There’s no such thing as a good choice in The Witcher.
Having just completed The Witcher in anticipation for its sequel, I’m struck by how bleak, and almost pointless a number of my decisions in the original game turned out to be. No matter who I chose, or what I did, war will still ravage Vizima, racism will still kill innocents and a soul will be twisted into corruption by the very idea of trying to save the world. I won’t ever be a hero, saving princesses from monsters, or the world from ice and fire. I’m just a guy, trying to make his way through a world that doesn’t seem to give a shit, and rationalizing it all to myself.
It’s interesting really. The Witcher really does stick to its tagline. There is no good, no evil, just choices and consequences; and these are hard choices. Choices that never seem obvious, with consequences you never see coming. It’s bleak, really, heart numbingly bleak because you can’t try to care as the game will just rip that part away from you. There are no good guys to side with, (well mostly, more on that in a bit), and almost every bad guy has justification you can almost agree with as he perpetuates whatever atrocities. This game fucks with you, fucks with the choice you made by only showing you the consequences far enough down the line that a quick save won’t rescue you. It won’t laugh at you while doing it though, it’ll just bow its solemnly and mutter, “that’s just the way the world works.”
I’m not sure I like all of it.
That’s not entirely a bad thing.
I sided with Siegfried in this play through. I liked him. He seemed like a stand-up guy, a true embodiment of an ideal knight. Yaevinn came across as a smug bastard, even though I had some sympathy for his cause. But I found it hard to reconcile the Scoi’Tael’s methods when Zoltan was merrily traipsing across Vizima, scorn or no scorn. There seemed to be some good within the common people. Sure, the nobles were mostly jackasses, but Siegfried, Shani, Vincent, Kalkstein showed that humans could be decent and peace could be reconciled with the other races in some time. So I sided with Siegfried. I sided with the order. How the hell was I supposed to know.
What disappoints me the most is that when I want Geralt to explain my choices, when I want to rationalize the decisions I made, the game doesn’t let me. Geralt isn’t me, perhaps he doesn’t think the same way I do. But there’s a reason why I chose not to aid the scoi’tael. (don’t threaten children and the innocent) I just never got to ever explain it. The game doesn’t do it for you. It just makes you live with the consequences of that decision, for good or bad and that’s the part I did not like. It felt empty almost, like the choice didn’t matter. It’ll all go to hell one way or the other.
I’ve made some bones about choice being an important part of game play before. It helps gets the player invested into the story, or the narrative. Whether it’s a small choice like what gun to shoot in Brink, or a huge choice about which faction to ally with in an RPG, it defines the player’s personal story, it makes the game theirs. The disconnect for me in the Witcher, as well as it does choice, is that it never seems like my choice, it’s Geralt’s. I just play him. I’m an actor in a role that really isn’t mine. The trouble with Geralt is that he’s a blank slate, a convenient amnesiac to write off his novelization history, (never read the books myself.) so I never get familiar with his through processes. I know what mine are, so when confronted with those hard choices, I can justify to myself that what I know in that instance, will cause me to make the choice i did. If I knew more, I might make something different. Geralt’s an amnesiac, he doesn’t know anymore than I do. Right?
I don’t think it’s that simple. He has friends. Dandelion and Zoltan. Triss and Shani even, when they’re not throwing a temper tantrums and being wholly unreasonable. Why couldn’t I talk to them about my choices. The world was a bleak place, but Geralt is not without his friends and support. Friends who has been through wars with him, who knows the society inside and out, who are aware of the nuances of Temerian life that our amnesiac hero might have forgotten, and that I do not know. In fact, one of my favourite moments in the game is Shani’s party. More games should allow my character to just kick back and relax amidst the questing. It makes the world feel more alive, and those relationships feel more natural.
But then it doesn’t matter, because Geralt doesn’t talk and I’m forced to make decisions for him without anymore knowledge than I could have gotten. Perhaps it’s a game play limitation, or a technical one. Perhaps I should have read the books, but I came out of Witcher regretting some of the choices I made, and some of the ones that I could not have made. It’s a curious thing, the Witcher. They take control of the story from you enough times that I wished I could have done something different there as well.
All this to say that I hope Witcher 2 does better. That it presents me choices but also gives me more a chance to realize them. 2 hours in and I feel that they’ve at least characterize Geralt a lot better in his opening scenes. Maybe I don’t have to fully get into his head to make the choices the game presents to me this time round, but at the very least, I hope to feel less like a detached actor playing an amnesiac’s strings, and more like a conscience in a character’s ear, whispering to him the direction in which he should go.