I don’t like The Witcher 3. It’s a shame, because the thing is one of the most technically impressive games I’ve seen and has gotten a billion awards and rave reviews. But it also gathers together some tendencies in pop culture that viscerally rub me the wrong way.
The game has a history behind it: not only the previous two games, but also the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Since I’m not particularly familiar with any of them, I’m not in a position to comment upon all the intricacies of its high fantasy world, but the basic story beats of the game are easily understandable. Our hero, Geralt of Riviera, is a Witcher, which is a sort of mutant mercenary. He’s tasked with tracking down a half-elvish woman who was once his ward, and who is also pursued by the Wild Hunt, a sort of supernatural legion similar to Tolkien’s Nazgul. All this takes place against the backdrop of an imperial war of aggression.
It’s pretty standard fantasy fluff, but The Witcher 3 is one of those things that people like to describe in admiring tones as “dark and gritty”, and “not morally black and white but rather shades of gray.” Now, “dark” is a vague tonal description, and readers of this blog will likely have picked up that I have a taste for the dark and gothic. But what I increasingly find is that the phrase “dark and gritty” is used not so much as to describe a tone as to describe an attitude, which is more bluntly expressed as “cynical.”
Most people in the game are thuggish and venal, motivated largely by sex, greed and power. Anyone who makes a pretense to virtue or ideals is really just a hypocrite who is really after a variation of those three things, or otherwise just plain bloodlust. This is taken to often cartoonish extremes, and Geralt himself is kinda the hero by default in the sense that he’s less bad than most others. It’s a world where you have trouble believing that anyone could unironically want to be a good person.
This description could easily be applied to any number of prestige TV shows and novels. Fiction where everyone is a small-minded asshole has become associated with a sense of classiness, because conflicts of good and evil or attempts at making big statements about humanity and whatnot are seen as naive or simplistic.
Aside from the fact that it’s hard to want to be invested in unlikable characters, shunning moral/ideological conflict in favor of reducing everything to power plays just results in dramatically flat characters driven by what are ultimately driven by banal motives. This sort of Hobbesian war of all-against-all is also just as much of a fantasy as a picture of humanity strictly divided into the morally pure and the evil: it’s true that people do a lot of stupid and depraved stuff for the sake of “I get mine” but people also do different things for a variety of different motivations that don’t always boil down to materialism. Digital Devil Saga, a video game about cannibal demons understands this quite well in giving us a scenario where the characters have every material motivation to kill each other and nonetheless show how some people will shirk this in favor of an interest in truth and love and whathaveyou.
It’s also a little bit lazy. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s easy to imagine someone worse than we are, because we all have bad impulses and can imagine what it would be like to have less moral scruples about them. For goodness’ sake, don’t just show me some messed up stuff and pass it off as being realistic or adult: actually say something with it, take a moral or philosophical stance and run with it. I don’t even have to agree with it, just be about something!
NieR: Automata is a good example of how you can have a game that’s dark and actually morally complex. The characters are all involved in a conflict where neither side is in the right, and the game uses this as a launching point to ask all sorts of questions about the human condition. The characters themselves are well-rounded, dealing with conflicts both internal and external and have actual motivations and stuff. There’s like an actual multifaceted picture of humanity here and a desire on creator Yoko Taro’s part to say something Important.
There’s a lot of wanton brutality in The Witcher 3, and it becomes pretty mind-numbing, creating a general feeling of unpleasentness. NieR has some messed up moments, but it uses them sparingly and effectively for dramatic purposes. Almost everyone in The Witcher also has a potty mouth, which I’m not offended by in a “well I nevah!” sense, but because it’s again a substitute for good characterization and makes everyone sound samey. Characters in NieR manage to be classy in their cursing (well, maybe classy isn’t the right word, but the point is that it’s punctuation and not doing the heavy lifting).
It’s a shame, because The Witcher 3 has one of the most immaculately designed open worlds ever, with some intricate quest structures that show just how much the game was a labour of love for the developers. The best moments were when I was just peacefully roaming the picturesque countryside. But then I’d go back to civilization and see someone getting burned at the stake, or go into a tavern and witness a woman getting brutalized in a bar fight. Just the sort of lovely stuff I want to see all the time in my escapist fantasy.
And I say this as a guy who loves Bloodborne, an almost comically bloody affair. But most of the gruesome stuff there happens to inhuman monsters, and the whole thing is framed as a gothic horror story about a world going insane. There’s a sort of dark poetry to it reminiscent of Poe and Lovecraft, while the Witcher always felt like a puerile fantasy.
Especially when it comes to sex. It’s both hilarious and sad how desperately it wants to be titillating, from how Geralt is both sterile and immune to venereal disease (enabling him to have all the consequence-free sex he wants) to how the major women characters tend to be really casual about being naked in the presence of, and wanting to shag Geralt. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game so stoically skeevy in its fanservice. No, not even The Phantom Pain.
All these impressions are based on the first few hours or so; maybe things get better as it goes on, but at this point I’ve decided I have better things to do with my time.