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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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue