In my last article, I expressed a great deal of excitement over the release of the “Hearts of Stone” expansion pack for “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” and I am happy to report this new addition to the already expansive Witcher universe has exceeded every one of my expectations.
While I continue to be blown away by the impressive level of craftsmanship shown by the development team at CD Projekt Red, I was perhaps most intrigued by the way in which this particular storyline played with the traditional role of fairy tales.
This of course is particularly interesting, given the profound influence that European folklore has on “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” as evidenced by the appearance of basilisks, harpies and botchlings. The title references an ancient folktale about spectral riders galloping across the night sky.
While I have always found these stories and the creatures within them fascinating, fairy tales are often used to instruct or inform children making them exceedingly moralistic. This use seems to fly in the face of the strange and compelling worlds the story places me in.
Take “Little Red Riding Hood” for example. While the story places the reader within a strange and fantastical world with talking wolves that dress up as old ladies, the story also functions as a clear-cut cautionary tale about female purity and the dangers of trusting strangers. This is particularly evident with the more traditional versions of the story which end with Little Red Riding Hood being devoured as a direct result of her conversing with the wolf, who is always gendered as male.
In many ways, the plot of “Hearts of Stone” draws directly from this tradition of cautionary fairy tale. In the story, a man named Olgierd meets with a mysterious magical being named Gaunter O’Dimm or the Man of Glass and begs him to grant his wish for wealth and eternal life for himself and the woman he loves. However, as with other fairytales of this nature, once this happens and the realities of immortality set in, Olgierd’s life falls apart as everything he once desired becomes meaningless.
Interestingly, while this story almost entirely adheres to the format of a cautionary tale, the game’s plotline picks up from the aftermath of these events, with the lead character Geralt being brought in by Gaunter O’Dimm to settle the initial contract made between himself and Olgierd in exchange for granting his wish.
By beginning the story at this time, the game seems to directly address and then violate the format of this kind of fairy tale. After all, if the story was intended to communicate the message of “be careful what you wish for” through punishing Olgierd, wouldn’t the story already be over?
Therefore, by beginning after the initial narrative, the player is given agency at the end of this seemingly traditional and moralistic fairy tale.
“Hearts of Stone” deconstructs the simplistic notion of cause and effect that cautionary fairy tale stories rely on. After all, is it fair to punish someone for their actions if they can’t comprehend the consequences of those actions? And if not, is it only through experiencing those consequences that we are able to learn from them and in doing so grow and develop?
“Hearts of Stone” provides a variety of answers to these questions. And by placing us in a position of power or agency at this pivotal moment in the cautionary fairy tale, the game ultimately asserts that the complexities of morality and choice are just as strange and bizarre as the world of monsters and magic in which these stories take place.