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The Witcher: A (Book) Review

by Prime Junta, 2007-12-01

For a long time, I've been claiming that the future of computer games lies in two things: simulation and non-linear storytelling. Things like very involved strategy games are simulations. Things that make you the main character are - or will - evolve into non-linear storytelling. However, there are many very good games out there today that aren't really either.

 

The Dopamine Reward Brigade

Most games have you doing stuff for the fun of doing stuff and the best ones make a pretty good job of it. Tetris has you dropping blocks in order to make them disappear. NetHack has you descending an ASCII-graphics dungeon, making letters turn into % signs when you type hjkl at them. DOOM has you crawling in dark corridors shooting at demons in order to save the world. Oblivion has you wandering around a big, bright world hitting demons with sharp objects in order to save the world. Half Life 2 has you rushing through gorgeously rendered decrepit scenery shooting aliens in order to save the world. Far Cry has you crawling through a lovely jungle shooting at mutants in order to... you get the picture. These games aren't really "about" anything in particular, much like porn isn't really "about" anything in particular -- or most films before World War I weren't "about" anything in particular. The gameplay is the game.

This is largely due to the state of the industry: technological evolution is so quick that most of the creative effort in game making goes into making those pretty lights, with comparatively little thought given to what the game is "about." If a game manages to hijack your dopamine reward system, it's a success. You know that's happened if you suddenly notice it's 4:30 am and you're still playing "just one more level."

 

"Yes, but, what is it about?"

Fortunately, there have always been attempts to make computer games that are "about" something. Some old Infocom text adventures. Some of the best LucasArts adventure games -- along the lines of Full Throttle or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. A very select few first-person action games, like Deus Ex, the System Shocks, Bioshock and perhaps The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. A whole bunch of irredeemably boring edutainment games that fail as miserably in their attempt as, say, Big Rigs fails as a racing game.

And, of course, a few role-playing classics with Planescape: Torment the unchallenged king of the "about" hill, and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines perhaps the best example from recent years.

Still, those of us who want to play games that seize our imaginations in ways that go beyond the dopamine reward system have had to wait a long time for our fix - and very often when we get it, we have had to give up many of the genuinely enjoyable things the dopamine brigade offers. So, we go back to the classics - never mind the coarser graphics, rougher sound, clunkier user interfaces, and various compatibility problems - to the point that some of us seem to believe that if it isn't isometric third-person with turn-based combat, it can't be worth a damn.

 

The Witcher, The Game

If you're reading this review, you probably already know all you can know about the dopamine reward hijacking features this game has -- and the flaws in them. The fast-paced, enjoyable combat. The pretty graphics. The reasonably fluid frame rates. The lovely music. The 60-80 hour storyline. The characterful faces. The villages that put the "rust" back in "rustic". The dozens of monsters, the alchemical formulae, the three combat styles.

And, also, the loading screens that sour your high, the occasionally clunky dialog that tries to jolt you out of it, the identical siblings that populate Temeria, and of course those few instances of bad game design early in the game -- being dropped direct into a boss fight without the possibility to prepare or save, being dropped in the middle of a clutch of hostiles when the story says you were supposed to be sneaking up on them, the frame rate issues that detract from the experience in Vizima Trade Quarter - that sort of thing.

That's all true. They're there, both the good and the bad. If you rate The Witcher like most dopamine-reward-hijacking games, these flaws will easily knock off a couple of points off a perfect score. Meaning that the 8-out-of-10-ish scores it's been getting are completely deserved. If, that is, you rate The Witcher like most other games.

However, The Witcher is not like most other games. It is "about" something. Game reviewers simply aren't capable of fitting this fact into their conceptual review-writing framework, which leaves them handing out not-really-that-great grades... but with many of them nevertheless saying they liked the damn thing, without being able to say why; sometimes slapping an Editor's Choice onto it for good measure. That's because they'd really need to write two reviews -- the game review and the book review -- but they only have the capability to do one. Poor gaming journalists.

