Today, Kyle and Claudia discuss their feelings on the first game made by CD Projekt Red and also the first game in The Witcher game series. Kyle’s comfort zone of the books has been left behind as they finished Season of Storms last time. Claudia may be new to The Witcher Saga, but the proverbial table has flipped in their experience levels. Unlike Kyle, Claudia has never played The Witcher games before. However, she is an industry professional currently working at Cloud Imperium Games.
Please note that due to scheduling conflicts the analysis portion will no longer be part of this retrospective. Instead, the focus will be on the Q&A side from here and until Kyle and Claudia have finished The Witcher Saga.
If you missed the previous parts of the retrospective on the books, then you can find them here.
Convening The Conclave On The Witcher
CLAUDIA: So, I know you have limited experience with games, so we are going to approach this a bit differently. The number one question when it comes to game design, even though it is one of the most reviled questions, do you think this game is fun and if so why?
KYLE: I think it’s fun to a certain extent. I think it tells a pretty alright story, and for the most part, I enjoy the quests. The only quests I don’t like are the monster hunt quests. But those are your standard generic kill and fetch quests that you find in most MMOs. I got introduced to that kind of quest through World of Warcraft, as that was one of the main ways, I spent time with my dad. I have a lot of experience with MMOs, so I got used to fetch quests to the point I blank them out.
The combat isn’t really fun. It’s better than Witcher 2, in my opinion, as that feels very stilted, but we will get there later. In Witcher 1 he feels mobile, which is the way Geralt should feel. Witcher’s fight like they are dancing, so he should feel active and mobile and full of energy. I think the animations convey this more than the actual combat itself, the actual input of the player.
I think ultimately it’s a legitimately fun game to play, I have fun playing all the Witcher games. Witcher 1 certainty has issues with aligning with the books, all of them have that, but it’s still fun to play. And I think it has an atmosphere about it that is very evocative of Sapkowski’s storytelling style. This is why I give it a pass on the adaptation side as it feels like I’m playing something in The Witcher universe rather than something generic. I think that’s the best way to explain it. It feels like I’m playing a Witcher book, it’s not as good as them but it’s certainly fun.
CLAUDIA: I actually don’t find this game fun at all. I had to wade through poorly timed cutscenes, and the combat was alright, but the UI was so bad! I play older games, so this is not an issue for me most of the time. But there were moments where I was enjoying that sort of grind. There were things I appreciated that they decided to do with story choice. But this game is unpolished in terms you can see what these people will learn from this.
The combat is probably the most polished part of the game, that isn’t shocking, a lot of game companies, programmers, and designers, would make that come out more polished. The combat relies heavily on crafting and alchemy, and I’m not a huge fan of those things in any game and especially in this game. Very few games have figured out how to make that fun and with the Witcher’s limited inventory system. It can be fun because it can be challenging but there is little about the act of crafting or reading books that come across as fun and more as arbitrary and tedious.
You’re right the combat is like a rhythm game mixed with a CRPG, so it takes away certain things I like about CRPGs such as the ability to customize a character down a specific tree so that you know what abilities you are going to get and use strategy. It definitely leans more into a more generic action RPG type of style. At this point, it’s an indie game with way less backing and way less money than any AAA of its time.
Translation & Voice Issues In The Witcher
CLAUDIA: I’m trying to give it credit for the fact that it was translated from Polish to English because the dialogue is so bad. I don’t want to blame them for making a dialogue-driven game. But you have to sit through it to get the story and it’s bad. That definitely had an impact on my gaming experience.
KYLE: For the most part I agree with you. There is nothing I can dispute. I think it’s more of I like these characters and despite some horrible lines,
CLAUDIA: Zoltan Chivay!
KYLE: Yeah, and some horrible voice acting, I enjoy it. Though hilariously, some of these voice actors are good just have horrible direction. For instance, Triss is Cora from Mass Effect: Andromeda.
CLAUDIA: And Dandelion is almost good the entire game.
KYLE: Except when he sang.
CLAUDIA: Video game singing scenes are notoriously hammy and pretty bad, at least the ones I’ve seen.
KYLE: The guy playing Geralt, I’m not opposed to him. It’s just that Peter Kenny from the audiobooks that I have recently listened to for this retrospective has the best Geralt voice. So, I wish he would do everything. Doug Cockle is alright, he is very American, and that is not how I picture Geralt sounding at all. And it also doesn’t help that we will meet other characters from Rivia, and they don’t sound like that but Geralt is supposed to be faking a Rivian accent.
CLAUDIA: I mean he does have amnesia. Just defending it a little because I like the Geralt voice actor.
