I’m coming to the end of Witcher 3 after an obscene amount of game-time. It’s got a nice little sting in its romance subplot, and it raises an interesting point about game expectations. Basically, the romance subplot allows you to continue a romantic relationship with one of two sorceresses (Yennefer or Triss). There are opportunities to romance both of them at different points in the game, and there’s one of three resolutions. You commit to Yennefer, to Triss, or you try and romance both of them. If you romance both of them, the game punishes you: they find out, trick you into handcuffs (it’s a sexy lingerie trick), and leave you locked to a bed.
On the one hand, this is a nice little jab at romance subplots in other games – particularly BioWare (Mass Effect, KOTOR). In these games, you can often romance two potential partners right up to the last minute, where you have to finally choose between them. I personally expected this structure, so I carried both romances through as far as they could go. Then they found out and Witcher Geralt got tied up and abandoned. It was, ah, unexpected. After some reading online, I found that both women thereafter remove Geralt from their love lives. No more magic sex for you, player: where games like Mass Effect and KOTOR might be more forgiving (more permissive?), Witcher 3 punishes you for stringing along two ladies. In a way, that’s fair enough. It’s an implicit criticism of BioWare’s romance structure – if you think about it, you probably shouldn’t be stringing two ladies along. It’s a bit of a shitty thing to do, and it’s interesting to see the game punish you for it. Note as well that you can’t just load the previous save – the different romance options for each sorceress are hours apart in the game. There’s no going back.
So it’s a little jab at the romance subplots of other RPGs. The game is telling you that you can’t treat relationships like BioWare tells you to. That strategy is punished. Later on, I was robbing a grave on Ard Skellige, one of the game’s higher-levelled areas. I remembered a similar grave-robbing in Neverwinter Nights – or at least I think that’s what it was. In that game, if you take anything out of a grave, a skeleton or ghost jumps up and attacks you. The game is punishing you for sacrilege, for mistreating these tombs. Again, fair enough. As I looted this tomb in Witcher 3, I was a little apprehensive: am I going to be attacked again? Will there be more skeletons? There weren’t, but I was expecting them.
Really, the two situations (skeletons and lovers) are linked. Games train us to behave in a certain way. They teach us that certain behaviours are punished, and link those behaviours with fictional situations. It’s bad to loot graves. It’s bad to romance multiple people. The problem is that we don’t always know what the consequences are. Witcher 3 punishes you for doing something that other games are fine with. It’s annoying, but there’s also a point that’s being made about good and bad behaviour, so I’m willing to accept it. The potential problem is that eventually it turns into a game of ‘Guess What The Developers Were Thinking’. Do they mind grave-robbing? What about polygamy? It becomes messy, turns into a bad point and click adventure game. And if games are going to rely on the trial and error approach, it’d be nice if they weren’t a hundred hours long.
The mitigating factor in all this is genre. Video games teach expectations alongside behaviours – really they’re interlinked. When grave-robbing, there’s the awareness that ghosts might jump out of the ground and attack you. Even if it doesn’t happen, the genre has linked grave-robbing with a sense of trepidation. We know it’s transgressive, and so we’re cautious. The genre expectation is what allows for interesting variation: maybe a ghost will jump out of the ground and thank you for releasing her from an ancient curse that could only be lifted by a grave-robbing. It’s silly, but it’s also a subversion that relies on the preexisting genre expectation. The difference between this ghost subversion and Witcher 3‘s subversion is that Witcher 3 wants to shift the genre, while the ghost joke depends on the genre staying the same. Neither is better, per se – they’re just different treatments of the same phenomenon.