 

The Witcher, The Fantasy

From the game reviews, we know that if The Witcher was a book, it would be competently printed, competently bound, with a nice dust jacket, a few typos, repeated paragraphs, and stuck-together pages here and there. But how does it actually read?

There are two kinds of fantasy writers. There are writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, who write fantasy for its own sake or to propound philosophical or ethical ideas. Then there are writers like Terry Pratchett, who write fantasy as a commentary, allegory, satire, or critique of contemporary society and its ideas. Tolkien invents languages, histories, legends, and strives for the feeling that you're reading the real history of another world, or a story that could really have happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Pratchett holds up a fun-house mirror that shows our society and its foibles in a different, ironic light.

 

King Arthur to Raymond Chandler

The Witcher falls squarely into the second camp. It draws cheerfully from a bewildering variety of sources, from Slavic folklore to Arthurian mythos; European history to Tolkienian archetypes, hard-boiled detective stories to H.P. Lovecraft. There is a constant overlay of metafictional references that range from the outrageous to the humorous through the obvious: a hermit that rants against a popular paperback, a private detective named Raymond Maarloeve wearing slightly silly fantasy renditions of the trenchcoat and fedora we recognize from Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, an encounter with a mythical being from Arthurian mythos that takes a very unusual twist.

Similarly, names are a cheerful mix of English, Dutch, German, Slavic, Celtic, and even Hungarian; some are descriptive, some are crude puns, and some are just plain ol' regular names. We have a merchant called Declan Leuvaarden, a dwarven dentist is called Zahin Schmartz (Zahnschmerz is German for toothache), a dwarf called Zoltan (Hungarian), another one called Vivaldi (Italian) - and then we have plain old Abigail, Alvin, Triss, and Shani. No attempts at creating a coherent linguistic landscape here. "This is make-believe," we're constantly reminded, sometimes jarringly, most of the time with a dry, darkish sense of humor.

 

Petty Evil, Great Evil

However, there's far more to the story than mere cleverness. The wryly humorous metafictional overlay and obvious satire overlays genuinely serious themes. This is what the game is really "about," the real meat on the eight-out-of-ten bones described by most reviews.

While The Witcher doesn't give a hoot about consistent linguistics, its fictional underlay follows some very strict and rather unusual rules. Monsters are not of the usual "assault from the outside" variety. They spring from normal, petty, entirely believable human evil. Monstrous plants grow from graves of unavenged murder victims; necrophages feed on the corpses of the fallen; a village's petty evil in aggregate summons a demon that sows terror in the night. "Every monster embodies a human iniquity", a character in the game explains. Devourers - gluttony. Vampires - drunkenness. Characteristically, though, Geralt replies "So what does a giant centipede embody?" At one level, The Witcher is a morality tale -- it's "about" the bitter fruit our little sins bear. War really does breed ghouls and graveirs, only in the real world we don't have any silver swords with which to cut them down.

The Witcher sees a society spiralling towards civil war. Friendships break, neighbours become estranged, grievances build, and eventually there is an explosion of senseless brutality that then feeds the next cycle of violence. We hear it in random comments from passers-by, notice it in conversations and even experience it ourselves as we find ourselves swords drawn, facing an individual we could respect or even like. A group of non-humans has been dispossessed, run out of their homes and is starving by the lakeside, forced to live on charity from a human village nearby... and then responds by slaughtering that same village in a burst of powerless rage. A shifty individual deals with the resistance and then betrays them for money.

This is real, friends. This is how war really is. The evil overlord who is evil because he's evil is refreshingly absent. There are only grievances, injustices, oppression, segregation, misunderstanding, a deepening cycle of violence with normal - basically good - people doing horrible things. In the end, only the ghouls, crows, and cemetaurs attend the victory feast. And you're right in the middle of it.

 

Proper Tits-Out Euro Smut

Ah yes, sex. Sex, sex, sex. The Witcher's naughty postcards have netted a quite a lot of attention, as well as some accusations of blatant sexism. There certainly are some juvenile bits in the game. For example, the identical fantasy babydoll nighties Geralt's female friends wear to bed are more unintentionally funny than "adult" in any real sense of the word. Or take one of the female leads: she is a veteran military surgeon caring for plague victims but none of it shows on her perfect sixteen-year-old face. And someone really should tell Triss that plumber's butt is not sexy, even if Heidi Klum does it too.

