The Witcher Done Good?

By Jim Rossignol on November 10th, 2008 at 10:06 am.


You probably spotted this from last week, but I wanted to reprise the story to lead into some other thoughts about The Witcher. Polish fantasy RPG The Witcher has sold 1 million copies. That’s a fair amount for a game on any format. Developers CD Projekt are rightly pleased with this, and I’m glad that this unexpected success has allowed them scope to continue and expand their RPG-building projects. The Witcher was one of those games that made me say: “I’d like to see what they do next.” I usually say that only to find that the company in question has gone bust (sorry, Troika) but it looks like that won’t be the case here.

Wired reports: “The success of The Witcher has ensured that we’ll be able to make the games we want,” said CD Projekt CEO Adam Kicinski. “The amazing response we had from the gaming community to the Enhanced Edition really reinforced that we’re on the right track with our development philosophy.”

They’ve done extremely well, I’d agree, but let’s not get too self-congratulatory about it all: The Witcher had some problems, as I found out over the past few weeks.

One thing that divides even RPS editors is how much voice acting matters in a game. Does it really make a difference to how we rate a game? Of course matters of combat mechanics and quest-structure are ultimately more important – but can such cosmetics be ignored in a game where talking is so central to the action? John and myself seem particularly riled by silly voices and mistaken enunciation. My first hours in Fallout 3 were uncomfortable thanks to cavalcade of “A TRAVELLER EH?” and other dialogue missteps, and I had to flee starting-town Megaton to be able to find myself hooked and interested in the game world. (Guess which route I took regarding that particular explosive device…)

The Witcher, of course, had no such open-world luxury. Despite the wide open sections each game presents to you, it is relatively linear, especially in the first five or so hours of play. Escaping the bad voice-acting there meant playing the Enhanced Edition and switching the language to its native Polish. I’m sure it sounded cheesy to a Polish speaker too, but it was a far less distressing experience than the English, which was fathoms below that proffered in daytime soap operas. If the Enhanced Edition accomplished anything, it was the ability to sidestep this clumsiness. It’s hard to properly quantify the difference that this made, but treating the game as a foreign language property transformed it from something intolerable, to something compelling. Once this atmosphere-exploding chatter had been dealt with, the odd lines of broken text could safely be ignored, and I was able to plunge into the game proper.

Finally engaged with The Witcher’s moody fantasy world, I was rapidly taken with it. The combat was just the right side of simplicity, and the way that quests unfolded seems to give genuine scope for decisions that belonged to me. That is good game design. There are stupid dead-ends – unexplained skill requirements for some quests, or entirely vague parameters for success in others – but they were generally passable.

Also good was the mood it struck throughout: constant undertones of desperation and nastiness. It’s my general feeling that games aren’t bleak enough – even when the subject of a game is hyper-death and battle-horror, the experience is still generally upbeat. (Valve talked, as you’ll see in a forthcoming podcast, about how Left 4 Dead’s characters had to be upbeat to avoid bumming out their players with the looming End Of World fiction it was creating.) So it was gratifying to see The Witcher be brave enough to just grind onward with grimness, and deliver a world in which traditional fantasy tropes marched alongside racism and other brutalities.

If there was one failure in this approach, it was that it made the dreary starting village area even more of a slog to get through. With one brain-lobe I’m loving the gritty game world, but in another I am getting bored and thinking “this should have lasted an hour at the most”. The sense of release when the city and the swamps beyond finally opened the game up into something broad and explorable was astonishing. At fucking last! I’d been assured that if I just got to that point then the game would start to make sense, and that I’d start to understand the enthusiasm of its fans. And I did, and it does – but that fact alone causes some raised eyebrows about CD Projekt’s “development philosophy”. If that philosophy involves ignoring the fact that the starting hours of your game are completely rubbish – with NPCs that seem mentally ill thanks to nonsensical editing and a story teetering on a terrifying precipice of plot holes – then there’s definitely some distance to go before “right track” status can be confirmed. This was a game that made be scream with frustration almost as often as it delighted me – the perpetual minefield of ambitious, problematic PC games. That it took so long to start motoring is a problem that couldn’t be fixed by the EE patch, and seemed especially pressing to the time-starved gamer of 2008.

