on Jun 26, 2013
Over the years a lot of people have asked me about this series, and so I’m putting this post here as a kind of catch-all. When these questions pop up again (like when Witcher 3 comes out) I can link back here and hopefully avoid repeating myself and having the same argument a dozen times.
I have a bit of a cultural bias in favor of the team behind the Witcher series. Being named Shamus Young, most people sensibly assume I’m quasi-Irish. Like a lot of Americans I’m a cultural mongrel, but if I can be said to have any cultural heritage at all it’s probably Polish.
The family culture was much stronger when I was a child in the 1970’s and my grandparents (and even a great-grandparent) were still alive. These were first or second generation immigrants and still had some attitudes and habits from the old country. (Particularly when it came to food.) Those folks are mostly gone now and my generation is about as Polish as Doritos and Mario Kart. But I still have a soft spot for the Warsaw-based CD Projekt.
Aside from my pro-Polish bias, I have a lot of reasons to like The Witcher. It’s a rare book-to-videogame adaptation that doesn’t just use the setting as window dressing on shallow, derivative gameplay. (As in the case of the Harry Potter games, for example.) It’s a fantasy RPG that isn’t just trying to copy Tolkien.
On top of all that, CD Projekt is one of the most consumer-friendly companies in the industry. They run the excellent Good Old Games. We sometimes praise Valve for doing such a good job of lubricating / sugarcoating their DRM, but CD Projekt actually stands against DRM. They have released huge content patches for free in situations where just about any other company would charge money. They support PC games. They’re good people.
Good company. Literary approach to worldbuilding. No DRM. Fantasy RPG. Diverse mechanics. Gorgeous visuals. I have every reason in the world to love the Witcher series and beg people to play it.
Every reason except for the fact that I hate these damn games.
No really. I hate the Witcher. It is not a fun game and I don’t want to play it.
I hate the combat. In the first game it was this mind-numbing and tedious thing where you timed mouse clicks. It was awful. They overhauled it in the second game to be basically tolerable and bland. The game never “felt” good. I never felt like I was hitting hard or doing well. (Or poorly.) It didn’t have visceral thrills and it didn’t have strategic depth. It was just something you did.
I hate Geralt. He’s better in Witcher 2 than in the original, but I still find him dreary and alienating. I hate his looks, I hate his flat delivery, and his backstory feels like someone else’s cheesy overwrought power fantasy.
I find the visuals to be tiresome. Okay, the game looks great, but there are only so many smelly wood huts I can appreciate in a given game session. I never had that Morrowind / Mass Effect 1 feeling of, “Gosh! I can’t wait to see the next area!” It’s all impressively detailed, but it’s also depressingly filthy and lacking in wonder.
I hate the world. There’s this conflict in the RPG world where some people want gritty shades-of-grey and other people want vibrant and lighthearted. It’s the Obsidian vs. BioWare thing. Babylon 5 vs. Star Wars: A New Hope. One side is arguing for the “realism” of a world without good guys or bad guys and they find the BioWare stuff to be puerile and shallow. The other side wants fun and they find the “gritty” stuff to be dark, morose, and ugly.
I’m not sure where I fall on this spectrum (I like Obsidian games well enough when I can get them to run) but the Witcher goes way too far in the gritty direction for me. I played several hours into both The Witcher and The Witcher 2, and I have yet to meet a single named character I cared about. They’re either bland, irritating, or revolting. Some of the moral choices were interesting thought experiments (do you side with the superstitious morons or the malicious backstabber?) but ultimately I couldn’t get into it because I wasn’t invested in the conflict. It didn’t matter who won. I couldn’t roleplay in a “what would you do in this situation?” sense because if I was there, I’d leave.
I find the super-macho tone to be off-putting. The second game opens up with Geralt in bed with a girl. She’s naked. He’s wearing pants. There are no covers. It’s a pretty transparent excuse to get some tits on the screen as soon as possible. This, combined with the romance cards in the first game makes the whole series seem a bit too adolescent for me.
I’m happy that The Witcher is seeing success. It has its fans and I wouldn’t demand that they change the game to be more to my liking. But just about every aspect of it gets on my nerves or bores me.
If you’re a fan, you’re going to be tempted to jump down to the comments and explain that the game is awesome and I’m just enjoying it wrong. I’ve given the games quite a few hours and you’re unlikely to persuade me to invest more. And if you did get me to play more, then this blog would probably be given over to endless Witcher complaints and Geralt tirades.
I’m doing the game a favor by skipping it. Let it go.