This past week I’ve been playing The Witcher, an RPG by CD Projekt Red using the Aurora Engine (the one Bioware used for Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.). The Witcher is based off a series of short stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski set in a wartorn grim fantasy world. Witchers are a clan of superhumans devoted to destroying monsters and evil. I had heard, however, that there was a lot of moral ambiguity in the game, which made me interested enough to download the demo. From what I saw in the demo, I was impressed enough to buy a copy.
As an aside, once I got the full version, I quickly discovered that the onerous copy protection scheme was not compatible with my system until I uninstalled virtual drive software that I use so I don’t have to swap DVDs/CDs around all the time. That was a pain because I have a bunch of ISOs on my system that I am now unable to mount. (heheh, I said “mount”)
Anyway, I saw from the demo that The Witcher had promise, but the demo wasn’t super polished. After the intro tutorial but before the whole intro story could play out, the demo jumped over to another chapter of the game, presumably so that I could suss out the leveling/XP system and get a feel for how the game works.
This jump was rather disorienting. The cutscene after the jump was poorly put together and didn’t make any sense. I saw some kid named Alvin and a woman flee towards a walled town to escape some hellhounds. The kid made it in the walls before the guards shut the gate, but the woman didn’t. Then came a cut where Geralt (me) was being asked by some other woman named Shani to save the outside woman before she’s mauled. (How the hell did I get there? Who the hell is this woman Shani? Why are we just standing out in the street?) But then when the game gave me back control of Geralt, the scenario changed such that the hellhounds were now in the town walls and I was fighting them alongside the guards. Woman stuck outside promptly forgotten. Once the fight was over, Alvin’s lying on the ground writhing in pain while I calmly talked with Shani and went through her conversation tree. (“Shut up kid, can’t you see some adults are talking here?”)
So, I figured the full version of the game probably filled in the gaps of the story. Well, it didn’t. I still think that cutscene, which starts off Chapter 1, was confusing as hell.
The game overall, though, is good. There are indeed many different decisions to make in the game about which path to follow, who to side with, etc. none of which are easily mapped as good or evil. I wish more games were like this. Force me to think about what I care about. The Bioware games let players choose between Light or Dark (KotOR), Open Hand or Closed Fist (Jade Empire), and Up or Down (Mass Effect :p ). It’s pretty clear which choices are which. The Witcher presents two different factions both using variously questionable means to reach their ends. By trying to do “good” does one end up a pawn for the greater “evil?” Interesting situation. Meanwhile, the player also has to ask “are monsters judged by their natural appearance or should Geralt go after humans who behave as monsters and leave the scrupulous vampires and ghouls alone?”
What’s ironic maybe is that while choices are morally ambiguous, almost everything involves combat and death. What’s missing that the Bioware games have are persuasive kinds resolutions to problems. No Charisma or Intelligence modifiers to dialog trees in The Witcher. Also, unlike Fallout, Arcanum, Deus Ex, etc. there’s no sneaking about in The Witcher either. Everything is resolved by the point of a blade.
On another note, there’s a few mini-games at work, too. Similar to Knights of the Old Republic’s Pazaak card game, The Witcher has a poker dice game built-in. There’s also a fist fighting game (parallel to KotOR’s pod racing I guess). And finally, there’s this odd card collecting game where Geralt tries to sleep with as many women NPCs as possible, receiving a card in the game’s journal as a token of his conquest. You can read more about the different mini-games on the spoiler page of The Witcher’s Wikia wiki.
Overall, I think the shortcomings (some weak cutscenes, completely stupid poker dice AI, wretched copy protection, periodic crashes, and some gaping holes in the story) are far outweighed by The Witcher’s strong points. The story is engrossing even if some of the loose-ends don’t get tied up at the end. Some of the cutscenes are pretty good (inconsistency is bad though!). The plot twist at the end rivals that of Knights of the Old Republic. This is one of those games where I think about what’s happened, what I caused to happen, for a while after finishing the game. It lingers like a good book or movie.
The Witcher is a perfect example of the kind of agency good computer games can provide players. I did that. I had an effect on the world. I can’t say the same about World of Warcraft, which is precisely why my true passion has always been single-player games. Makes me wonder if I should be writing about them more. Later perhaps. After the dissertation.