Playing with Identity

Otherness & Sexuality in The Witcher 2

Commentary - Witcher 2

One of the ironies of writing a Game Studies dissertation is that after a while, there isn’t really time to play any games. At some point I had to focus all my attention on writing and just get it over with. So once I finished writing, my “to-play” list had grown quite large. As a fan of “open-world” games, I was looking for a game that I could lose myself in for dozens of hours. I asked around, and a friend recommended CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I picked it up and overall, I’m glad I did. Although it didn’t really satisfy my open-world itch, I found it to be a robust and rich experience. It’s also one of the few games where I was more compelled by the narrative than the “gameplay,” if the two can be separated. For this commentary, I’d like to give my thoughts on its narrative, and then more specifically, on its representations of otherness and sexuality.

Game Overview

The Witcher 2 (TW2) is a sequel to 2007’s The Witcher, both of which are “based” off of a book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s a third person action RPG, which follows the exploits of a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia. In this world, Witchers are a race of mutated humans whose job is to protect people from pesky monsters and other troublesome creatures.

The game mechanics are fairly standard. There’s plenty of combat against both monsters and humans. You have one strong and one fast melee attack, some ranged options and various spells. You also have traps you can set, which are cool, but to be honest I never used them much. One interesting feature of the combat is that you can’t consume potions while in battle; this adds a degree of difficulty to the game, forcing the player to plan ahead and prepare for each battle. I really liked this feature as it added intensity to the battles and took away somewhat from Geralt’s aura of invincibility. We need more vulnerable characters I think. This does result in some frustrating deaths, especially against bosses, but I played TW2 on Hard, and on that difficulty level I’d probably put it somewhere between Skyrim and Dark Souls.

The plot is kind of Game-of-Thrones-ey, and involves various kings and queens fighting over control of the realm (Temeria). It’s a complex plot, and you actually have to have played the first game—or read the books—to fully get it, but I’ll do my best to describe it briefly. Basically, the game begins with Geralt acting as a bodyguard to King Foltest, who’s fighting other factions over claims to the throne. Like a good king, Foltest leads a group of soldiers in a raid to rescue his children (heirs), but lets his guard down and is eventually assassinated in the presence of Geralt. The assassin escapes, leaving Geralt looking mighty guilty. Geralt must then find out who killed Foltest, thereby clearing his name, but of course, as the player progresses through the game, she unravels a deeper, complex conspiracy with sorceresses and dragons and secret councils.

Although there are plenty of sidequests and areas to explore, perhaps the most unusual aspect of TW2 is its linearity, or more accurately, its odd brand of pseudo-linearity. For example, once you’ve left a major area, you can’t return to it. If you’ve left sidequests unfinished and move on, then they’re gone. Unlike Skyrim, there is no real jumping back and forth between storylines, or at least not as much. But most unusual (for a contemporary RPG), there is no character creation or customization. Whereas other RPGs stress the idea that the player creates her own story, TW2 says very concretely, “This is Geralt’s story and not yours.” This makes for a more focused, coherent, but somewhat rigid narrative; I missed Skyrim‘s sense of exploration and discovery here.

But on the other hand, there’s actually a great deal of player choice in determining key parts of the story. For example, after the first chapter, the player can choose to side with either Vernon Roche, a former Foltest aide and leader of the Temerian special forces (the “Blue Stripes”), or Iorveth, an elf who is essentially a “rebel” figure, fighting against the likes of Foltest and Roche. Depending on which side you choose, the narrative will unfold quite differently. Indeed, the game essentially branches in two here, adding some good replay value. Furthermore, it isn’t always clear which side is the “good” side. At first it looks like Iorveth is just a violent zealot, but once you hear his side of the story, his resistance against the Throne sounds just. It isn’t much, but I like that the game represents opposing factions as rational beings with real and justified motivations. And because of this, there are few easy choices in TW2.

There are also lots of mini-choices the player can make involving side quests and “minor” characters, and these choices do seem to matter; like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and even BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, there were some difficult, emotionally significant choices which I would later regret. For example, during the prologue, Geralt can either persuade a young recruit to wear his armour during an assault, or wear nothing but a magical amulet (as he boasted he would to a rival group). If Geralt tells him to wear his armour, the soldier survives, and later gives Geralt the amulet; if Geralt tells him to have faith in the amulet, the soldier dies, though Geralt can loot his corpse for the amulet. It’s a small moment, but during my first playthrough I let him die, and I did feel a twinge of guilt over it.

But beyond that, I often worried that my choices would make me miss out on interesting plotlines down the road. As Poya Manouchehri wrote in a piece for Gamasutra, “The problem is the nagging feeling at every corner, that I haven’t made the ‘right choice.’ That I have missed something or I will not get the full story because of a wrong decision. Of course the game tries very much to reinforce the idea that there are no wrong or right decisions, yet the feeling is still there.” This is a form of tension I think videogames are especially good at, and TW2 in particular.

