“A bit too old to believe in bedtime stories, aren’t you?”
Such is what I, Geralt, had inquired, quite rudely, of my most recent employer, a woodsman named Jacob who’d just recounted a story his grandmother had read to him out of “Tales and Fables” concerning a beautiful young maiden named Daphne who’d been transfigured into a laurel tree, presumably her body being the very bark and branches besides which we now stood.
Such is not what I myself would have said to the lad were I there in person. I only had Geralt say such out of a compulsion to selected every expository-only, non-decisive dialogue option a game presents me. I love leaning about the lore of a game world (especially one so rich as The Witcher’s) every bit as much as I love learning the lore of our own. Such is how I instantly recognized my latest side quest to be an allusion to a particularly favorite Greek myth: Daphne and Apollo (which years ago informed one of my more inspired sonnets). Rather, this woodcutter and I would have talked tirelessly, trading with one another favorite fairy-tales and fables and shaking our heads at those like Geralt who’d relegated to the nursery such a proud storytelling tradition.
I’d have assured him that this attitude was an aberration, at least looking at the long view of history; that from the time of Ovid till the Brothers Grimm such stories were told for the edification and enjoyment of children and adults alike, satisfying in the Christianized West the imaginative appetite which pagan myths once fulfilled; that even in the brief period in which they’d fallen out of fashionability, great literary minds throughout worked to revive the genre. I’d have told this Jacob of the novel I’m reading now – Lilith by George MacDonald – which along with works such as Phantastes and The Princess and the Goblin directly inspired writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who in trying to make fairy-tales safe for adults again would go on to create the wildly popular genre of fantasy. And finally I’d have told him that Tolkien’s successors – authors such as Neil Gaiman and Bill Willingham and Andrzej Sapkowski – would rewrite the very fables which had been infantilized by Perrault and Disney as mature works appropriate only for adults once again.
And Jacob would have replied to me much the same as he replied to Geralt, saying he doesn’t care if the story is for children or adults, whether it’s dark and gritty or bright and full of unicorns and rainbows, so long as it has a happy ending. Tolkien identified such as the key component of a faerie-story; more than magic or fairies or any other common identifier, the one absolutely necessary element was the eucatastrophe, the hard fought and well-won victory of good.
As Geralt I made it my mission to give Jacob a happy ending to the fairy-tale he now found himself in. I’d succeeded, liberating Daphne from her dendronic dwelling and allowing her to pass on with in peace, but a favorable fortune was far from guaranteed. Out of curiosity I loaded an earlier save to see how different choices would affect the quest’s end. Per my suspicion, other outcomes proved less eucatastrophic and more so dyscatastrophic. In one, Geralt quipped over Jacob’s butchered body, “Real life rarely has a fairy-tale ending.”
Blood and Wine is, above all else, Geralt’s quest for a fairy-tale ending of his own. This might seem antithetical to the entire tone of the franchise thus far. I’ve often described the quest lines and side stories in The Witcher 3 to friends as “fucked-up fairy-tales” specifically because they invert the familiar formula and instead so often end invariably in tragedy. And yet, just as all of the happy endings in The Lord of the Rings – from the crowning of Elessar over the Reunited Kingdom to the newfound friendship between Elves and Dwarves to Frodo’s survival and passage over the sea – feel fully earned exactly because of the endless hardships which the Fellowship had endured, so to do all of Geralt’s previous ordeals over the course of Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone (to mention nothing of the previous games and the books on which they’re based) make the possibility of lasting happiness for him all the more poignant. Especially since, as with the quest to free Daphne, there is a real possibility to make the wrong choices and be relegated instead to tragedy. Whatever solace and serenity the player finds for Geralt, he knows it is truly earned.
Nor is there any place better to find it than in Blood and Wine’s new region, Toussaint. An in-game book describes it so:
“When a traveler from the Northern Realms first crosses the border into Toussaint, he feels at once as though he has stepped into a land ripped straight from the pages of a fantastic fairy tale… In Toussaint, the wine rages in torrents, music plays ceaselessly and everywhere the air is filled with the sound of birdsong and the twittering of beautiful maids, who are never stingy with their ample charms when a hansom knight comes a-calling.”
For my own part, I describe it as the place where, had the Machines been such inspired artists as at CD Projekt Red, none would have wanted to escape the Matrix. I’m a man of modernity, a lover of the luxury which only the amenities of technology can provide; I’d not trade my middle-class existence in the twenty-first century to be a billionaire or emperor even only a hundred years ago. But to own my own vineyard just outside Beauclair, to get drunk on the landscape’s saturated hues and gentle clime, I might indeed be tempted to trade away internet and indoor plumbing. More than any other game world ever created, Blood and Wine’s Toussaint is one in which I derived a great deal of pleasure, not even exploring, but simply existing in. There were times I’d ride Roach around, my only quest chasing the sunrise.
And even without such diversions of my own making, Blood and Wine is expansive and dense. Though it’s labelled downloadable content, this is a full game in itself and then some. The main quest and side missions certainly totaled more hours than any other game I’ve played in 2016. More importantly, the storytelling is still the same industry leading standard as The Wild Hunt and Hearts of Stone before it. Any given minute spent playing Blood and Wine is time better spent than in The Division or Quantum Break or any of the other genuinely great games to have come out in recent months. Because Blood and Wine is not great; it’s damn near perfect.
Particularly memorable moments include Geralt’s participation in a knightly tournament seemingly straight out of Arthurian legend. Similarly, my Geralt received from the Lady of the Lake (also of Arthurian lore) a sword similar to Excalibur, having throughout my play through demonstrated – without knowledge or hope of any such reward – the five chivalric virtues. Better yet was a modification to the game of Gwent which angry dwarfs (though perhaps they should have been trolls) reacted to in a manner lampooning the internet outrage which accompanies any alterations to a video game (even CD Projekt Red, the most generous company in such manners, who’d made their game free of digital rights management and gave away sixteen pieces of free DLC, was subject to such outrage when some fans argued that the two thirty-odd hour expansions should have been free as well). And perhaps my favorite side quest of all was the epic endeavor to recover the petrified (through still powerfully potent) gonads stolen from the statue of a legendary lover – a side quest all too appropriately titled “Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Granite!”
But the one seen that will truly stay with me whenever I look back upon my time in Toussaint – or even the world of The Witcher in general – was this: Geralt and his one true love, Yennifer, reclining with one another in front of his estate, his days as a Witcher finally fully behind him, for the first time allowed to rest from world-shaking perpetual struggles, simply content to watch the sun rise over his balmy and beauteous vineyard. And as he did these words of Tolkien came to me:
“It is the mark of a good fair-story, of the higher or more compete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “’turn’ comes, a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”
By this definition, Blood and Wine is one of the truly great fairy-tales, not just of ours, but of all times.