A madman's ramblings about pop-culture. Also, some reviews.
Monday, February 5, 2018
The Mark of a Classic: an Argument for playing "The Witcher" over "The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings"
I decided to get through the two expansions of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, which I had neglected to do after I finished the base game shortly after it was released. As a completionist, I wanted to get through both the main campaign of The Wild Hunt, but also through The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. I skipped the first game, because not only have I already completed it five times, but also because it's the game that resembles the other two games in absolutely nothing.
But consistency be damned, what I discovered after two attempts to play through The Witcher 2 again, was that I just didn't want to. In the first attempt, I gave up after the prologue. In the second try, I gave up when the game made me explore the pitch-dark tunnels in the city of Vergen and find a key for the Dwarven catacombs, as part of the main quest; tunnels I had *just* walked out of, again as part of the main quest and a key that was on a dead body; a dead body I found during my first time down there, but which I couldn't loot, because that phase of the quest hadn't triggered yet. Padding is common in games and I'm at peace with it. The problem was that I came to one astounding realization:
I wasn't having fun.
It's a good game and it's a game I've finished twice before. It marked the time when CD Projekt RED, the developer of TheWitcher games, set the foundations for their epic third installment in the series. It was when the series got "serious" with high production value and the story became sort-of-canon for the Witcher series as a proper continuation of the books. It's a hard game to return to, however, because its successor surpassed it in every conceivable way. Why would one bother with (comparatively) subpar visuals and mechanics for a story not really worth telling, when there is such a better, more complete, more fulfilling alternative available?
The strangest thing is that none of the above holds true for the first game; yes, that original game, that first entry into the series that bordered on indie, from a then-unknown developer from Poland, is still very playable. The reason is simple: The Witcher, the original game, is unique.
It has nothing to do with its sequels. The mechanics are completely different, the story is barely touched upon in the other games (and when it is, it's in the form of nostalgic references only), the sound and the music differ in style and even artistically, the visuals make the game stand out among both the rest of the games in the series, as well as its competition. It's glitchier than the other games, it's more peculiar, it's harder to play and there are far too many oddities in it to ignore; but all of that give it a certain charm that a game like The Witcher 2 lacks entirely.
See, the first Witcher came about after seven years of development. It went through a variety of phases and designs, one of them being a standard isometric cRPG in the Witcher universe, but otherwise unrelated to the books. Eventually they decided to pick up from where the books left off. They leased Bioware's Aurora engine, the engine that succeeded the famous Infinity engine and which was used for the two Neverwinter Nights games. They, reportedly, rewrote about 80% of it; the tweaking pushed its abilities and added new features (the amazing skyboxes and real-time day/night cycle, as well as weather effects being among them) that were missing from the original version, but it also caused some technical and optimization issues.
With an old engine came restrictions and this was apparent during combat. The Witcher books had established early on that the titular Witchers are unparalleled swords-fighters with extensive knowledge of human anatomy; they are mutants, they are fast, their reflexes unmatched and they know where to strike for a quick kill. But with the Aurora engine, the action combat system seen in the other two games (which were made in CDPR's own RED engine) would be impossible to adopt. So, the first Witcher plays like a traditional cRPG; the game determines damage given and taken based on stats and status effects affect the outcome of the battle in a far greater degree than in W2 or W3. Ultimately, the combat is mostly automatic, except for an added timing mechanic that gives the illusion of real-time action.
Even that, however, shows a certain degree of artistry. The timing mechanic doesn't amount to much for the experience and often feels tacked on and a bother, but switching between Strong, Fast and Group combat styles requires the player to be engaged actively in combat; so do the various Witcher Signs that can be cast on a whim (as long as Geralt has enough Stamina for them). Where the Aurora Engine put up walls, the established tropes of the Witcher universe tore them down; nowhere is this more obvious than in the various Witcher potions.
Alchemy has had an interesting journey throughout the series and, arguably, CDPR never managed to implement the system properly in their games (though they came pretty close in The Wild Hunt). Every game in the series is, by design, unbeatable without the extensive use of alchemy (except in the really low difficulty levels). Potions exist in every RPG, but Witcher brews operate on a different level; they are mostly preparatory than they are reactive. This changes the dynamic of the games, as winning an encounter requires knowledge of the lore, of the various enemies and their strengths and weakness and gives the player wiggle-room to decide how they choose to approach combat. Because of the lack of control present in the first Witcher game during combat, alchemy becomes invaluable. Potions aren't just auxiliary as they are in most RPGs; they're the player's main tool to ensure victory and though the standard health and mana/stamina potions are always useful, they're the least valuable in comparison.
It works! It amazingly, unexpectedly, works! This system of limited control that sounds like too much bother, too much work, too much micromanaging and padding looking for ingredients makes combat in the first game very absorbing and rewarding, as it requires the player to put some real work into ensuring victory. The combat in W2 is good, but somewhat clunky, because CDPR was still testing out the new mechanics. The combat in W3 is fun as all-hell, but combat in W1 stands out as its own thing. Sure, if you look deep enough into it, you can see the seams where it was all stitched together; you can see how much mechanics resemble every other cRPG that came before. But this particular style was and still is something that's both unique within the Witcher series and the RPG genre as a whole.
That's not the only thing that's unique to the first Witcher game. The visuals and the art direction are also one-of-a-kind. The Witcher series always wore the hat of "dark fantasy" and the games have played that aspect up even more than the books (to a fault, sometimes), but what "dark fantasy" actually entails differs from material to material. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, is "dark fantasy" in terms of the color palette and the gore displayed on-screen, which puts it at odds with the more vanilla Lord of the Rings and the more stylized Dungeons & Dragons or the cartoony World of Warcraft. Most RPGs and fantasy settings are heavily inspired from one of the above. For the Witcher books, which draws inspirations from medieval Polish history and mythology, "dark fantasy" means a straight-forward political approach to a made-up world, where kings are more dangerous than dragons, using language that teeters between sardonic and jaded.
In W2, the "darkness" comes specifically from the quality of the characters; everybody is a terrible person that takes advantage of everyone and everything for their own ends. In W3 there is a complete reversal; the characters all start walking a grey line, but the "darkness" comes from the situations around them; war, famine, crime; it is a lot closer to the books in this regard.
The first Witcher is closer to the second game; most NPCs are all sorts of terrible. If they aren't outwardly evil, they are self-serving and capricious at the very least. The first chapter of the game takes place in a village where every single one of the seven sins is represented in abundance in literally every single one of the inhabitants. The Witcher, in general, has never been big on subtlety, at least until the third game; but the original also features visuals and sound to match the tone, which is not the case with the far more colorful second game. It's isn't brown or too bloody; what it is is moody, bustling with atmosphere.
There is no place in the game that's idyllic. The accursed swamp outside Vizima is representative of that; it's a place you spend a lot of time in, especially if you do Witcher contracts and side-quests and it's a place that's simply exhausting. The terrain is confusing, the safe zones are very few and the place is crawling with monsters that start off extremely dangerous and end up unbelievably annoying. But the wide swamp forest, the muted green colors and the sky that's often covered in mist, clouds or leaves and branches create a fittingly claustrophobic atmosphere.
The Temple Quarter in Vizima looks dirty and built like the crappiest London neighborhood in the Victorian Era. The fishing village of Murky Waters is the only part that clashes with the rest of the game (in more ways than one), but all its apparent beauty hides intrigue, family feuds, clashes with alien civilizations, gods and evil spirits. The game, visually, avoids the mix of realism and fantasy that its successors excel at and instead looks and feels like it takes place in a depressing, almost horror-like setting.
The music is slow and exotic and even the voice acting, which ranges from passable to outright terrible, gives the game the charm of a b-movie. The aesthetics of the game are different to those of the other games; but they make for a very immersing experience. More importantly, they are representative of the humble origins of the Witcher franchise. It shows what a company with a lot of care and love for the art of game making can do with an old engine and a new IP (in terms of worldwide appeal), if they have a clear vision about what they want to offer their audience. The Witcher is distinct, it's unique and it feels like the product of a foreign studio that gives its own spin, from their own point of view and based on their own culture to a large, bloated genre.
I left the story for last, because it's fascinating, especially for those that are familiar with the Witcher books. The Witcher 2 is when the series really starts tying directly to Andrzej Sapkowski's original works, in terms of mechanics, visuals and story. The Witcher 3 outright seeks to conclude the story, especially the bits that the writer had left open-ended or outright forgot about.
See, the Witcher series started off as a series of short stories. These were later collected and actual novels followed; right now, the entire series amounts to 8 books, seven of them revolving around the story we're familiar with and the last one being a prequel of sorts. Like with all series, some books are better than others; the one that stands out though, to me, is the last book in Geralt's story, called Lady of the Lake. The book starts off well-enough and it's pretty solid.
In the first half, that is. I don't know if this is indeed the case, but based on my reading it seems like Sapkowski got tired of the series and decided to end it a bit too abruptly. Or maybe Lady of the Lake was supposed to conclude the series from the start, but he ran out of time, or space or ideas. Whatever the case, the latter half of that seventh book fast-forwards through events and finds easy solutions that are a bit off-putting.
