Think of the most popular video game worlds, the ones that feel alive, filled with their own unique conflicts and resolutions, often with clashing sides, but there is ultimately a spark of hope, some kind of bright light that says that all will be well, if only the world can be mended. The past few years have thrown several games, all RPGs, in the direction of gamers that create massive, complicated worlds, countries and planets that are so idealized that we, the gamer, form attachments. When you form an attachment, you gain more from a game. This attachment allows for escape, and it makes the game all the more enjoyable, and worthy of attention. It's a break from reality.
If video games are an escape from reality to a fantasy world where we can live outside of our unsettling reality, then I would not go so far as to say that The Witcher 2 allows escape.
Having recently acquired the game for the Xbox, I was stunned by the presentation of the world, and confronted with something of an ugly truth: games like Skryim, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and even Kingdoms of Amalur are so borderline static and predictable with their presentations of simple conflicts, and their ultimately idealized worlds that they seem almost naïve. Confronted with that, being thrown into a world like The Witcher 2, where the monsters are horribly human, the conflicts are ultimately about stupid people behaving stupidly and getting a lot of people killed in the process, and the heroes are people for whom that term is loose at best, is actually intimidating.
In RPGS, we assume a role, a guide through the story, and we confront heavy obstacles. What I am finding in The Witcher 2 is that the developers have almost gone out of their way to remind you that this is not a pretty world, it is not ideal, and you almost want to get out as soon as you arrive. You don't leave, of course, because this is a game, and it is a very good one, make no mistake, but I find myself pining for quarreling mages and templars, if only because they are, at the least, predictable, and unlikely to make me find humans as loathsome as The Witcher 2 seems bent on encouraging.
The game is exceptional, and every bit as good as the PC gaming crowd promised. I hope PS3 people get an opportunity to experience The Witcher 2, because it is one of those games that is never as simple as it seems. Gameplay is a challenge, and requires some thought, but the story and characters elevate this game above other fantasy world RPGs. This is not a simple world, it is complicated, dirty, and filled with people, elves, and dwarves who are fighting, raging against the dying light of their cultures, and almost seem to be hunting for conflicts, just to have someone to blame. Story wise, it's about kings and their wars, and the people who die for those wars. Dig deeper, and it's about those same wars, those same kings, and all the bad decisions made by those with power, and reminding the gamer, once again, that power, in the hands of fools, is a lit match near a pile of dry twigs.
It's a jarring step out of the familiar fantasy world of Skyrim and Dragon Age, where conflict seem to amount to 'this side says the other side is bad because the first side said so, and the reverse is true from the other side'. The Witcher 2 isn't allowing for such simple things. If I hunt hard enough, I can see subtle commentary on politicians making war because they can, and civilians turning on other things, not out of ignorance, but out of intolerance.
It's a world that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but compels you to keep going. The polished shine and simple conflicts of games from Bethesda and Bioware seem to pale compared to CDProjekt Red's Witcher games. While reading Andrjez Sapkowski's first collection of short stories prepared me for the game's backstory, it did not prepare me for the intimidating nature of the world, the simple cruelties, and the overall, uncomfortable reality that the things I'm witnessing are clear parallels to events I read about in the news everyday.
We have racial conflict, wars between countries over land and resources, some characters standing up and protesting long time grudges, and sometimes people finding someone to blame and eliminating that person (or creature in some instances) simply because it is convenient.
It's a bit too real, even in a game setting. I would not want to live in this world.
The Witcher's world is one built on conflict, anger, foolish grabs for power, and people being cruel for cruelty's sake. This game presents its reality as being something where the worst things possible are the dominant aspects of life, and nothing is likely to change it. There is the singular character who is trying to make things a little better, but there is no delusion that this character is a traditional hero; the Witcher has his own motivations, his own failings, and his own grudges. He's not a traditional hero, and he's not necessarily what I'd even call a hero. He is a noble man, but I wouldn't call him a good one. Most of the 'heroic' characters in game are not good people; they are noble, they may have a grasp of honor, but they are not necessarily good people.
The Witcher 2 is the most un-idealized video game I've ever seen. It's remarkably refreshing.
Perhaps this is why narrative form and world building have become so crucial to defining a game's true greatness. In the past several years, we've seen so many games, almost all part of franchises, that build and elaborate upon established worlds and ideas, creating familiar settings and conflicts that appeal to players, but aren't necessarily asking too much on a cerebral level. At the same time, dig beneath the surface, and there are some substantial questions being asked about belief, politics, a person's place in the world, and how conflicts define characters.
What this game is doing is pushing a dirty, filthy world forward and telling the player to not make it better, but invest time, effort, and interest, and ultimately decide who is in the right and who might not necessarily be wrong. It's asking some big questions, and it's doing so in a way that is encouraging for the state of video game writing. Creating a strong, distinctive world is a challenge, but creating one that pushes gamers to think, to analyze, and to consider critically the consequences of one act, and really make that one act felt throughout the remainder of the game, that is where this game really soars above others in its genre.
Video games should not be afraid to ask questions of their players, and players should relish the chance to dig deeper. Opening doors to bigger possibilities, truly considering consequences, and having a distinctive understanding that nothing is as simple as 'good' or 'bad' anymore, this is where The Witcher 2 is shining brightly amid all the other great narratives. It's fitting that The Witcher began as a book series. The game feels like an interactive novel. Perhaps this is the future of merging another leisure entertainment into games. We already have interactive movies; this might be the next step.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.!--EndFragment-->