What The Witcher Video Games Taught Me About Storytelling
Though video games have always been a part of my life, it wasn't until a few years ago when I really began to become what some call a "gamer" and began trying out new games I never had before, branching off from The Sims, Zelda and Nancy Drew (all of which are still fun, by the way) to try out the likes of Bioshock, Mass Effect and Skyrim. This was in part because as a child my parents never permitted us to have anything besides the Wii, so when I began dating my boyfriend I had two separate consoles (PlayStation and Xbox) that I had never owned or played anything on before until then.
After this introduction to the more "serious" gaming I became obsessed with Bioware, the company that makes Mass Effect and Dragon Age. They were creating games I had looked for my entire childhood, games that let me make choices that had impacts on the story. They had great diverse characters and solid stories. They weren't too dark and pessimistic, but they also weren't sugarcoated with positivity. And best of all? They let me play the games as a girl that wore real armor and nothing sexualized like I was used to. They made me understand why boys liked games so much because suddenly I felt what it was like to really be "in" the game.
While there was talk of Bioware and their games, there was also discussion of this little series from a Polish company - CD Projekt Red - called The Witcher. The series was often compared to Dragon Age and many people argued The Witcher was better. For the longest time, given my loyalty to Bioware, I turned my nose up at this.
I didn't like that The Witcher did not let me customize my main character, that I had to play as this old man who could sleep with whoever he wanted just as I was getting used to playing tough, appropriately-dressed-for-battle women, and I didn't like that unlike in Bioware, The Witcher made you play solo, instead of having companions. In my eyes, there was nothing working in this game's favor. It was a dated product created by the men that repel most women from video games - the sexist type. I was resolved to never give the game a chance.
However, about a year and a half ago, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt came out just after Dragon Age: Inquisition did. I had finished Inquisition and liked it, but missed a lot about what made Dragon Age: Origins so amazing. In many ways the game felt half-hearted, though I was too afraid to admit it at the time. Everything felt very surface-level, and after seeing the sky-rocketing reviews about The Witcher 3, I convinced my boyfriend to split the game with me.
Needless to say, neither of us were disappointed.
A Brief Look at the Franchise
The Witcher series is based on a novel series by Andrzej Sapkowski. However, though it's based on the books, the games themselves only take characters from the series to make their own stories, separating the worlds from each other in a way that would prove an interesting study should one read both the books and play the games, especially since there was no buffer period in which the books became a movie then a video game like they did for Rowling.
The main character of the series is Geralt of Rivia, a witcher, who by the third installment of the game is on a mission to find his missing daughter, Ciri. A witcher is a human that through mutations, can take on monsters and other creatures without fatal harm. They're an outcast in society and called freaks, but despite that are often sent on missions to help the very people who despised them. While of course there's a lot more to the games than that, that is the basic information anyone reading this post should know before learning about each individual game and what makes the final game, The Witcher 3 so fantastic.
The first Witcher game is clunky and fails in many ways. The graphics are old and dated, which can sometimes be forgiven, but the story itself and its accompanying missions are not fun. Sure there are fun twists and beats in the story, but overall, the time it took from my experience was not worth it.
The story is centered around Geralt's alleged memory loss - the video game creators way of getting around having to tie the game to the novel. Memory loss is a very typical way to start video games, and while the storyteller in you might cringe at the idea, because of the player-character dynamic (which you may read more about here) memory loss in a video game story actually can work very well. However, for the first Witcher game, the idea falls flat, perhaps because it becomes such a huge focus. Some key characters are introduced, some of which will appear in all three games and have appeared in the novels, but otherwise the story, despite what makes it interesting with all its religious and racial conflicts, still pales in comparison to the third installment of the series.
For that reason, unless you are like me and really want just want to play the games from start, there is no reason to play this game. And if you think playing it will reveal cool insider information in the next two games you are wrong. The creators of this series understood the flaws of the first Witcher game and moved past them, something I think more company's should consider doing.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The second game of The Witcher series is told via a series of flashbacks. Geralt is imprisoned and accused of assassinating one of the kings, and defends his case to Roche, a character who reappears in the next game. After the first act of the game, Geralt is given a choice whether to follow Roche's path or Iorveth's path. From there the game completely changes depending on whose side you take. Your missions change, the places you visit initially change, and your perspective on the narrative change. As a result, a lot of people replay this game so they can see both sides of the story, something that I really enjoyed doing. Though this game couldn't not be any different than the Witcher 3 in terms of style, it still holds up well and is a refreshing 20-30 hour game, depending on whether you decide to play both paths.