(spoilers if you have yet to read the books)
For example, the second war with Niflgaard that had been waged throughout all the books ends with the Battle of Brenna. The Northern Realms had been steadily losing the war and up until about half of the last book, they were almost crushed. Then, the Battle of Brenna happens and all of a sudden, Nilfgaard retreats back to the south and the war ends.
Another example, which The Witcher 3 sets out to resolve, is the Wild Hunt itself. The Wild Hunt shows up maybe twice in the whole series. In the last book, Ciri spends a lot of time in the world of the Aen Elle (the race from which the Wild Hunt hails) and is instructed by Avalac'h to try and bear a successor for the King of that race. This fails and she eventually finds her way back into her own world to save Yennefer and Geralt, but the Aen Elle never follow her there. The Wild Hunt disappears entirely after that point and they haven't done much until that point in the series either. They are entirely forgotten about.
One more that stands out is Emhyr Var Emreis, the Emperor of Nilfgaard himself. The character is shrouded in mystery for almost the entire series; he barely appears, he speaks little, his motivations are entirely kept in the dark; he's looking for Ciri, even puts a pretender in a tower for show, but he never reveals why. Then, in literally the span of a few paragraphs toward the end of Lady of the Lake, he meets Geralt and dumps a load of information on the reader; that he's Duny, the Knight-Errand Geralt rescued in one of the short stories now collected in the first, introductory book; that he's Ciri's father; that he's looking for her, so he can sleep with her and take advantage of her Elder Blood. All of this is information that had never been even hinted at before. Maybe it was planned, but if so, it was badly paced. It felt more like a quick resolution, the same way "The Patriots are the cast of Metal Gear Solid 3" was a quick resolution that was clearly not planned ahead of that last game.
(end of book spoilers, carry on)
The books are interesting in how they relate to the first game, because of how many things CDPR had to shy away from at the time. Their biggest problem was that they had to resurrect Geralt and later Yennefer. The way Lady of the Lake ends is peculiar; Sapkowski ties the book to Arthurian legends, by having Ciri take Geralt and Yennefer to the Isle of Avalon. The problem is that all this is narrated by Ciri, to a third party and it is presented as it being her fantasy ending more than the reality. On the other hand, Sapkowski reportedly told CDPR that Geralt and Yennefer had survived; all that without even accounting for Season of Storms, the final book that's mostly unconnected to the main series, but which makes ambiguous references to the fate of Geralt. In reality, all Sapkowski wanted to do was communicate that Geralt and Yennefer are legends and that their fate matters little, as they are incorruptible and undying throughout the ages. This, however, is useless for the writers of the games that need to restructure the entire story and continue it, less as metaphor and more as fact.
So, CDPR looked at the end of Lady of the Lake and decided to take Ciri's word on the fate of her adoptive father and mother. What Sapkowski let ambiguous and poetic, they had to interpret literally. Then, they built the story, added the Wild Hunt for good measure and started building their own epic.
But all this didn't really happen until the second game. In the first game, Geralt has amnesia; he has to have amnesia, because the Witcher books weren't widely known outside Poland at the time (and at the time they weren't even all translated in English) and the game is a role-playing title; CDPR needed to walk a fine line between adapting an existing character and at the same time allowing players to build the main character the way they want. This amnesia was useful, in that it gave CDPR the chance to pick and choose what they wanted to use from the books.
So, possibly in fear of angering the fanbase and alienating newcommers, they decided to come up with an original story, make vague references to the books that could only be picked up by Polish fans and at the same time, heavily condense the story of the series into one game. Because of this, the first game doesn't fit with the other two and it doesn't fit with the books canon either. With a Geralt whose personality relies on the player's whim, with no mention of Ciri or Yennefer, with the complete absence of Nilfgaard and with entirely original characters that serve as the supporting cast and the villains, the entirety of the first game is the odd one out in the entire Witcher franchise.
More so, when one really starts drawing comparisons between the game and the books; The Witcher is largely relied on Ithiline's prophecy; the danger of the White Frost. It's also the story of Geralt, who has to choose between one of two love interests and adopt a child of the Elder Blood with his chosen partner. As mentioned, the White Frost, like the Wild Hunt, never came to pass in the books; but it feels like the books ended abruptly and just never got to that point. Also important is the fact that even though Geralt is the hero of the books, the story is Ciri's; she's the main character, from the moment she joins Geralt at the end of The Sword of Destiny up until the end in Lady of the Lake. She's the character that matters, the character that grows, the character that experiences; Geralt spends his time trying to find her. The first game draws these ideas from the books, but tries to do so without contradicting anything and furthermore shifting the story from Ciri to Geralt himself.
