The Witcher – “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” [Hamlet Act 2, scene 2]
What defines right or wrong? Good and Evil? Justice and Lawlessness? Is it the act, or its observer? Whichever the answer you believe in, it is fair to say that morality is a tricky business. Games are the ideal medium to convey these questions, for one simple reason: they give the possibility of choice. Unlike a book or a movie, where you are stuck with perceiving the decisions (and consequences) a character makes, in games you can actually do it for them – your moral compass can actually be tested. That is not to say, that the morality of the authors is absent; the consequences that derive from these choices, and the moral weight they carry, are entirely defined by the creators. And that opens a whole new world of possibilities from a narrative standpoint. Should the player be rewarded for a good deed and punished by an evil one? Or should he be reminded, that in the real world, good deeds are hard choices, with no real compensation to speak of, and that the crime, sometimes actually does pay? That law is not always just? That to achieve great things, compromises must be made? Should the gamer even be aware of the morality of his choice, or should he make his own judgment?
Just the fact that so many issues can be discussed is a testament to the importance of interactive narratives. For many years, western rpg’s have been the genre in which the gamer is actually provoked by the kind of tricky questions mentioned before. This is in no small part, thanks to Bioware and its writers, especially Drew Karpyshyn (“Knights of the Old Republic”, “Mass Effect”) and to Black Isle/Obsidian’s lead designer, Chris Avellone (“Planescape – Torment”, “Knights of the Old Republic II”); the whole morality issue in interactive narrative was introduced by these authors. But in their games, morality has been dealt in an almost absolute way, with good and evil separated by well defined, glowing white lines. Not that the worlds they depict are black and white, mind you, they are grey and dark, but the decisions players can take are undoubtedly polarized into good and evil (and sometimes, lawful and chaotic). The direction they are taking, however, is in the sense of introducing more ambiguity and relativity into moral choices (and both “KotOR II” and “Mass Effect” tread in that same direction). Nonetheless, it is a path they have only begun to embrace.
In comes “The Witcher”, an RPG by the newborn polish company “CD Projekt Red” (sister to CD Projekt, a polish games translator company). “The Witcher” is an adaptation of the world created by Andrzej Sapkowski, in a series of dark fantasy novels centered round a monster-slaying mutant with magical powers, i.e. “The Witcher” Geralt. Sapkowski’s work is very reminiscent of high fantasy classics like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, but, as is common in dark fantasy narratives, twists its classical and mythological nature in favor of a more cynic and realistic tone. Racism, segregation, social struggles, political and law corruption are just some of the themes that manage to squeeze into his universe, transforming it into less of a fantasy world, and more to an allegorical version of our own decaying human society. The game’s narrative borrows this tone, and in the same way that Sapkowskis twists Tolkien, CD project twists Bioware.
The tale of the witcher Geralt starts with an attack on the witchers’ citadel, carried out by an evil mage who seeks to steal the magic and arcane secrets hidden by the witchers. After failing to repel the attack, Geralt and his witcher brothers start out on a quest to recover those secrets and have revenge. As poor as the start of this tale might sound, it develops in a series of unpredictable and interesting ways: on his journey for vengeance, Geralt will be caught in the middle of a conflict between humans and non-humans. Elves, dwarfs and other species have been the focus of prejudice throughout the development of human civilization, and so have decided to take up arms against them. On the other hand, humans see these “freedom fighters” as terrorists that are not afraid to kill women or children. Throughout the game, Geralt will have to make difficult choices in a war that he does not understand and that has nothing to do with him. Does he help the non-humans, that have a noble cause, but are so filled with hate and anger that will not stop at any means to fulfill their objectives? Or does he side with the humans, that are merely defending themselves against terrorists, and whose society, though decadent and filled with corruption, is a synonym of order and stability? He can also stay neutral, letting both sides destroy each other, and thus bringing a whole nation to shambles. So which is it? Many, many choices the player will have, and none right or wrong. In most of them, the player will only acknowledge their consequences much later in the game, when his overall perception of characters and events has changed. More than once, good-hearted decisions will have horrible consequences, and cold and difficult judgments will bring good in the end… a bit like real life, if you ask me. This simple substitution of black and white decisions with gray ones, joined with the butterfly effect, transforms binary selections into conundrums of unpredictable consequences, and gives a whole new meaning to the word: “choice”. If you let yourself immerse in this Universe, you will no doubt spend many minutes before making decisions, calculating carefully what might happen in either case. And since the consequences are only known much further in the game, there is no point in doing the save-load routine: once you make a choice, there’s no turning back.
The script of the game is not only interesting from the interactive point, as it is a testament to the creativity and quality of its author’s writings. Dialogs are rich and mature, characters are usually intelligent and filled with ulterior motives… rarely can they be judged at first sight. As standard, a number of unpredictable twists will turn the whole world upside down near the end of the game. The only downfall in this department is the somewhat lack of quality in some small game aspects, like the character animations, which are simply abominable, and the absence of certain narrative bridges, that make the game’s plot somewhat confusing at times.
The presentation of the game is almost as good as its narrative. [As you can see from the pictures] Art design department had a lot of work in conjuring up this dark-themed world, half way between Earth and Middle Earth, without falling in the temptation to transform it into either of them. Scenarios could have been taken from a historical-background game like “Assassin’s Creed”, as cities are usually places of decadence and poverty filled with anglo-saxonic architectural details, and have little, if anything, of a magical nature. Even forests and lakes, places typically associated with magic, have a down-to-earth feel, with somewhat drab color palettes. The game manages to feel idyllic, thanks to a good use of lighting and weather effects, but never surreal or magic, like most fantasy-themed games. Sometimes, it does feel a bit too drab and gloomy, lacking some contrast in colors, but overall it is an extremely beautiful game. On the sound department, nothing out of the normal to report: the soundtrack is mostly epic and medieval sounding, with one or two great tracks, but fails to harness the emotional power of, say, Jeremy Soule’s compositions (“Oblivion”).
On the subject of gameplay, “The Witcher” stands as most western RPG’s – In each chapter, you’ll have to enter a town hub, talk to villagers to fetch some quests and make money (that go from the “slay 1500 monsters and bring back proof” quest, to the “get the item that ***** bastard stole from me” quest). Once you’ve fed up with those trifle matters, you can do the main quests and enjoy the unveiling of the plot. On the good side of things, most quests have something to say about the game’s setting, so, no matter how boring they might seem, expect them always to manage unveiling some dark little secret. Combat is a bit of a hack and slash, with the player only having to click on their enemies at the right time for Geralt to release massive sword swinging combos (a bit like rhythm based games or “Legend of Dragoon”). There are also some magic spells Geralt can invoke, and 6 different combat styles, each of them with a typical usage scenario, which brings some tactical planning into play. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it manages to keep the player captivated.
And so, what seemed like an intangible possibility was accomplished by a new company: a truly interesting and morally ambiguous choice-driven RPG. Few games can even brag about having meaningful stories, let alone about having meaningful possibilities in them. The questions posed in this review’s first paragraph were definitely thought of during the game’s design and subtly inserted in the plot. By taking the best out of the “Good vs Evil” rpg’s (which were, by all means, brilliant) and adding a morally confusing tale, the authors ended up creating an epic and thought-provoking fantasy world. It has the writing quality of a book, and the endless possibilities of a game; it is, in every aspect, the new landmark in interactive storytelling.