However, there's far, far more to the game than simple tail-chasing adolescent fantasy. The Witcher has a complex underlay of gender relations, mores, appearances, expectations, and behaviors.

First off, the women in Geralt's world appear to actually want to sleep with a famous heroic swordsman type that looks like the lead singer of a rock band, is polite and courteous, and is sterile and immune to disease. Go figure.

Second, the way they -- and, by extension, Geralt -- go about it is not at all trivial. Villagers and peasants inhabit a patriarchal society where women are pretty much powerless. A raped girl's only recourse is suicide; a young woman living alone is assumed to be a prostitute; a barmaid plays the "decent girl" in public but is quite ready for a tryst if she can get away with it. On the other hand, we have the Viziman aristocracy, which holds some courtesans in reasonably high regard, whose women take what they want whether they're men or power, and where extra-marital affairs are the norm rather than the exception. And then we have the egalitarian, "pagan" elves, the exclusively female dryads and, I hear, a matriarchal society in faraway Zerrikania.

 

"No good, no evil, only choices and consequences"

You, as the wounded and recovering Geralt of Rivia, are dropped right into the middle of this mess and are expected to make some sense of it. Do you side with one of the belligerents? If so, do you attempt to moderate their actions, or further their victory? If not, will you just let them slaughter each other indiscriminately? Will you take advantage of your rock-star status and bed every female you can seduce, coerce, buy, guilt or blackmail into putting out for you or will you be a gentleman and only get it on with those who are genuinely interested - or will you forswear it all in search of a genuinely meaningful relationship? Will you try to make every woman in Temeria happy or just one? If so, and are faced with the choice of doing something that you feel right but know that will deeply wound her feelings, what do you do?

In any computer game, many of these choices are illusory, but in The Witcher less so than most. On my second play-through, I made some rather different choices and while the main storyline was more or less the same, it played very differently in ways that kept surprising me.

The Witcher isn't some epic tale of saving the world, nor is it some trivial thing happening against impressively detailed backdrop. It winds itself around you -- the player, as Geralt of Rivia -- in a way that makes the story an intensely personal one, more so perhaps than any computer game yet, even Knights of the Old Republic or Planescape: Torment. Not coincidentally, like Planescape: Torment, The Witcher hands you a fully realized character -- but then takes its hands off and lets you decide what happens to him, how he grows and evolves - not just in the spreadsheet sense but also inside, where it counts. So if you can't deal with not choosing the colour of your hair ("oh, the hair!"), or being able to play as a female gnomish sorceress, tough -- because you're depriving yourself of something very special indeed.

Your choices and actions have profound effects on the world at large -- even if this is one game where you won't be able to topple the Dark Tower and bring on a golden age of peace, love, happiness, and sunshine. If there is a moral to The Witcher's story, it is that in the real world there are rarely simple solutions to complex problems, the most terrible evil is done in the name of the greater good, and much of the time the best you can hope for is to pick the lesser evil and hope for the best.

 

The Most Significant Game Since Fallout

The Witcher's significance lies in its priorities. It is the first computer game I have ever played where the mechanics are made to serve the story, without feeling neglected. They very, very rarely require an extra effort in willing suspension of disbelief, nor do they feel like they were put in just because they were fun rather than because they served some distinct purpose in actualising what the game is "about". In this, I believe The Witcher represents the future of gaming far more than - to pick a name at random - Oblivion.

So, the score? The Witcher is a four-out-of-five game (by gaming standards) wrapped around a four-out-of-five story (by literary standards, which are way higher than gaming standards). The trouble is that this game shifts the goalposts in such a way that the usual scale of rating games doesn't really apply: it moves the entire genre forward in a way that only very few games manage.

The Witcher isn't the sum of its parts, let alone the average. It's more like the product. That would make The Witcher's final score sixteen out of five: in other words, the best thing that has happened to computer games in what feels like a very long time. Let us hope that it's not just a flash in the pan, but a harbinger of a whole new type of game -- and that we won't have to wait too long for the one that scores a full twenty-five out of five.

