The Witcher 3 doesn’t have the fastest-paced opening, and it doesn't toss you right into the action, but it establishes a lot at a quick pace – perhaps more than you realize is happening. It wasn’t until a colleague of mine was complaining a bit that I sat back and realized not everyone felt the same, and I went back to go through those first 20 minutes. I came away with the same impression I had the first time – The Witcher 3’s opening is nothing short of structurally brilliant.
There are two main parts to this opening to break down – the first is story-oriented, and the second is gameplay tutorial-oriented. We’ll be focusing on the first – as the second I believe is pretty self-explanatory with a solid tutorial showing you in measured progression how to interact with the world and the basics of the combat system.
If you want to see it, check out the video below which shows the section off. For speed and to focus on the story elements, tutorial screens were turned off and it was skipped when offered to move forward.
Unlike many games, The Witcher 3 has a clearly defined protagonist in Geralt, with his own personality. That means while the player has control over aspects, some things are much more locked in than a game with a silent protagonist. Thus, in such a situation it behooves the game to establish the character, setting and relationships right out of the gate. That is the bricklaying that Witcher 3 excels at doing in these opening 20 minutes.
Opening up, you get Geralt in a bath talking with Yennifer about the day ahead. This allows the player to get a feel for Geralt some, and also to see the relationship between the two as Geralt views it – that of old lovers who know each other and their foibles well. Given that the early section of the game involves chasing down Yennifer, it’s important to show this so the player feels a bit of a connection, and Witcher 3 does a great job of showing, not telling this relationship in the way they interact.
As you look around the room, you are able to get a sense of the western medieval aesthetic that the game has – in case you didn’t know that going in somehow. This will continue to show through the tutorial, with monsters from western mythology, as well as other classic tropes from them like silver swords used to slay them.
Speaking of classic elements, the fact you are in a castle is another that resonates with many western elements. Not just a castle with Kaer Moran, a castle on a mountain. In a subtle way, the vista they let you look out of, showing a stark empty but beautiful land, helps show another element: that Witchers are often alone in the world.
After exploring the room and seeing some of the traditional medieval trappings and possibly a talk with Yennifer to further flesh things out, you head down the stairs. Here the old Witcher Vesemir is sleeping, and we are introduced to him once he is awoken. Vesemir is the grizzled veteran and Geralt’s companion at arms; throughout the first section of the game, he provides someone to bounce ideas off of for Geralt. While Geralt is far from a young whippersnapper, Vesemir serves as a mentor figure, not so much to him but to the player. He fills that classic role for the player while they find their feet, and in this section fills in that Witcher’s rely on knowledge as well as skill to best their foes.
Here the discussion centers on Ciri, and the game does do a bit of telling about her, but it’s important to note that it does so while also showing you more about the characters who are speaking. While what they say is about Ciri, it reveals a lot on them and how they regard her; Vesemir as an indulgent uncle, and Geralt as an adoptive father. They observe her having left her book studies – the boring text on Ghouls and Alghouls, to go practice her swordsmanship (swordswomanship?).
Geralt heads down and as she is practicing tests her some, he gives her several commands. He does it in a teacher to protégé way – tough but caring. The style Ciri fights with also shows us that The Witcher 3 uses more stylized combat with flips and spins than others might in how she works on her footwork. The removal of a blindfold after is notable as it also reveals something of the fact that Witcher’s rely on multiple senses and blazing reflexes – in part from mutations which are referenced here.
Geralt’s position as the father figure is most evident here as he scolds her some over leaving the work and discusses the blade work she had done. Given that a lot of the game centers around searching for Ciri as Geralt (and part of it is playing as Ciri), this is a hugely important relationship to set up. Many games have a stiff dialogue here, but the down-to-earth dialogue along with movement during the tutorial manages to capture the feel perfectly and show you how they regard each other.
As they make their way down to the courtyard, Ciri apologizes to Vesemir and reveals that she had done the studying. Depending on your dialogue options here, she’ll either use a quote from Geralt about Witcher’s being tricky against him or one of Vesemir’s against him – showing her intelligence, quick wit, and insolence to those in authority. The fact that she can speak this way also might reassure those who think the Witchers are a military organization as there is nothing like that in reaction, and then comes blade practice.
Going through the motions, it comes to an end as Ciri damages her dummy and jumps up running around. While threats of sword polishing are bandied about, Geralt begins to feel something odd-even as no one else does and calls out for Ciri. As he looks at the dummy it looks like a corpse and snowfalls… and the Wild Hunt has arrived. Here we have a set-up of the villain and showing that the Wild Hunt knows Geralt, who feels powerless before them, as they reach out and kill Ciri in front of him.
Cue wake up. As the dream ends, Geralt talks with Vesemir about it, perhaps confiding that he feels it is an ill omen for Ciri. In many cases, the "it’s all a dream" is a lazy cop-out to avoid consequences or to get cheap drama. This isn’t one of those cases however, by putting it at the beginning like this it is able to avoid the trope and perhaps, more importantly, the fact that it is a dream does not undermine anything we learned there. We learned how Geralt saw Ciri, Yennifer, Vesemir, and the Wild Hunt – key things when Geralt is the dominant character you will be playing as.
20 minutes have passed, and your first combat is about to start – now you know your key friends, the primary antagonist, and the basic controls for the game. When it comes to laying down the support structure for a game, I don’t know if you can do much better.