As the game progresses, hero Geralt grows as a protagonist.
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How The Witcher 3 created and perfected hardboiled detective fantasy

This game is a masterpiece, and yet it still could have been so much better.

So after many delays The Witcher 3 finally appeared. Some people complained about some parts of it and some people lamented the fact that it’d take them every hour of their spare time from now until forever to get to the end and some people mysteriously vanished from society altogether, to surface days later, blinking in the sunlight, with enormous smiles on their faces. I fell into that third group, the lucky group, the group that saw the future.

This is the thing about The Witcher 3: it is the future, or at least it is the new standard. It represents the point where decades of incremental improvements in videogame storytelling and structuring finally embraced the grand production values that have become commercially viable with this generation of gaming hardware. The net result is a game with the geographic scale and freedom to wander that you’d usually get from something like Skyrim, coupled to the close-up focus on characters and storytelling that typically only occurs in games with a tighter focus like Dragon Age: Origins. Such a level of detail over so vast a game has never been done, indeed it has not even really been attempted until now.

That is not to say that The Witcher 3 is a perfect game, but it is a stunningly, heartbreakingly, mind-blowingly good one. I could find faults with it all day, indeed given that the game takes around a hundred hours to play through, and much more past that if you really want to see through every quest, I experienced its problems first hand for literally an entire day give or take, but this is not a game aiming to be neat, focussed and perfect. This is a vast sprawling saga, an epic work of complex interwoven stories. The potency of the stories is such that their sheer number and quality is staggering. This is not a game that wastes time or pads itself out with filler content.

This does not feel like a simple case of a game just being really good either. Sometimes a game just gets everything right, goes by the numbers and delivers a tour de force. This feels more fundamental than that, like The Witcher 3 just invented a jet engine while the rest of the genre is finding increasingly desperate ways to get more power from propellers.

Where does this feeling come from? Simply that The Witcher 3 is a game that clearly, as great as it is, could have been better. Indeed there are elements of the game that are almost ordinary, the combat for example is a very big part of the game and rarely does it feel more than adequate. The controls also manage to be at times clumsy and simultaneously fiddly, particularly when swimming. The crafting system seems to have promise but combined with the perfunctory combat system can feel like little more than a boondoggle. The Witcher 3 carries all these problems like splatted bugs on the windscreen of a juggernaut. In spite of them all it still, comfortably, can claim to be the best roleplaying game ever made.

At the heart of this epic lies the hero, Geralt of Rivia. He is a witcher, a mutant of superhuman reflexes and constitution, trained from childhood to hunt and kill monsters. This sounds like standard fantasy hero fare, have sword will travel while slaying stuff for fun and profit. However it soon becomes apparent that Geralt is not a typical fantasy hero at all. He isn’t the chosen one or looking to avenge a past wrong nor is he some fresh faced neophyte starting out in a world of adventure.

In many ways Geralt is more like a hardboiled private detective, the sort normally seen traipsing mournfully around Los Angeles in Dashiell Hammett novels. He is an older man, already wise, already capable and already widely known. He has old friends, old enemies, old scars and old scores. Raymond Chandler defined this kind of detective protagonist in his 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder and the similarities are strong.

…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.

This genre splicing of high fantasy and hardboiled detective is vital to the success of The Witcher 3 both for its story and tone, but also, and unusually, to the mechanics that define how the player engages with the game.

Geralt, like most fictional detectives, is an outsider, brought in to solve mysteries, disappearances, murders and unexplained phenomena. He is seldom welcomed with open arms. Geralt’s unpopularity with the characters who hire him stems not just from him being a mutant but from the connotations of his trade, of being a man who learns uncomfortable truths, a man associated with hard times and problems. As such even the characters who seek Geralt’s help will be uncomfortable with his presence, maybe even deceiving him. This again taps into the hardboiled detective genre, even the people who hire you might be spinning you a line.

The heart of the work you have Geralt do is the monster hunting. Usually there will be a notice in a town offering a reward for whoever can help solve a problem. Maybe somebody went missing in the woods. Maybe there’s a ghost. Maybe something has been twisting the heads off bears. You collect the notice and speak to the person who posted it, you discuss a fee and you ask them for further information, witnesses, locations, possible clues. Then you go out and dig around. The process is involved and engrossing. Behind every monster lies a story, why it is there, why it is attacking, who its victims were. Usually you piece together an idea about what the target is and can prepare accordingly to neutralise it. When the contract is fulfilled one way or the other there will be consequences.

The main plot follows a much longer arc, but it is still recognisably a mystery story. Geralt, in true hardboiled detective style, is summoned to meet the powerful man whose daughter has vanished, and is charged with finding her. The scene where this takes place is the stuff of classic film noir, the palace with its snooty servant, Yeneffer giving off femme fatale vibes like a pulp fiction Disney Queen, the Emperor commanding you to find his daughter with such authority and detachment you’d think he was giving instructions for how to prune his orchids. The scene could be straight out of The Big Sleep, which seems deliberate, as a later scene features an emotionally bruising homage to Casablanca.

A typical fantasy game will throw bigger and meaner monsters at you all day because that is what fantasy games do. Skyrim for example managed to make its dragon attacks go from terrifying to a being mere nuisance through sheer overuse. This constant escalation goes with the territory and seems often to be done without question, but this is notable by its absence The Witcher 3. While The Witcher 3 is no stranger to the odd avoidable ambient fight, a pack of roving wolves or a group of bandits might be found out in the wilds, this is a game that takes meticulous care in how it deploys its larger threats so that they never become routine encounters. The game does not scale according to your level, so the deadliest creatures are very few in number but present from the start.

