We’re still a couple of months away from the deluge of blockbuster video games scheduled to drop in the fall, which means there’s plenty of time to catch up on what’s arguably one of the year’s best games so far: The Witcher 3. We already know that its open world is one of the best ever seen, not to mention that the game’s protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, is cooler than you in large part because he’s basically Clint Eastwood. Here’s one more thing he has going for him, and one more reason to give The Witcher 3 your time.
Most games cast you as one of three basic types of characters. You can play as a character you designed more or less from scratch, as with Bethesda and BioWare games like Skyrim and Dragon Age, and you get to shape your avatar’s personality through the choices you make for them throughout the game. Or, you’re a character made up for that specific game series, like Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, whose personality is predefined and generally fits with any actions you can take.
For example, you can’t sleep with prostitutes in Red Dead, because Marston is faithful to his wife. There’s dissonance when that falls apart, like when easygoing explorer Nathan Drake murders hundreds of people in Uncharted while quipping about the weather, his actions and personality at odds. But I digress.
In other games, there’s a third option: you can play as someone like Batman or Spiderman or Elsa from Frozen, characters that exist and were defined outside of the game you’re playing. Geralt of Rivia is one of these characters, and even though the game’s Western audiences might not be familiar with Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s decades-old books, Geralt’s traits and personality were established long before the Witcher games debuted. How Geralt behaves and reacts is a matter of public record. And yet The Witcher 3, more than even the previous two games in which Geralt starred, gives players the freedom to make countless choices on the character’s behalf.
This could have been a huge negative for The Witcher 3, but it ended up being one of the game’s most memorable aspects; the most complex and surprising relationship at the game’s heart is not between Geralt and his multiple love interests, but the relationship between Geralt and the game’s players—you and I.
The Witcher 3 is all about decisions. Things like combat, travel, and monster contracts flesh it out, but the development of Geralt and the other characters comes through the decisions you make as the legendary Witcher. They’re different from many of the decisions we’ve made in other role-playing games in that they need to adhere not to what each of us would do in that situation, but what we’d do if we were a witcher—if we were Geralt.
This is a tough line to ride. When we’re not given enough freedom to shape a game’s story, players often find themselves unhappy with the results. The ending of Naughty Dog’s well-regarded The Last of Us, for example, was consistent with protagonist Joel’s character, but not with how many players, looking from an outside view, without Joel’s set of life experiences, felt they would have acted, had the game given them the choice. Yet too much player input in The Witcher 3 could have made Geralt seem wispy and inconsistent with how his biggest fans know him.
Developer CD Projekt Red nailed it. In making the choices I made in The Witcher 3, I felt like I played a true version of Geralt of Rivia, one that Sapkowski might’ve written about. A friend, whose game story events played out very differently from mine, felt the same. We both made the choices that we wanted to, yet both versions of the story felt true to the character.
That our games could go so differently but feel authentic worked, I think, because the big decisions weren’t really up to Geralt. He could influence them, sure, but the truth is, Geralt of Rivia is a historical footnote in his world. He’s Forrest Gump; present for many historically significant events during his remarkable life, but ultimately not the one calling the shots. Witcher is as Witcher does.
So often in role-playing games, we’re put in situations where the world is at stake—as is the case here—but we’re made to feel as if we’re the one who gets to decide what happens. We become the Dragonborn, the Inquisitor; we alone decide the fate of the world.
The fact that Geralt isn’t the chosen one is the heart of The Witcher 3. Geralt is presented as being a lowly bounty hunter, and CD Projekt did a good job of staying true to Sapkowski’s stories. Geralt is a Witcher, and a damn good one, but when he gets involved in politics, magic, and fate, he’s often out of his depth.
The Witcher 3 made me feel like a Witcher. The world I inhabited for something like 100 hours, the random people within it, with all their varying troubles that felt like they really mattered, the monster contracts, the shops, the side quests—it all helped get me there. But what really drove it home was the sensation this world would have gone on—will go on, somehow—without me.
Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, and it’s been downhill ever since. He takes a multifaceted approach to gaming news and reviews, mixing business analysis, cultural studies, tech and design. Eric has written for outlets like Playboy.com, TechnoBuffalo.com, TabTimes.com, and Kombo.com. In his free time, he perfects his napping technique and pursues the elusive perfect cheeseburger.
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