With The Witcher 2 looming like a dark juggernaut of RPG-based distraction, we thought it might be a good time to go back and poke around in the original game. Just what was it that really made it sing? (There may be some mild spoilers ahead.)
Forget about the sex cards, forget about the five hour slog through the Outskirts, ignore the occasionally shoddy writing and voice work, and let’s focus on how The Witcher deals with choice. It's a piece of game design that demands respect.
We need to begin with an example from the game. So let's try this: You’re out at night, slaying monsters by the shore for a local merchant, when some elven guerrillas come up to you, asking about the shipment of goods - nearby goods - they were expecting from your temporary employer. They can’t risk being around for long, so they need you to make the decision of whether to take them at their word and let them haul away their goods, or tell them to bugger off.
Let them have the goods, which are potentially weapons, and could very well help the guerrillas carry out acts of terrorism against the populace of Vizima?
Inform them that you have no idea whether they own the goods or not, and they could very well be trying to steal them?
Consider that either decision has potentially grave ramifications. You don’t know what the goods are, but if they’re desirable for these freedom fighters, there’s a good chance they’re essential for their resistance. It could be food, meaning that they would starve without them, or it could be weapons, meaning they’d be poorly equipped and more likely to get killed if they don’t get them.
This is a world were anything non-human is seen as barely better than a beast, and the cause of these elves is one of equality, even if their means are violent and something that you might not agree with. Peaceful protest is all well and good, when you’re dealing with people who might, on the off chance, listen to you, but whether that’s the case or not here, you have little to no idea, what with being outside the city at this point. It’s a tough call.
But you’ve made it, right? Good. We’ll get back to that.
That’s how choice tends to go in The Witcher. You’re presented with a decision where either side of the argument could be valid, and then forced to make the call. It’s a running, morbid joke throughout the game that Witchers are supposed to be bastions of neutrality, an agent that is there purely to deal with monsters. But they’re powerful warriors, and when the monsters don’t seem to be nearly as clear-cut as Geralt and his brethren might like, the world is becoming a place they’re going to have to involve themselves in, otherwise they’re at risk of becoming redundant relics, occasionally evoked when some particularly large rats appear in the local tavern’s cellar.
But there’s two phases to every choice here, too. First, there’s the decision, and then, there’s the consequence. In many other games, that consequence takes place soon after the decision, so that it can give you some good or bad points and push you a little more up whichever end of the binary spectrum you’ve decided to pursue. It's also easier if, in terms of storytelling, you get to connect that consequence with your action before you get about it. The problem with that, and something that The Witcher sidesteps so elegantly, is that the player almost always has the option to revoke that choice that they’ve just made with a minimum of retreading.
You can just quicksave before the conversation, and then reload if you don’t like the outcome. Like a spoilt child, you get to have your way, even if you fuck up. You’re a beautiful and delicate flower, and the mere chance that you might be presented with something that disagrees with you isn’t something that can be tolerated. Instead you need to have that reassuring hand on your shoulder that lets you back out of any decision that you’ve made, right after you’ve made it.
In The Witcher, that hand is a push, and it’s forcing you to remain in an anxious limbo, unable to see what the consequences of your choice are, how big and how powerful an impact crater the asteroid of your decision is going to leave. It might be an hour later, it could be something that doesn’t even show up until next chapter. But it’s going to come back, and it’s going to have an impact.
Which choice did you make?
If you chose to let the elves take the goods, then you later walk into a pub to be presented with a corpse. Protruding out of his chest are three arrows, the tips of which are designed to split on impact, diverging into three different arrowheads, to maximise the damage against internal organs and the like. Because of how they work, they’re useless against even lightly armoured enemies, so these are purely for killing civilians. That was what was in the goods. Well done, asshole, you just enabled to an act of terrorism.
If you didn’t let them take the goods, then that guy who gets arrowed doesn’t, and instead informs on a Scoia'tael sympathiser and supporter, who turns out to be a major character that you need help from. And so you need to bail him out of prison. Also, what with him being a dwarf, and most humans hating anything non-human, prison is a pretty crappy place for him to be. That would be your fault.
As a player, making that choice, you'll wish you’d picked the other option. And the same goes for the people who picked the other option too. It’s tough, not being able to be the good guy all the time. Furthermore, if you’d wanted to fix that particular decision, you’re looking at replaying three, maybe four hours of the game. Not really an option, when you think about it like that.
This is The Witcher taking away your crutches. It’s pulling the stabilisers off your bike, and letting you careen down the narrow lane of your decision making. It’s letting you know that you can make mistakes, you can fuck up, and the game will carry on. Sure, sometimes things will happen that you might not have wanted, but that’s how a good story happens. If everything you do turns out great, where the hell is the jeopardy that makes the story interesting? It's precisely by piling problems onto a protagonist, and having them face worse problems no matter how well they deal with the situation, that the best stories thrive.
The smartest thing The Witcher does, however, isn’t the big choices like the one outlined above. Instead it’s the little things, the things that don’t even look like choices, but can have ramifications. Things like being told by a friend to do some research into forensic sciences before you do an autopsy. In another game, that would be a requirement, with the option to do the autopsy completely unavailable until you’d done the required reading. Here? Here you can do the autopsy whenever, and it’s framed in such a way that, once it’s done, you’re pretty much certain your results were correct. Who needs books, right?
Except you’ve botched it, and, unless you looked it up in a walkthrough, you’d never know. The world keeps turning, and you’re just on a different track. A track that could well end up with people getting killed from your aversion to research.
That's a neat trick: The Witcher hides consequences inside split second decisions about things that don't look like game-changing moments. You just act, distracted by these big, grandiose moments where you’re forced to pick one side or the other, while all the time you’re making these small, minute to minute decisions that you’d think were just part of playing the game, but are actually causing ripples that, somewhere down the line, are going to become a tidal wave that you’re definitely not ready for. As these waves start to crash over you, you start to figure out what’s going on, and suddenly every little thing you do becomes important. What, before, was just clearing out a house of monsters, now has you thinking about what would happen if you didn’t clear it out. How do you know what’s important to the outcome of something and what isn’t?
What all this means is that choice is embedded in The Witcher in a far subtler, and consequently far more profound way, that most RPGs we play. It creates a world where smaller changes aren’t purely superficial changes. And while they may be scripted, there are so many outcomes, so many variables, that it nevertheless feels like a naturalistic outcome. The track you find yourself on is yours, in a way that few other have managed, because you can look back on the story and see where you might have gone wrong. When little things you do chang the world around you, it becomes something incredibly personal.
And it’s personal not only because of the things you’ve done, and how they’ve changed the world of The Witcher. There’s also the things you didn’t do, that lead to deaths and tragedy, or even, maybe, something good. The game suppose that Geralt isn't clairvoyant, and it also that sometimes things don’t go the way you’d or he would think. What looks like the right choice might be the wrong, and vice-versa.
This might sound incredibly frustrating. It could sound like you’re being punished for doing something right, or that this unpredictability means that the game is constantly pulling the rug from under your feet and making you pay for things that didn’t even seem significant at the time. After spending so long with clear signposting and wonderfully friendly game design, where the player’s every whim comes with a safety net, this might sound like torture.
And, perhaps, it might be. For you. But I want to be punched in the gut sometimes (figuratively speaking!) and I want a game to fuck with me, confuse and punish me even when I might not have expected it. This might seem unfair, or cruel to the player - and that might fly in the face of game design's received wisdom about making consequences clear at the moment of decision - but I believe the pay off is that I no longer feel like a spectator. Ultimately, those decisions are still my decisions. I’m an instigator, someone who the game reacts to, rather than me being forced to react to the game. Every moment counts, because my actions count. It’s not some big neon sign saying ‘Moral choice!’ to prepare me for this scene, knowing, in rough terms, what the outcome is going to be. It’s a knife at your throat, constantly, letting you know that one slip up, at any time, could change everything.