An Atypical Hero

TW2’s narrative is primarily delivered through cutscenes and dialogue options. And there are A LOT of cutscenes. Unlike most games with extended cutscenes, I didn’t find myself fighting the urge to skip; I actually looked forward to seeing what would happen next. Even Mass Effect’s narrative bored me at times, but for whatever reason, I never felt bored here. I think part of it is that Geralt is atypical in many ways. Unlike Commander Shepherd or the Dragonborn, Geralt just wants to go home most of the time. He’s not interested in saving the world at a deep, personal level. He commits heroic acts, but his heroism doesn’t define him. It’s almost like an unintended consequence, or something he has to do in order to be done with all the shit in this world.

As Arthur Gies puts it in his review for Polygon, in TW2, the game’s world is “not just a ‘living, breathing’ world. It’s a living, eating, fighting, f*cking, swearing, desperate world that feels like the most important things happening aren’t affected at all by Geralt’s existence…. There’s no plucky hero moment where Geralt turns everyone against each other and gets off easy.” I think that this non-solipsistic game-world really makes it seem like an actual place with its own state of Being.

But Geralt is also atypical in the sense that he is not “normal;” in this world, he is very much an outcast. He is different from the other humans, and is often met with suspicion and malice. Although many of the NPCs are in awe of Geralt, they are also clearly uneasy when he’s around. Geralt is not like them, and that makes them uncomfortable. And just like in real life, this discomfort translates into fear, discrimination, and hatred.

When Geralt encounters NPCs, they often look down on him. Throughout the game, random NPCs will snicker at him as he passes by, or talk to him with disdain. Even the term, “Witcher,” is phonetically similar to other familiar slurs: It has two syllables, a short inner vowel, a hard “tch” sound, and an “er” ending. It just lends itself well to derogatory inflection, and you hear it used in a pejorative sense throughout the game.

As a result, there are moments where as a player I feel vaguely uncomfortable. At times, especially when I am really into the game, I can’t help but take the NPCs’ insults personally, if only for a moment. After all, who are they to judge me? I can’t help that I was genetically enhanced to fight monsters.

As a white, straight, cis male, this is not an experience I am very familiar with. With very few exceptions, I’ve never felt that I was “born into blame,” so to speak. TW2 gave me a sense of that, however watered down, and that’s significant. In placing the player into a discriminatory experience, TW2 demonstrates that even big budget games can be used to encourage empathy and understanding towards others, including those who experience discrimination—both subtle and outright—in their everyday lives.  And as lead gameplay designer Maciej Szcześnik said in an interview with Gamasutra, in designing a compelling main character,

I think it’s all about empathy, actually. It’s similar to watching movies, right? If you can empathize with the main character, you will feel his emotions and you will be able to understand his motivations, and you’ll be able to eventually understand the storyline, and you will be able to like it.

Games may be uniquely situated to evoke feelings of empathy by representing a diverse range of experiences. It’s one thing to read about discrimination, but it’s another to experience it, even if only in a game.

There is no question that the game could go further. Maybe the game could give Geralt a quest, but deny him entry to a crucial location; the “Unfinished” status of the quest could serve as a constant reminder that no matter what he does, there are some things Geralt will never have access to, solely because he is a Witcher. Now even if the game did include this sort of mechanic, I’m not sure any single game can induce an epiphany, but maybe it can help chip away at the problem.

An Unfortunate Gaze

Alas, as much as TW2 might depict virtual experiences of discrimination, it also takes a very masculine, heteronormative perspective on sexuality. Indeed, one of the aspects TW2 is known for is its sex scenes. Like Game of Thrones, there is plenty of (female) nudity. Despite his pasty skin and cat’s eyes, women can’t seem to resist old Geralt. There are several romance quests, and if done “right,” each ends with a relatively graphic sex scene, by videogame standards anyway. That’s all well and good, but the sex scenes are clearly meant for straight dudes. The camera is almost always focused so that the woman’s bare breasts and buttocks take center stage. Furthermore, the women’s bodies are invariably thin, but curvy, idealized body types. It’s a textbook example of Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze,” in which “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (p. 11).

Of course, it is not only straight-men who find naked women attractive; however, since the protagonist is a straight male character, it seems safe to assume that the audience is meant to identify with Geralt in these scenes.

Staying with Mulvey, it is presumed that the straight-male player does not derive any pleasure from seeing Geralt nude, and so his nudity is omitted. In fact, it’s kind of weird: Geralt is always wearing pants. Even immediately before—and sometimes immediately after—sex, Geralt is wearing pants. And if he’s not, then his nakedness is strategically concealed, usually by a fully nude female character. Other games have shown penises, (GTA 4’s The Lost and Damned comes to mind), so as an “adult” RPG, it just seems like a weird omission.

This unfortunate gaze notwithstanding, I actually enjoyed TW2. I cared about its characters, and I liked that my choices mattered, even if there weren’t too many of them. A lot of games which deal with moral issues tend to place morality into a binary system (e.g. Fallout 3 and Mass Effect), but I think TW2 succeeds in creating moral grey areas. It wasn’t the open-ended, all-consuming experience I had hoped for, but in the end I found it intellectually compelling, and that’s no small feat for a contemporary big-budget title.

Works Cited

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18.

Image via wolf