The Witcher 3: Not That Great

Every couple of years, there’s some game that comes out that becomes the milestone against which all other games of the genre are gauged. For strategy enthusiasts, it’s something like Crusader Kings 2. For FPS fans it [should have been] Wolfenstein: The New Order. For the RPG, this year’s choice has become The Witcher 3. If you spend more time on the Internet than you should, like I do, you’ll see dozens of articles and hundreds of comments about the game, extolling its virtues as the pinnacle of open-world RPGs; they’ll talk about how Geralt’s actions have consequences, how the characters’ relationships are true-to-life; how the motivations are real; how you can avoid violence all the time. They’ll go on for hundreds of words, salivating and making sure that you know that they know The Truth: True RPG gamers should be playing The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

It is my humble contention that that assertion is bullshit. This is now What I’m Going to Write Today. It’s either this or another thinkpiece, this time about how Bernie Sanders still probably won’t win the nomination because he doesn’t have support among African-American Democrats. I’ll talk about my creds as a not-entirely-enthusiastic RPG gamer, my experience so far with The Witcher, my (much better) experience with Fallout 4, my super-great experience with Dragon Age: Inquisition, and, my super-super great experience with another, surprise game.

RPGs and me

First of all, I typically define myself as more of a strategy/FPS fan in games. If you were to look at my time played on Steam and Origin, you’d see an embarrassing amount of time spread through Civilization V, the Total War series, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Mass Effect 3, and a few other games. That said, I have a soft spot with RPGs that have a nice twist to them or really good writing. In that vein, what I mainly go for are the Fallout games – because of the great world that they inhabit, the themes of hope and renewal – and the Mass Effect franchise. For the most part, sword and sorcery RPGs don’t appeal to me. There are too many easy outs in fantasy. There’s a Great Evil that infests the world, and if you can kill that Great Evil, then everything begins to heal. The resolution of a plot is the successful utilization of a great deus ex machina that is just lurking in the background, waiting for a Jesus figure with a magical bloodline to arrive and make a Heroic Sacrifice, as decreed by Tolkien and Joseph Conrad’s how-to guide to writing: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Sci-fi isn’t perfect in that regard, either. (You could easily make the argument that Shepard is a Jesus figure, depending on your playthrough.) Narratives, especially video game narratives, have a tendency to rely heavily on the hero’s journey archetype. Why? They’re relatable. You can easily bet that players will know the beats of a hero story, and won’t spend too much time deconstructing the plot, and in doing so, overlooking your gameplay. After all, the major thing that separates games, literature, and film is that games are interactive.[1] To a certain extent, you have to lean on the familiar and easily accessible when developing an RPG. And it’s not like strategy games escape this, either. The Starcraft series has plenty of Heroic Moments in it, and, before WarCraft was turned into a MMORPG, it had Lucifer and Christ figures in equal measure. The only strategy games that easily escape the confines of the hero’s journey are grand strategy games without a narrative: Civilization V; the Paradox Interactive map simulators; and non-narrative-driven Total War campaign.

However, what we’re discussing is RPGs, and why I can get into some RPGs – basically, establishing that I think about this stuff and am not just talking out of my ass. For the first, let’s go with Dragon Age: Inquisition. The series, created by BioWare, follows characters living in a world plagued by a Great Evil that goes around corrupting various races. Because of this and many other things, there’s just a ton of political strife and war in this world. It is not a place you’d want to visit. It’s a complex series that, on its surface, looks a lot like any other fantasy epic out there. It’s got elves, dwarves, weird-looking dudes who look like they’re demons, real demons, spirits, all that jazz. However, the thing that makes it palatable to someone like me is that the writing is damn good. The characters have voices that are unique to themselves; there are strong themes of redemption and corruption, friendship, love, and everything else, that are treated with a mature hand and aren’t seemingly written up in an afternoon by someone who wants to be Tolkien. And, most importantly in this nerd’s eyes: The combat is logical for a video game and isn’t ripped out of the pages of a Dungeons & Dragons character manual. Inquisition got a lot of flack from hardcore nerds for its “dumbing-down” of combat. The critique that a lot of folks had was that it felt less like a RPG and a generic AAA game. Which, sure, okay. If you’re looking for something in-depth that has rules along the tabletop RPG lines, then Inquisition isn’t your thing. However, BioWare made the choice to accentuate their writing rather than attempt to replicate the combat from the first Dragon Age, or go throwback with the 2.5 Edition-based ruleset of Baldur’s Gate, and, considering Inquisition was hailed as a massive critical success from the onset, I think they did something right.

On the sci-fi side of that, we have Mass Effect, a game series that has a similar development narrative as Dragon Age. Both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins are games that show their roots in BioWare’s D&D-based games. DAO has a much more involved spell system, casting system, and less minimalistic interface than its predecessors, and Mass Effect is, likewise, a game with a fantastic story but a dumpster fire of a UI. However, what Mass Effect does well is hit some of the major beats as Star Trek, endearing it to fans: Aliens are shown as, basically, humans – albeit with different facial features. They’re easy to relate to, because they want the same things most of us do. It is, again, an example of well-written characters and narrative married to a setting that’s just strange enough to engage players.

With the next two installments in the two series, Mass Effect and Dragon Age refined the combat – modernized it, I dare say. Dragon Age II catches a lot of flack for a lot of reasons, and I haven’t played it enough to be able to comment on it. In terms of Mass Effect: The second game in the series, featuring Martin Sheen of all people, is widely recognized as the best game in the series – both narratively and mechanically. The hero, Shepard – who as you may remember, may be either Space Jesus or Space Lucifer, depending on how you play him – returns with the actions from the first game carrying over into the second. The voice acting comes off as more natural, more cinematic than it does in the first. The story is a little more dialed-in than in the first one, allowing for players to focus more on what’s going on instead of being bogged down in hunting down, for example, datapads from centuries-lost expeditions.[2] What I’m advocating here, and in the above, is that user-friendly game design in RPGs should be lauded, and not seen as an attack on PC/console gamers.

Which then brings us to the final (so far) installments in the two series: Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. (For the sake of brevity, I’ll just refer to them as 3 and Inquisition, respectively.) To begin: 3 was demonized pretty early on because of the ending of the series. It’s been out for a few years, and I’m assuming that most of you have played through the series, but if you haven’t, then consider the rest of this section pretty heavy spoilers for both 3 and Inquisition. The ending involves a strong Hero’s Ending, where it’s pretty heavily implied that Shepard is dead and gone. BioWare, to my knowledge, has not released a canon ending, so for the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that Shepard made the Ultimate Sacrifice as defined by the Requirements of Narratives, and, in doing so, saved the galaxy in one way or another.

There are problems with that ending, and I didn’t think it was extremely well-executed, but, I don’t agree with the folks who insist that the ending of the series invalidated everything that was done beforehand. At the very least, it only makes sense that throwing out a pulse that either blew up all Reaper tech everywhere, combined synthetics and organics, or turned Shepard into a demigod makes sense that Shepard is probably not gonna make it out of the Citadel unchanged, And in any case, it’s not a big deal because the journey was so well done. As Stephen King pointed out at the end of the Dark Tower series: It’s often that the journey is the point of the narrative, and the ending is a necessary evil.[3]

Dragon Age: Inquisition is less an ending of a series and more a setup for the next installment. Unlike 3, Inquisition prepares the player for yet another Great Evil to come, with the player mustering forces and, at the end of Trespasser, literally laying out a war strategy. It’s almost as if BioWare looked at the ending of 3 and thought, “Oh, hell. We wrote ourselves into a corner, there. Don’t do that with Dragon Age.” Which is fair enough; as I said before: Inquisition is a hell of a game, partly because of all of the characters and what they represent in relation to the goings-on in the story, and if they return in some function in the future, I’ll be a happy little fanboy.

In short, the two series by BioWare are prime examples of original-IP that hold up their end of the player-game agreement. They provide the player with a window into a new world, one in which the player can explore and be entertained, but also be challenged by the events in the series. They give the player a metric by which to judge the game worlds in referencing other franchises (i.e.e, Star Trek for Mass Effect; Lord of the Rings for Dragon Age), primarily by looking at the opposite side of the references’ presuppositions.[4] But the most important thing, here, is that they are engaging, well-told stories because, among other things, they involve original stories that work off of expectations of genre, as well as hit the familiar beats that people use to know where they’re at in a story. To reiterate: It’s not lazy storytelling: It’s setting expectations. You risk alienating the audience if you don’t keep to the tried-and-true, and while it can get old after a while, unless you’re someone like David Lynch, then it’s really best to not try to do otherwise, because your surreal storytelling might very well end up just incomprehensible.

The Witcher

Now, The Witcher. After two serious attempts to get into The Witcher 2 and one spent trying to get into The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, I find myself disinterested around the 20-hour mark. It’s not that the games are poorly made. The world is quite obviously lovingly-crafted, with a whole hell of a lot of detail and touches that show that the developers have put a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears into it. And it’s not that the story doesn’t have the potential to be exciting. What the problem is is simple: The Wild Hunt (and The Witcher 2) attempt to have a cinematic storytelling experience in addition to being an old-school RPG that doesn’t really set out to build a story so much as build a world.

When I took Screenwriting 101, one of the first things the instructor said, slamming his fist down on the table every couple of syllables, was, “Do not write me a genre screenplay. Don’t fucking do it. Fantasy and sci-fi writers of your level forget that they’re telling a story, and they wind up building a world. I don’t want to see it. Your viewers won’t want to see it.” At first, I was pretty annoyed at this, because, like everyone who thinks they’re just the best at everything (i.e., everyone in college), I was sure that I could go in and write a sci-fi story about anything. After all, what is genre fiction but real stories told in weird situations?

Then I thought about it.

Then I thought about it some more.

Then I came to the conclusion that he was right. I would be telling a real story set in an unreal world, but I’d be distracted by fleshing out the world so much that the story would become diluted. The focus would shift to making that story work, and in my mind, what that would mean, would be that I would have to throw in either Tolkien-esque dissertations from characters about the lineage of whatever, or something like what happened in the Star Wars prequels, where characters give deep and thorough explanations of the history of galactic politics, when that’s not the story.[5]

Now, as I mentioned before, my view is that games have more in common with film than they do novels. In novels, you can get away with having exposition everywhere, because a reader’s mind is in a different state than when she is watching a movie. When she’s watching a movie, she’s probably going to be expecting anywhere from 90 minutes to 120 minutes of runtime, and during that time, a beginning, middle, and end to the film complete with a thought-out plot. If the movie is part of a series, then it had damn well have a self-contained narrative that leads into the next installment, but it had still better have a goddamn beginning, middle, and end. In novels, however, we’re not concerned with length, as well as the writing’s good. If the writing is good, all sorts of sins that would be unforgivable in film can be washed away. Narratives in games, again are action-driven and plot-driven. You can make the case that they are character-driven, as well, but a) we’ll get to that in the case of The Witcher and b) even with Mass Effect and Dragon Age above, the characters are the oil that keep the games moving, while the mechanical bits are the true engine of the machine.

Where, ultimately, I find myself scratching my head at the folks who treat The Witcher as if it were a milestone of narrative storytelling is the story. I contend that it is neither good nor bad, but it is fine. Just fine. That’s not a bad thing, it’s good to be fine, if only for the sheer fact that fine is not bad. In this case, what we’re dealing with in the first two games is a character who has amnesia – which is a good starting point for a game series inspired by a series of books – who finds himself unwillingly thrown into the middle of conflicts between nation-states in a fantasy-driven version of Slavic Europe. Throughout the series, Geralt the witcher runs into wars that he has very little interest in which involve shadowy plots by mages, some of whom want to go about killing off major political players in the region.

In the third game, Geralt has regained his memories, learned that he has been led astray, and sets off to find his lost love and, in the process, learns that his adopted daughter is pursued by The Wild Hunt, cold-infused entities who look like Ringwraiths. His journey to track down his adopted daughter takes him around the region, from a stand-in for Ireland to taking contracts to kill beasts that are plaguing small towns wherever he goes.

There are more subplots in the game series than that, but, by and large, that’s the overall plot. My issue is not so much with the overall plot, but with how it’s told, and how the player engages with it by playing as Geralt. We’ll visit two things in particular: One of the most lauded quests in the game, and then the real problem I have with the series: Geralt as a character and what that means for the narrative of the game. Let’s take, first, the questline that just a whole ton of people point as a great moment in the series, and in modern games: The Bloody Baron.

Essentially, what we have is a local warlord who has deemed himself the baron of a region, enforcing his rule and administration with a bunch of hired thugs and a lack of subtlety. In the middle of two warring nations, the Baron is trying to figure out how to play his cards and who to support. In walks Geralt, who is looking for his daughter, whom the Baron has met earlier in the chronology of the story. The Baron agrees to help, if Geralt can track down hi missing wife and daughter. Long story short, the daughter was tired of her father drunkenly beating her mother and then passing out, and the mother decided to make a break for it, but was captured by three beings called The Crones (a thoroughly Slavic iteration on the Three Fates of Greek myth). The game allows players to make a choice of how to proceed from there, but it eventually winds up with either the Baron hanging himself in shame after his wife dies, or leaving the region to find treatment for his wife’s mental break from reality at the hands of the Crones.

I won’t sit here and say that the story wasn’t moving. It does a good job of bringing the Baron’s personality into light, showing him as a well-rounded character and a deeply flawed man who eventually faces up to what he’s done, but what I do take issue with is saying that the storyline is exceptional. And this is where I think there’s a worrying divide between gamers and people who look at other forms of narrative art on a regular basis – novels, films, etc: This is not an exceptionally unique story, nor is its handling really that rare. Of course you want characters to be well-crafted! It says more about the Witcher series – or RPGs in general – that gamers and game critics are so willing to laud this questline as something exceptional when if you look at the canon of film or the novel, then you see innumerable examples of villains who manage to inspire at least some sense of sympathy from readers. It might as well be cheating, but just look at anyone from Shakespeare’s plays – aside from Iago, who, apparently, is held together by pure spite.

What I’m trying to get at, here – and I realize that this entire section is going to come off pretty goddamn condescending – is that, for champions of games-as-art, then there has to be some higher standard applied to games narrative other than taking writing from an already-existent book property and translating it to a video game.

Let’s take a step back for a moment, and focus in on the games-as-art thing I namedropped again. Well, just run a search on Google and see what other people think about this subject. Near as I can figure, Roger Ebert set this particular wheel into motion back in 2005. The wheel slows sometimes, but it doesn’t really stop. The debate about what exactly constitutes art is something that everyone asks all the time of all genres. Spielberg said that the litmus test is when someone confesses they cried at a certain point in the game.

However, that’s a simplistic definition created by someone who spends his life working in an entirely different medium. The most important thing in games is probably interactivity. If you don’t have that, then you’re just watching cutscenes and, thus, a slowly-unfolding,generally horribly-written movie.

And how, I ask, does the player become engaged with the medium? Through a protagonist the player is playing as. The Wild Hunt stumbles here. it stumbles so hard that it pitches forward, gouges its eye out on a small pebble, and then tumbles down a ravine that was previously hidden from view. In short, it has rolled a critical failure. The reason The Wild Hunt is unengaging, aside from the combat and movement systems feeling like your character is constantly drunk and trying to pass a sobriety test, is that Geralt is a gravel-gargling blank slate in the worst way possible: He’s a blank slate who attempts to have a personality. And before we continue on why that’s a huge negative, let’s take a look at three games that handle this blank-slate approach extremely well.

The world is your oyster… when your character has no past

That heading is wildly misleading. I don’t mean to say RPGs are only successful when your character is a complete blank slate, having just woke up with no idea where they are or who they are – no, what kind of lazy excuse for a game would do that? Nor am I saying that open-world RPGs are the only ones that can be art – no, The Walking Dead series has proven that you can have a well-defined character at the start and still be very artistic in your execution. However, for better or worse, The Wild Hunt marks the point where The Witcher series has transitioned to an open-world series, and thus, we need to look at other modern open-world series.

What open-world games need at the onset is a framework to establish why our character exists within the game world. Generally, this is done either by a brief introduction section or a title card sort of thing. Or, in Dragon Age‘s case, the player selecting the background of the character, be it a noble, a thief, a trader, mercenary, etc. And in the third one, which we’ll get to, the background is given to you with just a couple of paragraphs of text.

Let’s first look at Fallout 4. Minus the character creation screen, which takes a long time if you’re that kind of person, the intro section is brief, just enough to establish that you’re either a father or a mother in a loving family in 21st century America, an America fueled by nuclear power, a 50s aesthetic, and a hatred of Commies. Your character’s life is then immediately disrupted by falling nuclear warheads, being thrown into cryogenic storage, and the heartless murder of your wife and the kidnapping of your son.

In short, Fallout 4 gives you a parent character and throws you to the wolves right off the bat. It’s a reversal of what Bethesda did in Fallout 3, where you played the son or daughter of a brilliant scientist who disappears one day, and your quest becomes tracking him down in the DC wasteland. In 4, the player is the reverse: A parent tracking down his or her son in a Boston wasteland filled with paramilitary groups, robots, super mutants, and giant scorpions. What’s central here is that aside from a few points (former veteran; caring parent; established ties to the area), it’s up to the player to define what their character is like, how they react to certain situations, and what vices they have versus what virtues they have. But the real genius here comes in two parts:

1. Execution of dialog choices
2. The end goal of the narrative – i.e., finding your child – remains the same

Think about it, what are two of the most important things in life as a human being? Communication and a sense of purpose. I argue that Fallout 4 (and 3 and New Vegas) are stronger RPGs because they allow you to tailor the character more toward building the personality of the character. Admittedly, they fall into the Bethesda trap of allowing the character to become a walking god by level 40 or so, but the game allows you to define the character’s tone right down to the way your character interrupts NPCs mid-sentence.

On the narrative side, the Fallout games give you a framework to explore their world. 4 has most side quests tying into the main quest by way of assisting one faction or another, and when those side quests don’t relate to the quest, they’re mainly there for pure fun (e.g., the U.S.S. Constitution line.) The straight-up negative in this narrative line is that one would assume that, if one were a parent on the hunt for the people who captured his son, there’d be a bit more urgency in the matter. Instead, we do find ourselves with the most laid-back protagonist in this matter, someone who takes time away from his goal to go and build up settlements to recivilize the wasteland. I definitely agree with the criticism there.

The next example I’d like to bring up is Dragon Age: Inquisition. Again. As mentioned before, the game begins with the player creating his or her character. with a choice of a few background stories and class selections. From there, the character is thrown into the world with minimal information as to what’s happening around him.

Unlike Fallout, however, dialogue is not given over to a microscopic level of granularity. In latter-day BioWare games, dialogue fills one of two functions: 1) Gathering information about the world or characters or 2) establishing the tone of the conversation. There’s less of determining the individual responses given to questions or people, so much as figuring out, in broad strokes, if your character is going to be a jerk or a good person. If BioWare hadn’t done well with this, we would have had a minimal amount to go on in terms of character interaction, but they did their due diligence and figured out the appropriate breaks in conversation where two people would have a chance to look for more information, switch topics, or crack wise. And in addition to that, with Inquisition, they made sure to keep a varied amount of responses in order to allow players to feel like they were properly building a character.