I say this with the knowledge that CD Projekt will be able to make another game, thanks to their initial success. It’s a thumbs-aloft, gold-plated victory for the medium as we celebrate it. The Polish team now have a real chance to become a powerhouse in game development, bringing us a kind of RPG that is very rare indeed – something that encompasses inventory and stat fiddling, wide-open, consequence-filled story-telling, and actual graphical prowess. (Did everyone ignore that? The manifestation of a truly good-looking PC-only RPG?) Not only that, but it’s a game that doesn’t sit entirely within the exhausted archetypes of traditional fantasy games. There might be dwarves and elves in The Witcher’s world, but at least their engagement, and the events surrounding them, are muddled up with the kind of ugliness and inhumanity that we find in our own history. For a game rooted in fantasy scribblings, it’s taken an interesting path – picked on an author who didn’t just regurgitate D&D’s Tolkien-withering clichés, and seemingly tried to address the kinds of issues that games generally like to avoid: sex, racism, prejudice, and the trials of poverty. Yes, it’s pulp fiction, but even pulp – when good – hits the right nerves.

It’s tough to recommend The Witcher right now because there’s just so much else out there. But it is one of those interesting singularities in the world of PC gaming. It’s a gristly, meaty mess. Hard to digest but nonetheless nutritious. You’d be foolish to overlook it.

And if The Witcher’s success allows CD Projekt to continue on their journey and confirms that they’ve taken the right path, I hope they’ll also listen to criticism – of which there is plenty – and overcome the problems that face even the biggest RPGs in the business.

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109 Comments »

  1. Ian says:

    I’ve still yet to play this because I have less time to game these days and so I tend to focus on the stuff I think I’ll really like, but hopefully I’ll be caught up on my games before the next release-slump and be able to try a few games such as The Witcher.

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    Yeah, it’s one for the after Christmas lull, perhaps.

  3. ChaosSmurf says:

    I got a free copy for stabbing people at the PC Gamer Showdown. I played the first bit, enjoyed it, then completely stopped after saving the OH DEAR GOD SPOILERS witch.

    Funny story, you have sex with her right in front of the little kid, it’s kinda gross.

    A note on Troika, I guess you could say they did go and make a new game since half of them apparently now work on one of the unofficial patches for V:TM:B (the one not made by a bunch of nude-mod makers). Those patches change that game so much it almost is a new game.

  4. subedii says:

    I’m usually one of those people that prefer to listen to films in their original language, but I actually didn’t mind the Witchers attempt at dialogue so much, so English did really bother me here for some reason. I thought some of the performances we’re actually quite good, although that’s pretty much a subjective thing.

    More annoying for me was the lack of any emotion on the character’s faces. They’ll be making angry gestures with their fists and use agitated body language, but their faces still remain completely wooden, and that really felt awkward to me. I guess I’m used to more emotive characters by now. With Geralt it wasn’t really a problem since he seems neutral and calculating at all times. With other characters it often threw me right out.

    I realise it takes a lot of work to do extra emotion for all those characters, but I think it would VASTLY improve the atmosphere and setting.

    Oh and tip to new players: If you’re relatively familiar with games, I’d suggest going with Hard difficulty. Combat becomes a lot more fun when you’re having to plan your potion and oil usage, and make use of them at the right times. In normal I was finding that I never really needed to use them, so I just ended up stockpiling them.

  5. Pavel says:

    I liked the starting village – the game got me in its tutorial already. And I liked english voice acting, which may have something to do with me being non-native english speaker. It was definitely better than czech voice acting, which made Geralt sound like he was constipated all the time. English Geralt was the right amount of bad ass IMO. And I am talking about original, nonEE version. I am looking forward to finishing EE next year very much : ).

  6. strangeed says:

    ChaosSmurf, do you have a link to the V:TM:B project you mention? I bought it over steam a while ago, really enjoyed it but had to stop due to several game breaking bugs. Would love to pick it up again.

    On the topic at hand, I am really enjoying the Witcher at the moment. I’m somewhere in the 4th Chapter, very enjoyable, even though some of the quests and texts are bizarre. They could have included a bit more fast travel too.

  7. AsubstanceD says:

    I think you completely under rate this game. I don’t agree that its hard to recommend at the moment, although there is loads of games out at the moment there is difenatelty not something for everyone and the witcher offers something to those RPG fans that love games with really interesting characters and main story line. I really don’t think any of the games out at the moment have that, some may argue about fallout 3 on that.

  8. Nezz says:

    It’s my general feeling that games aren’t bleak enough

    Nah. Tragedy has its proper place, but mere bleakness is just the mark of an untalented artist.

  9. ChaosSmurf says:

    @strangeed: http://www.patches-scrolls.de/vampire_bloodlines.php There’s some information on the wiki page for the game.

  10. James G says:

    I’ve currently put the Witcher on hold while I play Fallout 3, it [The Witcher] hasn’t particularly grabbed me yet, but I’m still near the beginning.

  11. Iain says:

    Can I look all smug now for saying all this a year ago? No? Shit…

  12. Dreamhacker says:

    RIP Troika 1998-2005 :(

    Now, lets see what CDProjekt can do!

  13. Tainted says:

    I’m 3/4 the way through the Witcher now and I have very similar feelings to you Jim. For every moment this game makes me sit back in wonder, there’s another moment (usually when talking to somebody or running back and forth between places like a messengerboy. Or when the game crashes for no reason almost on the hour every hour…) that it makes me shout out in frustration.

    It strikes me just what it is, a new developer finding their feet. If they can improve on this formula and take some of the really frustrating bits out of this game for their new game then it will be fantastic.

    The best thing about the Witcher is how uncontaminated with console adaptations. It’s a PC rpg dedicated to adult PC gamers. Plenty of buttons to press, inventory managment, a detailed levelling system. It’s very refreshing, and I’m glad they’ve got their 1m sales!

    Plus these are they people who bring us GOG. GO CD PROJEKT!

  14. cHeal says:

    Well I’m not much of an RPG gamer which is probably why I quite enjoyed the opening village lead in. I thought it was nicely paced and filled with interesting characters. The end of that sections also affected me greatly, I was genuinely disturbed to wake up one day to find the village empty, it struck me in a strange way.

    I don’t get enough time to play games much and I find it hard to play a game for an extended period time so after getting killed in the swamp a few times I’ve kinda left this to one side but I will get back into it. Doubt I’ll finish it as I heard it was very long, mostly bought it to support the developer to be honest, we need more developers like CD projekt.

  15. Kieron Gillen says:

    Nezz: Care to put some meat on that argument so people can actually argue with you?

    KG

  16. teo says:

    I’m am planning on picking this up when I find it for a good price
    Have been for some time

  17. ChaosSmurf says:

    This thread made me go see what happened to Troika staff. Looks like they all moved on, to some pretty good companies too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troika_Games

    When clicking through those guys, it shows how far Blizzivision’s influence spreads.

  18. Heliocentric says:

    Thats right ness, shindlers list was shit, wasn’t it?

    And the old invasion of the body snatchers were much worse than the later american one where the good guys steal a helicopter and blow up the bad guys… So much better.

  19. Thirith says:

    Schindler’s List was anything but unrelenting bleakness.

    Added to which, Heliocentric: weren’t all versions of Body Snatchers American?

  20. Danny says:

    I really liked The Witcher. Actually, I can’t recall a better PC RPG that came out in the last couple of years. Sure, it’s a bit rough when it comes to editting and voice acting, but for me these are minor points compared to the believable world and interesting quests that the game offers.

    I think it’s safe to say that it’s the only game since a long time that actually feels like a classic PC RPG (since Vampire TM: Bloodlines, like someone else mentioned already). And yes, I have played F3, Mass Effect and Oblivion. The only other game that I can think of that comes close is Mask of the Betrayer, being a superior experience compared to the original NWN2.

  21. toni says:

    the witcher has ocar-worthy voiceacting compared to Fallout3.
    and although a limited engine it was much more open-ended than say, MassEffect every pretended to be or even FarCry is with its corridors and no-impact story.

  22. Quirk says:

    Bleakness is an attribute of the environment; tragedy describes the path of the humans within that environment. Comparing them makes little sense.

    1984 is an unremittingly bleak book. Lord of the Flies is similarly bleak. They are not tragedies in any conventional sense; they drive not at the individual human condition, but at the madness of groups. I find it hard to dismiss Orwell and Golding as untalented hacks.

  23. Paul Moloney says:

    “the one not made by a bunch of nude-mod makers”

    Oh god, HIM. Yes, it’s nice having your work ripped off without either permission or even a thank you, then receiving abuse when you ask why they did so.

    P.

  24. ChaosSmurf says:

    @Paul: Have I missed something? >.>

  25. Bobsy says:

    The reason I don’t much like Planescape: Torment is that I consider it to be over-bleak.

    Not wanting to get into a semantic argument over what bleakness is, I found Torment to be one long downer – life for the characters got steadily worse and worse – and that was about it.

  26. Kieron Gillen says:

    That’s an aesthetic preference though, Bobsy. I’m still waiting to see why bleakness is an artistic failing per se.

    KG

  27. Thirith says:

    Kieron: while I don’t think that bleakness is an artistic failing per se, I would say that most works of arts or pieces of narrative that are too exclusively one thing – only bleak, only this, only that – are less effective than if they introduced other elements. It’s a bit like music: having a loud forte fortissimo passage can be highly effective, but if the entire piece is fff then it becomes boring. If you think of King Lear, probably Shakespeare’s bleakest play, without moments of humanity and humour it would become so relentless that people would switch off. You need something to contrast the bleakness to for it to be perceived.

  28. Okami says:

    @ ChaosSmurf:

    Funny story, you have sex with her right in front of the little kid, it’s kinda gross.

    They probably told the boy to go play in the other cave, while the grown ups had to talk..

  29. thesombrerokid says:

    i feel CD Projekt will always be bellow Bioware and Bethesda, it wasn’t just the voice acting, the writing in the game was terible and collecting the cards for sleeping with the ladies was the closest i’d have felt to being a cirb crawler ever if i hadn’t desperatly tried to pretend that every female character in the game was dying to get my pants off.

    that really broke the imersion for me, the gotta collect them all aspect to sleeping with women, it’s the first time i could say that maybe a game i’ve played does deserve an age rating because turning sleeping with women into a game for people who are yet to form opinions on such things will have a negative impact on thier perception of women i think. they are actually likely to sleep with women whereas they are almost certainy not going to do any of the things in fallout 3 that gained it it’s age rating.

  30. thesombrerokid says:

    @Thirith
    i aree with you there tbh.

  31. Optimaximal says:

    Unfortunately, The Witcher is easily forgettable until you enter Vizima properly – the tutorial is overly long and lacking in choice of what to do (by design I suppose) and you’re so perplexed at what’s going on during Act 1 due to a lack of exposition about why certain things are happening and/or relevant that it’s easy to not care.

    Once you enter Act 2, the plotline kicks into gear and all of the pieces of the puzzle start to slot together and the game turns, quite frankly, brilliant!

  32. Wallace says:

    Speaking of graphical prowess, I’m running through it now (in polish) and I have to keep reminding myself that this is the Aurora engine. After the enclosed spaces of Neverwinter Nights 2, I was blown away to see The Witcher using it for the epic landscape shots that are in the intro.

  33. thesombrerokid says:

    i actually found the plot crawlled up it’s own arse and all the combat dried up forcing me to talk to a bunch of people which is by far the worst part of the game and take a tonne of side quests which i quickly got bored of, i’d say i spent as much time in vizima as i’d spent outside it before i got bored.

    leaving it at that though would be much too harsh and give the impression i didn’t like it, i did like it just not enough given there where plenty of other games coming out wanting my money and attention i’d say this not dead space is the game that’ll get left to the dry season next year, i’m glad there’s another neverwinter nights (a game that’s like baldurs gate and the rest of them but lower quality meaning i don’t blast through it in a month and then leave myself with nothing to play but instead pace myself with it).

  34. Schadenfreude says:

    @Wallace
    Neverwinter Nights 2 uses the Electron engine, a pretty massive rewrite of Aurora; Obsidian only kept the back-end D&D stuff and certainly threw out the graphics engine in its entirety. The Witcher is still running on Aurora so has more in common with the first Neverwinter Nights or KotOR.

    Which is a damning indictment of NWN2 if you ask me.

  35. Lobotomist says:

    I dont know if i am crazy or is my european non native english speaker ear so crooked – But i never could really distinguish what was all that hubbub about Witcher poor english acting???

