I hate good endings. That is: I hate when video games have a single “best” ending that requires more work to achieve. In the narrative sense, this is faintly ridiculous. Sure, collecting 50 urns will let my character get a happy ending, totally. But the real issue is what it does to me as a player. Instead of exploring the game, I find myself poring over guides; it makes me want to play games at an expert level even when I’m a novice, hurting my engagement with the game.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine has a best, happy ending. Yet despite my distaste for this style of ending, and the incongruity with the dark fantasy setting of The Witcher, my primary reaction is awe. It is an astonishingly clever piece of game design, combining the story, setting and game mechanics of Blood and Wine into something special — and continuing to demonstrate how the superb quest design of The Witcher 3 sets it apart from every other cinematic RPG.
So how does this work?
The premise of the expansion is this: The Duchy of Toussaint is under political siege, as a mysterious beast is murdering important, ostensibly corrupt (according to the five virtues of Toussaint) knights.
The Duchess, Anna Henrietta — an impressive, if stubborn young woman — hires the witcher Geralt to stop the killings. It slowly becomes clear that the mastermind behind the attacks is the Duchesses’ long-exiled sister, Syanna, who’s manipulating the Beast into doing her will.
What happens after that is complicated, but it usually results in Syanna either getting captured or dying. If she dies, you’re getting a very bad ending of some sort. If she’s captured? Things get interesting. Most of the time, her sister, despite being the target of Syanna’s machinations, attempts to forgive the expansion’s antagonist. Most of the time, that ends with Syanna sticking a hairpin in Anna Henrietta’s neck, a murder-suicide that leaves the duchy devastated. In the rare good ending? Syanna accepts Anna Henrietta’s forgiveness, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But to actually get that happy ending requires a very specific set of decisions. The ending is so specific, in fact, that it would be ridiculous to expect it — if The Witcher 3 didn’t spend time training players to engage in exactly the right behaviors.
So here’s where things get a bit complicated. The Blood and Wine expansion was attached to the 1.20 patch, which included a ton of interface and quality-of-play improvements for everyone, not just people who purchased the expansion. One of the best and most useful of these is permanently attaching in-game books to the in-game help system — the glossary — as well as making it easy to read newly acquired books as soon as they show up in your inventory by pressing a single button.
This becomes critical in a side quest where you meet a man who wants your help in fixing what appears to be a fairy tale — a young woman turned into a tree, waiting for her knight-errant to defeat a witch and return to her.
The man who gives you the quest hands you a book describing the fairy tale before you go to see the witch in question. When you meet her, you’re given a few options on how to deal with her: aggressively attempt to defeat her, or slink away and ignore the details the quest are the initial options. However, if you read the book that the quest-giver offers to you, you can find out that the witch is sympathetic to being asked as a supplicant — that is, if you’re nice to her. And it works.
This is where it gets interesting, though: This side quest can stand on its own, and if you don’t do it exactly right, you’ll still get credit. However, there’s a meta-quest in Toussaint involving a request for Geralt to embody the five virtues of knighthood. You go to an island and meet a hermit who says he’ll offer you an awesome magic sword if you successfully embody the five virtues of Toussaint: generosity, compassion, honor, valor and wisdom. But he doesn’t say exactly how, just that it’ll show up as you progress through Toussaint.
The quest I’ve been discussing here is one of those attached to “wisdom.” (Side note: A lot of wikis and guides don’t mention this quest as hitting wisdom, but it certainly gave me credit for that when I completed it. Perhaps it was patched out, or the wikis are incomplete.) And here’s the thing: If you are wise enough to engage in the game’s new systems and read the book you’re given, you’ll know that you need to ask the witch as a supplicant in order to get a good result. If you do that, you’ll succeed in the quest and be given the checkmark on the hermit’s quest to demonstrate wisdom, hence giving you arguably the best sword in the game.
But here’s where it gets super clever: The process by which you act as the embodiment of chivalry is also the process by which you get the best ending in Blood and Wine. In order to get the best result from Syanna, you have to act the wise embodiment of knightly virtues. And the game has trained you to do just that!
Throughout the entire game — core or expansions — Geralt succeeds at quests most when he gathers as much information as he can, reads every book and talks to every character. So when you’re given a choice to try to find and talk to Syanna, that’s the first step. Once that choice is made, you have to go find Syanna. This means finding information about her and her history, including her childhood relationship with Anna Henrietta — by reading books. The player has to pay attention to the contents of the books, in order to see that the relationship has a salvageable history.
And then when the time comes, after Geralt learns to understand Syanna, and after he finds out the truth about her plan, he has to speak that truth. But he also has to do what he learned from the witch in the wisdom quest: When he’s given a choice between aggressive confrontation or just giving up, he can choose a middle path and ask for the right result, nicely. And that’s what has to happen for the good ending to be possible.
That sounds rather simple — gather information, befriend people, and ask for things nicely — but in the world of The Witcher, it’s not. It’s easy to be temporarily angry at Syanna or not do the nice thing that keeps her alive. It’s easy to choose the more exciting magical ending. But if you’ve been paying attention, if you learn how to thread the needle that makes good things happen in The Witcher, you have the chance to be rewarded.
Rowan Kaiser is a contributing writer @TheAVClub, freelance game critic. Owner of #twokitties, tabby & black. This post originally appeared on his blog. This is his Patreon.