Flawed immersion

Having bought a Playstation 4, the first games console I have ever owned, so that I can play CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 when it comes out, I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with the same studio’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.  I enjoyed the second instalment of this series a great deal on my Mac, but Wild Hunt does not show any sign of being ported to that platform, four years after release, so I’ve had to wait until now. If you play video games this is all old news, then, and I have to admit I probably don’t have anything that insightful to say. When I play current (i.e. four years old) AAA games I’m mainly just going ‘wow, they can do that now?’

Of course, as my introduction to the latest generation of open-world games was Red Dead Redemption 2, my expectations are rather inflated, especially in terms of how naturally the landscape, townscapes and inhabitants seem to behave. My background reading suggests that Wild Hunt set a new standard on that front when it was released, and I was certainly very impressed with the day-night cycle and weather patterns, although the behaviour of both wildlife and passers-by is noticeably less convincing than in the later game – I think I’d been playing for tens of hours before I heard a piece of incidental NPC dialogue repeated in RDR2, whereas it happens almost straight away in Wild Hunt. However, there is a huge, beautifully modelled landscape to roam through, taking in a wide range of terrains, with (including the two DLC packs) three major urban areas, a number of major indoor locations, and countless villages, camps, forts, caves, towers etc. There are also a lot of people milling around in ways which, if you don’t examine them too closely, look quite a lot like people getting on with lives to which the player is almost completely irrelevant. Various fantasy ‘races’, such as elves, dwarves and gnomes, exist in the unnamed ‘Continent’ where the game is set, and are used to explore issues of discrimination – although I think those ideas would have been better served without resorting to the idea that some of the characters in the story are somehow ‘non-human’. That’s a fantasy trope though, and The Witcher series is a tissue of fantasy tropes.

Through this beautifully rendered milieu moves Geralt of Rivia, the player character, one of the last of the witchers – a group of people mutated by the application of various unpleasant toxins at a young age, in order to produce long-lived, superhuman monster hunters. Geralt has many of the characteristics one would expect of a character in a book (I haven’t read Andrzej Sapkowski’s books that these games are based on, so I can’t offer any specific observations on their faithfulness), and is engaged in various matters that continue seamlessly from the earlier games. A lot of care has been taken over dialogue, interactions with other characters, and those characters themselves. Most of these, if they play any major role in events at all, have been given enough interesting quirks, habits and traits to elicit the appearance of some independent existence, and most have their own aims and goals, distinct from Geralt’s and incidental to his quest. There is an unfortunate tendency to unnecessarily sexualise prominent female characters, and several of them wear implausibly high heels. Geralt is a sexually active character, and there are several scenes in which every one of the many female characters present is someone he’s had sex with in at least one game of the series. There are also a number of prostitutes available for his convenience, and it’s pretty clear that women’s bodies are present in the game, not only to populate its setting, but primarily to gratify the desires of its male players. This is really the major creative shortcoming of both Witcher games I’ve played.

Gameplay, quest design, storytelling and so forth are both beautifully realised, and absolutely epic in scope. This game is enormous, and would take an eon for a completist to explore in every detail. It features a card game called Gwent, with collectible cards, which has been spun off as a standalone product; this really isn’t my thing at all, so I more or less ignored it, but it would add many hours to the already extremely lengthy playing time. Combat is exciting, action packed, and strategically deep (if you’re playing at a high enough difficulty level). I’ll leave the details out of this discussion, as my principal interest in this kind of game is in its world-building, and in the habitable imaginative space it offers to the player. On that count, this is one of the most immersive I’ve played. Player choices have real consequences, on the conditions in settlements that are revisited, and on the story outcomes. My response would be overwhelmingly positive, but the sexually exploitative representation of women in the game (despite the presence of several strong, independent female characters), is more than a minor objection; it’s a fatal flaw. I’m quite certain this game will be remembered as an open-world landmark, given how breathtakingly it realises its setting, and I can’t deny I enjoyed playing it a lot, but overall, as an example of what now has to be recognised as the latest artform to emerge from developing media technologies, (even as an example of mainstream AAA development) it falls well short of a bar that has been set progressively higher in recent years.

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