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On Being ‘The Other’: Thoughts on the Witcher Series

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.

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Solo Game Vacation: Stick a Masamune in me, I’m Done

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Cloud shares my feelings

Well, time trudges on and games get played.  And I have finally finished Final Fantasy VII and put it back on my metaphorical shelf to sit.  You know, I don’t know what I can say at this juncture that won’t invoke the ire of many internet dwelling denizens.  Final Fantasy VII has taken on this mythic larger than life position that has rendered it untouchable by so many, like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Mario 64.  And part of my really gets why that is.  It’s solid from a game play standpoint, even if the materia gets a bit grindy toward the end.  The minigames are fun, and reminds me so often how much I’d LOVE a Gold Saucer style area in an MMO with racing, PvE arena battles with handicaps, little arcade minigames, etc to win prizes and have fun.  And for the time, the technology was indeed a huge leap forward in the genre and it is really easy to see how it would endear itself to a generation of gamers both as a jump forward and as a first glimpse into the Final Fantasy series.  I mean, the Playstation was how many people’s first console?  FF7 was how many people’s first Final Fantasy?  Yea.  There’s a nostalgia factor and it’s not hard to see why.

I suppose all this complimentary stuff is being dumped up front because I am trying to build a shield with it.  You see, after completing the game. Doing everything I could save for the Ruby and Emerald Weapon and mastering 100% of the materia, I can honestly say that I found the story to be ATROCIOUSLY LACKING.

Did I get your blood boiling? Good. I’ve just gotten started.  I talked about this with some people on Twitter yesterday, but I keep coming back to it as the greatest single problem with Final Fantasy VII.  The gameplay, solid. The music, beautiful. The technology, amazing for its time. The story? OH MY GOD WHY?!  Not only is the plot so complicated to Evangelion proportions (Starting to see why this one is so popular with anime fans), it is told is the most sideways methods that David Lynch would stop the game to say “Wait. What?” with buckets of exposition tossed on you combined with misinformation that has some fans of the games stunned when I mention the bit that Jenova ISN’T a bloody Cetra.

Worse yet, the way the story is conveyed is usually via the party talking, which means you spend most of the time with the characters trying to figure out the story instead of getting to know these character’s personalities.  Combine that with the fact that so little time is spent with their individual stories save for usually one town on Disc One that serves as that character’s “backstory town” and then you move on and never bother with them again.  Red XIII does a complete heel turn about his father.  Any and all resentment is just dropped and now he is the proudest frickin’ lion dog thing ever to be the son of Soto.  If it was that damn easy, why didn’t Bugen just tell him that crap years ago?  “My dad sucks.” “Your dad was a hero.” “I love my dad!” “Good, now heal the party and don’t be relevant till disc 3.”

I know I’m really harping on this, but come on people.  With the exception of Cloud, Tifa and maybe Barrett, these aren’t characters.  They’re cardboard cut outs that can cast spells.  Even Aeris falls victim to this, hence why I had no emotional weight to her death (Spoiler warning for a 15 year old game by the way).  She was cheerful?  And she offered Cloud a date in exchange for protection?  And then she was a Cetra.  And she summoned holy.  And she’s dead now.  Sure, you get a bit more time with her if you do the Gold Saucer date, but by that point I didn’t give a damn about her and was much more interested in the childhood friend who clearly knows something isn’t right with her friend and shares an emotional tragedy with the loss of their mutual hometown and their parents.  And you know that much about them by the time you get your first chocobo.  Aeris’ backstory is…  she’s a Cetra. She dated Zach. Her mom died… somehow? And she’s a Cetra.

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Wait… I’m WHERE?

Not convinced?  How about Cid?  Cid who becomes the de facto leader when Tifa stays with Cloud at the hospital for a few missions on Disc 2.  Captain of the airship in the game.  Clearly an important figure.  Why does he join this mission to save Planet?  Well,  in his own words:  My time in that town is over, and my business with Shinra is through…  So yea, why not?  Why not indeed.  Why not join a bunch of terrorists?  Got nothing else to do.  And it’s true.  He has no reason to get involved, but he does because the plot says so.

It just drove me nuts.  I’d take a simple plot with great characters over a complex plot with bland characters.  I mean, if I can have both, sure. But this ain’t it.

So I’m glad I played it.  I enjoyed the game.  But I wish the story were handled better.  It wasn’t a bad story. Just… not told well.  I remember the problem being similar in Final Fantasy 8 – another on my list to revisit someday – but right now we’re going back to a game I know I love that I’ve been wanting to replay forever.

A game beneath cerulean skies

Oh! I suppose I should note in terms of offline gaming, my fiance and I picked up Age of Empires III on sale and decided to give it a try.  First impressions were…   mixed?  I guess it’s like an historical warcraft game essentially?  I think we were both hoping for something more like a more realtime active Civilization, but hey at least it’s on the cheap. And it fulfills that “Lets blow up the other country!” feeling.

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