I track down a fellow witcher, another enigmatic sword-for-hire equally reviled and respected for a particular efficacy when hunting monsters. The man’s cat-like eyes signal to the rest of the world the meta-human abilities witchers share, a result of extensive genetic mutation. My interrogation begins.
Accused of slaughtering a village, I approach the conversation with the unknown monster hunter cautiously. Attempts to play coy slide off without effect; I demand to know the man’s reasons behind the bloodshed. The witcher explains he was promised a fee for dealing with a particularly dangerous monster assailing the village. After completing his contract, he was first bargained with to reduce his fee, and then led into a barn where villagers attempted to kill him to keep their purses tight. Blood spilled, heads rolled, and a wounded witcher sat recounting his tale.
I’m given the option to dole out a brand of Kantian justice, or to let this man walk away.
The implications of this choice are never made clear, and it’s a recurring trope in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This is my first experience with the Witcher series, a critically-acclaimed RPG series by CD Projekt RED. In many ways, playing the game without predispositions set by previous entries allows its strengths to shine.
The Witcher 3 is massive, a kaleidoscope of lore unfolding itself as the player explores the unnamed continent. What is most impressive (and what keeps drawing me back after some 75+ hours and counting) is just how real the world feels. Like a tightly choreographed dance, an intricate web of dialogue, combat, and chance affect how the player experiences the world.
Geralt of Rivia is established as capable and aloof, full of esoteric knowledge of the world’s dangers. How he is further characterized is up to the player — but every choice usually carries consequences of varying immediacy and gravity. Rescue a traveler onset by bandits, and another deeper quest or loot may await. Pass him by, and these spoils – narrative, material, or both – are never uncovered.
In many games, I exercise my virtual escapism playing a hero. Selfless whenever possible, loyal, skilled, I project an idealized self onto my character. Choices are normally binary, “What would the best version of myself choose to do?” (Save the famous Renegade interrupt in Mass Effect 3. Kai Leng had it coming.)
What The Witcher 3 does so masterfully is that it doesn’t shy away from putting the player in difficult situations, making them responsible for choosing sides in family feuds, condemning thieves to death, selecting a clan member to ascend to the throne. Through these quests, the player grows, creating the personality for Geralt they see fit. When presented with betrayal, prejudice, lust, adoration, the player in turn can respond with a full spectrum of responses from ruthlessness to magnanimity. The simple dichotomy between selfless and selfish blur, and choices made without much forethought will color the world beyond monochrome, bearing substantial, colorful fruit later.
Like a tightly choreographed dance, an intricate web of dialogue, combat, and chance affect how the player experiences the world
For example, encountering the wounded witcher in the mission “Where The Cat and Wolf Play.” This isn’t a spectacular mission gameplay-wise. While adventuring, Geralt discovers an abandoned village overrun by undead monsters. Clearing it, he discovers the bodies of numerous residents, slain with precision beyond that of any feral creature.
The lone survivor, a small girl, gives Geralt a small talisman that identifies the assailant as a witcher. The full sum of my experiences – both inside the game and out – lead me to this choice, and to consider Geralt’s morality as a virtual extension of my own. Something so simple on the surface — kill the killer or let him go — is enriched by layers upon layers of nuance experienced by the player.
In any other gaming experience, the choice would’ve been simple. This witcher slayed a village; he deserves swift retribution; I am the executioner. While I’m to dole out justice, the morality play enters its second act. The witcher shoots back: he was tricked, denied the coin that dictates the witcher’s code, and nearly the victim of murder.
I consider the shared kinship, and the prejudices faced as a mutated monster hunter. Playing the role of a witcher throughout the game, I’ve vicariously experienced the double-edged sword of being praised as a messiah when my blade is drawn against monsters, and despised as a pariah when it isn’t.
I ask myself again: “What would the best version of myself do?” More than ever, I find myself asking this in The Witcher 3. These moments of pause set the game apart as exemplary choice-based storytelling.
I let the witcher go.