Sex Cards In The Witcher
KYLE: What do you think of the fact that every female NPC wants to sleep with Geralt and the games’ immature way of rewarding the player by providing sex cards?
CLAUDIA: This is so infamous that practically every article about the sexualization of women in games brings this up. I think it’s interesting that this is the only game they do it and then they never do it again. It shows they were at least aware that this was an issue and kind of immediately clamped down on it. I would say the books made me more uncomfortable because they gave me direct insight. I’m surprised when I’m playing a video game how much I can just shut that off. That’s not to say it’s not a problem because every NPC had their tits hanging out, but it was so bad art-wise.
Everyone had the same model, so at a certain point it doesn’t faze you unlike the books did for me. Now there were definitely some characters that it stood out more than others. Your right every single female character throws herself at you. Most of what I have to say was said in the book section, but it still comes down to men writing women who don’t know how to write women. Triss spends half the game in this stupid dress that look horrible because the art is old and because no one would wear it. Women like to look sexy, but they like to look good while doing it, and when a man makes her look bad while trying to make her look sexy it’s really obvious.
KYLE: They were told by higher-ups that all the female characters had to look a particular way to appeal to a “young and sweaty male audience”.
CLAUDIA: I’m not shocked, 2007 is a little late for that mentality but I don’t know what Polish publishers are like. I know they also told them to cut the script by an insane amount in the original English release. They had to go back and add it all back in the Enhanced Edition. And after I just bitched about the dialogue, I read excerpts of what the dialogue used to be, yeah, no, not good.
KYLE: And Triss’s dress exposes her upper chest which is odd because of the scars that she received at the Battle of Sodden. She even made a comment about never wearing a low neckline again. They have talked about it was a decision from higher-ups and they actually wanted to address her scars.
This was the first Witcher thing I experienced, and I remember being disgusted at the way sex was handled. The very first Triss scene after she is wounded is easy to mistake, and I remember that putting me off the game and I quit soon after only to return years later. Even to unlock The Mill in Chapter 1, you have to do a side quest that is only fully complete once you sleep with the quest giver. And it plays a very immature cutscene too.
CLAUDIA: Was that the Little Red Riding Hood knock off chick?
KYLE: Yeah, I think so.
CLAUDIA: I got her killed and was too irritated to go back and do it properly. I was told in high school I shouldn’t play the Witcher because it was for guys. And I’m going to be honest, I didn’t like The Witcher 1 but for none of those reasons. I think people are stupid, yeah, the sex cards and the scantily clad women are irritating but not as irritating as to read about them, justifying it in a text. I was able to shut it off for the most part, it was very fun not sleeping with people
Decisions In The Witcher
CLAUDIA: I’m going to talk about narrative design in this game because I think we are going to approach it very differently. What do you think the branching decisions you are allowed to make special and stand out compared to other games?
KYLE: I don’t really think it has much, it’s mainly contextual lip service. For instance the Virgin’s Tears you have to get in the “Beauty and the Beast” quest. You can get it from nine different sources but what does it matter? It never works because just like the short story, it’s true love that cures the curse. But whatever I’m not allowed to know that because Geralt doesn’t know it even though he should. Much like the monster books, why do you have to read them? He should have gotten most of that at Kaer Morhen, but whatever.
The last chapter is dependant on who you side with and determines who you fight. Your either fighting everyone, the Scoia’tael, or the Order. It’s not much of a choice there, it’s just who is hostile towards you. It tells the same story regardless. And I’m not saying that as a complaint, I like when games have a story to tell and fuck over choices as long as it tells the story it wants to tell. I’m fine with contextual lip service. RPGs are trying to emulate D&D but they can’t. That spontaneity and unlimited freedom just isn’t viable in video games, you only have a set amount of choices. It’s just like any other RPG, in my opinion.
CLAUDIA: Cool, so I’m going to talk about why this game is actually super interesting. When we talk about narrative choice is how it chooses to construct those decisions. Everything you said is relevant and still applies, but there is something Witcher 1 does. It does a really good job of delayed gratification and that is not something you see very frequently in games that claim to have choice. A lot of games use RPG elements to gamify narrative because narrative has already been gamified by one of the oldest games systems around relative to video games, Dungeons and Dragons. Because it went a gamified something, we are trying hard to gamify all of the time, narrative, a lot of games pull from it.
The popularity of CRPGs in the 90s and early 2000s means other games sort of ate it up. If you look at Hollywood movies or AAA games, what they do is they take the best parts of the extreme genres and they eat it up, they chop it down a little so it’s good for general audiences. It sort of like how Christopher Nolan made that particular drum sound popular in trailers and now most trailers use it. Games are similar, like leveling. The Witcher is very much pulling from the games that inspired it, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, it’s pulling heavily from the older CRPG genre with the way it handles narrative. And one of the things I like about this game is there was actually no point I was save-scumming for decisions.
Yes, the narrative is very linear, but the result is that it waits until much later in the game to give you the result of your decision. The choice to do that is so much more rewarding. I was waiting several hours to see the results of my actions, with a few exceptions.
One of the things I’ve seen talked about is that this game definitely rewards you for being true to Geralt’s character. You get better gear, better rewards, by choosing to go the neutral path. I think it’s interesting, I’m not sure I agree with the decision in the context of the type of game they were making. I think they couldn’t figure out if they wanted to go more linear or have a branching story. For who they were, it was the first game they ever made, to have achieved the narrative design they got to, I really appreciate it.
Were the changes just cosmetic? Yes, but never underestimate that to change the experience. I think the moral choice was meh. I think in the books we got to an interesting place where the moral was Geralt’s family and everyone else. This just doesn’t have that which is unfortunate.
KYLE: It’s worth noting that this was originally much closer to the game you were expecting. It was supposed to be an isometric CRPG based heavily on Planescape: Torment. Geralt was not the main character, he was just a cameo. The story kept changing, they had multiple writers in, and eventually, they scrapped it. They rewrote it from the ground up with Geralt as the main character. You mention that it seems they had the story well planned out, it was more like they made it up on the fly and it turned out to be pretty good.
CLAUDIA: That is true of every video game. Video game development is what we call agile and iterative. To make a piece of software, you make it from beginning to end as fast as possible. And then you do that again and again, just repeat it over and over again to make it better. Doing art assets and writing for games is literal hell for the teams that have to do it. You are having to deal with a development strategy that is very prone to change and upheaval and poor planning. It’s part of why I suspect game narratives tend to be so bad because narrative can’t work that way. A lot of times you will have games that will film their cutscenes before the games made and then they are like “Well, fuck!”
The Elephant In The Room: Triss
KYLE: You probably knew this question was coming. Triss fucks over Geralt in more ways than one. What are your thoughts on this despicable character and her horrible actions?
CLAUDIA: Be careful with phrasing it that way.
KYLE: I know. To put it more light terms, what do you think of Triss and how she treats Geralt?
CLAUDIA: I’m going to be totally honest; I don’t think she is meant to come off quite as bad as you make her out to be. But actually, I get the sense that the creators of the game like Yennefer. I realize that’s weird because she doesn’t show up at all, but there are so many little hints. Every now and then Dandelion would say something about a story of two lovers destined to never be together, there were so many hints dropped that like the creators were thinking of Yennefer.
It’s so interesting to me how important she can be to a world in a game where she doesn’t feature that I can see her importance in every corner. As for Triss herself, I think they make it pretty obvious that she is a liar from the beginning. It was very out of character for Geralt to fall as in love with her as he did. Like he is writing this love letter to her, that didn’t feel very in character.
KYLE: He does it with Shani too. They just swap the names depending on choice.
CLAUDIA: He’s saying a lot of things that feel just out of character, towards anyone. He barely told Yennefer he loved her in the books, and she was the love of his life. I wonder how much of this is executive meddling or fan service, I can’t say I hate her. I didn’t hate her in the books, but I wasn’t particularly fond of her especially when she stopped being a main character. They do sort of imply that she is keeping him in the dark about some things. I thought that was well done in that regard.
KYLE: I think you picking up on that is purely book knowledge. As someone that didn’t read the books before playing a portion of this game years ago, I never noticed that nor did most people I know that have played the games but not read the books. Most people love Triss and don’t understand the love for Yennefer, because they haven’t read the books. I only ever encountered one person who said, despite having not read the books, that it just feels right for Geralt to be with Yen.
I think the game at times shows its preference for Triss with the innkeeper in Chapter 4. This is the one and only time Ciri is mentioned by name in the game and he recaps major events from the books, such as Bonhart. He mentions the sorceress that was called to Kaer Morhen and that she and the witcher feel in love. This was Triss in the books, despite the fact that he was in love with Yen. Insinuating that it was Triss is just insulting.
CLAUDIA: I don’t find it insulting, I wonder if they weren’t playing a long game. Like I said, I thought they had Yen in mind the entire time. They even change some of Triss’ character to feel more almost Yennefer like.
KYLE: Oh yeah, they have her quote Yen word for word from the books. Several times. I’m obviously biased against Triss what with Yen being my favourite character and all. But they force her onto you, complete with Chapter 3 opening with her forcing you to sleep with her. We were talking about player choice and I got to choose who I slept with except for that one moment.
CLAUDIA: Yeah, I just think they hadn’t figured out how independent they wanted Geralt to be from the player. I cut them slack for that one. It just doesn’t upset me, I guess. We all know he and Triss slept together when he and Yennefer were having their hot/cold spats.
KYLE: Once again, it’s implied that Triss seduced him with magic.
CLAUDIA: Oh, right. But in the context of this story, Geralt has amnesia. Triss was just another lady and he didn’t know he was a committed man.
KYLE: It doesn’t help that she keeps implying that in all the stories she is the sorceress that he was in love with. That is the most Triss thing to do. I do like that they will address the fact that is taking advantage of his amnesia in future games.
CLAUDIA: How do you feel about the amnesia because that’s a classic video game move?
KYLE: It’s complicated. I think it undermines the character development from over 7 books. I think it undermines a lot of interesting things you could have done. Honestly, I don’t think Geralt should have been the main character. I think undoing that ending is almost sacrilegious to me, that ending is perfect which is something we talked about. I think why amnesia comes up is because they had to find a way around that ending. They also had to find a way around player choice, to which I say you don’t really need to. I understand that this comes from a CRPG mindset, so they wanted to have player choice, but I think honestly, especially with some of the auto-dialogue that happens throughout, they have a voice for Geralt. It’s not exactly the same as the books, but close enough that it would do just fine.
Why not just make it a linear game without dialogue choice? Just make it a story about Geralt. Games are an interactive medium, yes, but you don’t have to kowtow to that just to tell a story. Tell a good story, that’s the important thing. What they do with it is fine enough, I guess. It’s the only way to truly get around the ending but it seemed like a contrived way to not have Yen or Ciri in the story. And it’s an easy way to explain things to people who haven’t read the books.
I’ll throw that question right back at you. How did you feel about the amnesia?
CLAUDIA: The amnesia is hailed as a really good use of it. If only because it creates a narrative instead of purposefully removing one. The fact that they were making a sequel, I had to find a way to justify that. The fact that they gave Geralt amnesia they were able to just handwave it, and I kind of appreciate that. These guys are really obviously fans, they didn’t shy away from the fact that people saw Geralt die. I greatly enjoyed that; I think they could have leaned into it more.
They could have gone more in the Season of Storms direction with his resurrection where we don’t know if it’s truly Geralt or not. From a narrative perspective, it would have made the amnesia more interesting, it would have made the character more interesting, it would have been a very different story, but it would have been one that fit more tightly with Sapkowski’s style. To be fair, Season of Storms comes out after this, so they didn’t get a chance to use that reference point.
I would like to see a Witcher game that allows me to create my own character and fully explore the world. Despite the amnesia is well done, I don’t like it, mostly because it’s tired and annoying and been done before. The amnesia almost encourages people to seek out the books to find out more about the world.
KYLE: I think the amnesia makes Geralt flat and boring compared to his book self. Compared to other characters in RPGs, Geralt feels very much like a cardboard cut-out. Later in the game, they get a handle on his voice and he becomes more interesting. I don’t like blank-slate characters; I like playing characters with a predefined personality. A clearly formed character.
CLAUDIA: I can’t shit on them for making Geralt seem less like a character because I don’t think they knew how to do that yet at that point. This is before Mass Effect which revolutionized that style of RPG protagonist.
Alvin And Jacques de Aldersberg
KYLE: What is your opinion on how they use Alvin especially because he’s Ciri 2.0? Blander, less interesting, and he kinda creepily follows you around in Chapter 4, and I think the most interesting thing about him and the thing I’m most interested to get your take on is the fact that he is actually the villain of the piece. He is really Jacques de Aldersberg. So, what is your opinions on him as a person and as a character?
CLAUDIA: Glad you asked. We are gonna veer strictly into narrative territory here which is something I try to avoid in games, but I think it’s relevant for Alvin. You talked about that this was originally going to be a different thing where Geralt wasn’t the main character. I sorta understand wanting to tell the story that way, and you said you kinda wish it wasn’t about Geralt, regardless, I feel like Alvin was a symptom of that development period. There is a part of them that is trying to tell a story about a character who was a more traditional video game hero, a blank slate who we can project upon, someone that would be easier to roleplay in this setting than a predefined character such as Geralt.
