The Witcher is a story, we’re all just lucky to be in it as it unfurls.
I remember I first installed The Witcher years ago because my old PC had crashed and burned due to my graphics card not handling the amazingness that was Skyrim. A good friend kindly donated an old gaming PC he no longer needed, and while it was capable of playing Skyrim, it had no wireless card and my Ethernet cable would have had to go through corridors, tables, people and walls to connect to our modem. I decided to wait a while and play the Witcher (which I had found in a sale bin) just to pass the time and do something different.
I have told you before that I am a narrative obsessed player. This was everything a narrative obsessed player could ever want.
The Witcher starts the game with a barely conscious and amnesiac Geralt of Rivia. As the player, you’re as confused about everything as he is. Where are you? Why are all these people talking to you as if you know everything? Why would anyone want to live in Kaer Mohren? Holy shit, what the hell is that monster? Where is my shirt? Why is that lady barely wearing any clothes?
It was a great introduction to a game that I utterly got absorbed in. The fighting mechanics were actually quite fun for me and as someone who LOVES using the pause button to stop and strategise, I rarely had time to think hard about decisions but was still given the flexibility to recoup and re-arm (or re-potion). The camera angling was actually fantastic, you have the option of top-down views or over the shoulder and mouse controls reconfigured depending on what you preferred. I used primarily a top-down angle which I think ultimately also affected my view of the story.
Camera angles are important, this top-down view let me see the world more broadly than just over the shoulder, which would have benefited me the views of seeing faces and having more intimate one on one interactions with people. The broader bird’s eye view let me see the towns in all their drudgery and glory, allowing me to see into every corner and know every person hidden within the shadows and without.
Geralt is really, really chatty. For a tall dark and brooding type, he actually, isn’t. This was utterly hilarious to be honest. Geralt’s voice actor has such a smooth and smoky mysterious voice that hearing it every ten seconds and hearing some of the silliest things said with it made me feel like maybe I didn’t get Geralt’s personality, or that maybe that amnesia gave him a personality transplant.
For one thing, he is the world’s worst flirt.
Ok, he has the sexy voice, but holy cow are his pick-up lines the pits. Maybe the women of Temeria are desperate for a decent roll in the hay (seeing as most of the other male characters hanging about seem to be lacking in the initiative, manners, hygiene, looks and general competency department). Maybe they’ve all got poor hearing and poor taste because seeing Geralt get it on with women with the ever so lame ‘Hmmmmmm, I bet you’re a naughty girl’ (in the flattest deadpan tone) made me feel like whoever wrote these particular scenes has never ever tried even speaking to a woman.
Ah wait, here we go, the age old ‘video games are male sexual fantasies and not grounded in reality’ trope.
Considering how well written the game is overall, the whole collecting women like baseball cards was bizarre and confusing. If I were a bit more sensitive and had little less common sense about the video games industry; I’d have found it offensive.
Instead, I thought it was kinda sad and really pathetic. Here is Geralt, who is genuinely attractive, a great talker, good listener, good person all round and he just dips his wick where he finds it. I mean he doesn’t even have good taste, seriously, the banker wearing a wimple?! Seriously Geralt, how bad was that knock to your head?
I can understand the sizzling sexual tension between Triss and himself, after all, its based on history and her strangely low cut dress. And, if you end up choosing to shack up with Shani instead, you have a lovely relationship built upon respect, mutual admiration and dealing with PTSD that is usually attractive to those who like the hurt/comfort style of relationship narratives.
Geralt is genuinely nice. So the whole convincing a dryad to sleep with him on the grounds that copulation helps fertilise the soil (she outright rejects you if you say something as dumb as that) is just brain boggling and so out of place for a character who is a badass lone wolf mutant sex-god.
Of course its also offensive but I find the insult lands on both the women as well as Geralt as a character and it dismisses his personal integrity, especially since his heart genuinely belongs to Yennefer.
But the game still triumphs. The side quests are great to do and the skill tree progression is essential to your success. Every aspect to gaining knowledge, levelling up and equipping the right equipment make for a fantastic mix of strategy and action in combat scenes. The game makes you think two steps ahead and I utterly love that.
The difficulty doesn’t just lie in how fast you can click that mouse button, it lies in how well you can anticipate problems. How many times have I had to restart a fight because I either didn’t take the right potion or worse, the right combination of potions. How many oils can you put on your blade and which ones are efficient against wraiths. Can you survive on Cat and Swallow alone? Will the Falka’s blood upgrade be effective? What if I added a rune?
This was a real world, and it also had real problems. From the massive amounts of politics you eventually got involved in, like having to convince Foltest to relax prohibitions against non-humans, or choosing to support either Scoia’tael’s cause or the Order of the Flaming Rose (when you think about it, the word ‘Flaming’ was a dead giveaway for ‘repressed’).
And your decisions weren’t easy. I hated Yaevinn, he was smarmy, obtuse and generally unsympathetic even when Geralt agreed with him. On the other hand, Siegfried, a knight of the Flaming Order is so charismatic and friendly that I was amazed that he associated with such narrow minded, fanatical racist weirdos in dresses.
This is the beauty of the Witcher story. It has a narrative that you can read to your somewhat traumatised children that will actually leave them hanging on the edge of their seats. There is intrigue, will-they-wont-they romance and politics and twists everywhere. I remember a quest where I was tasked to find a den of prostitutes run by vampires, or demonesses, or something dangerous and sexy. It turned out one of the prostitutes had allowed herself to be turned and was actually enjoying her work because it provided more independence and freedom that the overbearing rule of her conservative, stuffy and all round tyrannical father. You make a decision; sleep with the ladies offering their goods, fight the ladies offering their goods, do both if you like, then rescue the unwilling daughter, kill the unwilling daughter, kill the unwilling daughter since you killed her co-workers anyway, or leave her alone.
While some of these micro decisions may not always affect the overall outcome of the story in a big way, it certainly did for my Geralt, especially as he began remembering things. Geralt struggles with the ideas that anything not human is considered aberrant, especially because he would be lumped in with that group. And yet, here he is ridding such aberrations from the world for the safety of petty humans who are nothing but narrow minded and racist.
One shocking scene is hearing little children gleefully cry out to kill the ‘squirrels’ (a withering nickname for the Scoia’tael, and more indirectly, a racist insult towards non-humans). That’s actually kinda freaky and it should elicit a feeling of shock and sadness.
The Witcher was a wonderful story, it was a good taste of a huge story where our decisions actually had massive consequences to the way we viewed the world.
And who knew! Them Flaming Rose Bastards are real Bastards!
I was actually surprised by the immense plot twist involving religious fanatics, a Scoia’tael incursion in a flaming battle-ridden city and the Wild Hunt. Yep, out of nowhere, the Wild Hunt, who we all know is the final (sort of) boss. I found it so easy to make quick work of him and all the end bosses but I think that was because the game mechanics were so ingrained in my brain at that point that I came into battle fully and utterly prepared for any kind of attack.
And with that, we shall leave off with a semi-colon to this retrospective as I next explore the LUSCIOUSNESS that is The Witcher 2 in my next instalment.
Until then, don’t let the Strigas bite!