The Witcher: the unbearable lightness of role-playing

Continuing the conversation started by Sean Sands and his 2009 horizons broadening project, here are my thoughts on CD Projekt Red’s game The Witcher. The game uses the setting and characters of Andrej Sapkowski’s stories about Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who seeks to forge a neutral path in a cruel world full of competing commitments and hard choices.

Thinking about the video games can fall into two very general categories, ludology and narratology. (Henry Jenkins explains this well, as does the Wikipedia entry on game studies.) Ludologists like to write about the game-play mechanics of a game. In general, this school can be describes by saying ludologists find the meaning of games in action, in the puzzles, in the way the game allows the player to navigate the game world. To understand a game, one must understand the rules of the game. Narratologists, on the other hand, look for meaning in the stories that games tell. They suggest that in order to understand a game, we must seek to understand the story that the game tells. This basic breakdown is useful in that it gives players a couple of lenses or contexts for reading a game, but the dichotomy starts to fall apart during more complex analysis when the two separate approaches begin to blend. The success of The Witcher lies, in large part, in how the designers make it difficult to separate the story being told and the mechanic with which the story unfolds.

Here, I should state that I really love this game. I enjoy the innovations as well as the way it uses standard approaches to building a game. The Witcher innovates by studiously avoiding cliches of good versus evil or light versus dark, but it uses standard role playing methods of dialog trees and choices that role playing gamers will be very familiar with. The central theme of The Witcher is the difficulty of making ethical choices in a world where everyone seems to be wrong. The plot and setting are drawn from Andrej Sapkowski’s fantasy stories and borrow Sapkowski’s dual mistrust of “the lesser evil” and unchecked idealism. In the game, as in the stories, Geralt of Rivia (The protagonist and the witcher to whom the title refers) is presented with barbed dilemmas. Choices always carry unavoidable consequences, and Geralt is in constant peril of trapping himself by committing to a path of action that carries severe unintended consequences.

The narratologist approach will see this written clearly in the characters and the dialog options. Players must choose between supporting violent freedom fighters who use attacks on civilians to pursue their political ends or supporting a fanatical religious sect that protects human civilians by fighting a xenophobic war on all non-humans. The story, setting, and characters all make clear that the player is caught up in a conflict between us and them. To make the choice more poignant, Geralt is neither human nor non-human. He is an outsider who belongs to no group. So, robbed of the traditional justifications of loyalty or “doing the right thing” theWitcher must make choices and live with the fallout. The story tries to answer the questions: how does one do good in a fallen world?

The ludologist approach will see this same situation, but from a different context. Traditionally games, especially role-playing games work by giving the players choices and then assigning rewards or points for how the player chooses. Because computer games allow players to save their progress and reload from a previous point, allowing the player to try out all possible options before selecting the one with most desirable results. This is not a freedom that human being enjoy in our daily lives. This freedom that traditional RPGs offer can be seen as similar to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Milan Kundera used this idea as the center of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Because humans don’t know what the results of our actions will be, some of us feel that this makes every choice incredibly important. Other take the opposite view: because we can’t be sure what “the right thing to do” is unless we have the power to play out every possible permutation of choice, life is light and without weight or significance.

The designers at CD Projekt Red grew frustrated with the way games allowed players to escape the consequence of their choices, so they designed a game-play mechanic that short-circuited the save-reload-replay exploit. Certain key choices in their game have drastic consequences that alter the story arc. However, these consequences are not revealed until hours later in the game. This makes it unwieldy in the extreme to play out all possible choices and commits the player to picking a single course of action without knowing how the choice will shape the future.

So we can see that the narrative of the game presents a world without clear and easy choices about good or evil. We also see that the game mechanic requires the player to make choices without foreknowledge of how those choices will shape the future. The story and the game rules both push the player into a world where choices matter terribly, but the outcome of these choices is unclear. This approach succeeds wonderfully in forcing the player to consider the basis for choices.

Looking at these choices using standard ethical methods, we can see that CD Projekt Red have taken away the deontologist’s approach and the teleologist’s approach. Simply put, deontology says we should respect the rules. Teleology says we should consider the consequences.In The Witcher, we don’t have a set of rules that will flawlessly guide us to the “right” answer. We also can’t see what the outcomes of our choices are, so we are left with what some call areteology, or virtue theory. Areteology tells us to “pursue excellence” or do what an excellent person would do in that situation. In this role-playing game, this approach is a master-stroke. The designers force us to decide who Geralt of Rivia (the character the player controls) is, and then to make a series of decisions based on the nature of his character. A flaw of many computer role-playing games is that the player can too easily become “uber” or all-powerful and then play g*d with the game world. In the Witcher, we are forced to play human, so to speak. The limitations of human ethics become the limitations of the game’s ethics and players are immersed in a world largely of their own making.

Now, virtue ethics and The Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of my favorite things in the world, so on the one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that I loved playing The Witcher as much as I did. On the other, it may just be that I placed my own framework for thinking about ethics on top of a game that is ethically complex and rich on a level that most other games have been unable to reach. In either case, I think the game is an achievement that will stand out amongst other games as a spectacular example of the heights that the game-designers’ art can reach.

Tomb Raider: Underworld and broadening gaming horizons

As I wrote about last month, I recently completed the game Tomb Raider: Underworld. I played this on a whim. I had never played a Tomb Raider game before and I was also looking for a game to play using a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse. I was really satisfied on my choice. While TR: Underworld isn’t a classic or a great game, it was a very good gaming experience. Looking back, I can point to three things that the game did very well.

First, I really enjoyed the gameplay mechanic. I haven’t played a lot of platformer games, the genre that the Tomb Raider games belongs to, but I found that maneuvering the acrobatic Lara Croft around the game world was a pleasant and enjoyable challenge. I also liked that violence was really pushed into the background of this game. Sure, Lara shot a large number of enemy guards, animal predators, and ghosts; but unlike an FPS or RTS game, killing enemies was not really the point. The point was solving three-dimensional puzzles using Lara’s repertoire of leaps, climbs, and acrobatic talents. Successfully navigating the game’s levels required a kind of spacial awareness and exploiting the environment. I’m not a terrifically skilled gamer, so I also appreciated that the difficulty level felt right. The puzzles still required me to think, but I didn’t get frustrated very often.

Second, the narrative was interesting and had a strong sense of being part of a persistent story. I have played and given up on the preceding game in the Lara Croft cycle, Tomb Raider: Legend, but even though I didn’t play through the entire story, I always felt like my actions were part of a rich context. The Norse, Mayan, and Hindi mythological elements added interest without overwhelming the plot arc. The game broke no new ground in interactive narrative design, but it didn’t feel forced or overly contrived. While Lara’s plot arc was certainly on rails, that is to say I didn’t feel as though my choices effected the way the story unfolded, I was still satisfied with the way the story played its way out. It is no Bioshock or Half Life, but on the other hand, I have enjoyed TV series and movies that weren’t any more innovative than Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Third, the game was visually beautiful. I’m happy that Deus Ex 3 plans on using the same engine. I don’t know how it compares with leading engines such as CryEngine2 or the latest iteration of Unreal, but the 3d world was smooth and very pretty. More than that, the colors were lush and rich. After playing in the desolate wasteland of Fallout 3 and many other 3D games that are painted in palates of brown or grey, the lush tropical scenes with vibrant palm trees, orchids, and tropical birds was really immersive.

Most of the time when I’m playing games these days I’m looking for innovations in the player-training arena. I didn’t see anything in this game that I felt like I could add to my teaching repertoire. The game world wasn’t open, and players weren’t really given a decisions to make on how to solve puzzles. Most of the time there appeared to be one right answer for each challenge and the player just had to apply the tools they were given in the proper manner. So, now that I’m done with the game, I doubt I’ll be going back to it to analyze it further. It was pretty, it was fun, and it was consistent in the challenge that it offered.

State of Academic Library Gaming: Response to Paul Waelchi’s Letter

State of Academic Library Gaming

Paul Waelchli of Research Quest recent sent around an email to some academic librarians who have shown an interest in gaming. I encourage you all to read the original letter and chime in with your views. As I wind down my week and prepare to head up to Seattle, I’d like to offer my $.02 USD on the subject and publicly thank Paul for getting the conversation started. So here is my stab at responding to Paul’s excellent questions. (I apologize for the hasty scrawling, but, if I give in to the editing impulse, I’ll never get it posted before ACRL.) Mary Broussard also has a response to this conversation posted, and I have a sense that more contributors will be coming forward soon.

1) What is the current state of games and learning in academic libraries?

Games and learning exist on the margins of academic libraries. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but my experience, which includes publishing and presenting about games and learning in academic libraries as a major aspect of my tenure and promotion process has taught me a few valuable lessons. First, academic librarians are willing to listen to ideas and research about the current and forthcoming generations of students. Tying gaming to the learning preferences and culture of students is an excellent way to justify studying learning in games. I haven’t noticed that most librarians are interested in gamers per se, that is to say, generally we don’t see a role for games being collected or played in the library. I have noticed a high amount of interest in games being taught librarians as a path to understanding the learning preferences of today’s students. Games are one tool that can be used for specific purposes. For now, I think this is an appropriate reaction. As games or interactive media take on a larger role in information transfer and communication, as I forsee they inevitably will do, that role will necessarily evolve.

2) What are some of the factors to that current state?