There are lines in this game that are very much Geralt the character but at the same time it’s a roleplaying game, it’s tough when the true neutral path is obviously the only choice that fits a character but we are dealing with a lot of choices. This is why I like playing blank slate characters because when I play The Witcher I know I need to pick true neutral. When I play Dragon Age: Inquisition it’s mages all the way, but I’m not playing a character that is predefined so I’m not betraying any kind of narrative or character by doing that.
KYLE: I can’t stand that. I can’t stand blank slates.
CLAUDIA: That’s definitely a preference thing. It’s very sad to me that blank slates get a bad wrap when they are so delightful sometimes. That said, Alvin is a by-product of their choice to do neither a standalone removed game or a more direct sequel, of trying to have their cake and eat it too. He is bland and he is a Ciri stand-in. But what is interesting about him is that you can kinda tell they knew he was a Ciri stand-in, I get the impression that they were still trying to learn how to tell stories and obviously the most famous part of Geralt’s story is Yennefer and Ciri, so they took characters and were like “Alright, how do we tell a story about Geralt?” Well, the only way to tell a story about Geralt is with Yennefer and Ciri, so they needed stand-ins and we get Alvin.
It’s hard because him being the villain was such a minor element in a way that is kinda disappointing. The ideas of how he gets there, the time travel, the dimension-hopping, prophecy stuff, all plays really nice with what we already know about the Witcher universe. I really like the concept but generally speaking about the implications for the world and the game itself, it doesn’t have much of an impact as you want it to, especially because it’s the only unique thing about the character. I would definitely have preferred it to have been Ciri, but I think they just didn’t know how to make a game, yet you know.
KYLE: Alvin kinda gets swept under the rug after this.
CLAUDIA: Good, he was a bad character.
KYLE: There is a reference to him in a side quest in Witcher 3 and that’s the last major mention. And that confirms the twist with him being Jacques. But there was an interesting fan theory that he was Ciri’s son.
CLAUDIA: That’s gross.
KYLE: Basically, the prophecy was wrong and that her son was going to save the world instead he was going to save the world in his own twisted way basically destroying it.
CLAUDIA: That interesting to me. The thing about Ciri is that whatever kid she had, and I don’t think she should have a kid, it’s not going to be like Alvin. If Ciri is a Child of the Elder Blood, Alvin comes across as dollar store discount Child of the Elder Blood, Cousin of the Elder Blood if you will.
KYLE: Alvin is very bland, and I don’t understand why he follows you around in Chapter 4, it seems so odd.
CLAUDIA: To grow your sympathy for the character. And to be fair this is something that video games struggle with a lot, with these companion characters. They try really hard for you to like them, but it’s very difficult. What Naughty Dog did with Ellie, that’s not typical. It can be very hard to get video game players to care about anything other than killing things.
What did you think of Alvin because I feel like I’m a bigger fan of Ciri but that’s just personally?
KYLE: I love Ciri!
CLAUDIA: I know you do.
KYLE: The thing is that Alvin is so bland that I have no feelings for him whatsoever. I think that’s the biggest flaw. Instantly in Sword of Destiny, I felt a connection between Geralt and Ciri, I don’t have that between Geralt and Alvin. It doesn’t help that Alvin’s introduction is really clunky like jarringly clunky. The voice actress for the person with him, in the beginning, changes twice and she is only on screen for less than three minutes before being killed. The very first line he has to Geralt is repeating Ithlinne’s prophecy and that isn’t going to make me care because I know what that prophecy means, and I know it’s a joke so why should I care?
CLAUDIA: Is it me or is their interpretation of the prophecy that there is going to be this massive ice storm rather than just climate change which is the implication given in the books?
KYLE: Yes. We will get more into this in The Witcher 3, but they interpret it as this massive storm that destroys universes. A generic fantasy apocalypse compared to the climate change allegory that it was supposed to be.
Back to Alvin, I’m apathetic to him. I think the most interesting thing about him is that he is the villain, but we do nothing with it. That was a missed opportunity in my opinion.
CLAUDIA: I don’t blame them for that though, they probably wanted to distance themselves from things that didn’t work in the first game.
KYLE: I think the twist as it stands is well handled but we could go so many places with it, but we just don’t. It works well for the ending to a first game and then we could dive into his motivations in the second. They go a different way and it works fine, but Jacques/Alvin is definitely something I would’ve expanded on.
This Conclave Is Adjourned But The Witcher Saga Continues On
And there you have Claudia and Kyle’s first Q&A on The Witcher video games. Please remember that the games are being covered in release order. So, despite Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales being canonically first, as it takes place during the amazing books, it will actually be covered last. But first they will be talking about The Witcher Netflix TV show. So join them next month as they move from one adaptation to another.