As the game progresses, hero Geralt grows as a protagonist.
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser