There’s nothing like going for a nice long walk around the world of The Witcher 3 and meeting some of the locals there. They say the nicest things. “Sod off, you misborn clod,” a guard will tell me. “Got so fucked up once, blood came out me ears,” a chap at the docks will announce. Or if I’m really lucky, “Go fuck your mums tits!” What a world to live in.
The thing is, I love this about the game. Being scolded by the ruddy-faced inhabitants of The Witcher 3 has long been one of my favourite things, ever since I first played it eight years ago. Even now, it manages to make me laugh. I’ll load it up and a villager will walk past, fart and giggle, and I’ll giggle too. I can’t help it.
Maybe it’s the abrupt delivery that tickles me, maybe it’s the shock factor, or maybe it’s just the sheer silliness of it all. Maybe it’s all of it. Whatever it is, it makes the world of The Witcher 3 stand out to me. It makes it special. I cannot think of another game that does it in the same way.
All of which makes me wonder. It makes me wonder who decided this should be a thing in the game, because there’s too much of this foul-mouthery to be happenstance. There must be a concerted effort behind it. So who’s responsible for it? And how on earth did they come up with so much filth? This, then, is my mission to try and find out.
First stop, CD Projekt Red. I ask the studio who the potty-mouth is and one name comes immediately back: Przemysław Sawicki. He works on Cyberpunk 2077 now (he made all the gigs in the game), but he was originally hired for The Witcher 3 to write the lines I’m talking about here. Apparently he even had to write a few drunks and children to pass a pre-work exam. By the time the Blood & Wine expansion was in development, Sawicki was responsible for 80 percent of the dialogue like this. “So yeah,” Przemysław Sawicki tells me when we talk, “I’m your guy.”
Sawicki worked for the Living World team (also referred to as the open-world team), which was created especially for The Witcher 3. Remember, the studio had never done an open-world game before so it was very conscious of now having to fill one. “We were responsible for creating an open-world game and we were given a task to make it as believable and reliable as possible,” Sawicki says.
The main quests and characters would be handled by the story team, but everything else would be in the Living World team’s domain. There was, then, a lot of empty space to fill. “At the beginning, I was given a map, and within the map, I saw all the points where the main quests are going to take place, and between these points there were a lot of [places] that were simply empty,” he says.
“There was this notion of ‘we need to pack this world with things’ in a way that if you play the main story and you just run through point A to B to C and so on, there are things that you can stop by, look at, hear. That was the sole purpose of the department. To make sure you are never in a situation that you feel you are bored, that nothing is happening, and that makes you realise, hey, this is just a game.”
It didn’t always have to be dialogue that filled the silence – sometimes it was enough to have animal noises, like wolves howling, or ambient music to build an atmosphere – but wherever there were people, there would need to be sound coming from them. The way the team did this was by creating a range of what Sawicki calls inputs.
“So when you walk into someone, this is a bump input,” he explains. And when you walk close to someone, that’s a greeting input. There’s also another greeting input for when another character walks close to a character, and for when you actively interact with a character. “And every single tertiary character, whichever it is – a noblewoman, a kid, a drunkard, someone walking in the fields – they will always respond to you upon you interacting with them.”
That’s a lot of greetings. You can actually feel them triggering in the game if you go back to it now. It’s particularly apparent when you teleport into an area like Novigrad via fast-travel, and all of the NPCs suddenly trigger at once. You’ll be blasted by a cacophony of noise (and usually, abuse). It’s quite an interesting experiment to carry out, and certainly gives you an appreciation of all the work involved.
You can also try it in Cyberpunk 2077, because the team used a similar approach there, but there are some key differences between the two games. For starters, in Cyberpunk, the story team handled the dialogue, and because the game is one enormous city, rather than a world with villages dotted around and forests providing space in between, there was “ten-times” the work to do. They couldn’t just give everyone a voice so they leaned on other ideas to help bring life to the city.
The associated historical time-period of each game played a role, too. There’s something about the unforgiving life of a medieval existence that makes people expect it to be a more crude world. “Nowadays if someone curses at you, you’re like, ‘Okay, is it something offensive?'” he says. “Back then we assume, ‘Fuck it, that’s how the world worked. It simply fits that period of time.”
But the biggest reason why the games react differently to you, the player, relates to who you are. In Cyberpunk 2077, you’re no one special. “You’re just a regular citizen, one of many,” he says, “so there isn’t a reaction-to-player input. It’s no longer in Cyberpunk because it wouldn’t make sense.”
“Geralt,” on the other hand, “is a huge guy with two swords, long grey hair and cat’s eyes. This is someone that doesn’t fit in the universe,” he says. “You look at him and you know, ‘Okay, he’s not from here.’ So we expect that the world is going to be reacting to Geralt in a certain way.
“And that was the beauty for me,” he adds. “I knew that the character is so unique that the world has to react, and that’s why – and when – you can actually play with the words and have some fun.”
But how do you come up with the words? If you were to ask me now to find the voices for 10 different characters in The Witcher world, I would struggle. But Sawicki wrote hundreds, possibly even more. So where did he fill his font of filthy inspiration from?
Well, it’s quite simple really: he turned to real-life. “The first thing I did was I bought a small, handy notepad, and I always carried it with me. So whenever I was waiting for public transportation, whenever I was visiting my parents, my grandparents – whenever I was at any kind of social gathering – I had this tiny notepad with me,” he says.
“You know, people say funny things,” he adds, “and whenever there was something that triggered my ‘oh this might be something worth thinking about or paraphrasing or writing down’ [instinct], I just took out the pen and I wrote them down.”
He was particularly fond of good old Polish family gatherings for finding new material, he tells me. “There’s always someone who’s had a bit too much,” he says, “like your drunk grandparents and all sorts of uncles. Really, you can take a lot from overheating their conversations.”
The lines from the game he remembers now – and bear in mind he wrote in Polish and they were translated to English by a localisation team afterwards – surface for different reasons. He’s fond of the ones that rhyme, like, “If my lips don’t stink of wine, my wife won’t know they’re mine,” and, “Wine is better than stew, for stew you have to chew.” (I wonder which family gatherings they came from.)
He thinks about other lines in terms of the characters they belonged to. One of his favourites is a girl he modelled on Arya Stark from the famed A Game of Thrones fiction (A Song of Ice and Fire). “My brother gave me a sword!” she’ll tell you if you meet her. “I named it Needle!” But the chances of finding her are slim, and the chances of her saying that line when you find her are even slimmer. Sawicki wasn’t sure anyone would even notice it. “And then you open Reddit and you see a thread about it and you are super-proud of your work.”
Sawicki had cleared some things up for me, then. I’d learnt about what the Living World team’s mission was and how it went about doing it, and I’d learnt that Polish family gatherings apparently get quite rude. But I still hadn’t answered all of my questions. I wanted to go back further – back to before Sawicki joined CD Projekt Red – to find out where the original desire for these lines came from. And for that I need the person Sawicki worked for in the Living World team: Bartosz Ochman.
Ochman works as a quest director at Techland today, the developer of Dying Light and a fantasy IP we haven’t seen yet, and he’s been there since early 2022. But he was at CD Projekt Red for 11 years, having joined way back during development of The Witcher 2. That means he was there long before Sawicki, and long before the Living World team was ever a thing. And apparently the kind of lines I’m interested in already existed back then.
“I joined [CD Projekt Red] on Witcher 2 as a tester,” Ochman tells me, “and from the beginning, I was the tester oriented on the narrative elements and the story, so I was cooperating very closely with the story team. And I was testing these kinds of elements during my testing routines. Marcin Blacha [now head of story at the studio] was writing these dialogues and I was totally amazed by them.
“And when The Witcher 3 started, I’ve been asked if I want to join the team and do this writing for the background NPCs. And I was like, ‘Guys, is this a question? Like, of course! I’m dreaming about that.’ So that was the start of my journey.”
Huh! So this way of doing things didn’t originate with The Witcher 3, it was just that The Witcher 3 was the first project to have people dedicated to doing them. And that was Ochman to begin with, and then Ochman and Sawicki.
“I think that even in The Witcher one there were some kind of simple barks,” Ochman adds – barks being the kind of dialogue we’re talking about here. “But I’m not a hundred percent sure.”
