essay, video games

I’m just not that into you, The Witcher

A friend of mine has tried to talk me into playing The Witcher for a couple of years. He has told me about the story, the moral choices and, by force of the volume of information spoken about it, hoped that I would take up the game at some point. After spending several hours with him yesterday, during which we talked about The Witcher 2 for sizable chunk of it, I thought I would finally give in and try the first game. I’d played it before, I could take it up again.

I don’t like the battle system.

After playing through the initial tutorial area for a second time, I realized that the click-wait-click-wait-click system of sword combinations it uses is still annoying to me. If it was closer to a Diablo or Torchlight click-fest, I would be fine with it. I could click to attack, a one-to-one relationship. If it was timed and I needed to learn was the button and time combinations, I could deal with that too. But the click and then wait for a sign to click again seems to be the odd lovechild of both quick time events and adventure game directions, two system I generally dislike. I might, as my friend replied when I told him of my discomfort, “get used to it” but it is going to be a long time before I do.

I don’t like protagonists who have amnesia.

Something I have avoided in my writing and most books once I am aware of it is the trope of protagonists who have great power — as it always turns out — but do not have memory of their actions or past. It’s used too much in speculative fiction as a way to ease a reader or player into a world by continually referring to the protagonist’s amnesia as the reason to explain every everyday items to the reader. What do you mean you have never heard of a toaster? Here, let me show you how it works.

It’s used in The Witcher as a way to introduce Geralt, as the player, back into a fantasy world of swords and magic. All techniques and powers can be taught (for a second time to the character) as they are being shown to the player. He is reminded how to fight and use his Signs (basically magic) to progress through the tutorial section. It works for the most part for those not aware of other ways to do this world-building and exposition. The process of explaining everything again makes the character look like an idiot about the world though when, during a cut-scene, he knows how to do something but, one player controlled, he doesn’t how to do the thing he just did. A bad case of ludonarrative dissonance.

The camera was better in Planescape: Torment.

Both The Witcher and Planescape: Torment run on similar engines. Torment runs in the Infinity and The Witcher runs on the Aurora Engine, both developed by BioWare. Both, unfortunately, use the same camera system. While I can forgive it in Torment because of the viewpoint, isomorphic, and its age, I am less forgiving of a game only a few years old that has been patched in recent history. Moving the cursor to the farthest edges of the screen to rotate the camera is not a good idea. While I am trying to click to battle, run with WASD and watch the screen, I do want to move one hand in a completely different direction just to turn a corner correctly. I have found myself moving the character and then taking time to correct the camera before moving him again several times now.

I didn’t actually want to have sex.

By far, the worse offense it has done to me was to have Geralt have sex with someone when I did not mean for it to happen.

During the tutorial section, Triss Merigold, the only woman so far in the game, at first holds her ground and then get hurt during a magical battle off screen. It is the latter that is questioning since she presented herself as quite capable of combat using magic in earlier fights that were during cut-scenes and battle footage. However, once Geralt kills one of the mages that are attacking, she is met immediately after and seen as being hurt. After the final confrontation, a potion must be made to heal her.

This serves as a way to get the player used to the world and how the alchemy system works. (It also underscores, as I was quick to notice, that women are weak and will need your help in this world since you are a man.) You must direct Geralt to gather items in various parts of the castle while also battling the few remaining enemies that remain. Successfully getting all the items grant the player their first quest done, some experience points and ultimately a trip to Triss Merigold’s room to give her the potion.

You find her moaning in pain but the potion quickly heals her. She asks about your past — you have amnesia and don’t remember anything — since she thought you had been killed. She then presents the player with a choice, get on with the story or comfort her. I chose the later.

I read the situation as being one in which she was hurt, shaken by having his supposed mastery of magic proven wrong and shocked to see a friend alive again. Of course, she needed some comfort about everything. There was quite a bit going on even for me, the player, to understand. Taking a few moments to relax and think about recent events sounded like a good idea to me too. Comfort though, I came to understand as a cut-scene happened, meant “have sex immediately.”

I was actually aware that “romances” in The Witcher boiled down to collecting cards — basically trophies; since, you know, women are objects, right? — and was actually actively trying not to get cards. I was not going around trying to sex with every female I met and especially not as some form of in-game reward for actions. Yet, I walked right into a situation where I, as the player, read the situation and then picked an option as I would act, not the character himself. This, of course, brought up something else: was the correct action for the character as he should or as I would?