Besides those mentioned above, I think the content of games has a lot to do with the rate that they are assimilated into academic libraries. Despite the potential of the medium, games are largely designed and marketed to children and young adults. To horrifically oversimplify, a major mission of information literacy instruction is to help young scholars move beyond uncritical reliance on popular media and become critical consumers of scholarly publications in their discipline. On the surface, focusing on games is a move in the wrong direction. A way around this is to focus on pedagogy and critical thinking. If we can show our sceptical colleagues that game designers have developed innovative ways of building skills and reflective practices then we have built a bridge between meeting our students where they are today and where they need to be in order to successfully complete their undergraduate education.

3) Based on your experience and research, what are the next steps?

The next step is to build a scholarship of game studies that focuses on information literacy instruction. Perhaps a collaborative project might include building an annotated bibliography out of the scholarship we have done so far. We’ve all read a lot, processed a lot, and produced some good work. We can make it easier for our academic colleagues to follow our conversation if we provide a roadmap or at least a trail of bread crumbs that led us to where we are today. I also think it would be useful for us to do some talking about niches. Games have become a mature media. Perhaps it is no longer useful to lump in game analysis with designing useful games for the classroom or teaching to a gaming generation. Many game scholars are dividing into camps of ludologists and narratologists, those who focus on the game-play mechanics and those who focus on the narrative action of games. The time may be ripe for librarians to become equally specific in our work.

4) What are the factors supporting or preventing those “next steps?”

I think there is a lot of work to be done. Outside of Media Studies or Digital Technology and Culture programs, there may not be a lot of widespread acceptance for games and interactive media being a serious and significant area of study. On the other hand, I don’t think there is much to be gained by arguing that point. Perhaps the best way to convince skeptical colleagues that a focus on games and learning is in the best interest of the library is to do work with games and learning that enhances student learning and furthers the mission of our libraries.

On the bright side, there do appear to be rich opportunities to perform scholarship in this area. In my personal experience, after writing and presenting on games and learning in academic libraries, I’ve begun to receive invitations to present my research in new venues. There is clearly a market for library scholarship on games, gaming, and gamers on the local and national level and in peer-reviewed library journals. If we truly want to build a body of scholarship surrounding games and learning in academic libraries, it is my belief that the publishing market will support us.

5) What do the financial and economic situations at many institutions mean for instructional gaming in libraries?

Now is not a good time for unproven projects that cost a lot of money. For example, given the choice between purchasing a Wii, a monitor, and a gaming lab and cutting one less journal subscription; I couldn’t responsibly not save the journal. The financial situation is bad and I can’t imagine asking for funds with a clear concience any time soon.

6) What other issues/questions should we be considering?

I’ll save this conversation for ACRL and the next round of discussions. My angle on games in libraries is fairly limited, and I’m sure that others are focusing on many areas that I’m blind to or unaware of.

Thanks Paul, for getting the conversation started. I look forward to seeing and or meeting more of you all in Seattle this week, if you are fortunate enough to travel. Seattle is fairly local, so I’m car-pooling up and staying w/ friends. I’m sure its harder for folk who have further to travel.

Horizons Broadening Project

What do we think about when we play games?

My answer to this question varies. Often, I only want to be immersed in an escapist world and not thinking about anything outside of my character or the game. At other times, I enjoy analysing the game experience in the light of my day job, a librarian and instructor. When I’m writing or speaking about analysing games to audiences of librarians, I often refer to Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book. This tome was inflicted on me as an undergraduate, but lately I’ve come to acknowledge a grudging respect for its lessons. Chief among them is the idea of multiple readings of a text in order to explore different aspects of it. Approaching games with this in mind has really helped me separate playing games from analysing games. After all, I really don’t want to see a powerful graphics engine or think “the anti-aliasing and god-rays really enhance the depth-of-field in outdoor levels.” I want to feel “sweet holy bastard child of Jebus, that’s beautiful!” Once I’ve had that experience, I can go back and analyse what the artists and designers did to achieve the sensation, but I prefer to experience first and then try to understand (affectus quarens intellectum?)

It is with this in mind that I’m really enjoying the Horizons Broadening Project (part i, part ii) that Elysium (the honorable Shawn Sands) is tracking at Gamers with Jobs. The project calls, not only for participants to play games they would otherwise miss, but it also provides the opportuntiy to look closely at why we like certain games and describe our experience with new games. Shawn’s description in part ii is an elegant reflection on a game experience that tracks along different lines than a more traditional review or impressions article.

I’m in the midst of a similar project, so I’m finishing The Witcher so I can particpate in the conversation. I did not play Birth of America, for a few reasons. One being that I didn’t want to part with the cash and another being that I expect to pick up Empire Total War at some point and don’t need to play both. My first horizons broadening project game was Tomb Raider: Underworld. I’ve never played a Lara Croft game. I’ve never had much success playing any game with a controller, being a keyboard and mouse man. I’ve never really spent much time playing platform games either, so this seemed like a nice opportunity to experience something new.

It turns out, I had a really good time playing Tomb Raider: Underworld and over the next few weeks, I hope to explain why. In the meantime, my thanks to Mr. Sands for pushing me in new directions.