By the time of The Witcher 2, though, the concept was well established enough that there were “voice sets”, as Ochman calls them, related to certain character types. There’d be soldiers or sex workers or guards or commoners or noble people – all the various kinds of people you’d expect to come across in a world like this. “And it was developed and created in Witcher 2, and we were just trying to make it more and more complex in The Witcher three and the expansions.”
One of the ways in which Ochman made it more complex – and he’s particularly proud of this – is by creating what he calls a gossip system. It came about when Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, lead quest designer on The Witcher 3 (and also brother of the game’s director, Konrad Tomaszkiewicz), grabbed Ochman one day and said, “Bartek, did you play Dragon Age?
“In Dragon Age you have these discussions where the NPCs are standing and saying something totally generic,” by which I think he means something randomly generated, “but you have the feeling they’re actually talking about something.”
“And I was like, hmm, that’s interesting…” Ochman says. And the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. But he wanted to push the idea further. “So I just created this list of gossips made with question and answers.”
It works like this. Someone in the world will ask someone else whether they’ve heard something, to which they’ll reply no and proceed to be told all about it. It was a way for people to share information about the world, or to talk about things that had happened in main quests. Ochman also created a variety of ways people would then react to what they’d heard. “So somebody was surprised, someone was disgusted,” and so on. “And you felt that every time that this discussion is different,” he says. “It was like, ‘Whoa!’ It was marvellous.
Ochman tells me it was him who gave Sawicki the idea to carry a notebook around and listen to what people were saying in real-life, and then use it in the game. He says he also pulled liberally from books, films, documentaries, music – really anything he came across. If he was hungry, he’d make a guard talk about how hungry they were in the game. Everything went in. He thinks he wrote something like 7000 lines of dialogue all in all.
“I was doing this for eight months and I was writing everywhere, all the time – waking in the middle of the night making notes, travelling somewhere making notes. It was like pure madness,” he says.
He still catches himself listening into other people’s conversations now, apparently. Or he’ll find himself in a quiet compartment on a train and suddenly feel like something is very wrong. ‘I’m missing something,’ he’ll think. And of course what he’s missing is the noise he used to seek out. “Funny thing,” he reflects.
Understandably, it’s hard for him to pick one line as memorable now, but he does remember making up a song one day – which went something like “bam-ba-dum, bam-ba-dum” – that someone would later pull from the game and make a techno remix out of. “This was the funniest one,” he says.
He is proud of making up the Nilfgaardian language, too. The Witcher creator, author Andrzej Sawpkowski, never expansively wrote one – there were a few words here and there – so Ochman had to create one in order for characters to speak sentences of it. He mixed Dutch with Norwegian, and referenced the book’s elven language for a bit of guidance, and came up with something of his own. And when he heard the voice actors eventually perform it, “It was like, ‘Whoa!’ That sounds really cool and believable.”
The effect of all of this work on the game is something Sawicki talked a bit about too. Because what’s not immediately obvious is that for a long time, the game has no noise. It’s not until the lines are written and recorded and patched into the game that it really begins to breathe and react, as Ochman describes it. “And this is the moment,” Sawicki says, “when all the lines hit and people start commenting and coming back to you and saying, ‘Hey, this is great! It feels great.'”
Most people say that, anyway. Ochman had a very different response from a quest designer called Dennis Zoetebier, who said, “Bartek, I don’t like it. Everyone is cursing at me.”
To which Ochman duly replied, “Man, you’re the Witcher! Everyone hates you!”
Ochman had taken me back further in time, closer to where the story of these incidental dialogues begins. But I still hadn’t quite reached the beginning. For that, there was one person I still needed to talk to, someone Ochman had mentioned when he talked about working on The Witcher 2. Marcin Blacha.
Blacha was lead writer of The Witcher 3, and he’s been at CD Projekt Red now for 18 years. I’ve met him before – I remember talking to him about The Witcher 3 when it was released. And he joined the studio all the way back in 2006, during the late development of The Witcher 1, so if anyone knows where this all began, it’s him. And he does. “That’s where it all started,” Blacha tells me.
