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A decade ago CD Projekt RED, then a small and lesser known Polish studio, released The Witcher, an action-RPG about a white-haired monster hunter that was based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski. Back then, few could predict that this humble game would become the first entry in one of the most beloved and influential RPG franchises ever.
And beasue that's exactly what happened, it's no surprise that on the series' tenth anniversary, some celebrations are in order. First, we had a couple of official videos from CD Projekt, then, a six-part Noclip documentary dedicated to the games and the company that made them, and now, PCGamesN brings us four The Witcher-related articles.
The first one praises the atmosphere of the original Witcher game, the second makes a case for Ciri as a likely protagonist for a potential future Witcher game, the third looks back at the origins of the series, and the fourth and final one tries to understand the lore of The Witcher by looking at Wild Hunt's flora. Here's an excerpt from the latter:
CD Projekt Red are some of the best in the business at portraying landscapes in games. If you want proof you only have to look at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its big-picture representation of natural and designed locations. But what is much more difficult to execute is the deployment and representation of horticulture in the game, both at small and large scales, that underpins and ties the game’s world together.
The use and representation of horticulture through aesthetics, actions, and people, makes The Witcher 3’s environments among the most complete in videogames. Attention to detail right down to the subtle placement and angling of a flower take them beyond everything else.
Its diverse and faithfully recreated array of typologies, crammed full of topological, geological, and geographical characteristics, would not be as accurate or as impactful without the attention paid to those smaller-scale elements: the plants, the trees, the gardens. The game gets the necessary ‘realistic representation’ right, but also the horticultural accuracy, too. This is a rather specific art as certain plants grow in certain ways, requiring particular conditions to thrive - it is here that The Witcher 3 really nails it.
Its plants look naturalistic but considered: ferns with droopy fronds grow in shaded areas; ivies cling to walls and clamber up columns, dressing buildings, directly contributing to their architectural character; sunflowers grow tall and wave in the wind; and even manicured garden plants in the Nilfgaardian and Beauclair palaces create patterns and focal points. They are not only aesthetically pleasing, they are also authentic.
Such horticultural accuracy is important to any depiction of landscape: get it wrong and they will look strange and jarring, but get it right and the landscapes are more convincing. This improves our experience of virtual landscapes, gardens, and plants, sure, but it also shines a light on the pleasing union of real and fantasy worlds, and of horticulture and videogames.
In Geralt’s travels we see people actually /doing/ horticulture, often in the form of productive landscapes and agriculture, particularly on a human scale. Villagers work the fields, tilling and preparing soil, wheat- or barley-like crops grow neatly in marked fields, and people tend to the blooming orchards, ensuring their health and harvest. These aspects of active horticulture bring the landscapes to life, not just through making background NPCs believable through their labour routines, but by making the land - and their ongoing relationship with it - a critical part of existence, and the character of the setting.
The concept of active horticulture extends throughout the game’s landscapes but is particularly present in Toussaint. It is wine country - vineyards abound. There is something immensely pleasing about vineyards and the way they shape a landscape: their satisfying layout in uninterrupted lines, sweeping over land; the plant’s narrow and upright form; and the workers weaving through them, disappearing and reappearing as if by magic. Combine this with a reliance on horticulture to ensure function and productivity, and the vineyards of Toussaint demonstrate its importance to the place and its people beautifully.
A slightly more informal, natural-looking example in Toussaint are the olive groves, which successfully demonstrate a blurring of the boundary between productive and ornamental horticulture. Their old, gnarly trunks, each one unique, offset by plumes of delicate silver-green leaves, faithfully adhere to their form and nature. In them we see the beauty and majesty of the plants themselves, while their informal arrangement and wild underplanting offers a contrast to the regimented vineyard corridors. Either way, It is the representation of these places as productive landscapes that underscores the game’s fascination with the natural as affected by human touch.
The olive trees play a big part in Toussaint - they would take centuries to get to their size, so the trees actually intimate the longevity of the place. Along with the vineyards this accentuates horticulture’s importance in the game - in ornament and as active landscape elements they are powerful contributors to place-making.