The protagonist – Geralt of Rivia – is a Witcher – a human being who was taken as a child, then trained and subjected to harsh mutations to enable him to be stronger and more capable of fighting the monsters that fill his world. Due to his excellent successes in training, Geralt was given additional mutations, the only witcher to survive these experiments.
Now a monster hunter for hire, he roams the land helping rid the world of the pests that plague rich and poor alike. The problem is, due to ‘Monstrum, or a Portrayal of Witchers‘ — an anonymous piece of hate propaganda against witchers – most people fear and hate him, despite knowing that they need him.
“Indeed, there is nothing more repulsive than these monsters that defy nature and are known by the name of witcher, as they are the offspring of foul sorcery and witchcraft. They are unscrupulous scoundrels without conscience and virtue, veritable creatures from hell capable only of taking lives. They have no place amongst decent and honest folk.
And this Kaer Morhen where these villains nest and practice foul rituals must be wiped off the face of the earth, and all evil traces of it need be treated with salt and saltpeter to complete the deed.”
Unlike many role-playing games where you choose your protagonist and create their backstory, here Geralt has a character from the novels, and from the two previous games. He’s a stoic, quiet loner, but he has a sharp wit and a dark sense of humour. His mutations might have stopped his ability to cry, but he has strong feelings, made very evident when looking for his adoptive daughter, Ciri.
One questline, in particular, stands out to me. A quest to help a man find his missing wife and daughter. Here there are many branches choices for the player, do you let Geralt’s disgust win out and do you show your rage, or do you let his calmer side to the fore, and help, despite it being wrong? There are no clean solutions, and more than once I’ve been horrified after I thought I had helped, only for things to get worse.
Wonderful summary of the start of that quest, here: The Bloody Baron. Even the comments are, generally, enlightening.
Game of Thrones is probably the go-to fantasy world right now. The books are best sellers and the TV series is on season five, with a massive worldwide following.
The Witcher, by comparison, is a computer game – a smaller slice of the population – and is based on a series of books that are only partially translated from the original Polish. Still, the game did hit four million sales, so it’s doing very well.
Unlike Game of Thrones which is a mostly faithful book to TV adaptation, The Witcher games are set after the events of the books. They’ve taken the world and the main characters, allowing the creation of new narratives suited to an interactive experience. Both are brutal high fantasy versions of fictional medieval worlds. There is much violence and warring with no black and white good or bad.
The depth of world building, which works so well in the novels, is making Game of Thrones flounder. Why should we care about Dorne? What has happened to Theon’s family up in the Iron Isles? Is Bran still alive? What about Rickon? Where have all the dire wolves gone? One hour of television struggles to recreate the depth of Westeros and Essos.
Expansive world building? Hundreds of individual stories? This is where a game can shine. Once you exit the prologue area, the open world is the biggest I’ve seen in a game so far. If you’re not sure take a minute to scroll around this map. If you’re still not convinced, there are the Skellige isles too.
If you don’t have much time, then you can whizz through the main quests and still have a lot of fun. If you’ve got more time, then you’ll find that the usual ‘kill ten rats’ quests don’t exist. Every single person you speak to has a depth to them that can cause even the most hard-hearted player to refuse payment for slaying a monster because they know that village is literally starving.
You just can’t do this in Game of Thrones – we know that Rob Stark had lots of battles, but did we see the villagers nearby struggling because their only source of water was polluted by rotting corpses? Or when we see farmers toiling to produce food for the army encamped nearby – only to receive ten lashes if the food isn’t enough.
Fighting? Not every time
When we see gameplay trailers, they’re nearly always full of fighting. Let’s see some kickass animations, some nasty monsters being killed by badass main character Geralt of Rivia.
BioWare – long famous for making RPGs like last years multi-award winning Dragon Age: Inquisition – used to have this non-combat option. If you had high charisma/persuade you’d get a few non-combat dialogue options. These seem to have disappeared.
In the Witcher, Geralt can use his magic to convince people to step back from a fight. It’s quite common and even rewards a little XP to not put players off.
Sometimes you’re face to face with scared villagers or loyal guards. Should you slaughter them even though you’re playing a mutated killing machine, or is it better to choose to stand down and let them pass. It’s a game, so there are options – but it is so refreshing to have that non-combat option.
Not that every peaceful option ends well. In the prologue, you meet a dwarven blacksmith who had been living in a village for over 50 years. He’s unhappy because his business has been burned down. When you trace the culprit – the pejorative spitting drunkard is unhappy because the blacksmith is making armour for the invading Nilfgaard army. As Geralt, do you accept a bribe to cover up this dwarf-hating drunkard’s crime, or do you attempt justice by turning him over to the blacksmith? If you go for justice, the drunk is hanged by the Nilfgaard soldiers and the blacksmith is shunned by the town’s inhabitants.
Like the books, Geralt is aware that not every ‘monster’ deserves to die. Some of them, despite looking horrible, are friendly house spirits, or like the screenshot below can be turned into friendly spirits.
The internet says it has problems. And it does. It really does. I’ll take the one that has no excuse first – everyone is white. Everyone in this enormous world is white. Despite the main city being the biggest main city I’ve ever seen in a game, there isn’t anyone from a different area there. This is strange, considering there were people from Zerrikania in Witcher 2. There could have been merchants or traders just hanging out in town and the problem would have been solved. Not perfect, but better than zero representation. This is a very big mistake that I hope they learn from. Edit: they fixed it in additional DLC in incredible ways. I’m more than happy.
(Spoilers for the game ending below).
There is a strange split between the game artists and the game writers and I’m not sure if it’s deliberate or not. Visually the main female characters are beautiful, with very sexy and revealing clothes (if it’s not sexy enough, there’s alternate clothing fanservice DLC). On some characters – and I’m looking at you Keira Metz – it’s annoyingly bad. But is it to distract straight male gamers from the actual gameplay?
Because the story is all about the strength of women, and understanding that women can and are powerful enough to control their own lives. The three adult women are all sorceresses – who are nuclear bombs next to Geralt despite his status as the strongest witcher of them all. They’re intelligent, powerful women who in the books and in the games control the world by manipulating the Kings they align themselves with.
But that’s not even the best part. This game is about Geralt finding Ciri and helping her to fight off the Wild Hunt who is pursuing her. Ciri isn’t even a witcher yet her strength and fighting abilities are superior to Geralt. She might not have his hedge-magic signs, but her own background gives her access to an ever more powerful skill set.
And to top that off – you the player get to shape the world. How you treat Ciri affects the ending more than anything else.
- One ending, she’s strong, capable, self-assured but she strikes out on her own to take over her true father’s role (Ruler of the Empire of pretty much everywhere). I got this ending and I loved it. I’d succeeded in unleashing her full potential. My Geralt didn’t have her with him, but he could still be proud of her decision.
- Another ending, she’s still a powerful fighter, but she’s not been trusted quite so much, Geralt went along with her to decision making meetings perhaps, so she’s less self-assured. This ends with her sticking with Geralt and they head off into the sunset to have adventures. This is a great ending for the players, but not so great for Ciri. She’s reduced to his sidekick.
- The last ending – you’ve treated her like a child, you’ve never trusted her, or nurtured her own growth, and she dies before she can return to you. You the player stifled her. You killed her. She literally dies in game.
The Witcher 3 looks at inequality and allows the player to choose how to handle it. This is partly why the Witcher is so powerful a game to me – it lets players experience how their interactions with others can affect the world – from The Bloody Baron quest to the growth of Geralt’s adoptive daughter. This game doesn’t just show bigotry, it subtlety challenges the player to face their own internal assumptions and tries to encourage them to make better decisions in the future.