The Witcher 3: my get-up-and-go got up and Gwent

, | Game diaries

Now that I’m playing The Witcher 3 in earnest, I’ve decided I’m going to ignore Gwent, the ingame collectible card game that Geralt can play to fritter away time and orens. As an erstwhile Pazzak player, Caravan player, SkyStones player, and GamePig owner, I know firsthand how much you can fritter away in an ingame game. So my Geralt will decide he has better things to do than play some Hearthstone clone. Besides, isn’t a standalone version of Gwent in the works? Wouldn’t playing Gwent in The Witcher 3 be like playing early access Gwent? I want no part of it. Which means I’ll have that much more money for things that actually matter! Like finally getting a haircut (pictured).

After the jump, here’s me not faffing about with cards.

But then someone told me that there are quests involving Gwent that get you more than just money from winning matches. That got my attention. I didn’t want to know any more, since I didn’t want anything spoiled. So I sighed and begrudingly starting playing Gwent.

Since I had progressed pretty far into Velen at that point, I was worried I had missed all sorts of Gwent opportunities in White Orchard. So I went back to White Orchard and ran around looking for the low level Gwent players I must have skipped. Here’s me, not trying to rescure Ciri. Here’s me, leaving monsters to terrorize the countryside. Here’s me, not earning xp.

I got frustrated at being unable to find all the low level Gwent players in White Orchard. Where had they gone? I Googled “where the hell are all the frickin’ Gwent players in White Orchard?” and found a list of Gwent players. Hmm, seems there really aren’t any in White Orchard. Furthermore, it seems that Gwent is mainly played by traders and blacksmiths. How bourgeois. Gwent, the curse of the middle class.

Have I cheated by looking up the Gwent players? Perhaps. Do I care? Well, yeah, kind of. At the advice of a friend, when I first started playing, I turned off markers for points of interest. The idea is to make The Witcher 3 more of a game about discovery and less of a game about moving from question mark to question mark. The advice is sound and I’m glad I took it. I even turned off the dotted line path to the quest objective. Anything to get your nose out of a minimap makes a game more immersive. Yeah, I said “immersive”. If the word fits.

But here’s me, looking at a website listing Gwent players, fast travelling among them to the places I’ve discovered. Here’s me, messing around with a deck builder that exists on the pause menu, where you save the game, adjust your gamma settings, and turn down the music. Here’s me, playing Gwent instead of playing The Witcher 3. And here me’s, pretty sure I’ve made the right decision.

Have I made the right decision because Gwent is a good game? Not really. Frankly, I don’t think Gwent is a very good game. It’s almost exclusively dependent on deck strength. A deck with more powerful cards will always beat a deck with less powerful cards. And from what I’ve seen, Gwent is full of less powerful cards. It’s a blatant leveling up process: get better Gwent cards to win at Gwent. There’s no way I’m going to beat the Bloody Baron’s deck until I’ve spent time and money improving my own deck. This is what I was afraid of. That Gwent is a resource sink more than a game of skill. At least Gwent is brief and simple. At least it allows for occasional meaningful decisions. At least it can be exciting with roughly equivalent decks. But is it a good game? Not really.

Have I made the right decision because of the Gwent quest? I don’t think so. The quest is pretty far from my current level. I’m level 6. It’s a level 24 quest. What’s more, it seems like a Samurai/Tarantino reference that I could have done without. We’ll see. At this point, I’m not impressed.

So why do I think I’ve made the right decision?

Gwent is part of The Witcher 3’s worldbuilding. This is a game brimming with lore. But unlike many games brimming with lore, it doesn’t dump it into my lap all at once. I never feel overwhlemed by Witcher lore. Instead, it is wisely sprinkled in small doses among various places: the bestiary, Dandelion’s biographical accounts, the books, the notice boards in every village, the loading screens, snippets of dialogue overheard or introducing quests. The longest glut of exposition so far has been talking to that ambassador in the emperor’s palace, which was a strictly optional way to set the political stage. But even without that, I’m pretty sure I’d know who the Nilfgaardians are, why Velen is in such bad shape, what the deal is with all the grumbling Redanian soldiers milling about, and who Foltest was. A good rule of thumb when you want to teach something — a character’s name, the importance of a place, the relationship between two empires — is to tell it twice. The tricky part is when and how you tell it. The two times can’t be too far apart. They can’t be too close. It can’t be too contrived. When you want to teach something important, tell it four or five times.

Gwent is part of the telling. It builds on the lore, adding a little more flavor with its factions, its units, its leaders, its heroes, its monsters, with their role in the card game, with their relative strengths, with the flavor text especially. Now I’ve got a little context for characters I’ve yet to meet or — as I suspect is more often the case — characters Geralt met in the previous game. They’re like shreds of memory or whispers of gossip. Snippets of conventional wisdom. For instance, the flavor text on the elven skirmishers says, “No matter what you’ve heard, elves don’t take human scalps. Too much lice.” That’s a good line! If there’s one thing worse than a savage, it’s a haughty savage. Gwent is full of these tidbits.

Here’s me, nibbling on bits of lore with gameplay around the edges, served up in tiny bite-sized morsels. Well played, CD Projekt Red. Well played. Gwent: 1, me: 0. Yet we’re both winners.

Up next: slow boat to 34
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