I should have known The Witcher wasn't going to have a happy ending. It's a dark fantasy world where the greatest threat to the world might not be an evil wizard, but the bigoted resentments of your neighbors. Squalor of every kind is omnipresent, and every good deed seems to go unnoticed.
And still I was surprised as the credits rolled. In the last few minutes of the original Witcher, everything I'd spent the past thirty hours trying to avoid seemed to happen anyway. I'd saved the world, maybe, and then watched it trip headlong into the gutter.
So what was the point of it all? Answering that question made me realize just what a singularly strong start The Witcher was for a new series, and why it holds up as a narrative experience even if the game itself is over the hill.
There’s no denying that it's hard to recommend The Witcher anymore. After seven years, the combat and animations have aged poorly, though you have to acknowledge CD Projekt’s ingenuity as they tortured the Neverwinter Nights engine into an unrecognizable new RPG.
It is also an embarrassing game in many ways. The Witcher had me looking over my shoulder as I played it, worried that someone might catch me while yet another medieval strumpet offered herself up to Geralt, resulting in a nude portrait of her on a "romance card". It's a game for grown-ups that can't stop acting like an adolescent boy with a creepy fixation of sexual violence. Enjoying The Witcher requires a lot of forgiveness for its persistent tone-deafness.
Yet, having said all that, The Witcher remains an enormously satisfying game. I finally got around to playing it as a part of my effort to get ready for The Witcher 3, and was delighted to encounter a thoughtful and morally complex fantasy story. Most importantly, it's one that is refreshingly open to questioning the role, or even the possibility, of heroism.
Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence
Spoiler warning for the whole game
The Witcher tips its hand in its opening chapter. Even before you can embark on your main quest, you end up in a kind of Limbo, in a village with the self-defeating name of The Outskirts. You're quarantined there, just outside the capital, and naturally you get the usual litany of early RPG quests: go kill these monsters, go clear that crypt, etc. Oh and, by the by, at nightfall the town is overrun with spectral dogs that kill anything in their path.
Like any other fantasy village, The Outskirts is beset by paranormal horrors that everyone seems to take for granted, and they greet the arrival of an ultra-competent monster slayer with all the interest and impatience that would be due a tardy appliance repairman.
Except there are growing hints that the villagers' nonchalance is about more than meek acceptance of their fate as starting-zone NPCs. It's that the village is haunted by guilty consciences, and the nagging suspicion that their recent misfortunes look an awful lot like divine retribution.
The rich drunkard with giant killer plants overrunning his garden? You learn those plants only grow on the graves of murder victims, and it's his own brother he's got buried back there. The guard who is stricken with grief after you break the news that you found his fiancee's dead body in a crypt? Well, she committed suicide there after the guard and his friends gang-raped her, and later you learn the guard has done things like this before. The pious priest who oversees the entire village? He knows, or suspects, just about everything you learn during your investigation. It’s just that his god takes an indulgent view of the crimes of powerful men.
And in the end, after Geralt has figured out what is happening, the village faces its demons and comes together to… burn a witch. It leads to one of the coolest scenes in the game, as Geralt stares down the mob with their torches and pitchforks and tells them to go home. He unloads the litany of their sins on them, and says they've got one last chance to live their lives right, or he'll come back to the town and kill every living thing he finds.
It's a great scene, straight out of a Western, and it just about brought me to my feet. My character was like an avenging archangel. But the priest and his buddies attacked anyway, and then the hellhounds struck the village. When I finally got out of combat, I finally got a chance to see what had become of The Outskirts.
The town had perished. And I mean everyone. Their bodies littered the lanes and the gardens, where the spectral pack had torn them to shreds. As Geralt explains later, their collective sins had invoked a curse that even a powerful sorcerer couldn't have managed. Yet this pack of small-minded, resentful yokels managed to pry open the gates of hell. The only person Geralt manages to save from this entire community is a lone witch. Everyone else dies.
And with that, you’ve been inducted into the world of The Witcher.
No place for a hero
The Witcher doesn't really believe in heroism. At least, not in the way it's usually understood in games. This world's problems are beyond Geralt's abilities to fix. He arrives when bad things have already been set in motion, and it's far too late to avert the overall tragedy from unfolding. All Geralt can do, in most cases, is affect little things at the margins.
It's a neat trick because Geralt gets all kinds of choices to make along the way, and they feel like they're important. You can support The Order, which is basically a paladins' guild with fascist overtones, or you can support the Scoia'tael, the nonhuman rebels who are waging a campaign of violent resistance to their own racial subjugation. Or you can stay true to your calling as a witcher, and remain neutral in the bigger conflicts. After all, witchers exist to protect all sentient life from monsters, and playing that role means being someone that every side can trust.
So each chapter of The Witcher might feel familiar, like a Bioware RPG, as Geralt makes choices that define his relationship to other characters and to the factions they represent. He intervenes in peasant troubles and settles minor disputes, and makes decisions about the escalating political strife around him.
But the clever trick in The Witcher is that for all Geralt's choices, he makes almost no difference to the world at large. It even shows you this in the first chapter. No matter what he does in The Outskirts, the town is damned.
Similarly, Geralt himself can end the game in radically different positions, but the world itself continues on exactly the same arc as before. My Geralt sided with the nonhuman rebels because they were so obviously persecuted and abused by the people in power. The last chapter saw Geralt and his dwarven buddy throwing neutrality to the wind and carving through legions of human knights alongside elvish rebels. He won assurances from the human king that he'd address the plight of elves and dwarves in his kingdom, and spare the rebels retribution. He got the rebel leader to agree to negotiate a peace. For a while there, I felt like the hero, bringing justice to the downtrodden and peace to the land.
But in the epilogue, you discover it made little difference. The rebels' taste of success drives more elves into open revolt, the movement growing stronger and more militant even as it has achieved many of its goals. The ensuing violence provokes renewed crackdowns. Whatever Geralt achieves, the world's slide toward chaos continues unabated.
When the fall is all there Is
If The Witcher were just about yanking the rug out from under your feet, and making a point about futility in the face of fate, it wouldn't work. It'd be an exercise in "grimdark" fantasy, where there are no "good guys" and goodness itself becomes a meaningless concept amidst moral chaos and existential hopelessness. Yet it would equally unsatisfying, and far more dishonest, to pretend that the witcher is some kind of magical character who can blow into town, talk some good sense into people, and solve deeply entrenched problems.
So the real stakes in The Witcher become Geralt beliefs and values. At several points, he is forced to declare allegiances and take a stand.
This sense of moral jeopardy, of trying to be a decent person in an indecent and indifferent world, resonates deeply with me. While I enjoy them, I also find outcome-obsessed games like Mass Effect more than a little preposterous and pandering. Not only do you save the galaxy, but every kindness or betrayal is eventually repaid. Every act has a material effect on the story. You make a choice in a conversation and someone's life changes forever. The person you spared in Act 1 gives you aid in Act 3. The moral balance sheet is crisp and clear.
The Witcher recognizes this for the bullshit that it is. And in the end, it becomes apparent that it was ridiculous to ever believe that one person, even a borderline superhero, could solve problems born of prejudice, resentment, and avarice. You don’t have anything to add that a king or chancellor hasn’t thought of before. You’re not going to talk anyone out of hatred. Even a good king may not be all that good, and you can’t persuade fanatical freedom fighters to lay down their arms when the only thing peace has ever brought is more grinding oppression.
And yet Geralt himself, and by extension the player, gets to choose what role he played in all this. His choices won't change very much. So you are left with the act of choosing itself, and the meaning you ascribe to it.
The world moves on regardless of Geralt. He barely makes a mark on it. But you get to choose what marks it makes on him.
Update: Hey, where'd the comments go?
At the start of this article (all 1700 words of it), I made an observation about the portrayal of women in The Witcher. I also included a trigger warning. Those two things became the focus of a toxic flame war in the comments. One user in particular was incensed that I criticised the way women are portrayed and the "romance cards".
The funny thing is, this user had some interesting points. He noted there are a lot of female characters who don't fit the mold (though I might argue they still do), and observed that Geralt himself might fulfill an unusual sexual role. He's a mutant who is, by nature, unable to have children or carry disease. The chance of consequence-free sex might be something a lot of women in this world would jump at. That hadn't occurred to me because, in most games, sex already is consequence-free. It's a plot development. But Geralt's mutations are something very important about the character, and might change his role in the world and women's relationships to him.
I'd still argue I'm right about the way women are portrayed in this game, but it's an interesting observation and could have been an interesting conversation.
But when that same user called another a "fucking SJW shill" in the comments, I decided to hide comments. PCGN is in many ways a work-in-progress and we don't have all the comment moderation tools we might desire, so I was left with a choice between deleting and editing individual remarks and policing an increasingly toxic comment thread, or hiding comments altogether. I chose to hide them, since having a flame war unfolding beneath this article seemed like it could only serve to distract and deflect from the main points I raise here. Points, I might add, that largely celebrate what The Witcher accomplished.
I tend to steer clear of social justice politics because it leads into exactly this kind of cul-de-sac. But I must point out here that the bar for what constitutes social justice activism seems to have been set very low indeed by many of its critics. I merely observed that things like the "romance cards" and some of the costuming is embarrassing, and ranked that alongside lackluster combat in terms of importance to The Witcher. That is not activism. That is not pushing an agenda. That is making an observation.
Demonizing people because they make those observations and criticize creative works based on them? That's pushing an agenda.