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Since the release of 2007’s The Witcher, the development team at CD Projekt Red has been offering players epic stories with wildly varied outcomes, and complex moral decisions throughout. From something as simple as whether or not to interfere in a roadside conflict to determining the ultimate fate of life on The Continent, CD Projekt Red puts a staggering amount of effort into filling their games with meaningful choices and memorable outcomes.
We recently sat down with the studio’s Story Director, Marcin Blacha, to discuss the finer points of crafting interesting decisions within their games, and take a closer look at some of the most iconic moments of The Witcher 3.
Engaging, Believable Worlds
Every aspect of a story stems from CDPR’s core design principles, Blacha explains – an ongoing endeavor to create believable, engaging worlds for their stories to take place in. “The Witcher is set in a really grim and gritty world, and we always want to keep this world realistic,” Blacha says. “We want to talk about serious problems, about complex situations, about things that, sometimes, make the player uncomfortable… Choices must then be crafted in such a way that they do not simplify the world, but instead, have the player think and interpret it.”
“Sid Meier famously said once: ‘A game is a series of interesting choices’,” Blacha says. “And it’s true — every game consists of choices players make, and these choices engage them on many different levels. My craft is telling stories through games, and interacting with players’ emotions… I need to present players with choices that are difficult, ones that will have them tear up, laugh, as well as feel relief, and so much more. These emotions — they need to be real, and it’s only possible to achieve that if the choices players make, as well as their consequences, are both meaningful.”
Part of making those choices truly meaningful – of not only creating interesting narrative moments but also using them to reinforce the studio’s worldbuilding – is to rarely offer choices that can be simply classified as “good” or “bad.”
“We avoid black and white choices because they are not emotionally engaging,” says Blacha.. “They remind players that the world they immersed themselves in, no matter how deep it is, is less complex and interesting than the real one…The world outside is not black and white, it’s not simple. When you want to create something as engaging as the real world, you have to avoid black and white choices.”
According to Blacha, the impact of all those choices – no matter if their outcomes are good, bad, or somewhere in between – all hinge on one simple thing: a player’s relationship to their character; whether or not the design/writing team has successfully made a player comfortable inhabiting them.
“Everything is based on this connection,” Blacha says. “Sometimes you can hate your character, sometimes you can like them, but you should always be fine with playing as this character.”
Blacha looks at it much like a foundational aspect of other game mechanics. Just as combat is predicated on being able to move a character and control the camera, our ability to make choices throughout a game – and to truly invest in the consequences of those decisions – is based solely on our willingness to accept our role. Whether it’s as Geralt of Rivia, Thronebreaker’s Queen Meve, or Cyberpunk’s more customizable V, our willingness to engage with the world is, in no small part, based on how we feel about our avatar in it. And it’s that foundation that then sets the stage for how we handle relationships with other characters.
“A writer’s role is creating characters and relationships between them which gamers can get to know and interpret in their own way,” says Blacha. “Our ambition has always been to create characters that are believable, and relationships between real people are rarely easy. When the player enters the world of complex and ambiguous emotional relationships, they become part of it through the consequences of the choices they make.”
“From a designer’s point of view,” he says, “the Bloody Baron’s storyline was, I think, the most interesting one to work on. We’d been building up this character across multiple quests, entwined with the Crones storyline, and it was difficult to find the perfect balance for him. The Baron needed to be a character that players couldn’t easily hate or condemn. Like a character from a Greek tragedy, we intended for him to be one you’d pity, and the events that surrounded him — full of dread. In the end, thanks to the involvement of some very talented designers, everything came together into a perfect whole.”
Triviality, Tension, and Trust
Of course, while some memorable story branches are the result of long and convoluted quest chains, there were plenty of other outcomes that rested on more incidental decisions. In the Blood and Wine expansion, for example, the fate of a major character (and potentially the entire Duchy of Toussaint) is entirely dependent on whether or not you choose to play cards with a little girl.
“When you are doing [a game] with many choices and consequences,” says Blacha, “you can always fall into a trap: you start creating a pattern, and this pattern is easy to recognize…We like to keep things fresh as much as we can, so that even the most clever of players will have a tough time seeing through the plots and intrigues we have in store for them.
“Sometimes, it might be a single decision that leads to the death of a key character. Other times, it might be a few smaller ones. In the case of Anna Henrietta, the player had to make two choices and neither of them hinted at the terrible end they would bring about… We don’t want to repeat ourselves, but we want the player to always be aware [of their impact],” he says, before adding with a mischievous laugh, “and suspicious that we are planning something really bad.”
Another way of changing up their formula is to provide moments during quests that offer a choice, but that are designed more around tension in a given scene than around choices piling up to lead to an outcome.
In the Witcher 3 questline Count Reuven’s Treasure, for instance, Triss Merigold voluntarily gets captured and tortured so Geralt can extract information from one of her guards – all the while listening to her cries through a thin wall. Similarly, in the King’s Gambit storyline, Geralt may get to a point where he’s asked to throw a live baby into a boiling-hot oven.
“In these kinds of decisions – ones that the gamer may not necessarily want to make – you know which decision needs to be made,” says Blacha. “The real dilemma here is: when will it be too late to make the choice? There’s a mechanic at play here not unlike, say, an auction, maybe a little bit of a gamble.
“We divide the scene into a couple of steps, and in each step we give the player something that will peak their interest – usually a piece of information. At the same time, we keep raising the tension, suggesting the risk factor is increasing. It’s important that the gamer believes the threat they’re facing is real: that the baby will end up being burned alive or that Triss might truly die. The Witcher games’ audience has grown accustomed to the fact that the choices we’re putting in front of them are no joke, and we’ve no mercy for our characters.”