This is extremely obvious with the two love interests; Triss and Shani. It should be apparent even to people who never read the books, but these two ladies in the first game are characterized completely differently than they are in the other games:
Shani is sweet. She's simple, she's idealistic, she lives for helping people and finding "the one". She's shy and collected, smart, but quiet.
Triss is the conniving sorceress; she's shady, she has an attitude and an agenda. She wears that ridiculous dress that goes all the way down to her butt-crack, she's provocative and likes shiny things.
Shani is a bit character in the books and makes an appearance in Hearts of Stone (the first Witcher 3 DLC), but if you're not familiar with her, she's none of the above. She's idealistic, but she's also assertive and she's promiscuous. She's young and it shows in her personality; both when she fucks Geralt an hour after she meets him in the books and, reportedly, in Hearts of Stone. She's a likeable character, but she is not the character we see in the first Witcher game.
Triss is, as we know, the sweet one. She's strong, she's brave, she's in love with Geralt; she hates politics, she doesn't like the Lodge of Sorceresses and she lives to be romanced by the right person and live a quiet life where she can put her skills to good use without being tangled in political intrigue and the back-stabbings that go with it.
Essentially, what CDPR did, was give Yennefer's role in the story to Triss, because she was the sorceress in that game. They didn't, presumably, want to overextend their welcome in the franchise with their first outing. Maybe they hadn't come up with the specifics of Geralt's "resurrection" yet. Maybe they didn't know if they'd be able to make a second one and they didn't want to open that can of worms until they knew they could really plan ahead. They picked Shani for the other role, because... well, in their defense, Geralt has an affinity for sorceresses and Shani might've been the only non-magically-talented person Geralt knew in the biblical sense of the word, who made a proper appearance in the books. Whatever the reason, the roles are switched and the characters are extremely inconsistent between the first and the other two games, as well as the books.
We delved into the story so extensively, because mechanics are certainly the focus of any game, but in a RPG, story matters; in a series, especially, story matters a lot. The Assassins of Kings suffers from lacking a coherent plot with a clear resolution and being used as the launching point for The Wild Hunt; setting up everything that will transpire in the third game and explaining things that came before. Most of the plot of that game exists to tie the games to the books, which the original game didn't do sufficiently. The Witcher 3 is a lot more enjoyable with prior knowledge of the books, but it's not too obtuse for the newcommer; The Witcher 2, on the other hand, has no hope of standing on its own without being confusing at best or tiresome and forgettable at worst. It works only in tandem with either books or the third game, but not as a standalone RPG.
Because of this 2007's "The Witcher" is actually a lot more coherent, it's self-contained and it's still replayable in ways The Witcher 2 isn't. It's really very detached from the books, there aren't enough references to drag the story down and many of the characters come and go in this game only, making the narrative more complete than the one in either of the sequels. It's not the best adaptation of the books, but it works as its own thing, without really needing to piggy-back on the franchise's literature roots, but being its own unique experience, in terms of storytelling, mechanics and aesthetic.
October 26, 2017 marks the 10-year-anniversary of the first Witcher and the entry of the series into the world of videogames. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and its expansions remain the pinnacle of AAA gaming and the jewel of the series (occasionally surpassing even its source material); but even now, ten years since release, that first game remains a good, memorable experience. It's not without its problems; there are crashes and bugs, the controls are clunky, the story stops dead in its tracks in the fourth chapter and breaks flow, the writing and the voice acting are sometimes laugh-out-laughter-inducing and sometimes the game can be frustrating.
Still, it's a testament to what beating overwhelming odds looks like; it's a reminder of the time when a small Polish studio that was a complete unknown, an outsider in a massive industry that tends to absorb and assimilate talent and creativity in all the wrong ways (especially back then when PC gaming was dying and every game was a Gears of War or Halo clone), proved this multi-billion dollars industry what hard work, talented minds and a good business sense can yield. Play The Witcher again; not because it's part of a celebrated series, but because it's one of its kind.
- Did you know that series favourite dwarf, Zoltan Chivay, isn't very prominent in the books? Geralt's dwarf buddy for most of the series was Yarpen Zigrin, who makes an appearance in Iorveth's path in The Witcher 2, in the city of Vergen.
- If you're replaying The Witcher, it is advisable you install the Rise of the White Wolfmod, which changes and improves the game's UI, as well as adds fixes and improvements on the game's visuals.