Adventures in influence - The Witcher 2
Posted by Gerard at 13:18 on 18 May 2012
In the Witcher 2, muddiness lurks in every corner, smeared across every character's face and clothes. Flotsam, Loc Muinne - these are dirty places, filled with dirty people and brutal lives. A man pisses on a sack of rubbish in an alleyway. A dwarf tells a well-dressed guildsman to fuck off outside his market stall. Children scream "death!" to the bandit leader as they run barefoot through open sewers. Above the smeared streets a fat lordling abuses his captive elven slave on a soiled bed. The grime is pervasive. Just playing it makes you feel grubby and unwashed.
There is a constant sense that everything is fucked and no one is happy. The world stands on the edge of disaster - a man-made scuffle of kingdoms and emperors providing a backdrop for the personal quest of Geralt, monster hunter. It is savagely hard fantasy, filled with politicking, scheming and hidden motivations. When you enter the first town there's a hanging going on, and the bodies are left swaying on the gallows for the rest of your stay.
Also a lot of the game is about stabbing monsters right in the gut with swords.
That is Geralt's bread and butter - it is his job after all. Just a mercenary who somehow always ends up in the middle of everything. Roughly, the story follows Geralt as he tracks down an assassin who has been murdering kings. In particular, an assassin who might hold the key to unlocking Geralt's memories. He has amnesia, you see, because everyone always has amnesia. Keeping company with all these monarchs drops him right in the middle of a continent-wide struggle for dominance, moving from army camps to besieged cities and beyond.
The theme of the Witcher 2 is one of influence - who has it, who wants it, and how you will use it. You are repeatedly told that Geralt does not want to be involved in politics, does not want to have any hand in the fate of the world. "Geralt hates politics", says his minstrel chum Dandelion. But hanging around with kings and sorcerers means important matters and important people are always nearby.
And so the Witcher cannot avoid ending up in situations where he wields power.
Perhaps you would argue that the right to power is earned by those who seize it, yet Geralt's reluctance casts him in a different role. His reticence is infectious, and that makes narrative decisions uncomfortable. Near the end of Chapter 2 there is a significant moment where the fate of a kingdom is at stake. Do you step in, and prevent something that would have far-reaching consequences, or stand back, and let things take their course? Even choosing to defer to others has its consequences, and carries a responsibility.
If Geralt is an unwilling player, though, what right does he have to play such a significant part in the fate of the world? This theme is pervasive, and provides an interesting corollary with choice-driven narrative in games on the whole. What right do you have, for instance, to decide the fate of the galaxy in Mass Effect? Yet Shepard (or you) gladly takes species-defining choices, without a second thought (in-game, at least). Disarm the atom bomb in Fallout 3's Megaton, or set it off? How can you make that choice, choose the destiny of so many people?
It's a narrative power that is often brushed over in the name of providing a meaningful experience. In Skyrim you are asked to decide the fate of the war between the Imperials and the Nords, but no one really questions your right to make that choice. You are Dragonborn, you are Shepard, you are the centre of attention, the hero, so of course you should choose whether to save the Dwarven people in the Deep Roads, or cure the Krogans of the Genophage. Right? Right?
Many games give you tough choices, but rarely does it feel as if you shouldn't even be making the choice at all. It's an unusually uncomfortable experience, sitting in the pit of your stomach as if something is just not right. This uneasy responsibility explores the opposite end of the spectrum to something like Bioshock, which questions your agency, by giving you almost too much. In the Witcher you have the power to shape a world you just want to escape.
Yet, in another life, the power of kingmaking could be seized, relished. A few different dialogue choices and Geralt becomes a schemer himself, manipulating the powerful to his own ends. The entire tone of the narrative, the very drive of the story, is player-controlled. Is Geralt on a hunt for personal revenge, is he searching for information and a lost love, or is he moulding the world to save it from impending disaster?
It again raises the question of entitlement: what right do you have to influence Geralt's motivation? He exists as his own person. He has defined motivations, character, morals, world-view, friends. What right do you have to decide whether he cares about Triss, or avenging Foltest, or fighting for the freedom of the elves and dwarves? Why are you able to make that choice for him?
And what right does the game have to force you into that choice? You can't wait out the siege of Vergen, hoping things will sort themselves out. To progress, you must decide between the Nords and the Imperials. You must decide whether to cure the genophage or not. You cannot just leave and let someone else do it. Wait, and everyone waits with you.
These power dynamics are layered on and on in the Witcher 2 - Count Maravel over baron Kimbolt, John Natalis over Maravel, Geralt over Natalis, you over Geralt, the game over you. What makes the forced decisions in the Witcher so uncomfortable, and so revealing, is that, sometimes, you are given the choice to simply walk away. Uncovering plots from two major nobles late in the game, you have the option to turn in one, the other, or both. Or you can simply turn in neither of them, and wander away. Leave the quest unfinished and see the consequences of that choice play out in future events. It might even be for the best.
That taster of real freedom, the responsibility of non-participation, blows open the whole system. It makes those inescapable situations rankle so much more, feel so much more unpleasant. Just because you are given the power to change something, does not mean you deserve it, or that you should use it.