Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Witcher 3 Is Amazingly Written, and People Should Talk About It More.

The three best-known characters of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
(There are light spoilers ahead for The Witcher 3, starting about halfway through. Even if you haven't played the game, you should still read all of this article, as it is a good article.)

A large part of the purpose of this blog is to pick apart interesting video games, so it would be shameful for me to pass up one of this year's most exciting titles, the Polish hit RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

I've been playing computer RPGs since they existed, so I'm sort of burned out on the genre. I play them for market research, but I rarely finish them and almost never enjoy them. Thus, I can give The Witcher 3 the highest praise I can give an RPG: When I stopped playing it to do something else, I wasn't happy about it. I found it to be, and yes, I can't believe I'm saying this, a ton of fun.

It's also full of fascinating design. It does some things in writing I've never seen in a game before, and parts of the game completely blew my jaded self away. I would have loved to see game writers and critics pick apart the machinery of this game and show what new things it did and why it did them so well.

Didn't happen, so I have to pick up the slack. Alas ...

Putting On My Critic Hat

There was some vigorous critical debate about The Witcher 3 when it came out, but it primarily centered around whether this Polish game, made by Poles and set in a fantasy Poland based on Polish books, had too many white people.

(Side note: Did you know that many Eastern Europeans, who occupy a large, diverse region with a long and rich history, severe poverty, and recent history of vicious oppression, find it intensely irritating to be thoughtlessly lumped into the huge, vague category of "white people"?)

The question of whether the Polish people deserve the right to make their own representations of themselves without getting permission from affluent North American academics is one I plan to leave entirely alone.

Instead, I'm going to say something about The Witcher 3 that will probably severely agitate some readers: It is a terrific, much-needed dose of diversity for the game industry.

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
There's a Lot of Sorts of Diversity.

My wife is a Hungarian immigrant, and her half of our family is Hungarian and Polish. I'm not going to pretend for a second to be an expert on their cultures, but I have had a few decades of close observation. Enough to say this:

The Witcher 3 feels like it was written by people who spent a lot of their childhoods at their parents' and grandparents' feet, hearing stories about the horrors of World War 2 and the following Soviet occupation. (Or like the game was written by people who suffered that misery directly.)

Eastern Europeans have always seemed to me to be a tough, serious people living in a historically dangerous part of the world. Appropriately, this is a tough, serious game, full of unfairness and arbitrary cruelty.

The Witcher 3 feels like it is written with a keen awareness of what it is like to have your country occupied by brutal outsiders. Coincidentally, it comes from Poland, a country whose experience of the 20th century was, let's say, traumatic. For them to use that experience to produce a work like this is something we should treasure. It is a valuable thing.

Video games tend to approach politics in a simplistic way. The Witcher 3 is obsessed with politics. It shows again and again how the decisions made by those in power filter down and affect (usually painfully) regular people. This is not a game that sugar coats anything. Anywhere. Ever.

So This Is Where We Lose the Game Critics

Much modern gaming criticism is based on this basic theory: Popular culture shapes how people think, which shapes the world. Therefore, art is inherently political. It should focus on showing the world in the lovely state we want it to be, as opposed to the unpleasant way it might actually be.

(To see an example of this viewpoint, consider the well-known Tropes vs. Women video series. Go here and read the last three paragraphs of the transcript.)

The Witcher 3, on the other hand, depicts a medieval, war-torn, highly patriarchal society. It is only rarely judgmental. The game sets up how its world is, and then it deals with the consequences, logically grinding from one inevitable event to the next.

This game doesn't lie to you, even if some want it to. It comes from a land that knows full well how cruel the world can be, and it knows that ignoring that cruelty is an insult to our ancestors, the ones who withstood it in order to make a world for us. This leads The Witcher 3 to a lot of really interesting places, and I’m genuinely surprised game writers haven’t dug into it more.

It is a game full of grim humor, some of which was a bit much for me. (For example, I absolutely would have cut the gwent card with the joke about "raping for Redania.")

It's also a game where horror sits side by side with silly humor and pop culture references. There's nothing unusual about this. Humans often use inappropriate humor to deal with difficult circumstances. (Example: Google "jewish nazi jokes". Or just watch any old Mel Brooks movie.)

Video games need more of this. Our industry tends to approach politics and other real world conflicts in a simplistic way, with black and white morality and good/evil choices that don’t line up with how things really work. For all its occasional whimsy, The Witcher 3 reflects real thought about humanity and how it bears up (or breaks) under oppression.

That is why I say The Witcher 3 is a great example of diversity in our industry. There are many sorts of diversity. It brings diversity of thought, perspective, history. It is infused with a different, harder way of thinking and regarding the world.

If you are an academic preparing to write the 1000000th article on Proteus or Gone Home or Spec Ops: The Line, might I direct you to a title that is under-examined and worthy of analysis?

(Mild spoilers start here. Keep reading anyway.)

It is possible that some of us are overly fixating on the unicorn thing.
Family Matters.

No discussion about storytelling in The Witcher 3 is complete without mentioning its already-infamous Family Matters questline. It's already been written about a bunch, so I won't talk about it too much, since I want to get into a cooler bit later on.

Basically, this is a quest where a local warlord asks you to find his lost wife and child. Which escalates into a local warlord who asks you to bring back the wife and child who fled his abuse. Which escalates into finding a wife and child who fled and became ensnared in powerful, dangerous local magic.

It's not far in. It's the first major chapter. If you care at all about storytelling in video games, YOU MUST PLAY THIS SECTION. Do it on the easiest difficulty setting if you need to. (The Witcher 3 has some balance issues. It's too hard early on and too easy later.)

This section takes a ton of weird plot threads that seem unconnected, ties them all together effortlessly, throws in some stunning set pieces along the way, and ramps up to an excruciating ending full of impossible choices. It’s really good.

After that, there's a looong chapter in the city of Novigrad that is fun, but a bit overlong. It also occasionally throws in piles of dead women for cheap shock value, which is hacky. (This is a point where I agree with the Tropes vs Women videos.) It's my least favorite section, but it still has a lot of good stuff.

Then you're on the Isle of Megavikings (sorry, Skellige), which has some very cool, involved quests full of epic combat, punching-oriented politics, and painfully slow boats.

Then the main character, Geralt, is reunited with his basically-adopted-daughter, Ciri. This is where the coolest part (to me) starts. First, a few words about women in The Witcher.

Shut up, Newman. Nobody will ever love you.
Sorceresses and Goddesses.

The Witcher's most interesting characters are all women. The more recent books the game is based on focus on the women (Ciri and Yennefer, mainly). Even in The Witcher 3, there are multiple scenes where the women are doing the planning while Geralt shuffles around nervously nearby.

Gender politics arguments are not usually the morass I choose to get bogged down in. If you want to dig into these discussions, this Kotaku article is a reasonable breakdown.

All this brings me (finally) to the thing I loved most about the game: The relationship between the hero, Geralt, and his ward and surrogate daughter, Ciri.

My Favorite Thing About the Witcher 3.

Ciri is your standard fantasy Mysterious Power, Destined To Do Great Things. The first part of the game is Geralt trying to find her. The second part is him protecting her and helping her do the Big Fantasy Thing she needs to do.

Here's a key point. For all your running around and questing and gwent-playing, Geralt is not the main character in Witcher 3. He is a secondary character in Ciri's story.

Forget Fighting. How Good a Dad Are You?

So at the end, Ciri does a Big Thing. I think the game could have done a better job explaining what she was doing and why, but that would be adding more content to an already overstuffed game. The important thing is that this event is what the hours and hours of running around, confusion, and carnage has led to. Her thing. You aren't even present for it.

But you DO matter. Remember, you are Ciri's mentor. For the final stretch of the game, Ciri comes to you for support and guidance. The way you support her is vitally important. It determines whether she completes and survives doing the Big Thing.

All of the things you say and do that make a difference don't seem to be that important, but they are, in fact, vital. A few offhand words you don't think twice about can have an enormous effect on someone else, and it's not always fair. (You know. Like in real life.) All of the most important decisions in the game seem like False Choices.

False Choices?

Role-playing games, including my own, have a lot of what are sometimes called false choices. These are points when you make a decision or express your opinion, but your choices don't have a concrete effect on gameplay.

I don't believe false choices don't make a difference. In fact, they are hugely important. By asking the player to mentally engage and form an opinion about what is happening in the game, you are directly shaping the player's experience.

Remember, video games are just tools we use to affect our brains. The only important thing about a game is how our brain perceives it. Any choice, even a false choice, affects our perception of the game. All choices matter, even if they don't affect your stats.

The difference with The Witcher 3 is that all of the most important decisions are hidden in plain sight. They seem like false choices, but they directly change the ending. Your words have enormous importance to your child, but they seem irrelevant to you. It's exactly like ...

As a bonus, here is a lifetime's worth of nightmare fuel.
Being a Parent.

I have two kids. It has been endlessly frustrating to me how bad a job pop culture, especially video games, does depicting this fundamental human experience.

The Witcher 3 is the first game I've ever played that really engages my parent brain. When Ciri came to me for advice, my experience raising my own daughters had an affect on what I chose.

Yes, it can be unfair. You can think you're doing or saying the right thing, and it all falls apart. Welcome to parenthood.

I think this is cool and unique, and I wanted to make sure it didn't pass without comment. It's a shame it all happens so late in the game, because it's really well-crafted.

A Few Odds and Ends.

The Witcher 3 contains a card game called gwent, and yes, it is as addictive as you've heard. However, I don't think it would work out well in real life. The computer game has absolute control over the cards you can possibly own at any point. A real-life designer doesn’t have that ability.

The Witcher 3 is mostly an open world game, and it shares the sins so many open world games have: A needlessly fiddly crafting system. Lots of meaningless encounters and collectibles clogging up the world. Too much time spent looting giant piles of boxes, one at a time, each of which contains something useless. Honestly, stick to the main questline and side quests as much as you can.

I enjoyed the combat. Invest in the spell that lets you charm bad guys. It makes many fights easy and hilarious.

The speed at which this game can go from light-hearted whimsy to full-on Game of Thrones never failed to surprise me.

I want Keira Metz to be in every video game I ever play again ever. I want Tetris to be nothing but little falling Keira Metzes.

Apparently, rumor has it that The Witcher 3 also depicts a sex scene atop a stuffed unicorn. This is exactly the sort of needless immaturity that keeps video games from flourishing as an art form. The Witcher 3, your mother and I are very disappointed in you.

Finally, no discussion of this game would be complete without a link to Conan O'Brien's terrific Clueless Gamer segment.