The infamous “throw baby” moment is another linchpin for CDPR’s narrative designers, and how they measure a player’s investment in their game and world. It creates a moment where they ask you not necessarily to put your trust, as Geralt, in Cerys an Craite, but rather you, the player, asks whether or not you can trust the designers themselves. “It isn’t really the kind of choice where we expect you to trust, or not trust, the character,” Blacha says. “This is the kind of choice where we ask you to trust or not trust the game. We’re asking the player if they think the game is intelligent and self-aware enough – and also cruel enough – to let you do this.”
In some games – the end of the original Mass Effect comes to mind – you may be offered a choice that you know you’re not allowed to make, because it doesn’t fit within the rules of a game’s world or story. This moment with Cerys forces you to ask yourself Is this the kind of world where they’d let me barbecue an infant? “All our previous choices and consequences, all our previous stories are preparing the player for this moment; preparing the player for the answer ‘Yes. this is that kind of game,” Blacha says with a devious chuckle. “It’s a little bit meta, but that’s the way it works.”
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Putting it All Together
Despite the variety of ways CD Projekt injects player agency into its story, it was surprising to learn that many of these choices – especially the more impactful ones – aren’t added until later in the development process. “The more meaningful and consequential choices are added to the story rather late,” says Blacha. “Creating them is a fairly time-consuming process, and we’d much prefer to use them to enrich the story once we know what it is about from beginning to end.
“Once we’re at that point, we usually try to select moments we believe are most promising, and then brainstorm ideas about what would happen if, in a particular moment, the player had a meaningful choice to make, and what kind of consequences would that choice entail. Implementing choices and consequences often leads to changes being made in the story itself, which starts branching out more and more. This obviously means more work, but if the ideas that come from this are good and will enhance the experience, it’s definitely worth it.”
It’s a philosophy that’s evolved with the studio along with it’s games. The Witcher 2 focused more on big decisive story branches that essentially split the story in two, but Wild Hunt expanded the scope of its world to allow for more nuanced and diverse stories across its world. “The non-linearity of The Witcher 2 was a direct result of the game’s plot-driven design,” Blacha says. “We wanted to show gamers that their decisions greatly influence the story, resulting in them seeing places and meeting characters they wouldn’t have if they had chosen differently. In The Witcher 3, on the other hand, the narrative structure relies on its strong cast of characters and the relationships they end up having with Geralt, and the choices gamers make directly affect the fate of these characters. In The Witcher 2 we had two alternative paths upriver into the Pontar Valley, depending on whose cause players chose to sympathize with. In The Witcher 3, the alternative paths are emotional ones, resulting in a world of psychological experiences built from many smaller choices.
“One of the benefits of designing this aspect of our games in this particular manner is that the more refined and developed the story is, the more we know about our heroes and the easier it is to craft choices and consequences that feel natural in the context of these characters.”
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Of course, even in a world as large as The Witcher 3’s, not everything makes it into the final version of the game. Apparently there was once a large portion of Wild Hunt that initially had Geralt joining the titular evil band of elves in one way or another. In one version of the story, Geralt traded himself in exchange for Ciri’s life – as he had for Yennefer before the first Witcher game – and in another, he was ‘going undercover’ to acquire some important information or get close to Eredin. “It was like five years ago and that’s a really long time [in game development],” laughs Blacha. “Those quests were cool and I’m pretty sure we could have done something good with them but they didn’t really fit, so we removed them.”
And once the story arcs and quests are decided upon, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything after that is smooth sailing. Creating such a complex web of relationships – all dependent on the choices we make, in one way or another – creates an intricately balanced network where every new decision has the potential to topple everything else.
“Over time we’ve gained a lot of experience in designing non-linear stories and learned how to keep them in line and under control despite their nature,” Blacha says. “We catch on to the most obvious issues that have to do with choices more quickly now. Still, there’s always the possibility that a cumulation of choices made throughout the game will result in an issue that none of us foresaw — a butterfly effect of sorts. It does happen, usually late in production… but sometimes it’s beneficial, because then we can make even more consequences, and that’s always good.”
To avoid creating those game-breaking moments, Blacha explains that it’s occasionally important for the team to take control of the narrative in order to avoid creating moments where players are offered a choice that doesn’t actually impact the story. “We really tried to avoid fake choices, because we really care about players’ trust,” he says. “Sometimes the illusion of choice is simply unavoidable, but it might often be better to lean towards a more linear narrative flow and instead of choices, to focus on making a bit great using other techniques.
“Although I consider choices and consequences to be fundamental to games, they are not the only tools in our storytelling toolbox.”
The Evolution of Choice
And with the upcoming launch of new console hardware and more powerful gaming PCs, that toolbox is only expanding. “Storytelling in games is getting better in the same way graphics are,” says Blacha. “It seems obvious that the design of choices and their consequences will keep getting better, too… I think we’ll eventually see games in which the important choices are camouflaged and their connection with consequences will be less visible as a result.”
Heading into the next generation, game and hardware developers alike have said that the biggest leaps forward may not be graphical, but in the quality of the simulations games provide.
“We’re currently at a moment in time where movies are starting to become more like games, and games are trying to be more like movies,” Blacha says. “I think that the games will start to look for their own identity, and they will find this identity in interaction. And what is interaction?
“It’s choice and consequences.”
JR is a Senior Editor at IGN who urges you to donate to the ACLU or NAACPLDF if you’re able. He can’t wait to see how these ideas play out in Cyberpunk 2077 – especially if his theories based on the tabletop end up being accurate.