Monday, June 1, 2015

Witching Hours

Finally beat The Witcher 2 last week. Twice, actually, exploring two different endings, which themselves were just two permutations stemming from a larger plot schism. I can't think of another time a game compelled me to play through alternate endings rather than just YouTubing them. After factoring in idle time, I think the game took me about 80 hours to complete. It was a genuine journey and I look forward to playing The Wild Hunt soon.

Due to it's high body count and sexually charged nature, the world of The Witcher will draw inevitable comparisons to Game of Thrones, but only because the latter has become such a presence in popular culture, so I will do my best to avoid that shorthand. Dark fantasy has been around for a long time, and this is a much more fantastic universe than GRRMs dragon-enhanced take on the War of the Roses. It has explosive D&D style magic, elves, dwarves, and even a few sci-fi flourishes. For example, the denizens of the world have a strong enough grasp on genetics to meddle with them.

You yourself play Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, which is a mutant magi-swordsman bred for hunting monsters. He has white hair. He has cat eyes. He is an amnesiac. Despite those fan-fic grade cliches, the story itself is unexpected, filled with genuine moral dilemmas, twisting alliances, political intrigue, and ugly consequences.

Like Mass Effect 2, it refines a very messy first game, streamlining and speeding up stilted combat into more seamless, action-oriented gameplay. It retains the very interesting alchemy system, which rewards preparation for fighting specific monster types. Character customization is also considerably more coherent: instead of spending coins of different value on skills of different value, you have three primary skill trees and one training tree with slots for permanent stat bonuses.

There are lingering issues. It's a very buggy game. Invisible walls pop up due to messy in-game geometry. There are ways to unwittingly bug quests, even in the enhanced, de-bugged edition. It frequently crashed due to Steam sync, or faulty cut-scenes. I noticed that as my autosaves piled up indefinitely, the game took longer to load from the main menu, and by the end of the game, attempting to load a game from the pause menu was a guaranteed crash. You can also only change key-bindings via a pre-game launcher. I mean, really? The inventory can also be a chore to navigate, but that's due in part, to the massive amount of shit you accumulate.

It's the staggering amount of writing that impresses me. It took me 80 hours, and if I pursued the other plot chain, I'm sure it could bring the count to 100 unique hours of gameplay. There are fewer choices than Biowares offerings, but they matter more because they aren't mere opportunities to push around some arbitrary morality meter. CD Projekt Red did the fucking work. If you make one political alliance over another, your quest and the game world change accordingly and significantly. You won't learn everything you can about the characters on a single play through. Despite those divergences, the plotting is very tight. Your quest journal is actually recorded by your bard friend, Dandelion, and the entries are all witty. Conversational dialog is also pleasingly colorful.

So, this is the paragraph that caused a knockdown drag out between two couples of friends on facebook. It deals with sexism in games, so if you're burnt out on that topic, skip to the conclusion I guess, but I think it gets peoples' blood up because it taps into something deep seated and important. I'm a big fan of speculative fiction that includes sex, even if the inclusion only amounts to softcore bedroom scenes. I don't think that's a pleasure any guiltier than slaughtering digital men by the score. But a progressive world this is not. Hell, it is objectively misogynistic. Geralt philanders without consequence. Sex is a prize for saying the right thing in a single conversation chain, like a compressed dating sim. Almost all the women, including those milling about town, share the same top-heavy model in low-cut outfits. Far more troubling, is the fact that every major female character in the game is brutally victimized at some point. There are powerful women. Soldiers, sorceresses, and queens. But they all end up kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, raped, or killed. The only gay character and lesbian happen to be scheming villains. It's bad enough to make GoT appear enlightened. (Damn! I was doing so well, too.)

Doesn't feel great to admit I can forgive it those toxic politics, let alone hunger for another game that will feature the same. But I enjoy the successful blend of sword and sorcery combat. I get sucked into the mechanical ecosystem that requires crafting and alchemy. I am curious about where this world is going. And, not every game needs to forward a social agenda. That said, I think CD Projekt Red can do better with how it handles women. They are powerful characters, they influence the world, but they end  up being punished in ways that don't square with what happens to the straight men.

The Facebook duel was as follows. One side asserted that Dragon Age was vastly inferior to Witcher, while the other argued Dragon Age attempted something more ambitious by allowing players to customize the gender, sexual preference, and race of their main character, rather than locking players into a straight white male role. Both parties made some valid points, but passive aggression slid into ad hominems, and it was the kind of debate that was denied discourse from the start. Nobody won, and any kind of mixed judgment would look like indecisive platitudes. If I knew how to sort this shit out, we'd have peace in the Middle East and Gamergate would be a solved problem.

Here's what I took away, though, in the interest of  full disclosure: I have yet to play Dragon Age Inquisition. The last Bioware title I played was the underwhelming DA2. My issue with that game, and other recent offerings, is that those factors end up being almost purely cosmetic, save for who your character decides to bed. I can see how that is empowering; it's refreshing to have a black hero whose story isn't about being black. But in an RPG that promises to tackle complex issues like sexism and racism, I think those choices need to have a little more weight. Do they need the brutal sexual violence of the Witcher? Maybe not, but if your game is going to take on issues, it needs sharper teeth. While ambition is commendable, execution deserves credit where due. Straight White Cis Male Tale or not, (and you can make a case that it's not, since Witchers are pariahs), Geralt's tale, and it's impressive number of plot permutations, is a technically ambitious and impressively executed piece of literature.

Looking forward to getting lost in Gwent soon.

No comments: