A full set of armour stands to one side of the entrance of CD Projekt Red’s Warsaw based studio, to either side walls are adorned with front page covers of Geralt, the white haired hero of The Witcher Saga, and with various swords and medieval weapons. Just before commencing my interview with Jakub Szamałek, one of the writers behind the series, I chance to look up at the ceiling which is in its entirety a map of The Continent, the world of Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy epic on which the game is based. From the onset, there is little doubt in my mind that CD Projekt Red are passionate about the Witcher.
So Jakub, you’ve got the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt coming out shortly. What was shown at E3 has been very well received at E3 and even before that there was a lot of excitement amongst the gaming community specifically about this game, what is the feeling that you have here at CD Projekt Red working on something with this kind of global media attention.
Jakub: Well of course there’s a lot of pressure because we feel the game is anticipated and we enjoy that a lot and we really like that what we’ve shown has raised and roused so much interest and excitement and we will do our best to live up to the expectation but of course it’s a lot of pressure knowing so many people are interested in the product and they want it to be the best possible quality and that’s we want that is well. So on one hand there is, of course this pressure but overwhelmingly it’s a great pleasure because I have the feeling that we’re working on an amazing game and we’re not, you know, making compromises, we’re working on game that we ourselves would like to play and so far it’s turning out great. So what we showed at the E3 conference was in game footage showing one of the quests we were working on and the other quests that are currently being made as the game nears the release date are just as good or maybe better so I’m really excited that I’m here and I’m part of the team that makes it happen.
So tell us a little about your part in the process of creating the Witcher 3.
Jakub: So basically we have a team of 5 writers with our lead writer Marcin Blacha who’s main task is to have the main story arc in control to see that all the elements fall into the right place and that each quest is part of greater narrative and it makes sense that all the information is revealed in the right place and that you understand the whole story and so on. Whereas we, the other writers, are doing all the nitty-gritty, daily work, like designing the quests and writing the dialogue and writing in game documents, books and etc, so basically everything that you see in the game. So my responsibilities are quite broad. Everything that is written in the game and that you can read, or write, or listen to is either my doing or one of my colleagues.
So the first time we read a book lying on a table in a tavern we might in fact be holding a piece of your work?
Jakub: [Humbly, as a hero among mortals] Well I guess there’ll be a few moments in which you could say that.
One of the big points of anticipation with the Witcher 3 is that it looks like it may completely change the way we look at RPGs. With entirely non-linear game play, many people think that this will be a new benchmark in the RPG experience. Does that add an extra sense of challenge or indeed, purpose, for you, writing this game?
Jakub: It is a great challenge and I think the part of that which is most challenging is that we are trying to combine an open world, a huge open world, with a very complex storyline and this is something that, I think, has been rarely even tried; to combine these two elements. Most computer RPG games offer either a large world but with a simple story line and the main fun come from exploring and crafting your hero the way you like it and the other games offer intense experience. We’re working very hard to combine these two elements into one and to make it work seamlessly. So this is a great challenge. There are a lot of troubles that we encounter as we do it but I think we’re doing a good job in dealing with it and with finding ways around problems and dealing with them. So I this will be a milestone in computer RPGs and I do hope it will change the way we think about them and the expectations we have about them.
It seems that way when you think about what this game is hoping to achieve.
Jakub: It’s very ambitious.
Well I can certainly dig why you’d be excited working on something like this. On that note, we have a question from Ben, our host in Australia. [Reading from a shitty Nokia phone, you know, the kinds that people haven’t had since 2006] “There are already many benchmark fantasy RPGs out there for people, like the open world Skyrim or the deep storytelling of Dragon Age” [stops reading] and I’ll add Mass Effect “How are you making the Witcher stand apart from those games?”