    Sure it went from mediocre to some great pieces. But shoot me with your shotgun (or rock or paper) if there is no such bad acting in Oblivion, Fallout…or should i mention absolutely mega annoying NWN2 ?

    I think personally , it was english speaking snobism!
    Oh! So there is hint of accent in their english! Bring the torches!

    Actually the fact that The game is happening in Fantasy medieval Poland – hint of polish accent serves only to better establish this.

    -
    But i agree on one thing, judging RPG game of such scope is not easy. And you truly needed to play Witcher to the end in order to fully appreciate it.

    Same goes for Fallout3 , which as said above , starts of very mediocre but opens up into RPG that almost surpasses hardcore fallout fan expectations

  36. Subject 706 says:

    As RPG makers, I’d say that CDP actually stand above Bioware in my book as of now. Might be because I quite liked the Witcher and was horribly disappointed with Mass Effect.

    I actually didn’t find the Witchers voice work to be that jarring, but then again, I’m not a native english speaker.

  37. Thirith says:

    Lobotomist: Neverwinter Night 2 had lots of absolutely dreadful voice acting, you’re right. Mask of the Betrayer was much better in this respect.

  38. Jim Rossignol says:

    It’s not about accents in The Witcher, so much as the actors sounding like someone who has never acted before trying to do an impression of a Hollywood trailer voice-over announcer.

  39. jamscones says:

    “If that philosophy involves ignoring the fact that the starting hours of your game are completely rubbish…”

    This is sadly symptomatic of the rather sniffy attitude RPS has shown the game since it was originally released. Even the tone of this entire article suggests that you almost resent liking it to the extent you did.

    The starting areas are fine, and I felt totally engaged with the game during the prologue and Chapter 1. That the game opens up a lot and allows more player agency in Chapter 2 doesn’t reflect poorly on the preceding sections which are, after all, an extended tutorial. The game has to teach you how to fight, how to use the alchemy system (which is important both to the context and the gameplay), and how to deal with the NPCs, including the significance of the decisions you make. This needs to be done in a more controlled way than would be possible if they just dumped you in Vizima with over a dozen quests and sub-quests hitting you at once. Vizima and its environs are already large enough that you will spend a good couple of hours wandering round in bewilderment, trying to figure out where to go and what to do next.

    I finished TWEE just a couple of weeks ago and on the whole, it was one of the best CRPGs I’ve ever played. It was certainly a lot better than anything Obsidian have managed to release thus far, and it was meatier and more satisfying than Mass Effect.

    I would urge anyone who’s a fan of modern (BiS/Obsidian/Bioware) style RPGs to give The Witcher a go. Gothic fans will also find a lot to like in the generally bleak, hostile tone, punctuated with bitter humour.

  40. cHeal says:

    I thought the voice acting in the EE version was grand, far far better than Oblivions and up there with a great number of shooters. I quite enjoy it really, and find the character animations during conversations to be convincing enough.

  41. Danny says:

    jamscones: that’s exactly what I wanted to say, but you do it so much better ;)

    It really is one of the greatest RPG’s around, and people that liked the games you mentioned will have a great time with The Witcher.

    And I don’t understand why games (but also movies and books) receive negative comments because of a high level of bleakness. Some people, including myself really prefer bleak settings over the shiny and cozy worlds that you see so often. It’s this reason that’s holding me back from ever feeling immersed in a game like Fable.

  42. andy says:

    so it sounds like jim didn’t agree with some of the stuff in the game. the article came across a bit too much of “i know better then everyone else and everyone else should agree with me”.

    umm, yeah…

  43. cyrenic says:

    I wonder, if The Witcher wouldn’t have sold so well, if CD Projekt would have been able to continue based on profits from GoG.com. How much money are they making off that site?

  44. Calabi says:

    Its a good I like it, I played it through to the end. It has a decent atmosphere which seems to be lacking in a lot of games now. There are lots of little problems with it though.

    The combat, is awkward, and can get confusing and you dont always feel fully in control.

    Quite a lot of the interactions come across as rushed and perhaps as wishful thinking.

    Whilst its good you actually have proper choices in it, it doesnt always telegraph those choices, that well, or give you enough information to take the choice that you might like.