Box Art

Information about

The Witcher

Developer: CD Projekt RED

SP/MP: Single-player
Setting: Fantasy
Genre: RPG
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: Over 60 hours
Voice-acting: Full

Regions & platforms
World
· Homepage
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2007-10-26
· Publisher: Atari

More information


Other articles

Summary

Pros

  • Deep story
  • Deep world
  • Complex issues addressed in complex ways
  • Gameplay on par with today's best cRPG's

Cons

  • Some instances of bad game design especially early
  • Some technical limitations
  • Deserves better writing than the English translation
  • Long loading times

Rating

Review version

1.1a, Euro release

Opinions from other editors

Joy "magerette" Jones

Though I doubt I can say anything much new after Prime Junta's exhaustive analysis, with which I fundamentally agree, I do have a few comments on the game. I especially enjoyed this observation of Prime Junta's: "It winds itself around you -- the player, as Geralt of Rivia -- in a way that makes the story an intensely personal one". To me that's the most obvious factor that sets this game apart. After a few hours, it's difficult to separate yourself from the competent and conflicted protagonist up on the screen, regardless of gender or preferred playstyle. It isn't just about filling in the blanks in the usual amnesiac's memories, but about becoming someone in a new world that eerily seems to reflect who, what and where you really are at the same time.

This is a game that will have players rewriting their Top Ten lists and seems destined to become a benchmark classic in the role playing genre, but when looking at a Baldur's Gate style RPG template, it seems the antithesis of a normal approach. However, the vision of the developers has taken a variety of dissonant and unlikely elements - the predefined character, the irrational conflicts of the real world in microcosm, and an almost but not quite linear story - and made it work as a complex and satisfying whole, all while not neglecting to provide a total physical game mechanic that is fluid and enjoyable to use. The flaws are there; the long load times, the occasionally hopelessly garbled English localization, the poorly implemented cutscene; but in retrospect I doubt they will be what most players take from the game as their main memory. CD Projekt Red has made a game true to itself and to their vision of it, and in the process upped the ante for the whole genre.

corwin

Before I bought a copy of The Witcher, I was enjoying playing the NWN 2 add-on, Mask of the Betrayer. However, I now find it almost impossible to tear myself away from this game to finish MotB. It has 'atmosphere', something I find in very few games today. True, there are a few design flaws and minor annoyances spring up from time to time, but these are trivial when compared to the gestalt created by The Witcher. Can 'the whole' be greater than 'the sum of its parts'? With this game, the answer is a resounding YES!

Michael "txa1265" Anderson

This is going to sound absurd, but The Witcher reminds me of Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS.

Oh ... I can't just leave it at that ?!? Fine - both games are receiving review scores that suggest an 'average' game; both have numerous flaws and limitations that a checklist reviewer could use to justify such low scores; and both have gathered rabid sets of fans - albeit from very different corners of the gaming world.

In other words, The Witcher - just like Cooking Mama - is a game that mainstream reviewers just don't 'get'. For Cooking Mama, the core audience is non-gamers who find the entire experience extremely satisfying while hardcore gamers get bored and finished quickly. For The Witcher the game takes a truly different way of doing things, but it is also possible to try to blow through in a standard way - which would produce only a very frustrating and shallow experience. My only gripes are the terrible load times and some minor issues with cutscenes and translations. But otherwise I strongly agree - this game is one (load-time fixing) patch away from ending up as one of the better role-playing experiences of all time.

Brian "Dhruin" Turner

A small group of players won't get past the loading times, some awkward cutscene editing and Atari's clumsy treatment of the original script - you might have already read one of their reviews. So, how can we justify a score of 5/5? I'm pretty sure most CRPG fans will remember The Witcher as a classic - it creates a vivid and compelling gameworld with character motivations that are far more interesting than the usual evil overlord or beleaguered leader - but I think Prime Junta nails it when he talks about CD Projekt Red winding an intensely personal story around the player. Isn't that at the heart of roleplaying?

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