While some of the choices made, especially depending on the path you chose, have no major effect on the third installment of the series, there are still enough remnants from your decisions in this game that carry over into the next game for it to be worth the play. You'll see familiar friends and foes and understand much more about the world in The Witcher 3 and be rewarded for this knowledge. If you are interested in playing The Witcher 3, though not essential, the The Witcher 2 is definitely worth your time and often can go on sale on Steam for as low as $5.
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
The crowning gem, the game that ruined nearly any other video game for me it's so great, The Witcher 3 is why I have spent so long on this franchise and centers around Geralt's search for his daughter, Ciri. Taking up over half a year of my life, this game is the reason this post exists in the first place.
However, you might be reading this and asking yourself, "Why on Earth would anyone want to play the same game for so long?" To clear things up, the average play time for this game is about 70-80 hours. You might be thinking that is an absolutely ridiculous amount of time, but for an open-world RPG, it's the standard. However, I sunk about double that into this game because when I finished it the first time, the ending I got based on decisions I made was not what I wanted. So I restarted from about a third of the way through, and replayed it all again then played the two expansions (Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine) which were equally amazing that added about 40-50 hours more and I loved it just as much the second time without getting bored. In fact, I maybe came to love it even more.
Yet when I say this game is great, I am not just referring to the story. In fact, the main story is in many ways similar to tons of other video game stories and even fantasy novels. There's not anything incredibly special or unique in the main story, which is something that might surprise most people, especially those who do not play video games. My whole blog is dedicated to examining the storytelling in video games, so why am I so obsessed with a main story that hardly does anything new?
The answer lies in how the story was told in the medium of video games, something that my blog is all about and the reason I played the same franchise for an entire year.
What I learned from The Witcher 3 About Storytelling
Create complicated characters and worlds
While I still love what Bioware does and the progressive steps they take, I have come now to find their perspective a bit naive. Don't get me wrong - I will always love the classic good versus evil dynamic in my favorite stories like Harry Potter, but as I've gotten older I've come to love the gray area in series like A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Witcher gives me that.
Not only are there real world similarities like racial tensions and hierarchies, but there are morally ambiguous areas and decisions to be made that highlight what makes our world so complex. People who seem good will do you harm and the criminal you thought was a loathsome murderer can become a trusted companion.
People use you, trick and swindle you, and it's always a surprise no matter how suspicious you become. In fact, sometimes you'll make a choice you believe to be the right one only to find out that choice led to the death of a character you cared about.
One example is when Geralt encounters a group of men saying their god is demanding food that they no longer can afford to give to them without starving. Geralt investigates the situation to find out the god is actually a creature hiding under ground.
While one's immediate reaction may be to slay the beast and tell the men their god is fake, the moral implications and the complexity of the decision come to light when you consider the consequences of telling these men that their deity isn't real. For some, the answer still is clear. For others, they may choose to step away. And because Geralt is never forced to stand the moral high ground, the game emulates the complexities of reality incredibly well.
Where the game does this best is - surprisingly - with the women, though to an onlooker who hasn't played the game it may seem the opposite given that the lead of the game is a man. However, The Witcher 3 is compiled of mostly female characters that support Geralt with only a few men, all of them equally complex and self-sufficient. Sure, some of the women are dressed inappropriately, but they are usually sorceresses, some of the most powerful characters in the game, and truthfully if I were them I would wear those outfits too.
And while the style of clothing may at times seem unrealistic on the women, Geralt's looks are enough eye candy for me to forgive the occasional boob slippage. In fact, once when talking to a lady friend who also played the game, she told me that she made Geralt play the entire game without his shirt on so she could look at his muscles. If I wasn't about hyperrealism, I might have done the same.
But I digress.
Because in many ways, the representation of women and other races (elves, dwarves, witches, etc.) in The Witcher is a more realistic look at the way things really are. It's not some idealistic approach and it acknowledges that sometimes people really are sexist or racist and gives Geralt the choice to confront that instead of pretending these issues do not exist in our world. Ciri, the daughter of Geralt, is the "chosen one" and when you have moments to play as her, you are constantly forced to prove men wrong and demonstrate your skills, much like society demands women to today, yet that never stops Ciri from existing as the strong and independent character that she is.
