What I Learned From “The Witcher”

During the start of my vacation, I got to do something I’ve been meaning to do for weeks – finish up “The Witcher.”1 I won’t go into a lengthy review – as always, there are plenty on the Internet – but the fact that I devoted over 41 hours to finishing the damn thing probably indicates that I enjoyed it on some level. I did learn a few things from it, which are things I do want to share.

A quick note – since this is an RPG, it’s hard to deconstruct some elements without skirting spoiler territory. I’ll try to keep it as vague as possible, but if you really hate spoilers, just bookmark this and come back after you’ve finished the main story.

Meaningful Choices Add To Replay. The Witcher is, in many ways, the best BioWare game that BioWare never made. It uses the Aurora toolkit as a basis, but even more than that, a lot of the tough, complex decision-making that I know from recent BioWare titles is present in this game. There were a number of times where I had to sit and think about what I wanted to do, either because I was engaged in the story or to decide what content I wanted to see. Plus, the advancement system is designed so that you can’t be awesome at everything – you have to make choices about what kind of character you want to be. So, while I don’t see myself investing another 41 hours into the game anytime soon, I currently plan to keep it on my hard drive, and possibly giving it another go at some point in the future because I want to see how the story evolves and how my play of the game changes when I make different choices.

Game Mechanics Can Conflict With The Story. One of the more controversial aspects of “The Witcher” are the so-called sex cards (link NSFW). Essentially, if you sleep with a female character, you get a racy collecting card of your encounter, which you can look at in your journal. At first I wasn’t nearly as offended by this as other people seemed to be. The main character, as presented, was a sterile mutant monster hunter ostracized from society, which meant that he probably doesn’t exactly have normal relationships with people. When I realized that this was essentially a collecting card mini-game, I was actually on board – this character was probably meant to be a James Bond-style womanizer, one who uses women as temporary comfort before going back out to slay monsters before the local townsfolk got wind of his indiscretion. Granted, it didn’t make my sympathetic to the main character I was playing, but the game was firmly steeped in a very muddled morality – every character has good and bad sides – so while I didn’t empathize with it, I understood it.

But then, at a certain point in the story, the plot evolves to where the main character can fall in love with one of the characters. Sure, there are options to toy with her affections (which seems in line with how I understood the character so far), but more and more I realized this wasn’t a throwaway subplot, but a noteworthy part of the main story. I realized that, while the designers gave me some options on how I could develop it, they still expected me to at least address the concern of falling in love with one character. This is completely at odds with the sexual mini-game. I could point back to the idea of “lack of common human understanding” again, but now it feels like justification. The story and the mechanic are at odds, and so the mechanic stopped being a narrative device to become what others are probably seeing it as – a tawdry attempt to inject boobs into the game.

Rich Characters Bring You Back Again and Again. There are a number of complex characters in the game. The story relies on many of these characters over and over again to drive the story forward. This makes sense – there’s only so much a game studio can invest in creating new characters for a game – but in a lot of games I get sick of looking at the same characters over and over again. However, there are a few characters that are engaging and complex enough that I don’t mind talking to them over and over again. Sadly, this is more noticeable because there are even more characters that don’t engage me on any level, and a lot of character textures that get reused so often over and over that sometimes cities get a little too Stepford Wives for my liking.

Small Characters Can Help As Well. On the flip side, I liked walking through towns. The very small characters would toss out a line of dialogue as I walked by, and it made the city feel alive. Unlike many fantasy RPGs, where every townsperson is completely aware of every legend or rumor that has ever been written (and all of which are, of course, true), many times these characters will complain about the weather (accurately), talk about each other, or mutter about how hot their armor is. Also, if I went to a shop in the evening, the shop owner wouldn’t be there – he’ll likely be at home, sleeping.2

Too Much Choice Can Be Paralyzing, But Mastery Is Satisfying. At first, the choice between two different swords and three styles of wielding each one was paralyzing – I’d often find that the reason why I particular fight was difficult was because I was using the wrong combination. For a while, I was irritated by this, but over time I slowly figured out the logic behind it.3 It felt satisfying to see a character approach, switch to the right sword, and drop massive damage before switching to the next one. I’m starting to feel the same way about D&D 4e – it took me a while to figure out which powers worked best for each situation, but over time I felt really empowered.

Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of it. If any of you have played it, let me know what you think as well in the comments.

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  1. For those that know and care about these things, it was the “Director’s Cut” edition from Steam.
  2. Sure, you can wake him up and still conduct business, but it felt realistic.
  3. Yes, the game actually explains when to use each, but there’s a line for me between explanation and practice.