The Witcher 3 is an astounding RPG full of countless quests. It ranges from sweeping epic battles to smaller, more intimate tales. I started playing the Hearts of Stone DLC recently and experienced a quest so wonderful, I had to take a deeper dive. This quest is so damn great that Kirk Hamilton also found it the highlight of the DLC. I give my own thoughts and analysis in this video.
For those of you who can't watch it, here's the transcript:
The Witcher 3 is the best RPG I've played in a long time. Choosing a single quest to focus on was difficult. The game is full of amazing stories and quality characters. There's hardly a dull moment to be found. But after playing through the downloadable content Hearts of Stone and the Dead Man's Party quest, I knew I'd found a real gem.
The context is a bit strange for this one. After being saved by the mysterious Gaunter O'Dimm, Geralt is eventually tasked with helping him grant three wishes to a cavalier nobleman named Olgierd Von Everec. Von Everec is immortal as a side effect of a Faustian bargain he struck with O'Dimm. For the trickster to collect Olgierd's soul, he needs to also grant those wishes. To be free of his own magical debt to O'Dimm, Geralt must help. One of these requests is to show Von Everec's brother Vlodimir the time of this life. But there's a problem: Vlodimir's dead.
The solution is to summon his ghost. This part of the quest merely reinforces the actual work of being a Witcher and is meant to contrast with the wild frivolity that is to come. Geralt enters the family crypt, battles ghosts and performs a ritual to summon Vlodimir. Unable to interact with the world, it becomes clear that Vlodimir needs to possess a body and it just so happens that Geralt is right there.
This is the best thing about the quest, for many reasons. You now technically have control over two characters. Vlodimir takes over the interface, injecting himself into the dialog choices. When you choose an option, you're not choosing what Geralt would say, you're choosing what Vlodimir would say. But you're watching Geralt do the acting; he emotes grandly and speaks with full bluster. It's really fun and now you have to balance two characters in your mind. What would Geralt think about all this? What does Vlodimir want to do with his one day back in the land of the living? As far as roleplaying goes, that's very active and The Witcher 3 excels exceptionally in just how much it encourages the player to truly think about these personalities.
There's also an interesting moral aspect running throughout the quest. Geralt has previously agreed to go with his friend Shani to a wedding and Vlodimir thinks this is a grand way to carouse and make merry. There's a lot of questions to ask. How far are you willing to flirt with Shani? When the opportunity for a fight arises, do you disrupt the party or do you back down? Is there a line that Vlodimir won't cross? Is there a line of decorum that you, as a player won't cross? It colours every decision you make. And there are plenty of decisions to be made.
One of the most interesting things about the quest structurally is that once you arrive at the wedding, there's a host of activities to participate in and characters to talk to. In some ways, CD Projekt Red treat the wedding the same way that other games might treat entire cities or hub worlds, filling it with things to do. From playing Gwent to chasing pigs, you have plenty of activities to participate in. Each one is full of micro decisions. For instance, when you are asked to retrieve a fire eater gone missing you have many ways to handle situations. Do you use magic to calm the dog that chased him away or do you scare it off? It's a small choice but the choices exist nonetheless because The Witcher 3 is deeply concerned with player expression.
It should also be noted that most of these activities end up using major mechanics and modes of interaction. There's swimming, tracking the fire eater using your magical Witcher sense, combat, card games and dialog moments. You can express yourself in these moments of play. For instance, you might decide that Vlodimir uses Geralt's magic to cheat at a party game or not. The stakes are not grand but the quest still manages to have something for everyone and tries to give meaning to each moment. It's a little piece of The Witcher 3 in microcosm.
But perhaps more importantly, Dead Man's Party is about people. It's not just a miniature theme park. The quest narrows the game's ambitious scope to focus deeply on commoners. The main quest is full of kings, assassins, sorceresses, witchers and evil crones. Dead Man's Party is a small slice of life of rural Temeria. We get to participate in dance and song, watching as ordinary people enjoy what they consider an extraordinary day. It puts things in perspective. You're in the middle of a magical quest; these people are in the middle of a magical moment of their lives. It's wonderfully human.
Shani forms the emotional core of the quest. In many ways, her reaction to the quest mirrors our own. She is uncomfortable with Vlodimir's possession of Geralt but also somewhat amused was seeing her friend and former paramour acting uncharacteristically. There are times when the fun goes too far. Vlodimir steals a kiss from Shani. It's a moment that's made worse by the fact that it occurs out of the player's control. We are party to behaviour that is incredibly uncouth to say the least. Even in the following dialog, we cannot escape Vlodimir's crass nature. Shani handles it well but it is uncomfortable. It contributes to her main emotional conflict in the quest: Her feelings for Geralt and her fear that she's letting life slip by without companionship. It is up to the player how they navigate the situation and decide how close Geralt and Shani become.
In spite of his boorish actions, we don't necessarily come to hate Vlodimir either. He encourages people, carouses with them and livens up the world around him. But he's also a sad man who wasted his life trying to impress a brother that he deeply envied and who knows that one the clock hits midnight, he'll return to his uneventful afterlife. He build rapport with Geralt, and those around him. Vlodimir wants to enjoy himself but he is also concerned with making sure the people around him have a good time as well. He's a drinker, a fighter and a lech. A scoundrel who initially seems to care for himself alone. But over the course of the wedding, he becomes less selfish. It's not a perfect transformation but we see him grow.
The dynamics are always changing in Dead Man's Party; as we learn more about Vlodimir, we empathise with him. We might even come to pity him. Character relationships shift. By the end of it all, Shani gives Vlodimir a kiss. The Witcher 3 lives or dies on the strength of its characters. Dead Man's Party gives them time to grow and reveal themselves. It lets us see the quiet wisdom and the awful terror of Gaunter O'Dimm. Heck, there's even a miniature arc between the groom and his father-in-law. The world continues to grow and progress throughout the quest. Nothing is static
Dead Man's Party is everything I love about The Witcher 3: Rich characters, expressive gameplay and a whole lot of heart. Dead Man's Party might not be as dramatic as other quests but that only makes it all the more impressive in my mind. It dares to alter the pace and demands the player role play through mounting complications. I think it was definitely worth taking a closer look.