Moral Choice & the Witcher (part too)

Hey there! This is the second in a series on The Witcher. If you haven’t read the first one, you can read it here. Oh, and there’s probably some spoilers or something. So last time we talked about the morality system in The Witcher. It’s more complex than a straightforward binary system like KOTOR or Fable in two ways: it’s not binary, which is great, and your actions have widespread repercussions which aren’t immediately obvious. They might come back to haunt you a couple chapters in the future. The best thing about working with compromised morality, as you so often find in The Witcher (you know, lesser of two evils type thing), is that you as a player have to find a way to justify one over the other. In this case, it’s often a question of whether you support resistance to tyrannical states or the authority of the government as a protector of the people. Because both of these philosophies have a relatively equal status (that is, they’re both equally morally compromised), the player has to dive in a lot deeper in order to find justification for their actions. If only that had occured to the folk who made Arkham Origins.

So last time I said that there were still issues with the morality system in The Witcher. I think they’re more interesting issues, because they show signs of progress, but it’s clear that video games still have a lot of work to do before they really hit their stride. I’d like to be grumpier about The Witcher‘s limitations, to make the point more forcefully, but I’m mostly only really interested in narrative, and The Witcher has some really cool narrative stuff. There’s Alvin, for example, whose arc strikes me as remarkably subtle for an RPG. Actually, that’s probably the most apparent example of how much work video games have to do – I’m feeling encouraged by The Witcher, because it’s subtle – for an RPG. This guy, who I really like, argues that we’re so accustomed to the dross of video games that any minor improvement feels like Christmas all over again. It’s true – we don’t even notice the backhandedness of the compliment: “It’s subtle – for an RPG”. That is, it’s eye-rollingly rudimental for just about any other medium under the sun, but video games are so far behind everybody else that we get excited when they go a day without soiling their trousers. Baby steps, I suppose.

Anyway – most of my complaints about The Witcher‘s morality system are in regard to how it’s applied, rather than the general structure. By and large, I find the general structure encouraging. Rather than offering the player preconceived notions of what morality is, they present a cause-and-effect scenario and allow the player to moralise as much (or as little) as they want. The delayed repercussions makes the world feel cohesive (and resists save-scumming), while avoiding the Telltale mistake of offering you choices where you couldn’t possibly have foreseen the resulting action. When I gave weapons to the Scoia’tael, I expected them to kill folk. I didn’t expect who or when or how, but I wasn’t surprised when it happened.

So I like the general structure. What I don’t like is how it’s applied. Let’s take the fight at the end of Chapter IV: this is basically the big moment where you choose whether you side with the Scoia’tael, the Order of the Flaming Rose, or neither. As I’ve already discussed, each side has its moral merits. My problem here is that it doesn’t really seem to matter which side you pick: Foltest and Radovid join forces to fight the rebellious de Aldersberg, and you get to go and kill de Aldersberg with one of three companions, depending on which path you took. At this point, de Aldersberg is the big villain – all the decisions you’ve made about which side you’re on don’t really seem to matter any more. They become peripheral to de Aldersberg, which is frustrating, because it undermines the importance and power of your choice right at the emotional climax. Yes, this complaint is largely about narrative, but it’s about the importance of the moral choice system within the narrative. As Geralt, you make these moral choices – but so what? The authority to make meaningful choices gets largely taken away from you. There’s still smaller choices within the final act – whether or not to kill Sigfried and/or Yaevenn, depending on your allegiance, and whether or not to surrender the soul of de Aldersberg to the Wild Hunt, but again, these are relatively minor choices.

A much better example can be found in the end of Chapter 1, when Abigail and the mob go head to head. Admittedly this is a minor climax, with (almost) no repercussions outside its own little narrative bubble, but it’s a good example of how to maintain player choice at that crucial climactic moment. So a bunch of hick villagers want Abigail’s head, because she’s a witch (and also she knows a bunch of their dirty secrets). That said, Abigail’s no saint either – she’s kinda playing Chaotic Neutral, in that she gives people the spells they want if they pay her, with little to no regard for how those spells will affect things. She gave Ilsa poison to commit suicide, for example, and maybe possibly voodoo’d Odo into killing his brother (goodness knows why). If you give Abigail to the mob, they burn her at the stake and go back to their grubby evil little lives. If you defend Abigail, you end up murdering all the prominent citizens of this village, because they attack you to get to Abigail. There’s this neat narrative arc: conflict between the witch and the villagers, culminating in a lynch-mob situation which you have to resolve.

What’s really neat is that there’s a bunch of moral and identity questions factoring into how you resolve the problem. The witch Abigail is, like you, an outsider, looked down on by the community that she does, to some degree, support. Does the player protect her out of a sense of solidarity? Or does the player maintain the famous witcher neutrality, and let the mob take Abigail? Does the player defend Abigail in the face of criminals seeking to eliminate loose ends, or reject her as a self-serving monster? At the emotional height of the arc, the player is placed centre-stage and forced to make substantial moral decisions that affect the entire landscape. By contrast, with de Aldersberg, you’re going to kill him anyway, and you’re going to resolve the war in Vizima anyway, and it doesn’t really matter which side you pick insofar as they resolve that central plot element in the exact same way.  Two steps forward, one step back.

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