My abiding memory of The Witcher is of the Swamp. In my mind, it's a section that squats goblin-like over a game that it almost ruins entirely by its presence. So now that CD Projekt Red has confirmed that The Witcher Remake will be fully open world, one of the original game's biggest stumbling blocks could be gone for good.
The move to an open world is likely to mark the single biggest difference between CDPR's 2007 debut and its upcoming remake. In the original game, the story was divided up into chapters, each more or less occupying its own setting. Sometimes, parts of those chapters could merge into each other, but for much of the game you could return to anywhere you'd been before, or go anywhere new without progressing the story.
Unfortunately, that story could, at times, be very difficult to progress. Each chapter required several elements to come into some semblance of alignment before it could be completed – the chapter-based structure belies the non-linear nature of the game. In the early stages of the game, Geralt is simply trying to gain access to the city of Vizima, but to do that he has to pull together several narrative strands involving a missing child, a cursed village, and an angry mob.
The City and the Sh*tty
Once he's made it into the city, Geralt is faced with perhaps the most ambitious part of The Witcher. It's a narrative maze, twisting and turning almost as much as the crime-ridden streets of the run-down Temple District. Religious zealtory clashes with a decidedly Noir murder mystery and a classic Witcher tale of a monster stalking the sewers. Every different part of the warren-like District plays its part, but Chapter 2 also introduces the Swamp. Enormous by the standards of The Witcher, it's key to the chapter's narrative but also a decidedly unpleasant space to navigate, let alone play. Left broadly featureless by virtue of its size, it's both difficult and decidedly boring to move around – a flaw CDPR attempted to address by filling it with the game's most disgusting monsters.
The Swamp's issues are further compounded by the twisting nature of Chapter 2's narrative. As an inexperienced player struggling to keep track of the multiple threads of its story, I spent hours moving back and forth across the Swamp, but almost as long staring at the multiple loading screens and repetitive dialogue options required to access it in the first place. Looking back on that playthrough, I'm confident that it was only the extent of the free time I had in 2007 (and my bloody-minded fascination with the franchise) that kept me playing – I wouldn't blame anyone else for simply leaving low-poly Geralt in the Swamp and moving on to The Witcher 2.
The Witcher 1 (+ 3)
Now that The Witcher Remake developer Fool's Theory is moving to an open world structure, however, many of those issues are likely to be fixed. Loading screens shouldn't be a problem, and neither should traversal. You spend the entirety of The Witcher 1 on foot, but a bigger remake should leave room for Roach to get involved, making getting back and forth across the Swamp a much less time-consuming task. Most importantly, however, is the fact that you won't be trapped there – I don't imagine that the remake will go exactly toe-to-toe with The Witcher 3 in terms of the breadth of its world, but just the ability to get out of the Swamp – to wander around Vizima, or go and spend some time in the lush grasslands of Chapter 4 – should alleviate some of the more crushingly tedious moments of that chapter.
In many respects, the Swamp is supposed to be a miserable place to be. Just look at The Witcher 3's Velen – infamous both in the game and in the wider universe as a simply horrible place to spend any time in at all, let alone live. Like its predecessor, it's pretty bland and largely featureless. Even all the gulf between The Witcher 1 and 3 isn't enough to transform a fetid marshland into a bustling and exciting location. But it's not just the enhanced visuals that prevent Velen from being a stain on The Wild Hunt, it's the fact that it exists as a part of a whole world rather than simply being a blot on just one part of it. When the witches of Crookback Bog got to be too much, I could run off to Novigrad to do some murder mystery, or gallop around Skellige taking in the view. There was room to breathe, to explore the entirety of the world rather than a single corner of it.
None of this is to knock CDPR's development efforts. It's not fair to hold The Witcher 1 up to The Witcher 3 as a technical effort, and as I've already mentioned, the Swamp is, in some ways, achieving exactly what it set out to do – but that didn't necessarily mean I was keen to jump straight back in when the remake rolled around. I was already thrilled that the original Witcher game is set to get the overhaul (and attention) it deserves, but now that the open world approach that we've come to expect from CDPR has been confirmed and some of the most frustrating parts of The Witcher are set to be ironed out, it's an even more interesting proposal.
Much is set to change with The Witcher Remake, and fans are already burying one infamous original feature.