    Spoilers.
    Like the choice to join with the terrorists or not, up to that point, they were just terrorists to me, I had no information given to me which indicated otherwise of why I should join them. My choice to join them would only have been on a whim, I chose the only realistic choice, eventually I follow, along those choices to the end where, you end up having to slaughter, squirrels for a compo. I appeared to have joined the bad guys without realising it and no way of going back on that. Also at the end of the game it doesnt seem as if your choices amount to much, and its a bit vague.

  45. reiver says:

    After propagating the “Angry internet Man” meme are you now trying to give rise to a “Snide Journos” one? The PCGamer centered hate for this title stinks!

  46. jackflash says:

    It’s a very good game. Doesn’t quite achieve greatness, but in my opinion it’s still the best game in town at the moment. Just watching the stale combat in Dragon Age : Origins videos makes me appreciate what we have in the Witcher. God, I hope their next game is PC-only. I really don’t think it will be, though. They’re starting to murmur about console ambitions. That would be sad.

  47. Lukasz says:

    Cyrenic.

    CD Projekt is a main distributor of games in poland. If Witcher didn’t sell well (it would be a great tragedy for many reasons) they would not be hurt beyond recovery. They would be okay.

    No idea how well GOG performs. Few weeks ago they said that closed beta was more popular than expected.

  48. jackflash says:

    One other comment – I really hope that in future games they flesh out the choices you have to make. The Witcher was applauded for having huge, meaningful choices that had a big impact on the way the game played out. But I think that’s only half right. The developers almost never give you much information about the choices you make, so in my view they never carried much moral weight. I had no real idea what to choose or why. This makes it very hard to actually role play in the Witcher. A decision does not carry moral weight just because it has a large and lasting impact; it carries such weight because the decision-maker knew what these impacts might be and made the decision anyway. I think tweaking this aspect of their gameplay mechanic – basically, a storytelling and narrative issue – should be CD Projekt’s first priority. Planescape Torment got this 100% right, which is why it remains my favorite RPG of all time.

  49. Alec Meer says:

    Reiver: sadly you’re confusing “having some problems with it” with “hate.” Absolutism stinks.

  50. Yann Best says:

    Generally I agree with the sentiments espoused by Jim (though I preferred the village to the city simply because the city heralded the collapse of the game’s frame-rate on my old rig); however:

    Of course matters of combat mechanics and quest-structure are ultimately more important

    Really? I could certainly accept that to a great many people, including presumably Jim, that this is correct, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily an ‘of course’ statement: if it was, then I’m not sure that Mass Effect (say) would be quite so well-liked in some quarters.

    Different people get different things out of RPG’s, and while combat and questing are important elements, so are storytelling and, well, ‘role playing’ [i.e. character customisation and choice-making]. The latter are closely intertwined, of course – nobody wants to play a role in an uninteresting world – and it is to storytelling that script and voice acting matter: deeply. It’s for those reasons that many found problems with The Witcher, and it lies behind my own dislike of Oblivion (and is the main problem I have with Fallout 3). The VA problem can simply be solved by, well, not having any, but scripting is a much larger problem – not just making natural-sounding speech, but making it successfully reflect your character and the way you’ve played is a crucial part of world-building.

    Ignoring JRPG’s (which generally eschew role-playing, and simplify the questing), while it is true that most games contain at least a smidgen of all the above elements, the fact is that they often focus on one or two sections to the harm of the other: so we have rogue-likes (and the old Dungeon Master-alikes) which focus on the combat over all; and on the other hand games like Planescape where lacklustre combat is overcome with excellent storytelling and numerous role-playing options. Of course there are also occasional games which manage to merge all four elements (so the Fallouts combined capable combat, interesting quests, excellent scripting and strong role-playing elements), but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

    All I’m trying to show is is that while to many the combat and questing are crucial, if not the crucial elements of an RPG, to others it can be the storytelling and/or the role-playing aspects, and to these people it’s likely to be the case that scriptwriting and voice-acting are more important than combat mechanics and quest-structure.

    Oh, and I’m aware that I’m being unfair in that Jim was specifically talking about voice-acting in that sentence. But voice-acting and script are pretty inextricable linked, and when it comes to the Witcher both are frequently as bad as each other, so it seems relevant to bring both in.