As such nearly every monster Geralt hunts, and he will hunt many, will have something about it that sets it apart, maybe it will be one of a kind or have a story behind it. We are as far beyond the classic “Go here and kill ten of this” quest plotline as an airliner is beyond a kite. It is impressive that, while it could be argued that The Witcher 3 has a fairly limited pool of different creatures to draw from, the developers resist the temptation to keep flinging in the best of them. You’ll see a lot of ghouls, nekkers and drowners, you might even grow bored of them, but the game is willing to let you get bored of them, rather than lessen the impact carried by its A-List bogeymen.

Geralt himself is a fantastic character and vast improvement over the usual gravelly voiced, closed off, emotionless goons that make up the heroes of other video games. That is not to say he doesn’t at first come across as being just such a goon but where many such characters are completely stunted Geralt has great depth. While some players might be put off by his detached manner this is actually a great strength of the writing, because by downplaying Geralt’s emotional reactions to things there is less of a sense that we as players are being told what to feel. This helps in the continuity of scenes, keeping Geralt’s tone consistent, which would be extremely hard to do convincingly if he was more of an extrovert. If we want him to be angry, he can be angry, if we want him to be friendly, he can be friendly, but until we decide one way or the other he remains inscrutable.

In many ways the way Geralt presents himself feels more believable than the whooping, cheering cadaver-junkies that little most other games. Geralt takes no pleasure in combat or killing, he is detached, workmanlike. In a game that paints its characters so vividly this is really the only way that he could fit into it without seeming to be a monster himself. Indeed for a game ostensibly about a man who kills things for a living the game takes a dim view of violence in general.

As the game progresses Geralt grows as a protagonist. His stoicism in his day to day dealings serves to add weight to those later moments when he lets his guard down. The subtle changes to his demeanour as he deals with different people make him an incredibly likeable character too. He is good with children, sympathetic to those in pain and undaunted by the rich and powerful. There’s a genuine sense that Geralt is a hero of the downtrodden, unless of course you take a conscious effort to bypass most of the game by telling everybody who needs your help to sod off.

In a medium awash with feeble characters from the stab-happy Muppet of Middle Earth in Shadow of Mordor to Aiden Pearce’s insufferable crappiness in Watch_Dogs and any number of nameless military chumps in whichever first person shooter came off the production line this week Geralt stands out as an incredible creation. It is unfortunate that he should only hit his stride in what seems to be his final adventure, although we are talking about a final adventure that is, in terms of hours to play through versus reading time, approximately twice the size of the Harry Potter series.

One element for which the game has faced criticism is its unapologetically male gaze. You’ll see a lot more female flesh than male over the course of the story, and that’s even considering there’s a fight in a bath house at one point. The game world is also littered with a curiously high ratio of attractive female characters, while by contrast the men are generally lumpy and brutish. If you’re comfortable with the idea of The Witcher 3 as a manly man’s adventure about being a heterosexual man and can enjoy it on those terms you will have a lot of fun with it but your mileage may vary if you find that sort of thing grating. Though you do get to play as Geralt’s ward Ciri it is not for very long out of the total length of the game, although these parts are something of a highlight.

It is notable that for a game that is generally speaking to a traditional male audience in familiar terms it does have a strong contingent of female characters. By which I mean the contingent itself is strong, not that it features the archetypal strong female character. There are women present throughout the game, from swamp crones to court sorceresses, from peasants to debutantes and because of the nature of the story, with Geralt more a solver of other people’s problems rather than a man with his own agenda, the game gives the stories of these characters more weight and attention. They are not stepping stones on the path to Geralt’s final victory, or ornaments along the way, rather they have their own paths and contact with Geralt may help or hinder their journeys.

This shouldn’t have to be pointed out as a remarkable accomplishment in this day and age, but sadly this kind of representation still sort of is. The representation of people of colour is however one area where the game drops the ball, featuring a grand total of no non-white human characters. Arguments have been made back and forth on this issue and I won’t dwell on them here, suffice to say I don’t think it would have harmed the artistic vision of the game one iota to have a few people of colour in there, given that the city of Novigrad is a major port and some people have the means to magically teleport.

 It is ironic that despite having a monochrome cast, one of the main story themes deals with racism and prejudice and how these are exploited by those in power. The fact that almost everybody in The Witcher 3 is what we would term as being ethnically white makes the way that the story deals with racism interesting in that it sets aside our own frames of reference. We are outsiders to it all and we can see from this distance that the hatred is artificial, created for political ends and seized upon by vicious and manipulative elements. There’s a lesson in there somewhere and it is perhaps a more effective one than would be taught by simply having all the different peoples of the world unite behind a hero to stab baddies in a big showdown, as is the traditional way for games and films to show us racism is bad. But still, representation is important.

It is easy to criticise The Witcher 3 because it is so incredibly huge and for the most part incredibly well made that its failings are that much more disappointing. However it is equally important to recognise it for the feat of writing, design and software engineering that it represents. Nobody, but nobody, has made a game of this detail on this scale before and that the quality of its production, from those first seconds to that final end sequence, is so high would have been almost unimaginable until somebody trundled along and actually made it happen. This game is a masterpiece and the small army of people who made it happen should feel ridiculously proud of themselves, although given the rate at which patches are being released I doubt they’ve had a day off yet.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism