I was being swept into some sort of mania, that much was certain: excessive and irresponsible tech purchasing, obsessive and circular thoughts about video games, an inability to focus on most things not falling in the two first categories. And so, for the first time in about a decade, I purchased a PC. A gaming rig, a real one. There in the dim basin of my mind had been slowly coalescing a great black wave of expectation: absolute maximum resolution in my favorite new RPG (Pillars of Eternity), access to the games I had not been able to play on Mac… it was to be a journey into the promised land of over-stimulation, a re-exploration of an ’80s-and-’90s childhood and teenage-dom soaked in video games and teevee. It was the promise of a return to total absorption and constant adventure. Treasure! And nobody to usher me off to bed.
When I went to pick up the PC from the helpful local computer builder, the guy slipped me a little postcard printed with the scarred-up face of a pony-tail-wearing dude named Geralt of Rivia… The Witcher. I had once tried to get into the original game, years ago… faint memories of the color purple (?), of clunky alchemical blah-blah and drab textures. But that was the past, man. This was a new and fresh hallucination. A better hallucination. And The Witcher 3 was a pure freebie, NVIDIA’s reward for my purchase of a brand new GTX 970 video card. I scratched the little silver strip on the postcard and placed it beside my keyboard until May 19th, 2015: launch day.
It just so happened I had unintentionally exported my girlfriend to Berlin for the occasion, where she was to visit her sister and work on a design project until the 25th. Oh man. I stayed up late and prepared for the experience by reading online summaries of the back-story and lore. The Witcher games are based on a series of novels written by a thick-rimmed pair of Polish glasses, a student of economics and ex-sales manager who threw it all out the window to write fantasy. I figured his work might well capture the particular flavor of Polish despair, a country that had remained a cold-war playground for the latter half of the century after the German nightmare was finally over.
Andrzej Sapkowski published the first novel of the Witcher saga in 1992, a mere three years after Poland emerged from four decades of Soviet control, still Catholic as ever. Sapkowski created an anti-hero, abused as a child Akira-style, molded by an ancient sect into an ultra-violent monster-killing mercenary who (mostly) refuses to meddle in politics. Geralt of Rivia is basically Chuck Norris if Chuck Norris weren’t so full of shit. In an alternate universe Geralt might have been raised in the Siberian gulags and doomed to spend his days Mad Max-ing across a war-torn Eastern Europe. The metaphor only works if you rename Eastern Europe “The Continent”, the Soviets become elves, and uh… The point is, The Witcher does it for The Money, and he isn’t particularly “nice”. This I dug.
All this to say that when the 19th finally came, it was with no lack of relish that I found myself launching the .exe sitting comfortably at home by my lonesome. I was confronted with graphics so lush, so wet and slick and pore-exposing that I instantly felt like a rich man, a Man Who Had Made the Right Choice instead of a dude in debt, alone at home in his underwear, blankly staring at a giant screen—prostrate before the very cause of his financial woes. The bushes swayed, the sunsets shone through the trees, my horse (“Roach”) galloped across the countryside… it was a sight to behold. After the preliminary tutorial-ish castle bit, I began wandering the countryside, exploring a scattering of question marks. Yes, this was definitely an AAA title that was going to lead me by the hand—but what a handsome fellow that hand belonged to! How could I complain? I could not. My other fear had been that the controls and in-game systems might be too complicated and burdensome. They weren’t.
So here I was, fully buzzing, finally having reached that place. I drank too much coffee and let myself get sucked into the misery of a war-torn world where civilians hung from tree branches, victims of a senseless war between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R…. um, I mean the Nilfgaardians and the Redanians. It was the guilty pleasure of Pixar doing Game of Thrones. It was a horrible amount of misogyny couched in pretty amazing writing, great voice acting, fantastic music, a world so vast… and of course the use of a giant sword to run through, decapitate, and eviscerate a never-ending number of animals, monsters, and humans.
Then I began paying too much attention to the graphics. I monitored my framerate and examined the way bushes popped into sight in the far-distance. I scrutinized the little physical tics in the characters’ facial expressions and mannerisms when the dialog transitioned based on my earlier decisions (it’s a fascinating thing to see your choices truly affect the plot in a big bucks production like The Witcher 3). I tweaked the settings. I studied the textures some more. I couldn’t snap out of it. Too often during important, dramatic plot twists my mind wasn’t able to process the story because I was too busy looking at three-dimensional hair disappearing into three-dimensional necks. Graphically, when you reach for the top, it becomes a paradigm of its own, and that paradigm has drawbacks. I don’t usually obsess over graphics in less “top-shelf” games, because they’re not “supposed” to look insanely good.
The Witcher 3 is a fantastic action RPG with a deep plot (if a little scattered) and an attention to detail that is truly ground-breaking. I loved it. (Feel free to copy and paste that, promotional team.) Now that I’ve finished the game (more than 200 hours of compulsive looting and hoarding) I would liken its after-taste to that of a German white wine. Sort of saccharine, really. Perhaps this particular flavor is the inevitable consequence of a production aiming to please an enormous audience. It (in most cases) had the kind of sneakily dishonest feel-good ending that made me wish Bret Easton Ellis had been in the CDPR offices to give a couple of the writers a slap on the wrist and tersely inform them that they need not mash all the shiny buttons at once. The Witcher 3’s darkness has a voice of its own, and I do feel (a little) like it ended up muzzled for the sake of “closure”. Griping aside, The Witcher 3 is a clarion call to AAA RPG makers. The game is living proof that financial success can be achieved without having to sacrifice either moral ambiguity, story-telling, or mechanics. This bodes well for the future of mainstream fantasy games.
Even though the industry consensus seems to be that The Witcher 3 is dark, gloomy, and morally ambiguous, I would argue that it remains blood-flavored chewing gum we’re being offered. The experience is much like that of watching Mad Max in the movie theater: your jaw hangs open. Then it’s over. You’ve been punched in the face with surgically-enhanced awesome and injected with a dose of uncut maximalism. And now you feel a little empty. But that’s ok. Cause there are other, weirder games for people like you. And there’s all the time in the world to play them. Yes. Yes there is.