Like Fallout, Inquisition gives the player a very plot-heavy framework on which to hang the adventures of their inquisitor and the Inquisition. As the plot progresses, new areas open up on the main map, allowing freer travel throughout the world, and more ability to get an understanding of what happens in this world.

Now, where Fallout executes nearly perfectly and where Inquisition tends to flounder a bit is the positioning of side-quests on the map. What I mean by that is that Inquisition shares a flaw with The Wild Hunt: The player, unless he or she deftly mixes side quests with main quests, can run into map fatigue pretty early on. Simply put, Inquisition and The Wild Hunt have almost entirely too much to do in the game. The maps are filled with icons to complete, minor tasks to perform, and radial quests[6] that generate as soon as a previous one has been completed, leading to an omnipresent exclamation point on many of the maps, just sitting there. Tempting you. Singing the siren call of, “100% the game, doooo iiiiit.”

But, unlike The Wild Hunt, Inquisition gives the player a meaty plot to return to when the player finally breaks and can’t take hunting down herbs and ore any longer. Admittedly, Inquisition is a fantasy game and falls into the traps of the genre: A Great Evil has shown up and wants to consume the world, and only a singular hero can stop it with a deus ex machina. However, and I repeat: The folks at BioWare understand what, exactly, people look for in a story, and have made the right moves in building characters and plot in The Witcher.

And finally, before turning back to The Wild Hunt to look at its characters and plot in more detail, we’ll look at one of the ultimates in blank-slate characterization in games, and how that character becomes integral to the plot of the game: Papers, Please.

An indie game from 2013, Papers, Please is set in a fictional world where you play a border control agent for an autocratic government called Arstotzka. Throughout the game, your time is spent managing a daily budget,[7] checking passports against increasingly stringent rules set up by the government as your nation seems to march closer to war, and interacting with various government functionaries, immigrants, emigrants, and smugglers. The game could otherwise be called Bureaucracy Simulator, or maybe Kafka Simulator, but any aspiring game writer (or developer) should play it. It stands in stark opposition to the three other games discussed in this piece, with a minimal budget, minimal graphics, and minimal voice acting, but is arguably a more striking and memorable experience than any of the three.

It might be that the game tackles something that a lot of people born in the 20th century have some knowledge of: What oppressive regimes are like (albeit viewed from afar) and what they do to families and people they term dissidents. Papers, Please takes a lot from Soviet and East German aesthetics, and the constant intrusion into the lives of regular citizens and agents of the state is a creepy reminder of what governments can turn into, no matter what side of the left-right continuum they lay on. What’s amazing about this is that the game developer, Lucas Pope, nailed everything about atmosphere, writing, pacing, and interactivity—even down to the music, starting from the game’s intro with an oppressive theme where a digitized balalaika takes the place of vocals that would probably be singing of the glory of the state—on a small release where AAA games can flounder so spectacularly.

Judging by the amount of awards the game won, I cannot be alone in being taken in by the simple story. A gigantic part of that revolves around whether your character will choose to escape Arstotzka, and if so, how much of his family he’ll be able to take with him. You never once see the family beyond their names on a list of who’s hungry or cold, but there’s an almost immediate bond; almost the same as in Fallout, though the latter flounders a bit by way of having its protagonist voiced. Part of the success of Papers, Please is that the protagonist is not voiced, or even scripted beyond reactions to people coming through the immigration queue, leaving the player to fill that in. Of course, Papers, Please is a wildly different game; less a cinematic experience, more a short, interactive commentary on life in an oppressive regime and how people get by in such situations. And, some would argue, when talking about how games can evoke emotions, it’s more effective than most AAA wide release games. What does that mean? Perhaps it’s simple: Less is more.

Gravel, daughters, and busty sorceresses

Now, the thing that made me want to write this[8] was an op-ed at Polygon. I careen wildly between really enjoying the writing at Polygon and absolutely hating it. At its best, Polygon is a great place to go for in-depth writing about subjects as varied as long-form articles on the simple, distinctive artistic touch at the center of Mass Effect to an inside look at the developer behind Wolfenstein: The New Order. At its worst, the site is filled with clickbait centered around a context-free premise designed to either evoke uncritical agreement or unreasoned discussion. On the other hand, it’s also a big advocate of breaking open the games industry for women, LGBTQ folk, and, in general, anyone who wants to make a game, so their heart is in the right place.

The article that sparked me thinking about all of this is called “On the failure of Fallout 4 at the hands of The Witcher 3.” The subtitle is some sophomoric garbage about The Witcher 3 inviting you to dance, even though when that does happen, the only thing that results from it is Geralt beating several people to death with his bare hands. But I digress.

