[This post describes acts of extreme violence against women.]
During the main story of the sprawling and critically acclaimed RPG powerhouse that is The Witcher 3, the main character, Geralt, comes across a literal bloodbath. Several dead women, maimed and bloodied, victims of a monstrous gang boss: Whoreson Junior.
Geralt isn’t Batman (thank god). He has no great aversion to killing, and in fact has to have killed a dozen of Junior’s men just to get to this point. So Geralt meets this disgusting man whose sole characteristic is a desire to brutally murder and mutilate women, quite probably not in that order, with the aftermath of his deeds graphically showcased in the seconds before you meet him… and the game offers the player the opportunity to spare Junior’s life.
What the fuck?
If a cutscene had made Geralt immediately chop Junior’s head off with no player input whatsoever, I would not have batted an eyelid. It would have been entirely in character: this is the man who famously took on a squadron of soldiers in the cinematic trailer, interrupting them mid war-crime. The fact that at that moment Geralt is currently searching for Ciri, a woman who he is arguably more of a father to than her actual dad, makes this encounter all the more baffling. Whoreson Junior tried to kill Ciri. And you can make Geralt spare him. Seriously, what? In fact I’ve just been reminded that Ciri is all he refers to in the dialogue. Geralt is surrounded by dead women and they don’t even come up in the conversation. In that moment, they’re just gory scenery.
While the choice itself was obviously a short-sighted attempt to maintain the level of agency afforded to the player thus far, I struggle to think why this of all things was even in the game at all. There’s nothing remotely interesting or redeemable about the character of Whoreson. It’s every bit as cliched and pointless as any other moment in fiction where the hero, having slaughtered masses of faceless thugs, bizarrely decides to spare the master who sent them all to their deaths in the first place. It’s all the more jarring because of how effortlessly brilliant The Witcher 3 is in pretty much any other regard. It was as if the devs were attempting to fulfill some unseen quota: we’ve got a deficit here, so let’s have a room showcasing extreme violence against women and then let’s provide the opportunity to spare the perpetrator (?!) for a shot at depth. Or… something. I’m genuinely a bit lost regarding the intent there. A generous interpretation is that there was some confusion regarding the artistic assets (corpses everywhere) and the dialogue (as if Whoreson’s only real crime is trying to kill Ciri), but again, in a game of such quality that hardly seems likely.
I’ve written before about the perils of making choice an end in itself, something to pursue and implement without regard for circumstance or implications. And yes, The Witcher 3 is demonstrably not a game of this variety: choices have consequences, even if they do tend towards the “everything is always differing degrees of awful, deal with it” side of things.
Early RPGs struggled with this: BioWare’s works definitely spring to mind. When talking to an NPC at the end of a quest you would be offered the choice to say or do something ridiculously and unnecessarily unpleasant: throw away the trinket they asked you to retrieve, or casually spread family-destroying lies. And these options would be made available to a player regardless of their past conduct. It was a misguided way of mimicking the absolute freedom afforded by tabletop campaigns: it makes absolutely no sense for a paragon of virtue to kick this dog, but if they want to, so be it, the player is the boss.
That’s part of why the D&D alignment system and its imitators existed in the first place, to prevent PCs breaking character when convenient or out of a bloody-minded desire to derail the story. Strange, really, that it took videogames a while to get the memo. For a long time every player character was framed as Chaotic Neutral, Schrodinger’s assholes who could arbitrarily be saints or sinners whenever opportunities arose.
In short: freedom is overrated. No doubt the dream is that character AI will someday reach the point that it’s enough to put NPCs in a situation and have the story create itself, but until such a time comes the decrying of scripted sequences etc always struck me as a strange complaint. I don’t think it’s automatically railroading or denying player agency for a character in a game to, well, act in character. Linearity is not such a terrible thing. Certainly don’t speak for everyone here but I would sooner play a lovingly crafted linear game once than blunder around in a bland forgettable open world for hours on end.
(Not that the The Witcher 3 is either of those things. It’s one of the only open world games where I’d simultaneously concede that it’s high-quality and way too long. No, really. There’s just too much content, it’s ridiculous.)
Analysis sometimes presents a game designer’s vision as this absolute truth that cannot be compromised or challenged for any reason, and that’s a very troubling way of approaching things. Nevertheless I’d argue that demanding every moment of a game include at least one additional choice, another chance to go off-script and provide further replay value in an age where quantity is consistently overvalued, does more harm than good: a restriction that stifles creativity and often ends up providing alternatives that are more nonsensical than anything else.
It would also help if critics could stop seeing terrible things as inherently more mature and worthy, or worse, as things that need to be excused and enabled for the sake of giving people options. Sometimes, maybe it’s not so bad to let our sword do the talking.