“It began with the BioWare games,” he goes on. He means the original Baldur’s Gate games and, particularly, Neverwinter Nights. The Witcher 1, remember, was built on the Neverwinter Nights engine.
“I mean, it wasn’t something unusual back in the days,” he says, “that you had a city and a community of commoners in who, when you clicked on them, had those one-liners.” So it was something CD Projekt Red wanted to do to make its game as interactive as possible. The desire was there, then, it’s just that the budgets for the game – in terms of what a game could handle, but also what the team could handle – were less. They couldn’t do as much as they wanted to do.
“When we were creating The Witcher 1, and later on – it’s true for each Witcher – we wanted to use it more,” Blacha says. “Not only to communicate things or give this sense of people in the city being interactive, but also to create a context for the game and to create a mood or an atmosphere.”
When I hear that these kinds of dialogues were in The Witcher 1, I’m curious to see it for myself. Sadly I don’t have time to play the game to an appropriate point so I scour available footage to see what I can kind – and it isn’t long before I hit upon success. A random obscenity. A dwarven character walks past Geralt and loudly exclaims, “Shit in my boots!” I don’t know what it means but it proves it really was there, as far back as The Witcher 1. And, I’m pleased to hear, the intention behind the lines was often simply to make people laugh.
But there are also a lot of silent characters in The Witcher 1 who just look at you as you run by, which feels eerie now. It feels eerie because of how far CD Projekt Red has come since then. So I wonder what are the governing rules of noise and silence in the games.
“When you create those communities in the game, it’s always about statistics,” Blacha says. “So you have, okay, every ten seconds, someone says something, and you play for a few hours and you have this white noise. And then [every so often] something should happen and someone should laugh, someone should say something funny, or something vulgar. And that’s the way it was designed to have these peaks of something happening.”
That 10-second rule he mentioned was just an example, by the way – it’s not necessarily the case for the studio’s games. “I can’t remember exactly but it was measured,” he says. “And we didn’t have an algorithm to do it. We were trying and we were tweaking, and it was like rinse and repeat. But yes, there are metrics. I think even those parameters [every 10 seconds] are somewhere in the game. I don’t remember exactly where but they are.”
Amusingly, the lines Blacha remembers from the games now he doesn’t want to share because “sadly all of them are pretty obscene”. “So it’s you!” I blurt when he tells me this, to which he laughs and replies, “Yeah, it was me.”
But he does point out a neat case of foreshadowing in how the studio reused a song from The Witcher 1 in The Witcher 3 expansion Hearts of Stone. It’s a counting song that children sing and it’s pretty creepy – something about a beast everyone is scared of. “It was inspired by Nightmare on Elm Street,” Blacha says.
“And we repeated it in The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, and it was, again, scary – it had this tension. And everybody playing Hearts of Stone in the studio noticed that and said, ‘Wow, it’s really cool.'”
Today, as head of story and narrative at CD Projekt Red, Blacha has more to deal with than incidental lines of dialogue, but it’s still something he has an eye on. And it’s still something he believes the studio can push even more on. “I mean, yes, it obviously can be perfected,” he says.
One thing he’s particularly excited about in this regard is AI, which is not something I thought I’d hear a writer say. He says it enables the team to much more quickly generate lines and voice-overs, which in turn means there can be a greater variety of them.
“It’s always painful in all our games that, when you play one-hundred hours, you can actually hear that some lines repeat very frequently,” he says. “It’s because of the budget – you cannot record too many lines. But AI allows you to do it, and allows you even to generate some lines depending on the context and on the player choices. So in every aspect, it will be a game changer.”
It’s an interesting notion to think about, that the work which took Sawicki and Ochman weeks and months and years to finish, could be done proverbially – and probably literally – overnight. But what if in doing it this way, something is lost?
To me, there’s something in the humanity of the dialogues I am drawn to. It’s the way they’re spoken that appeals to me – spoken in the sense someone spoke them out loud when writing them down, and spoken when someone recorded them. They feel real as a result. And now that I know some were pulled from real-life, it makes me appreciate them all the more. They’re actual cuttings from life.
But that’s a future problem. Today I’m off for a walk in Novigrad, to soak up a bit of local culture. “Little prick.” Ah, bliss.