Now, yes, it’s an op-ed, and it’s not indicative of the site as a whole. After all, Polygon gave Fallout 4 a near-perfect rating at its release, filled with bugs as it was. However, it’s as if the Internet’s constant droning about the perfection of The Witcher 3 became sentient in the form of Tauriq Moosa and decided to generate the piece.

As near as I can tell, the central point of the op-ed is that Fallout 4 relies on violence to tell its story, whereas The Wild Hunt gives players an avenue outside of violence. Players, Moosa says, can find alternative ways of resolving conflicts. He brings up a couple of instances that I’d like to point out as being patently false and showing that either Moosa did not play the game, didn’t stick around for the aftermath of these events, or has some severe handicap that renders him unable to remember violence, but only in the context of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

The first is that he mentions Geralt catching pigs. This is a side quest, one of the near-innumerable map markers that litter the world’s game area. Geralt stumbles on this scene after finding a couple of bandits eating a roasted pig. After a bit of banter, Geralt (most likely) kills the bandits[9] and then a low-witted fellow shows up and you eventually piece together that, yep, all of the pigs you see awere villages who found some gold and were turned into pigs. So this whole catching pig thing that has Moosa roaring with laughter centers around brutally killing two men who, in turn, stuck, roasted, and ate another person. Now, yes, it’s true: You don’t solve the curse by killing anyone, but the entire quest’s premise is built on violence, and stripping it free of that context is a truly bizarre choice to make.

The second is that he simply writes “he dances.” I haven’t finished the game, so there may be more than one instance of dancing, but if I had to guess by the other examples’ place in the game’s timeline, Moosa is probably referring to a scene where Geralt helps Triss—a sorceress who Geralt was schtupping for two games before finding out she had put some amnesia spell on him or something[10]—rescue a mage. The rescue takes place as they arrange things during a party on lush estate grounds. And yes, dancing is involved. However, again, Moosa omits the fact that almost immediately after dancing with the sorceress, Geralt finds himself in the position of being in a combat situation, because this is a game, not a novel or a film. To get out of this situation, Geralt has to beat several people to death with his bare hands.

Moosa makes brief mentions of the contracts Geralt takes to pay his way through the world, but neglects to point out that they, for the most part, result in bloodbaths or, at the very least, inadvertently slaughtering packs of wolves on your way to the monster.[11] To illustrate what Moosa should have done in this instance, I’d like to focus on one of the quests you pick up nearly off the bat in the game: Investigating a series of brutal murders in the woods near a checkpoint near a bridge. After tracking the murderer down using Witcher Senses™ (seriously, it’s called Witcher Senses), you find a bunch of elves, in this game, called Scoia’tael. Elves in the series are a maligned group, hunted down and oppressed. Much like the elves in Dragon Age, actually. Unlike in Dragon Age, though, the elves here have largely chosen to wander off into the woods and form guerilla bands to kill as many humans as possible. You find them here and are offered a choice, don’t kill the elves and know that, surely, many, many more people will die; or kill the elves and end the murders. Moosa should have pointed this quest out as a good example of ethical quandaries in games, but didn’t, because doing so would have shown that The Wild Hunt is a game centered on violence just as much as Fallout 4 which, apparently for him, was a tremendous disappointment.

The game world is one that is just as brutal and cutthroat as Fallout‘s, except in a prettier setting. Throughout your travels, you come across blackened battlefields, hanged corpses, near-rapes, full-rapes, beatings, stabbings, murders, serial killings, disemboweled corpses, and much more. It is not a beautiful world free of violence, and Geralt does not dance through it all on his way to save a damsel in distress. In fact, he slaughters his way through a horde of endlessly regenerating enemies, both men, monster, and animal, in order to reach some far-off destination inhabited by his equally-blood-soaked adopted daughter who can apparently warp through time or some shit.[12] It is, definitely and without a doubt an engaging world, but no moreso than any of the other brilliantly-crafted open world games out there right now. And yes, I’m going to be brazen and include Mad Max in all of its true-to-the-films grit and madness. Yet we have a near-consensus stating that this game is the game to change everything, or the game that should shame other studios? Why is this?

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons. The first of which is that CD Projekt Red got some serious cred in the gaming community a while back after launching GOG and taking an anti-DRM stance. If you know anything about Internet culture, it’s that the culture despises being restricted. DRM being a restriction, they hate it and turn to piracy. In comes CD Projekt Red, launching a classic games service that strips games of DRM and works on the assumption that people won’t steal – versus the reigning, probably correct, assumption that people are animals and should not be trusted – and then launches a series of games set in a fantasy world, often puts them on discount, and loads them up with free updates.

In short, CD Projekt Red is printing gamer cred and respect like the Fed prints cash.

The second reason is that Geralt is the ultimate in a Gary Stu character. He’s a handsome, hyper-competent, chiseled, (apparently) charismatic figure who has two incredibly hot chicks chasing after him – oh and did I mention that those two chicks are also both hyper-competent and have magic?[13] Geralt is just about everything a nerdy guy with low self-confidence wants to be: Free from the restraints of society and good enough at what he does to go where he wants when he wants, and also be feared and respected. See, witchers are technically mutants and, thus, are distrusted by humanity at large. They don’t like him, and they’re all sure that he’s going to steal their women, but they need him because without him, they, the human cattle, will be struck down by the monsters in the dark. He is, for this world, the ubermensch, feared and rejected, but needed, by the untermenschen who’d just as soon see him slaughtered as pay him for his services.

Add to all of that his personality, and you’ll see that he’s basically Batman without having to go around in a costume. See, Geralt is wry, intelligent, and detached from emotion. He speaks in a gravelly voice and is a tremendous asshole, with very few exceptions. He goes around using his intellect and his fists in equal measure to solve crimes, kill monsters, and give some reprieve to the folks of villages everywhere – though that’s not his goal; his goal is money. And I challenge you to find me a nerdy, pasty white guy who would not kill to be Batman.

But all of that, the hyper-competence, the detachment, the wryness, is there just to make Geralt easier to step into the shoes of for the player. He’s as close to a blank slate as CD Projekt Red were willing to go for a property that had an already-defined character. This is, also, why Geralt had amnesia for two games. In other words: Geralt has no real character other than what we make for him. So why does this bother me? Well, generally speaking, it doesn’t. I think what character there is is incredibly annoying, and often comes across as being written by a 14-year old with masculinity issues, but, again, it’s a video game, so I’m willing to cut it some slack. But what does bother me about it is when the games press or gamers treat this like it’s something amazing or unique—or even internally consistent with the mythos of the world.

So let’s back up. Let’s first take the writing of the character. Namely, one specific character tic that makes me want to reach through the screen and strangle the son of a bitch. Every time Geralt says something remotely witty, he does this incredibly annoying chuckle: a “heh” on par with what you’d hear from Walder Frey in A Song of Ice and Fire, and equally grating. Without fail, this happens whenever he does something kind of smart happens, and since this is Geralt, who is a never-ending well of comebacks, this pops up all of the goddamn time. It is lazy writing, the sort of which you’d see from someone who’s just starting out, looking through Stephen King’s On Writing, gets to the point where King says something like “give your character a memorable characteristic” and goes “He’ll laugh to show he’s smarter!” And then does that every time because he does not know any better.

But that might just be me. I might be the only person playing this game who can’t stand that fucking chuckle. Let’s take a look at the internally inconsistent aspect: The notion that witchers do not have emotions. See, as part of the process of becoming a witcher, boys have to consume a large amount of toxins in order to get cat eyes and the ability to smell real good. (And also fight like a ballerina.) The side effect of this is that they are, apparently stripped of emotions in the process, thus giving some amount of credence to the regular people’s belief that witchers are monsters themselves.

Geralt sure is a jerk, there’s no doubting that. However, in The Wild Hunt, and fairly early on for that matter, we meet two other witchers who seem to have just as much emotion as anyone else. A little more stoic in one case, but then again, that guy is much older than the other two. But in the other case, a younger witcher on the hunt for someone who betrayed him, and who Geralt runs into while tracking a vampire, seems to just be a regular guy, albeit one with cat eyes. We’re dealing with a small sample size here, admittedly, but the game makes a point to mention that there aren’t that many witchers left.

And as for Geralt himself, for a guy who’s been stripped of all emotion, he certainly falls into romantic trysts fairly often. Not to mention that he seems to have a strong sense of loyalty to his friends – and not in a psychopathic sense of loyalty where he’s tracking them down because, one day, they might be of use to him, but in the sense that he’s willing to piss off some very powerful people to get to his friends. A very long questline involves tracking down one of his former companions, Dandelion, after the man was captured by the chief of what acts as the secret police. During this quest, Geralt acts in a play, murders guards and (potentially) goes and kills off just a ton of other guards – not to mention willingly trudges through sewers and pisses off a significant part of the underworld – all to just find his friend. To me, that does not shout “I am a man who has been stripped of all emotion,” but instead “Shit, I gotta find my friend before something bad happens to him.”

Now, yes, this is all in the service of Geralt tracking down his adopted daughter, but, I say to you, Geralt is going through an equally taxing journey – no, screw that. Geralt is going on a basically Lord of the Rings-level excursion to find his adoptive daughter. He runs into evil mages, massive monsters, ruling lieges, and the equivalent of a meteor impact crater to track down his daughter, and that’s just the main quest. If you’re including the side quests in your Geralt’s adventure, then he’s surpassing anything the Fellowship of the Ring did, making them look like layabouts in the process.

My point in all of this is that, no, there is no in-universe reason for Geralt to display as little emotion as he does, because the narrative throws literally every indicator at you that he should, like the father (or mother) in Fallout 4 be at the point of pulling one of these whenever he meets anyone who’s seen her, complete with Hans Zimmer droning in the background. At several points throughout the game, Geralt does flip out on people, to the point of, if you let him, murdering a guy who really had it coming; but whenever he meets someone who might legitimately know something, it’s the polar opposite of this.

