CD Projekt Red’s RPG masterpiece came out nearly two years ago, but damn does it still hold up. And recently, a handful of people’s favorite character animations from the game have been making the rounds.
Unsurprisingly, the renewed interest in the game’s storytelling and animation nuances comes in light of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s lackluster achievement on those fronts. Just over a week ago, the game’s facial expressions were put on blast as players finally got their hands on the game’s early sections thanks to EA Access. The uproar even led some people to be complete assholes and harass the people they believed to be responsible.
After playing a substantial portion of the game now, my sense is less that the character animations are bad than simply under-cooked and soulless. They get the job done, and while jet-pack thrusting from one alien planet ledge to another, I honestly didn’t think too much about it. While I haven’t fallen in love with any of the game’s characters, or been particularly struck by any of the story beats so far, it all feels serviceable enough and par for the course when it comes BioWare games. You all played Dragon Age: Inquisition, right?
But as I looked back at some of the conversations from The Witcher 3 going around I started to remember just how much the little personal touches in a character’s face or gesture can enliven the world and pull me into it as a player. (Beware: some of the things mentioned ahead could be considered spoilers).
Just look at Yennefer’s slight facial tick as she recalls the “one other trifling matter” she needs to discuss with Geralt once they are reunited for the first time in Skellige. Granted, the superb voice acting by Denise Gough and others in the game is doing a lot of work here, but so are things like the way she twitches her upper lip as she stares off into the room with haughty disdain for the chores that await her and Geralt.
Then there’s the way the rest of her body is led by her head as she turns to walk further into the room. She doesn’t simply shuffle in place as the characters discuss future quests and romance options, but moves like someone who would rather complain about work than open up to a close friend about the emotional turmoil they’ve both been going through (Ciri being hunted by ice zombies, death and destruction plaguing the mainland, and all that other good stuff). It all helps turn her character into something other than a marionette rehearsing a conversation tree.
The Bloody Barron remains one of the most interesting characters in the game. Wretched and mired in tragedy, much of which has been brought on by his own cruel doing, the character emotes on all cylinders such that even if you hate him it’s hard not to pity the poor bastard. After all, he had to dig up his stillborn child to try and fend off unknown evil. There’s simply no better symbol of the fallen state of The Witcher 3's world.
Him failing to correctly sheath his dagger after nearly being eaten alive by a Basilisk is one of those small moments that speaks volumes. Tyrannical and defiant most of the time, his body language lets slip the exhausted and failing man beneath that facade. It’s the daughter-figure Ciri who saves him rather than the other way around, and the way his mouth hangs agape after it all goes down highlights the moment without two minutes of dialogue being used to hammer the point home into oblivion.
And then there’s the ending of the “Hearts of Stone” DLC, in which Olgierd von Everec, if you’ve saved him, comes to terms with the burden of having his cursed life spared. Even though it’s shot at a sideways angle, the single furrowed brow and repeated slow blinking reinforce the the line he utters while doing so with the slightest of flourishes. Even if von Everec could go on, would he still want to?
Geralt tries to offer him some halfhearted reassurance as only Geralt can, but the way he shifts his head to look back at von Everec even though the man’s back is still turned hints at a dawning realization. As the shot blurs over von Everec’s face to bring Geralt’s into focus, the silent moment adds a deeper, more sinister layer to the man’s grief. In one regard, von Everec is just the latest in a series of never-ending sob stories the witcher has encountered throughout the adventure. But the way both men’s faces point toward a level of misery that can’t quite be verbally articulated helps distinguish the end of that story line from the dozens of similar ones that came before it.
Of course, there are plenty of other great character moments that don’t circle such a morbid drain. There’s queen Anna Henrietta’s impatience with Geralt’s patronizing machismo as well as Shani’s “get the fuck out of here eye roll” during a late night stroll. Plenty of people have made videos trying to capture their favorites.
For everything I love about Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game whose flaws I don’t have enough fingers to count but which continues to grow on me despite them, it’s no Witcher 3, at least when it comes to lovingly detailed and idiosyncratic moments of character animations. But then again few things are.