Earlier this week the final version of CD Project Red’s “Gwent” was launched, a stand-alone version of the card game from The Witcher 3. The free game has been in beta for almost two years and received numerous updates and changes throughout. As someone who played it from the very first day during the closed beta that kicked everything off, I’m not happy with how it shaped up. If you know me personally, this might come as a surprise to you.
People that know me well, know that I on average like most things. When it comes to popular media, most of the time, you will hear from me in a positive way. When I have things to say about games I play or things I watch or listen to, it’s mostly when I’m happy.
This is partly because I’m very open minded to whatever creators come up with and make an active effort not to be entitled about what I want from a narrative or character development, but leave it to whatever the person in charge wants to do with it. The other thing is that I simply dislike to invest too much time in complaining about something and rather just ignore things I dislike and leave them for other people to enjoy.
If I’m being sceptical or have a negative opinion about media it’s more likely to be about the political or societal implications, rather than an in-universe aspect. You won’t hear me rant about a character not falling in love with another character, but I will let you know if there’s a shitty racist or sexist plot or characterisation. Same as that I will go out of my way to talk about the issue of labour ethics that went into creating Red Dead Redemption 2, or the way the diversity in gender and race in the old west is portrayed. I find those conversations useful and interesting.
That doesn’t mean I will judge you for having an negative opinion on the ending of Mass Effect 3, the differences between the Harry Potter books and movies or the fate of Desmond Miles in Assassin’s Creed, it’s just not really my cup of tea. To be fair, in a lot of cases there’s an aspect of compulsively wanting to not dislike something on my part, so I will absolutely not implicate that I’m better than you for being optimistic and happy about things so often.
But Why Don’t You Like It?
To answer that question, let’s first go into what Gwent is. It’s a card game from the universe of The Witcher. But it’s also a game that is themed around the world of The Witcher. This creates a bit of a fourth wall breaking dynamic where characters in the game, play a game containing cards with their own characters on it. This is explained to some degree that figures like Geralt, Iorveth and Roche are so famous that people created cards for them. Apart from that, the game is still a card game and when you (the player) play it, it’s visually represented as the in-game character playing it in a tavern or similar locale, and against another character.
Gwent, as it exists in the Witcher universe, is meant as a representation of a battlefield. You play cards in three rows: melee, ranged and ballistic and you strategically add or subtract bonus points to gain an edge over your opponents. Weather cards are a good example of this: snow slows down swordsmen, mist hinders archers and rain affects catapults and ballistae.
In the stand-alone game however, this progressively changed. And I started to notice how it slowly got less interesting, but it wasn’t until the final update till I realised what it was. CD Project Red steadily removed the middle layer and instead of a card game, Gwent became a Witcher game that happens to be represented through a system of cards. You don’t play Geralt playing a game, you play Geralt hunting monsters and fighting dudes, which you do through a gameplay mechanic build around cards.
A few months ago, when the biggest and final overhaul of Gwent was announced, it was called “Homecoming” and described as a return to the roots of what the game was. Now I’m not saying they didn’t deliver on that promise, but I’m saying they had a wildly different interpretation of it than I do.
What I expected, was an entirely skeuomorphic interpretation of Gwent. As it is a card game in the universe of The Witcher, I imagined a wooden table, sounds of chatter and drinking in the background and tavern music. Hands that hold the cards, voices of the player characters and less abstract visual effects like fire shooting out of cards to show damage.
Instead, Gwent dives into the fiction of the card game itself and makes the game look like an actual battlefield with soldiers, and leaders on horseback standing nearby. The single player element, which I always thought would be a narrative of a character travelling around the Continent playing Gwent tournaments, became a story from the world of The Witcher and the characters are living that story instead of playing Gwent.
Why I Think That’s Okay
Back to my tendency not to dislike things: my natural reaction to a lot of disappointing developments is: “Oh well”. And that’s the dominant feeling I have about Gwent right now too. As a free game, I will still play it occasionally, and be happy for the folks that did want this direction to be taken. The creators really put an effort into this, and fair’s fair: it does look visually very impressive.
Do I hope it will fail miserably? Yeah.. sort of. I hope more people agree with me and the interest in the game will drop, and CDPR will realise they made a HUGE mistake. Maybe then I will get the Gwent game I always wanted. But till then… Oh well.