What We’re Playing: The Witcher 3
The third installment of the Witcher series of games is by far the best yet, and is one of the better games I’ve played in quite a while. You can blame it for the lack of Fantastica posts from me for the last few months.
I don’t play that many games but late last year two came out in quick succession that I couldn’t resist: Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3. I’ve been a Fallout franchise fan since the original game (released almost twenty years ago) and it pretty much instilled in me a love of gritty, futuristic stories. So why did I ditch Fallout 4 halfway through and get into the witcher’s world?
The Witcher games are based (fairly loosely) on the novels and short stories by the Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Though he evidently has little time for the games himself, they’ve become progressively more popular with each release. They’re the stories of Geralt, a witcher – a kind of monster bounty hunter – and as the series has progressed his unwilling involvements in the politics of his world become more entangled (and the gender politics of the games have become less problematic).
There are basically two reasons why I think this game is interesting: its approach to storytelling in game design, and its monsters.
Being the offspring of a series of novels, these games have the benefit of inheriting a host of characters and backstories. There’s a clear sense of long-developed and complex relationships. At times this can be disorienting (Who was that King, again? Why does that particular sorceress want to kill me and this one want to sleep with me?) and yet it gives the games a rich sense of a deep and believable world.
The designers clearly put a lot of thought into expanding this world and doing its many characters justice. Throughout all three games there are numerous twists and considerable political shifts. Entire kingdoms go to war, become subsumed in a wider empire; factions fall apart and come back together.
Each of the characters exudes a sense of will; they act on their own agendas, have their own personalities. Though the player can influence the tide of events, you’re just one of many actors.
From a storytelling perspective, this is refreshing. It’s a change from the simple and typical situation in many video games of a protagonist struggling against an antagonist as the central source of conflict. This is partly true of Witcher 3 as well, but there’s entire political machinations going on that have little to do with the witcher and his main quest. Depending on how you look at it, Geralt isn’t even the protagonist of the world-story going on. He’s on a quest to help that hero/anti-hero, his once-ward Ciri.
Side quests in particular show the attention to detail in the designers’ approach to storytelling. Side quests are usually boring though in roleplaying games they’re usually necessary. You’ve got to level your character up enough by completing side quests to progress the story and move through harder acts. They tend to follow a repetitive structure: go to some location, kill the baddies, retrieve the McGuffin, and return for your prize (which is essentially how I lost interest halfway through Fallout 4 and started playing Witcher 3). After a while the sense of satisfaction of completing quests just doesn’t offer enough of a reward.
According to Alexander M. Freed, writer on some of Bioware’s story-rich games in the Star Wars and Dragon Age franchises, side quests are pretty important storytelling opportunities. A good side quest accomplishes at least one of the following: they help show depth to the character or the plot, they help to build the world, they can add a tonal shift to the main game, and they can offer alternative views on the game’s key themes.
Here’s an example (minor spoilers) to demonstrate how Witcher 3 side quests become mini-stories. Geralt arrives at a town where some creature seems to be killing people in a nearby forest. A town elder claims it’s the spirit of the forest, a spirit they once revered as a local god. It has become upset because the townfolk stopped sending young hunters out to kill animals and make sacrifices to it. This elder wants the spirit appeased, and for the town to return to its old ways.
But the young men of the village don’t want to risk their lives hunting animals to appease a spirit – especially one that is killing their townfolk. They want to be free. It turns out the spirit is an ancient leshen, a scary relict from ancient times.
Geralt has to choose to either spare the creature by making a sacrifice to it or to draw it out and kill it. The reward is the same either way but each has moral dimensions and unintended consequences. Nothing is ever straightforward.
Applying Freed’s measure, this side quest is great. The player has the opportunity to explore the character and understand his various dimensions. At the same time, they learn more of the game’s lore and get to explore its themes.
Not all side quests have this level of complexity, but many do and it helps the player to explore the world and complete continuously compelling stories.
Monsters in Witcher 3 are at times as important to the story as its people. This might seem a strange thing to feature as one of its strengths – most fantasy worlds are populated with monsters. What’s the big deal?
As author Sami Shah – latest to join us at Fantastica – recently pointed out, monsters are meaningful; they reveal our weaknesses. I’ve said elsewhere that the monsters we make are unique to times and places and they’re demonstrative of what is and isn’t permissible.
At the extremes of the known world, of allowable behaviour, are dark corners and the monsters that dwell in them. Understanding our monsters tells us a lot about ourselves.
Witcher 3 shows this idea perfectly. In the example above, the village has had a long relationship with the leshen, has been willing to risk the lives of its young men in order to sacrifice animals to a creature they revere as a spirit.
In other cases, a field gone to fallow might be haunted by a wraith – the ghost of a girl who was murdered by a jaded lover, and Geralt has to expose this crime in order to vanquish the monster. Or he might have to decide whether or not to execute a succubus that has been unintentionally killing the men that are drawn to her.
The game is full of examples that complicate the moral element of being monstrous. Religious fanatics kill off kill shape-shifting doppelgangers that just want to live as humans in towns and cities. Many of the rock-trolls and woodland creatures are sympathetic characters, even amusing ones.
In each case, the people of this world live side-by-side with monsters. So it should be no surprise to learn that many of them are drawn directly from folklore. At times the creatures live as a result of human errors of judgment and their crimes. In these cases, monsters are our creations and so we are responsible for them. Their existence is closely entwined with the morals, the norms and the lives of the people within the game. Resolving the cause is not always about waving your sword around (although that does happen a lot).
In other words, the monsters in this game aren’t flat and boring. They’re not simply obstacles to overcome in order to level up and progress to the next job. There’s something real about them. They reflect a richly imagined and morally complex world.
If you prefer your games as rich storytelling experiences but you prefer gritty, futuristic settings, fear not. Developers of Witcher 3, CD Projekt, are working on a solution just for you. A couple of years ago they announced the development of Cyberpunk 2077, their next big project. The sad part is, it’s only due to be released ‘when it’s ready.’ So in the mean time, I guess I’ll go back to Fallout 4.