I’ve been playing video games for a long time. Over 25 years, I reckon. In that time I’ve learned that if I’m tasked to do something in a video game I’m going to get a reward. As the years have gone by and games have got more sophisticated, morality has become an important, if not slightly underbaked video game mechanic. Choosing to do good or bad things have become their own reward, so if I see something bad happening to a character in a game, I know I’ll be rewarded with either kind words, a stat increase or some sort of shiny item to put in my increasingly large pockets with my other, not-as-shiny items.
Until The Witcher 3.
I’m going to be honest, I could never get into The Witcher 1 or 2. 1 was too fiddly for me, too many systems thrown at you during the interminable introductory tutorial. Too many menus and items for someone brought up as a lowly, lazy console gamer. 2 was a bit better, but ran like treacle on my PC and was full of backstory that I couldn’t be bothered getting into. TW3, though? Oh, it has been streamlined (a dirty word for most gamers, but for someone in their 30s who just wants to get into a game before the wife bugs me to go to sleep, it’s some good eatin’). Streamlined just how I like it. The menus aren’t as bad. The tutorials are better. The controls are better. The game runs fairly well on my PS4 (60fps is for hipsters). And damn, this game is tremendous. Since its release in May 2015, the game has won so many awards that they have their own page on Wikipedia. Beyond the amazing quests, the graphics, the combat, the characters and the boobies, there’s one moment, a small incident you could easily miss that I found pretty interesting.
So okay, racism is a thing in TW3, and shortly after you arrive in the gorgeous, sprawling city of Novigrad, you spot a female elf being hassled by some douchebag humans in a market.
“I must go to the well” she says, as they corner her.
“Sure, to poison it, no doubt” one of the racist fuckheads says.
I approach and a cut scene initiates, meaning this is going to be something meaningful. This is going to be something I can sink my left-wing teeth into, something with a reward at the end.
I walk in, all grey and handsome.
“Think the lady’s grown tired of your company.”
The elf claims she’s just getting some water, but the bearded peasants don’t believe her, demanding to know where her bucket is.
“Leave her be” I growl.
They get slightly uppity, then they remember that my job is killing things. Killing big, nasty, powerful scary things and with just a look — I need no more words — they slink off into the relative safety of the crowded market.
At this point I’m expecting the elf to swoon, to thank me, to shower me with gifts, or maybe a warm bed for the night. What I get is a bloody earful.
“Why get involved at all?” she asks, when I say there’s nothing further I can do.
“You didn’t scare those boors off for my sake, but for your own. To feel just and noble. A knight on a swiving white steed. Or do I have it all wrong?”
The camera focuses on her and I swear she’s looking at me, she’s not asking Geralt these questions, she’s asking me.
“Go, vatt’ghern, and remember – we neither need nor want your pity.”
No reward. No gold. No stats were buffed, I wasn’t healed, my morality wasn’t rewarded. Instead I’m mocked and chastised, and I take it a bit personally, because she’s right. I wasn’t doing it for her, I was doing it for the prize, the reward, because I’m motherfucking Geralt of Rivia, the King-Slayer, the Butcher of Blaviken. And this elf, who just wanted to get some water, who will now almost certainly face increasing persecution because of my interference, has reminded me that games can be about more than hunting monsters and rescuing maidens. A game like this can take my preconceptions about RPGs, about how video games can deal with and portray social concepts, and hit me right in the balls with it. In 99% of games this would go one of two ways, I’d save her and be rewarded, or fuck it up and get into a fight. The Witcher 3 says, no, sometimes there’s fuck all you can. There is no right decision.
There are very few games that dare to even play around with ambiguity like this, especially not with budgets like this, and it’s great.
Also, you can slay dragons and shit.