Jakub: Well first of all it combines the two into one and this will be new and exciting and I think players will really like this. Also, I think the story telling is quite unlike any game I have personally played and I mean I haven’t played every RPG or even every AAA ranked RPG but what I think really sets the Witcher apart is that we are crafting a really complex and mature story and we are treating our NPCs seriously. They not just some information posts that the character comes over to talk about the next quest. They have their own ambitions, they have their own aims and they’re always thinking about something else to say to Geralt to aid him in his “brave quest”. So we’re working really hard to create a world which is filled with characters who you will remember and be intrigued by. This is something that I think is a unique feature of the Witcher universe and why I enjoyed playing the first two games and working on the third one. The other thing is that the Witcher is very muti-layered narrative and in a way it harps back to the old school RPGS from the late 1990s and the early 2000s in that there is a main storyline that you can follow but there’s a lot of additional story arcs that are accessible to you and if you find them intriguing and you want to learn more about them there’s nothing stopping you from talking to NPCS about stuff that is not really essential to completing the main storyline but can give you a lot of information about their motivations, their history, what is happening behind the scenes, what might happen in the future and so on. So there is a great feeling of richness that we want to, will keep, as I think we achieved it pretty neatly with the Witcher 2 and we’ll transfer to this open world. So that’s something that we’re striving to achieve and so far it’s working out nicely.
In working on a game like this in which you have hundreds of stories linking in with each other in an entirely non-linear way I imagine that it must be like looking at a puzzle without knowing what the image is.
Jakub: Of course, well controlling a story which is so huge is a major issue and major problem because we didn’t go the easy way. And I mean, the “easy way” in such a world and such a game, would be to confine the main storyline to one location and open other locations, or make the player go from location a to b and b to c and then carry on along doing the storyline. We are trying really hard to give total freedom to the players, so there are a number of locations and regions in the Witcher and it’s absolutely up to you where you want to go and in each one of them you can pick up the main storyline or you can do the sidequests and then once you’ve discovered all the relevant information regarding the main storyline you can go to another location and continue doing the main storyline there. Then at certain points you can combine everything that you’ve learnt and this again gives you a different perspective on what you’ve found and on the storyline. So basically, not only is it non-linear in a way that you have to make decisions and then these decisions impact the world, the characters and lead to different endings but also when you make these decisions and which is also up you. So this of course leads to dozen of permutations and you have to take that into account and implement it accordingly but I think the feeling of freedom and being able you please is going to be amazing and we’re really proud of that.
I have this image in my mind that your office must just be hundreds and hundreds of whiteboards with lines and names going every direction.
Jakub: Yeah that’s how it looks pretty much.
So another question from Ben, [honestly, you have to scroll every 10 words with this phone] “many RPGs give the player complete control over who their character is and why they’re there, whereas in the Witcher you’re very much given a role, a strong character with a strong sense of purpose. How did you balance the idea of freedom with the idea of purpose?
Jakub: So we’re making games with a predetermined character and it is very different to playing with a character that you can create yourself, where you have the total freedom of whether it’s an elf or a dwarf or whether it’s a mage or a barbarian whereas Geralt is a particular person with a particular character. So of course you don’t have the total freedom in what to do because there are some things that Geralt would never consider doing but even within the constraints of his character and experience there are a lot of choices and decisions to be made. One of the key characteristics of the Witcher Saga on which the games are based is that Geralt, even though he tries to be neutral and tries to lead his own normal life he faces situations in which he cannot be neutral and he has to make a decision and this is something that we implemented in both the Witcher 1 and 2 and we’re certainly sticking to it in the Witcher 3. So you, as the player, will have to make lots of decisions, some of them will seem important and some will seem unimportant but will lead to unforeseen consequences and there’s a lot of that. So of course, Geralt will behave in certain ways he won’t in others, so we’re forcing the players to associate themselves with this particular hero but of course each play though creates a slightly different Geralt. So I know these are subtle differences but I think there’s a lot that you can influence and do playing Geralt of Rivia. And when it comes to his appearances of his fighting style then you have, of course, a lot of freedom there because you can decide which armour he wears and his hair-do and whether you want to be a great sword fighter or whether you want to be a mage and cast signs. So game-play wise there’s a lot of freedom but narratively it is of course restrained by the character who’s story we’re telling.
[masterfully managing inbox] Well just to stay on that point, I’ve another question from Ben.
“The games tie in very closely to Andrzej Sapkowski’s saga but they never feel like they mess with the canon. How important was it for you to stay true to this world?”
