The Witcher Reader Review
What defines right or wrong? Good and Evil? Justice and Lawlessness? Is it the act, or its observer? You see why defining morality is a tricky business? Games are the ideal medium to convey these questions, for one reason: they give the possibility of choice; in a game, your moral compass can be tested. That is not to say that the author's morality is absent: the consequences that derive from these choices, and their moral weight, are entirely defined by the creators. Which opens a whole world of possibilities from a narrative standpoint. Should the player be rewarded for a good deed and punished by an evil one? Or should he be reminded that in the real world, good deeds are hard choices, and that crime, sometimes does pay? That to achieve great things, compromises must be made? Just the fact that so many issues can be discussed is a testament to the importance of interactive narratives. For many years, western rpg's have been the genre that has explored these issues. In comes "The Witcher", an adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's series of dark fantasy novels centered round a monster-slaying mutant with magical powers, named "The Witcher" Geralt. Sapkowski's work is reminiscent of high fantasy classics like "Lord of the Rings", but, as is common in dark fantasy narratives, twists its mythological nature in favor of a more cynic, realistic tone. Racism, segregation, social struggles, political and law corruption are just some of the themes that manage to squeeze into his universe, transforming it into less of a fantasy world, and more of an allegory of our society.
Geralt's tale starts with an attack on the witchers' citadel, carried out by a mage who seeks to rob the arcane secrets hidden therein. After failing to repel the attack, Geralt goes on a quest to recover said secrets and have revenge. As poor as this sounds, it develops in a series of unpredictable ways: on his journey, Geralt will be caught in the middle of a conflict between humans and non-humans. Elves, dwarfs and other species have been the focus of prejudice throughout the history of human civilization, and thus have taken up arms against them. On the other hand, humans see these "freedom fighters" as terrorists that are not afraid to kill innocent men and women. Throughout the game, Geralt will make difficult choices in a war he doesn't understand. Does he help the non-humans, that have a noble cause, but are so filled with hate that they won't stop at any means to fulfill their objectives? Or does he side with the humans, that are merely defending themselves, and whose society, though decadent, is a synonym of order? He can also stay neutral, waiting for one side to win. The player has many choices, and none right or wrong. Curiously, the player will only acknowledge their consequences much later in the game, when his overall perception of events has changed. More than once, good-hearted decisions will have horrible consequences, and cold judgments bring good in the end… just like real life. This simple substitution of black and white decisions with gray ones, transforms binary selections into conundrums of unpredictable consequences, giving a whole new meaning to the word "choice". And since the consequences are only known much further in the game, there is no point in doing the save-load routine: once you make a choice, there's no turning back.
The script of the game is a testament to the creativity and quality of its author's writings: dialogs are rich and mature and characters are multifaceted, filled with ulterior motives. As standard, a number of twists will turn catch the player off-balance. The only downfall in this department is the somewhat lack of quality in character animations and the absence of certain narrative bridges that make the plot seem somewhat confusing at times.
The presentation of the game is almost as good as its narrative. Art design department had a lot of work in conjuring up this dark-themed world, half way between Earth and Middle Earth, without falling in the temptation to transform it into either of them. Scenarios could have been taken from a historical-background game, as cities are usually places of decadence and poverty filled with Anglo-Saxon architectural details. Even forests and lakes, places typically associated with magic, have a down-to-earth feel, with somewhat drab color palettes. The game manages to feel idyllic, thanks to a good use of lighting and weather effects, but never surreal, like most fantasy-themed games. On the sound department, the soundtrack is mostly epic and medieval sounding, but fails to harness the emotional power of, say, Jeremy Soule's compositions ("Oblivion").
On the subject of game-play, "The Witcher" stands as most RPG's - In each chapter, you'll have to enter a town, talk to villagers to fetch some clichéd quests to make money. Once you've fed up with trifle matters, you can do the main quest and watch the plot unveil. Fortunately, most quests have something to say about the game's setting, even when they're pretty boring. Combat is a bit hack-and-slash, with the player only having to click on their enemies at the right time for Geralt to release massive sword-combos (like "Legend of Dragoon"). There are also some magic spells and different combat styles, bringing some tactical planning into play. Nothing new, but it manages to keep the player captivated.
Few games can brag about having meaningful stories, let alone about having meaningful possibilities. By taking the best out of the "Good vs Evil" rpg's and adding a morally confusing tale, the authors ended up creating a truly thought-provoking fantasy world. It has the writing quality of a book, and the endless possibilities of a game; it is the new landmark in interactive storytelling.
9 / 10