So, I play games slowly. Even more slowly when I have exams in a week. But when I do play games, I tend to sink my time into lengthy RPGs. That’s Role-Playing Games, if for some reason you’ve decided to read this and know nothing of the nerdy form of entertainment of which I speak. Because, at its heart, PC Gaming is pretty damn nerdy. Even more so when you decide it’s a good idea to start The Witcher 2, the sequel to a game I never finished because the English translation was so utterly appalling that it didn’t make any sense. Some background: developed by former ‘indie’ developers CD Projekt – now with a sufficiently large budget and team I can’t really justify calling them ‘indie’ – The Witcher 2 is based on a series of novels written by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski. That these novels translate so well to a thirty-hour RPG – where player choice and interaction are paramount – startled me somewhat.
So what started with Dungeons & Dragons has finally evolved into something that looks a bit like this:
It is stunningly beautiful. We’ve certainly come a long way. In some senses though, what it looks like doesn’t really matter. Because what matters in an RPG is story: Character, motivation, emotion. Fundamentally though, it can’t be the developer’s story. Oddly, given the nature of adaptation, it can’t even be Sapkowski’s story. It has to be the player’s story.
In telling the story, though, it is unavoidable that there has to be some sort of mechanics. Mechanics are – and have always been – the bane of gaming. Whether it’s Call Of Duty’s rigid scripting (which on a slight aside, has the single most annoying moment of absolute ‘game-y-ness’: the infinitely respawning bad guys until you step over a particular line) or Deus Ex’s absolutely god-awful stealth, mechanics are essentially the thing which stops gaming from being considered alongside film, literature and music in the pantheon of modern ‘art-entertainment’. That isn’t to say that games can never be art – they can (go and play World Of Goo or Braid now if you don’t believe me). But simply, games are inherently limiting in player interaction – a film, a novel or a piece of music can speak to you, but a game tries to speak with you. Which makes everything all the harder.
TW2 is about a monster-slayer. As such, there’s a fair amount of fighting, and it’s this system where the game falls down. In an attempt to move away from the trappings of the genre, CD Projekt have opted for a real-time combat system. Though this works on a fundamental level – there is a great sense of physicality to the fighting lost in many of the more abstract RPGs (DragonAge’s hotkey-based, pauseable tactical combat system springs to mind) – the system is obviously the game’s greatest weakness. The game becomes a challenge of timing – when to block, when to strike, when to dodge, when to cast defensive or offensive spells – except, in its nature as an RPG, you start as a guy who is seemingly rubbish at fighting. With a limited amount of “vigour”, used by casting spells and blocking (in the early game, this is effectively limited to 2 actions per fight), the game is not only a challenge of your fighting skills, but also of resource management. This would be fine in principle, but the enemies don’t get harder, your character simply gets better. This means that the first fight in the tutorial is one of the hardest in the game. When Geralt – your character – is surrounded by five enemies, unable to block effectively – and with the player still unsure of how the system works – the game appears to be punishing you for starting. And that’s what it feels like – a game. A tutorial as hard as this is immersion-breaking, shattering any pretence of the story when you die five times in the first fight.
Whilst this is damaging to the early sections of the game, Geralt’s powers quickly improve through a neat system of levelling up (there is an irritating bug where it doesn’t always tell you you’ve levelled up, so I found I had to check manually often). Talents are picked from one of four specific skill trees, all growing organically out. These talents, in the early game, simply offer some respite from death – reduction of flanking damage, more vigour, and increased health regeneration – while later on they offer powerful spells, better potions (more on alchemy later) and stronger attacks. Spoilt for choice, you could spend hours poring over how to build your character. These talents are useful, gradually improving Geralt, creating a sense of progression – but they don’t provide a sense of “awesome”. If DragonAge II got one thing right, it was the sense of power from abilities. They were immediate – cool, even. TW2’s combat gradually improves, feels physical – and it’s impressive to watch – but it never feels cool. Although I miss that in some respects, TW2 doesn’t want to be cool. It wants to be real and visceral– but it has no interest in fun. Entertainment, certainly, but this is a serious game.
In being serious, of course, TW2 feels the need to be ‘mature’. The plot and setting tackle the adult themes well – Act I alone tackles terrorism, trade difficulties and politics in a suitably complex and multi-faceted way. The original Witcher game was infamous for its “adult” approach to women, however, featuring ‘collectable sex cards’ for each woman you slept with in the game. This fairly disgusting, nasty approach to creating a more ‘adult’ environment is thankfully gone, these scenes now inserted rather more tastefully. Though, for gaming this isn’t saying much – you’ve got DragonAge’s stilted “let’s go to my tent”; Mass Effect’s “the world’s ending so we might as well”; Fahrenheit’s rhythm-action sex game and GTA’s now infamous (but actually more tame than a 12A-rated film) ‘Hot Coffee’ mod for company. Yeah, gaming doesn’t have a great track record for this sort of thing. So to call it ‘tasteful’ is still a bit generous, but at least the scenes now make sense in context. They add to the mood of a high fantasy epic (in fact, there is one very Game Of Thrones ‘woman delivers exposition whilst naked’ scene), but it still all feels a bit weird.
TW2 is rather brilliant at creating its dark fantasy world – town guard are more interested in the whorehouse than the elven terrorists lurking in the woods; merchants are blinded by prejudice and greed; giant monsters are not evil to be destroyed, but dying creatures forced out of seclusion; kings are foolish and weak, driven by lust; and the titular Witcher – well he is you. And in a world this dark, there are neither good men nor evil men, there are merely men. That this world feels real is a testament to TW2 as an experience. A world so finely crafted and exquisitely detailed is essential in forming a background to what TW2 really offers.
What it offers then, is a brilliant branching storyline. Dynamic, open, dramatic. But beyond all of that, it has really damn good writing. With the exception of one laugh-out-loud terrible line (“We’re like sitting ducks out here, and I’m no duck!” – delivered with absolute sincerity), the translation holds up rather well, imparting both Geralt’s alienation from society – as a mutated monster-hunter – and the vast, complex, interconnected political structure of the nation. This can verge on the overwhelming, even the down-right confusing at times, but it creates an atmosphere of unease and that amplifies the critical decisions the player makes. Even in the tutorial, the player faces a choice between a duel and conversation, which will fundamentally change the allies the player makes help him break out of prison. Even in the backwater hamlet of Flotsam, politics pervades society, as the people face the very real threats of terrorism, poverty and imminent war. Your choices will have dramatic effects on the game – fundamentally changing entire acts of the game - and it’s this choice which is most exciting.
Choice is a word I’ve used a lot in this post, but in games, too often are we shoe-horned into a path we don’t want to take. You see, most games give us the illusion of choice: in Mass Effect 2, I was forced to work for a ultra-right wing quasi-terrorist organisation I’d spent so much of the first game destroying, for example. In Knights of the Old Republic, you save the universe whether you play good or evil. In Crysis, your only choice is between shooting the man or punching the man. TW2, on the other hand, lets us choose our side. It lets us choose the fate of a nation. This is what gaming can and should be. Games which offer us freedom are those which offer us most interaction – and as such, are those which best utilise the form to create something truly unique to gaming.
TW2 is a stunning revelation in gaming in many ways. It throws off the shackles of adaptation and creates a world the player can truly affect. It creates a believable, living, breathing world. It creates something unique to gaming in a way so few others are, telling a story a film could not tell, in a way a book could not tell it. If gaming is about interactivity then this is the pinnacle thus far. It’s just a shame that it stumbles under the weight of its own ambition – somebody, fix the bloody awful combat, please.