There’s a lot of talk about how The Witcher deals with choices. It just so happens that Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently wrote an article on the subject. Though CD Projekt RED STUDIO deserve respect for this aspect of game design, that’s not what I’m going to talk about. While playing through the game for the first time, something happened. Something that got me thinking about RPGs in general.
I offended a dwarf.
Bear with me while I explain…
In basic terms, The Witcher is an RPG set in a typical fantasy world of elves, dwarves and fairytale monsters (no orcs or goblins), except it’s more ‘mature‘. The game explores adult themes such as sex, violence, politics and race. The finer details aren’t important but you get the sense that there are ‘shades of grey’ to a lot of the things you’ll see. Being a game made very much in the BioWare mould (it even uses a heavily-modified version of the Canadian developer’s Aurora Engine) you are presented with choices at certain points in the game. The difference here is that the consequences aren’t always so clear-cut and the repercussions may not be felt until later in the game; so you can’t reload straight away and choose differently. I mention this because it speaks for the complexity of the game’s world and design. But, as I’ve said, that’s not what I really want to talk about.
Having completed the introductory section, I now found myself in the outskirts of a large city. Here’s where you get to put what you’ve learned into action. You start by an inn and nearby is a blacksmith. A dwarven blacksmith, shock horror! He seems to serve a role as a shopkeeper, I presume, so I start talking to him and asking about the area. Geralt, the main character, while well-travelled, has plot-convenient amnesia. Commenting on the tension in the area, the dwarf mentions a group called the Scoia’tael, an anti-human guerrilla movement mostly made up of elves (they have dwarven members too), who hide out in the woods and attack travellers. Being curious, I ask him if he deals with them. Suddenly, he gets angry, claims he’d never do such a thing (it is, understandably, illegal), ends the conversation and won’t speak to me again. He won’t even serve me. A goddamn shopkeeper in an RPG won’t serve me! It turns out I wouldn’t have needed his services, or have been able to afford them, right away but that’s beside the point.
What stood out was that due to ignorance, or just the natural habit during RPGs of asking everyone their life story, I had ended my exchange simply through a poor choice of enquiry. But it didn’t stop there.
I upset a barmaid.
Not quite the same, but still along similar lines. I spoke to her in the inn and there were a couple of flirtatious dialogue options. From what I’d heard about the game (sex cards!) and read in the two books translated into English, I presumed all the women were sluts (they pretty much are) and that Geralt was some sort of unstoppable chick magnet (he pretty much is). Still, a direct enquiry as to whether her claim that she was ‘decent while at work’ meant she was open to certain indecency outside was not the correct choice. After that, she would not speak to me. Reloading, I decided to try the alternative, slightly less crude, option to see the outcome: she did not tell me to get lost. I think from them on, it was easy to spot the correct response in these situations. The first option, I believe.
Which segues into my thoughts on the dialogue wheel used in Mass Effect. I’m not going to go into a whole thing about Mass Effect (love the series so far) because we could be here all day. But what the wheel does, once you’re used to how it works, is remove any real ambiguity from a conversation; the loading screens in ME2 even explain it to you. It is based around short-hand for the gist of what you want to say; facilitating quicker and easier communication. Want to know more about something? Pick stuff on the left side of the wheel. Want to be a bit of a dick? Go for options on the bottom part of the wheel, usually on the right.
I’m not saying this should change for Mass Effect. Although, it’s amusing to think of a different game where the heroic Shepard, humanity’s most prominent figure among the many alien races, is a bumbling diplomatic disaster. The game is designed to make you feel like a hero/badass and the dialogue system is tailored so that you are always in control and never look a fool even when ‘wrong’. You won’t find characters chastising you for not knowing what’s considered common knowledge, or asking them the same things again and again; they’ll just repeat it, usually verbatim. And you choose when to help people or tell them to shove it up their cloaca. Any important information you receive is automatically remembered/logged/marked on a map and people’s names show up before you even meet/approach them. This is true for a lot of RPGs. It just makes things simpler and easier.
What I’d like to see is a bit more mystery. Maybe you have to watch what you say, where you go. But make it possible to learn about your surroundings and the people you meet.
A simple example would be here, with this writer’s memory of Karateka and how, having fought through many hardships to rescue a princess, approaching her at the end in ‘combat stance’ meant she attacked you.
It’s not an RPG, but the principle’s the same, if perhaps less forgiving here. The game has its own internal logic. You are an aggressive-looking stranger approaching an imprisoned woman; it makes sense that she might attack you. How many games allow you to wander around civilised towns, weapons drawn, with no one batting an eyelid?
Which is something that bugs me about the Assassin’s Creed games. You’re meant to be a sneaky guy but you walk around in plain sight, wearing bright clothing while carrying all manner of life-taking instruments; the enemies forget you in an instant and you don’t even really need to put any preparation into a mission. Just turn up and climb on stuff, killing anyone standing in your way. They’re fun games but I almost wish some of these basic things, so integral to what the series is about, were given more attention.
Going back to The Witcher, I also like the Journal. As well as your usual ‘Do these quests/you’ve done these quests’ it also keeps track of the characters you’ve met, places you’ve been and the types of monsters you might encounter. It’s entirely possible to wander off into the world and start twatting monsters with your weapon but from the journal you can learn which type of sword and fighting style works best. Essential stuff for higher difficulties, obviously. If married to a deeper more varied combat system it would be great fun. With a little research you can also discover other ingredients to be gained from plants or dead creatures. And as for the characters, their profiles not only tell you who they are but also offer Geralt’s thoughts on them. Much like the Codex in Mass Effect, you can gradually gather information on nearly all aspects of this respective imaginary world. But while Mass Effect usually gives these away for looking at things or talking to certain people, The Witcher uses a more organic slant.
In an RPG, you can usually just go around asking people things and they’ll tell you, but in The Witcher you may encounter an old lady who claims she has stories to tell. By giving her a gift (food, drink, flowers etc.) she might then tell you a tale about a particular monster which will then be added to your glossary. But that isn’t your only option. Alternatively, you could find this information from a book you buy…or pilfer.
While The Witcher has its fair share of flaws in other areas, it deserves to be praised for the innovations as well as the risks it takes. It’s probably safe to say that the atmosphere, characters and complexity are what keep people playing the game despite its shortcomings.
Put simply, I would like to see, particularly in an RPG, a world where the way you interact with people is a little more versatile and impactful. Where you can earn people’s trust or even ire in surprisingly subtle ways, are rewarded for paying attention to the world around you and, ultimately, encouraged to immerse yourself into the fictional landscape rather than passing straight through it.