Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Witcher review


    The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski is one of my favorite fantasy epics, though it's difficult to put into words why. I suppose the best way to explain is it's fantasy noir. Yet it's actually a lighter shade of black, the protagonist and his motely band of associates are heroes precisely because they're flawed individuals who'd rather be doing something other than saving the world.

    Most fans of the series across the pond are probably familiar with the game series as opposed to the novels. Sadly, the entirety of the novels haven't been translated into English and you need to be a super-fan willing to read fan copies in order to enjoy them.

    Like me.

    The first Witcher game, appropriately titled The Witcher, had a vaguely Planescape: Torment-esque premise. The protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, awakens with amnesia only to find out he's a semi-famous monster hunter existing in a world overrun with problems. The plot of the game had your usual monster slaying but the majority of problems facing the world weren't related to demons or the occult. Instead, the Medieval fantasy world he inhabits is troubled by classicism, racism, and social injustice.

    Just like our world.

    The game had its flaws. You had to run around the setting to a ridiculous level. In its attempts to be mature about sexuality, it came off as tawdry (ironically, when it had surprisingly well-developed female characters who weren't just treated as sex objects). I'll address this last part a little bit later. Likewise, the systems were made for a controller as opposed to a PC. The Xbox 360 version WOULD have fixed many of these problems but it got trapped in development hell. Really, I wish they'd release it anyway but that's just a fanboy's greed talking.

    Still, what appealed to me about The Witcher was the fact that the setting was ambiguous but with a sense of clearly defined morality. The hero isn't a murderer and a torturer who just happens to kill "bad" people. He's a regular guy who just happens to have the profession of monster killer and would happily prefer to stick to that. The rapists, bigots, and killers of the world are still scum. It's just that the environment they live in takes a blind eye to their excesses. Geralt can take a stand for what's right but it'll have consequences.

    I think a lot of games fail to do moral ambiguity right because they're afraid of the backlash. It requires more than making both sides reprehensible. In fact, you need to be able to make both sides admirable as well. The Witcher manages this, much to my initial surprise, giving players the option of taking sides in conflicts which appeal to their morality as opposed to one the game has artificially constructed to be the 'correct' side.

    My favorite conflict is between the Scoia'tael and the Order of the Flaming Rose. The Scoia'tael are seemingly a justified group of freedom fighters working to end the oppression of nonhumans and achieve equality. The Order of the Flaming Rose appear to be a group of noble, pure-hearted paladins who are out to defend the innocent for moral reasons. Both have dark sides but have reasons to act the way they do. You have the choice to side with one or the other (or remain neutral) with consequences relating to both but no real answer as to which as the "right" one.

    Really, the only major flaw is the game tries a little too hard to make Geralt into the James Bond of gaming. As mentioned above, the first game has something of a reputation for its treatment of sex. Geralt has the opportunity to sleep with more than a dozen women in the game, which goes well beyond mature gaming to the decidedly silly. The game further digs itself a hole by having each 'conquest' rewarded with a card depicting the woman in a state of undress. I think video games should depict sex more positively than violence but there's a difference between being sex positive and just being silly about it.

    Still, that doesn't overcome the fact The Witcher is an amazing game. Its characterization, plots, and storytelling are top notch. Each of the NPCs is fully realized and Geralt is one of my favorite characters in fiction. He's far from a blank slate but a multifaceted character with flaws and prejudices. Of Geralt's many potential love interests, I was especially fond of Triss who is a character from the books now fully realized in the games.

    One thing I will recommend, though, is that everyone pick up the Enhanced Edition of the game as opposed to the original. The difference in quality of the writing and picture quality is the difference between a solid eight and an even ten. Whatever the case, The Witcher is an excellent buy even with a few years on it.

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