On Being ‘The Other’: Thoughts on the Witcher Series
Posted by Vrykerion
I’ve commented before here and there about ‘The Witcher’, the blockbuster game franchise developed by gamer darling CD Projekt Red. It’s a game series that I have tried time and time again to sit down and play and I just never felt invested in compared to games like Final Fantasy, the Dragon Age series, or even the Fable games. And it usually always boils down to me sitting there and asking myself why? Why are these games so difficult for me to immerse myself into and enjoy? When by all critical and gamer opinions they are superior to all three of the aforementioned franchises?
It’s not that I think that they are bad games. In fact, the one place I would compliment them above all else is in their gameplay design – especially the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt which is often cited as one of the few games to do ‘Open World’ right. And while I honestly felt many of the side quests in Wild Hunt were tedious and dragged on for far too long (I know we all are supposed to hate ‘fetch quests’ but going to fetch some milk doesn’t need to be turned into the Lord of the Rings either.) Though I will note that the combat can sometimes feel overwhelming in the number of options for the short span of time you are given to utilize them that I tend to just end up smacking things with the wrong sword until they die. I can honestly say that the gameplay is solid and enjoyable and quite often trims the fat from superfluous busy work.
The story itself was the next point that I thought about. It’s not lacking in any way, far from it. In many ways it often feels like there’s too much to take in. Rich histories that you are merely gleaming the edges of as you partake in your focused quest. I know the game series was based on a much larger series of novels, and it shows in the fact that characters often regard each in familiar ways even though you only being introduced to them. It honestly had me wishing for a codex of some sort like in Mass Effect or even Final Fantasy XIII that I could refer back to. While the game has something similar, it’s less a datalog or codex and more of a “there are tons of books lying around” and much like the Elder Scrolls, you might stumble upon a book explaining the rich backstory, or maybe just a recipe for cheese soup. Who knows? The setting was honestly probably the hardest swallow for me. It’s just such a depressing world. Death, disease, monsters, bitter hatred, murder, backstabbing, and of course a lot of war – these are the back bones of the Witcher world. It’s not a happy place nor time to live in. But it’s not like I haven’t played in settings that were bleak before. Mass Effect 3 was literally the apocalypse and starts with you watching as thousands perish on your home world. You watch world after world die, and things go from bad to worse and then discover it was all because an AI figured a periodic galactic extinction would be the simplest way to solve the problem it was given millions of years ago. THAT’S bleak. So what was it? What have I not looked at? Well, there’s always Geralt.
Yes, Geralt of Rivia. The titular Witcher of the series. Who – no matter how much you choose the ‘nice’ or ‘good’ dialogue options – will remain a steadfast asshole in the cutscenes. But I’ve played assholes before. I’ve played characters that are even worse than Geralt in that area *side eyes my Sith Inquisitor* but I think we are close. In fact, I don’t think it’s so much that Geralt is a jerk that it is WHY he’s a jerk. I mean, wouldn’t you be a jerk if everyone hated you for pretty much no reason?
Yeah. And here’s the crux of where the plot, the setting, and the characters all intersect to create the real reason that I just can’t enjoy the Witcher games: Everyone hates you. It doesn’t matter how many good deeds you do in the game, and how many individuals you win over to your side, in the end there is a societal hatred of Witchers. Not just Geralt – though his reputation as “The Butcher of Blaviken” doesn’t help – but all Witchers are regarded in mass as being soulless blood-thirsty mercenary monsters that should only be interacted with if you have to. There’s no changing that. Oh you can choose the good options and decide to not take money from the people, but the next person you talk to will be back to the same old prejudices. Even worse, it doesn’t change when you go to a different location. This stereotype that you have no choice but to endure over and over with the sole exception of spending time in Kaer Morhen with the few other Witchers in your neighborhood.
And I know some are reading this right now and wondering if I’m saying all this with this particular phrasing to build up to some manner of a political point about the real world. While I won’t deny that there is definitely meat on those bones that can be picked on for some interesting thought, I don’t believe I am the one to do it. I don’t have the tongue for such impassioned speaking and I have a foot far too eager to slip into my mouth at times. So I will leave it at that.
That said, that is truly the core of why I can’t get into these games. Because I don’t find pleasure in playing through a world, fighting for a world, that actively and quite universally hates me for no reason. It’s why despite all the claims in the world that the Witcher 3 is a superior game to Dragon Age: Inquisition, I will be playing my eighth playthrough of DA:I before even finishing one of the Witcher 3. I’m not saying that the Witcher 3 is a bad game. Or that it’s bad writing. Or bad anything really. It’s just… not the right fit for me. As a question I’ve had percolating in the back of my mind for years now, I figured I’d share the results of my thoughts. Thanks for the read.