Other characters like Yennefer or Triss, potential romance options for Geralt and his close friends, are both incredibly unique and demonstrate female strength in completely different ways, making them seem like actual people instead of tropes.
Though this representation is not entirely new in video games - as I've mentioned, Bioware does this very well - the way in which these women exist in this world make The Witcher 3 fantastic. Even the most banal characters offer complex insights on the world and every perspective becomes one worth considering.
Lore is essential to any story with a big world
What makes The Witcher world so unique is the Polish lore embedded into the story. Though I won't claim to know much about Polish folklore, it was admittedly refreshing to encounter a different culture than the classic fantasy lore I am used to as an English speaker. As mentioned, things are much darker in The Witcher, especially in the Wild Hunt. There are quests that deal with recovering a cursed child who was killed, murderous spouses and manipulative bargains that trap people forever. Though some of narratives are likely inspired by Polish folklore, the lore and backstory in the game itself are so present that I can often talk about the world like it's real.
Every video game has journals and other means of reading up on things, so it's no surprise that The Witcher does too. However, because the game is based on the books as well as other fables - including more familiar ones like the Brother's Grimm's version of the seven dwarves and other tales - the in-game lore is incredibly rich and thought out. There is a history in every aspect of the world that characters tell you about, each part of the map rich with its own culture and lore unique to that area.
Again, I should reiterate that while that is not unique to The Witcher, the depth to which it is explored and thought out make the game better stand out. And because the open-world is so beautiful and worth exploring (not just for the sake of it but because you want to) it's so easy to become immersed in what is happening. Other games may offer similar attempts, but in comparison, their attempts hardly scratch the surface. The Witcher introduces conflicts that hint at the lore and world with ease, making it an organic interaction that may change someone's life, but probably won't change Geralt's.
Side quests and side characters can power your story
When video games create an open world story with tons of side quests and other means of distraction there are a lot of aspects to consider. A major problem, one that may never be solved, is that the urgency in a main quest creates a problem where exploring side quests requires players to suspend their disbelief about said urgency. The world is about to end, evil is about to prevail, but my character somehow has time to help a traveling merchant who is looking for a pearl in the middle of the ocean. You'd think this would take people out of the game, right? But players are forgiving of this, and likely wouldn't ever feel motivated to do side quests if an open world video game was too realistic in its sense of time.
However, this doesn't mean video game writers can just throw in side quests whenever, especially quests asking the player to gather a certain amount of items (fetch quests) or other seemingly banal work. The challenge for video games is to make side quests feel organic, like something that is worth stopping for in the middle of the main story yet still fits within the story's parameters. If it's a good side quest, it can be distracting, can completely step away from the main story, but it absolutely must be rewarding and meaningful to the player.
But that's not all side quests have trouble tackling on. In addition to needing to feel organic and falling into the right place of a story, a side quest needs to be fun and the player must have motivation to actually pursue the side quest. Many video games have quests involving trivial tasks that contribute nothing to the story except higher XP or a strengthened relationship with another NPC that might aid the main story. But even if side quests have benefits, they still need to be as fun as the main story.
The Witcher 3 gets every part about side quests right. In many ways, these side quests are what pushes the Witcher into the "Best Game" category for me. Every side quest not only felt essential and organic to the story, no matter at what chronological point I decided to pursue it, but it also always surprised me. Always. Even when I thought I determined the formula to CD Projekt Red's storytelling I was surprised again and again. The side quests related to my main character, Geralt, but not so much so that they affected the main quest all the time. In fact, I can't even tell you which ones were the "important" and which ones were not because any time I stumbled upon one, I always did it.
Needless to say, I could continue forever about this topic. I could describe why Geralt is perfect for the video game format (he is not too opinionated so that the player feels they have viable input and can shape the character, yet he also has enough personality to exist as a universal figure), the beauty of the open world and how CD Projekt Red makes the open world worth the exploration instead of just for the sake of it, and how there are so many nuanced details that make this world seem very real, but I will stop myself now with the hopes that after this post, you'll give The Witcher and video gaming a thought.
You can buy it with my affiliated link here for $47. And though the link is affiliated, I should reiterate that this post is by no means sponsored, I just think this game is absolutely wonderful and hope you'll love it like I do.
Do I have you convinced? If not, what's holding you back? Would you be interested in a followup post about the other things mentioned at the end of the post? Let me know!