Jakub: Well since it’s such a great world and it’s so immersive and fascinating we want to keep as much of it as we can. So when it comes to particular characters that we take from the saga, including Geralt, we are trying to be as faithful to the original as it is humanly possible or as it possible within the constraints of the medium we’re working in because of course games are different from books in many ways. But we have a lot of freedom in a way that our games are not remakes of stories told in the saga or in the books, we are picking up from where Andrzej Sapkowski (A.S) left of, so we are free to carry on the story as we like it. Of course we’re trying to make it coherent and so politically or economically are very closely connected to the Witcher saga and so there’s no line after which the people start behaving differently or the realms, that A.S describes, change. So we’re trying to stick to that. However there is a lot of work that we have to do to translate the books into games because A.S of course created the world in which the action takes place but reading a book is very different to seeing these worlds yourself. A.S describes a particular city in a few sentences but if we are to make a game in which this city appears then of course we have to spend much more time just designing this city and thinking about how it feels, what should be in it and what shouldn’t be in it and what kind of people should live there and so on. So there are a lot of gaps that we have to fill in but we’re always trying to be as faithful to the original idea behind the Witcher universe as possible.
With the series originally being Polish, there is obviously a strong connection within the both the books and the games with Poland and Polish culture and language. In Australia at least, it is impossible to play the game on a console, in Polish. Do you feel that the Polish language is an intrinsic part of the Witcher series?
Jakub: Well, of course it is in a way because it’s a Polish book written by a Polish author and he is of course shaped by particular experiences and from growing up and living in Poland. Also A.S is known for making a lot of cultural references and some of them refer to wider European or western history and culture but some of them are specifically Polish. So non-Polish readers wouldn’t necessarily get to what he’s eluding at particular points. So of course, it’s nice to get that reading the saga in the original. When it comes to the games we’re preserving that trait, with references to literature, history, philosophy, other games, Polish history and Polish culture. Luckily we have amazing translators working in house with us and they’re doing what they can to translate these inside jokes into different jokes that are similar in terms of what the character or NPCs are trying to say but referring to Anglo-Saxon culture. So we are not writing any Polish jokes and having them translated verbatim into English because that just wouldn’t be funny. So I wouldn’t say that you are missing something but you are playing a slightly different game when you are playing in English. I mean, I played both games in both Polish and English and they are different but they are both lot of fun. So I don’t think you’re missing anything.
A big part of, at least the Polish Witcher, is the voice acting of Jacek Rozenek (J.R). We’ve seen in other series of this scale, particularly in regards to Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, that voice actors can have a profound impact on the way games are received. Do you feel J.R has had an effect on the way Geralt has been created?
Jakub: I think that the fact that he’s playing the Witcher does influence how Geralt is received and how he’s considered by the players. So absolutely I do agree that he is taking a part, willingly or not, in creating this particular character and he’s doing a great job. Of course Doug Cockle is also very good with the English version but J.R is just amazing in how he plays Geralt and I love his work. What I really like about it is that J.R has a very deep voice which of course befits a fantasy hero but there is something, [pausing, reverent] something tender within it which I think gives a very good impression of Geralt who is of course, this macho warrior the best sword fighter in the north but he is also a tender person in a way behind this veneer of machoness I think there is a very sophisticated and interesting person. I think Jacek’s voice gives a great impression of that in a single world or a single uttering.
[imitating Geralt in Polish] “Bywaj”. Yeah, he nailed it.
Jakub: [laughs] yeah.
When you’re writing, do you find now that you have J.R’s voice in your head?
Jakub: Absolutely. I mean I can’t read the Witcher now without hearing his voice in the back of my mind. So the connection is very close right now.
Well Jakub, that’s all the questions I have. If there’s anything you’d like to add?
Jakub: One thing I would like to add is that we really value our fans and our customers opinions so if any of your listeners think “Oh I think it’d be really great if this happened in the Witcher 3” or “I played the Witcher 2 and I really liked/disliked this or that” then please let us know by writing on our forums or by sending emails because we really do consider these opinions. We really want to make a game which will be amazing and just considering the opinions of people who played these games is extremely important to us so do write to us.
Well I know I’ve always felt the game needed an old ship captain named “Carlo”, so if you could put in a ship captain called Carlo, you know, see what you can do.
Jakub: [Laughs] Well if I get an opportunity to name one of them, I’ll see what I can do.
Jakub it’s been a real pleasure.
Jakub: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for coming over.
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is scheduled for release in 2014.