said shovel. Which is a great find, since every hit you make with it restores your own health.
It's around this time that you also meet a black cat and dog loitering in the garden. Both of them can talk, and neither of them are from Geralt's plane of existence, let alone this part of town.
They're very helpful, though. After searching the empty house and finding nothing left alive (or in one piece), they're like "oh, hey, chin up, we know a way you can get that flower".
"Just go outside and dig up Olgierd's dead wife's corpse..."
"...Get down on your knees, chant some stuff, it will all get a little bit metal..."
"...and voila. Iris, meet Geralt. Geralt, Iris. She's back from the dead..."
"...now follow her inside a painting."
"...and there you go".
That's not a quick, one-time effect you see in the above screenshot. You spend the rest of the quest wandering around inside a painting, where time is frozen and everything in a beautiful video game looks even more beautiful. It's a place where Iris is still alive, and Olgierd free from those nasty/sexy scars he sports for the rest of the game.
Once inside this parallel world, there's little fighting to be had. Instead it's a casual exploration of a brutally sad tale, of a woman once loved, now trapped and stripped of all joy in a world between the living and the dead.
I hate to keep going back to The Bloody Baron when talking about this game, but it's once again a relevant touchstone. Where that storyline had you dealing with the effects of a physically violent relationship, this one has you picking through the pieces of an emotionally abusive one, and it's just as uncomfortable an experience.
Iris' fate is heartwrenching. A beautiful young woman who has fallen for a rogue, she is willing to sacrifice everything for their love in the face of parents who disapprove of their union and endless warning signs that this dude is bad news.
Tragically for Iris, sacrificing everything is pretty much her fate. Unknown to her, Olgierd has made a deal with the devil (quite literally), and in exchange for immortality has been stripped of all feeling and emotion. It's not until this third act of the expansion that we can really see where the title Heart of Stone comes from.
His ability to love gone, but the supposed duties of his consciousness still present, Olgierd shuns Iris as a lover and wife but is unwilling to let her go, making her at once both an outcast and a prisoner. He confines her to their stateley home, with only the no-faced bodyguard and talking animals for company
Your quest inside this painting, then, is to walk through several key moments from Olgierd and Iris' relationship, reliving them alongside the pair as they make the journey from happy couple to...heartless monster and corpse. Mostly this is achieved through cutscenes and light puzzles, though there's a very tough boss fight along the way.
In keeping with the tone of the game thus far, there's no "happy" ending here. You can't magically "save" Iris and return her, joyous and liberated, to the world of the living.
You were sent into her world for one thing: to get a flower. Yet that flower, and the love it once represented, is the only thing keeping her world alive, maintaining what little spirit Iris has left. To take it would be to destroy that bond, and thus destroy Iris herself.
So your choices at the end of this quest — and this is the Witcher 3, so there are always tough choices — are both pretty bleak. You can essentially euthanise a ghost, or you can let her keep living (or at least existing) inside a supernatural prison.
I chose the former, but in true Witcher 3 style the quest can still be completed if you're some kind of robot/heartless monster and decide to leave her in there.
The madness in the premise and at every step of this quest is, more than anything else in the expansion, what really brands Heart of Stone as such an outstanding piece of DLC, and a worthy continuation of what's likely my Game Of The Year™. In The Witcher 3, I explored the world, fought monsters, trawled dungeons and saved the universe. To try and add to that list of accomplishments, or repeat the same exercises, would have been a waste of time.
Instead, Heart of Stone does something wonderful: it reduces the scale of your efforts, to the point where you're not battling to save all human life, but a single man's soul. And in doing so, the canvas of your exploits can also be scaled back; everything you do in HoS is seemingly more mundane, pedestrian, lacking the importance or heft of your feats in the main game.
Yet they're better for it. We see sides of Geralt we haven't seen before. We get a more intimate look at Temeria's people, spending some real quality time with them in circumstances beyond simply dying and trying to survive. And we have our hearts tugged at in new and fascinating new ways, like dancing at a wedding, or talking to a demon dog about ghost flowers.