Musings on The Witcher, Part 1: Plausibility
I should probably start out by saying I hate fantasy games. The tropes of the genre range from slightly annoying (British Accents Everywhere Syndrome) to eye-rolling (Child of Destiny, Generic Big Bad Evil) to infuriating (Elf Angst, Dwarf Angst, Fairy Angst, etc.). This isn’t to say that I hate all fantasy; far from it – I enjoy reading it in books and watching it in movies, but in game form it doesn’t quite click for me.
I think my distaste mainly has to do with plausibility. If I’m going to play a character, I have to believe that he or she started out as someone normal. Progression to a superhuman level as the game progresses is fine, but I can’t feel for a character who starts out as some overpowered, mystical other. I can’t relate to him. I can relate to Luke Skywalker, for example, because he’s got a mum and pop and an aunt and uncle and chores to do before he can go have fun. By contrast, Anakin Skywalker is some Force-born immaculately-conceived wunderkind, and his problems and motivations are rendered moot because he has a destiny. It doesn’t help that he’s a whiny entitled bastard, either.
In most fantasy games, however, Anakin Skywalker is the default character. Sure, you can build your hero however you want, but he’s still touched by fate, destined to save the world. Unfortunately, everyone he comes across knows this implicitly, and therefore must ask for his help with whatever issue they’re currently facing. Now, this problem isn’t exclusive to fantasy games. This is a crutch used by pretty much every game to frame its content. However, it’s particularly jarring and out of place when combined with the Child of Destiny archetype. You’ve got arguably the most important job in the world, and you’re stuck doing fetch quests for inept farmers. It doesn’t make any sense, and thus most fantasy games remain, in my view, a hodgepodge of old habits and tropes.
Enter The Witcher. Unlike most fantasy games, which can trace their roots to Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkien, The Witcher draws its inspiration from Slavic myth. This provides a basis for bucking a lot of genre traditions. First off: you’re not Anakin Skywalker. You might be Wolverine, though.
The game begins with our protagonist (that’s right, he’s no hero), the witcher Geralt of Rivia, in bad shape. He’s on the run from a band of vengeful spirit warriors called the Wild Hunt, and finally collapses a few miles away from the castle where witchers winter over. His friends find him and bring him in. Upon waking up, Geralt discovers that he has lost his memory. It’s not completely gone – he still recognizes his fellow witchers and friends – but he can’t remember how he wound up being chased by the Wild Hunt. His friends have some even more disturbing news for him: he’s supposed to be dead. They’d heard reports that he took a pitchfork to the gut one evening in Rivia, and so his turning up on their doorstep is quite the surprise. There isn’t much time to process this information, as the castle is attacked by a mob of angry peasants, stirred up by anti-witcher propaganda.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to delve a bit into what a witcher is, exactly. A witcher is a professional monster slayer, a supernatural exterminator, if you will. Witchers wander the lands, seeking employment from both peasants and kings. Everyone’s got some kind of monster problems, and witchers are the only ones who’ll fix them. For a price.
Witchers undergo intense training to gain the knowledge and ability to prevail against supernatural threats. Aside from physical toughness, they’re quick-minded, and are taught to adapt to a changing situation. But this is not enough. Even the most athletic and armored human still stands little chance against the deadlier creatures. Thus, witchers undergo a process of mutation. They ingest a regimen of mutagens that permanently boost their reflexes, agility, and strength. In addition, they can “dope up” before hard fights, taking temporary mutagens that augment their abilities even further. Potions allow them to see in the dark, turn their blood to poison (useful when fighting vampires), regenerate health, and more.
Despite all this superhuman ability, witchers try their utmost to stay out of normal humans’ affairs. This is for several reasons. First, witchers travel all over the place. Taking sides in a dispute between kingdoms is a surefire way to get all witchers banned from the losing realm. Second, witchers are very leery of anyone trying to take advantage of their powers. Many a ruler has fantasized about having an army of witchers at his disposal. As a result of these occupational hazards, witchers have taken a stance of strict neutrality. They present themselves not as a group of superhumans, but instead as a “force of nature” that can be hired to deal with special problems.
Now, this isn’t to say that The Witcher is a straightforward medieval-exterminator simulation. While monster slaying is Geralt’s job description, this time he’s traveling with purpose. That angry mob that assaulted the castle was led by a rogue mage, and he managed to make off with some of the witchers’ most potent mutagens. In the wrong hands, they’re an incredible weapon, and Geralt must get them back and punish those responsible.
Here’s where I feel The Witcher shines in comparison to other fantasy games: there’s never a conflict between Geralt’s main quest and his daily occupation. He enters a town, asks about clues to the thieves’ whereabouts, and then settles in to deal with the various local monster infestations. For Geralt, this quest to retrieve the witchers’ secrets colors his normal activities, but it doesn’t supersede them. In most RPGs, you have an extremely urgent main quest (save the world! kill the resurrected evil!) and completely unrelated sidequests (save my cow! find my missing chicken!). In The Witcher, Geralt constantly has his overall goal at the back of his mind. He’ll do what he can to see it done, but only as it happens to coincide with his job. It makes for a refreshing change to the overall quest structure of RPGs, and does a lot to put the player in the boots of a character who has a profession other than Hero.