This article contains plot spoilers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt expansion, Hearts of Stone.
The Witcher series has always been great at portraying the paranormal. As the monster-hunting Geralt of Rivia, the player consistently finds themselves tracking down strange creatures throughout CD Projekt RED’s fantasy trilogy. Hearts of Stone, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s recent expansion, is no exception. During the course of the game, Geralt runs into a handful of bizarre, memorable, and often grotesque monsters. But, as great as their visual design and mythological back stories are, it’s Hearts of Stone’s portrayal of human ghosts that makes the biggest impact.
In attempting to help the mysterious Olgierd von Everec (and free himself from a curse), Geralt has to interact with a number of spirits. The first of his tasks sees Geralt possessed by Olgierd’s brother Vlodimir, a dead man desperate to enjoy the mortal world one more time before returning to his crypt. Geralt and Vlodimir attend a wedding and from within Geralt’s body, Vlodimir drinks, gambles, flirts, and fights with the knowledge that he only has until midnight to enjoy the human world once more.
The wedding sequence, apart from a few moments at its beginning and end, is pretty far from scary. The possession is played for laughs, Vlodimir manipulating Geralt so the witcher behaves uncharacteristically. He speaks in a manner completely unlike the character the player has gotten to know throughout the main game, cracking jokes and embarrassing his bodily host by using him to offend others. This part of the game is legitimately funny. Even though it comments on grief and the importance of enjoying life before it’s gone, none of it is very scary.
But Hearts of Stone tells another far more frightening kind of ghost story, too. In searching for Iris von Everec, Olgierd’s dead wife, Geralt heads to the family’s ancient manor. When he gets there, encountering various demons and spectres on his way through the gloomy grounds, the house is dark, cobwebbed, and decrepit. From this moment on, the game assumes the tone of a horror movie. Geralt investigates the apparently empty manor, seeing Iris’ ghost appear in one moment and hearing a painting fall off a nearby wall in another.
The creepy atmosphere and scares during this mission are surprisingly effective, and all the more interesting for coming on the heels of a prolonged comedy sequence. As the game continues, Geralt must fight a number of angry ghosts and, worse, determine the tragic history behind a marriage that ended with Iris’ death. These scenes’ tones are filled with the sadness and mystery of a Gothic novel. And, like ghost stories from this genre, it uses a haunting as a device meant to dramatically evoke the horror of its subject matter.
Neither of these ghost stories are common to videogames. Despite a few film-like moments, the construction of Hearts of Stone’s paranormal sequences owes more to a literary tradition than most games. This isn’t especially surprising, given that The Witcher titles are based on a series of novels. But it is refreshing for a medium that typically looks to film and other videogames for inspiration.
Even aside from the genres it pays homage to, Hearts of Stone stands as a testament to its developer’s talent. The mix between the funny and frightening—the comic and tragic—shows the range of tones CD Projekt RED is capable of employing not just in this expansion, but in The Witcher series as a whole. Not many developers are adept at moving so naturally between humour and terror. Hearts of Stone’s two ghost stories show that the game’s developer is versatile enough to tackle whatever it sets out to accomplish.