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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.