No, my friends, Geralt is a very effective Gary Stu. He’s hyper-competent, keeps his cool in all situations, and is a fantastic fighter (even if you lose control of him when his fighting moves decree that he should be wildly spinning around instead of being available to parry the guy who’s directly behind him and has been there the entire time, Geralt, you prat. There’s nothing wrong with being a Gary Stu, especially in games. That’s the whole point of having a protagonist in an RPG: So the player can insert him or herself in his or her shoes and experience the game. The thing that gets me about Geralt isn’t even the character, it’s that my fellow gamers can’t seem to spot the Gary Stu in the room, and instead hold the game on a pedestal while decrying other games that are more honest about themselves.

Oh, and one more thing about Geralt before we wrap up: How is he this wildly irresistible to women? This guy has more sex than George Costanza and is a whole lot less charming. I’m not even trying to be sex-negative, here. I’m just honestly perplexed. Besides the whole him-being-a-Gary Stu thing, that is. That much is obvious.

Conclusion: Seriously, guys. Chill

I’d like to reiterate that I don’t hate this game. I don’t even truly dislike it. It’s fine. I’d probably like it more if I liked fantasy beyond A Song of Ice and Fire‘s grim medieval setting that’s happily bereft of elves and dwarves. (So far. Ugh.) Geralt is a fine protagonist, even though he annoys the hell out of me. The rest of the cast I can take or leave. Dandelion is useless and grating, but Zoltan seems like a cool dude and ticks the appropriate Dwarf sidekick boxes (though Varric in Dragon Age is the better dwarf). Then—well, I’m not going to go through the entire cast, because we’d never finish this thing.

The Wild Hunt is a fine game, made by very competent people who put a lot of effort into it. It is not, however, a savior of a game, setting out to deliver RPGs from thin writing and self-insert characters. It has many problems and many good things to its name. It is, in short, a game like any of the rest. And it sure as hell doesn’t prove Fallout 4 a failure.

Seriously, Moosa, what the hell was that about?

[1] Anyone who says that games are inherently schlocky isn’t too familiar with some of the most moving games that have come out in the last ten years. Hell, even Wolfenstein: The New Order had fantastic characterization and emotional moments, and it’s a damned Wolfenstein game! As for schlock in movies and books, just look at Asylum Pictures and your local fantasy, sci-fi, or romance sections for plenty of examples sitting alongside artistic masterpieces.

[2] Which brings me to an interesting little side-note. There’s a little phenomenon in open-world games nowadays that I think is called icon fatigue. (If it’s not called that, then I call dibs.) Essentially: You play an open world game populated by icons telling you that there is a thing here and you need to go check that out for loot. Mass Effect has the very same thing, but gets away with it because of its well-deserved reputation. Interesting thought, since, on a personal level, I’m also willing to let Mad Max slide, because most of the icons in that game involve driving around harpooning dudes from your bitchin car.

[3] Though in his case, it’s wildly different due to the requirements of his story. Still, the soundbite is fitting for a lot more than The Dark Tower.

[4] That is, Star Trek supposes that, for the most part, the various species in the galaxy can get along; minus the Klingons, Romulans, and Borg. Mass Effect assumes the opposite, with minor wars breaking out almost constantly, a constant tenuous alliance that seems almost always about to shatter, and the Krogan as the put-upon race who was almost exterminated by everyone else for being too good at war. The Lord of the RingsDragon Age comparison is admittedly more superficial, with a lot of the primary differences being appearances and mannerisms of the various races; i.e., elves are standoffish, previously enslaved Irish, and Dwarves are short, cave-dwelling Americans.

[5] The original trilogy, of course, is a great example of genre storytelling done right. The weird shit is left to the viewer’s imagination, because otherwise you’re burning film.

[6] Quests that generate as long as you’re performing the game, depend on your standing with a faction in the game, and relate to the general area they’re in.

[7] That is, you’re deciding whether your family will eat or have heat that day.

[8] Albeit in a much shorter form, initially.

[9] I say “most likely” because I know enough fairy tales to know that when two evil characters are laughing over a roast and stuck pig, you had better not eat that pig, because it’s probably a human who was turned into a pig.

[10] Look, I don’t know. Apparently you need to read the books for half of the stuff in the game to make sense.

[11] Wolves are not stupid creatures in real life. Why, in this game, they choose to continuously throw themselves at a human with a shiny death stick after he’s killed several of their number escapes me.

[12] Again, you apparently need to read the books to get it.

[13] This is not counting Keira Metz, who wears an outfit that belongs on Sexy Barmaid #4 at your local Ren Faire.

One thought on “The Witcher 3: Not That Great

  1. Pingback: Fallout 76 Sure is a Video Game, Pt 1 | Aaron C Simon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s