I know I was down on The Witcher 2 when I first played it. Maybe I was just in a sour mood at the time, or maybe the second game is less excellent, or maybe I’m just lost in a haze of PC-gaming excitement.. But I am in love with the original Witcher game.
The screenshot above comes from one of the moral decisions we’ve all come to expect from RPGs, effectively deployed by BioWare and seen in all manner of games these days. Who will you side with? Will you be good or evil? Will you protect the little people, or exploit them for your own gain? The difference here is that neither choice immediately pulled me toward it, and I had to genuinely think about it for a minute. There were consequences, but I’m still glad I decided as I did. (And the game was very clear about what I was choosing between, which some games don’t do.)
Later on I ran into a friend in the game, one of those amiable chums that you encounter from time to time, but never joins your party. (Like Joker in Mass Effect.) We prattled on for a moment about his lady friend, and then I noticed a dialogue option for “Got a minute?” Expecting some simple recap of earlier events, or maybe a “What can you tell me about my life before I got amnesia?”, I was pleasantly surprised to see the conversation dive toward the philosophical.
Geralt, my character, mused about the changing nature of good and evil, vis-à-vis the emerging system of regulated wickedness in the city. As a Witcher dedicated to combating the chaotic forms of beastly incursion, would I adapt to these new patterns, or be displaced by others more skilled at taking on the organized evil?
Most RPG dialogue can be tolerated with a roll of the eyes, and usually a heavy dose of skipping ahead. Even in the Fallout games — which I dearly love — the characters blather on in predictable and blindingly utilitarian ways. Here’s what happened in two lines, here’s where you need to go in one line, here’s another line about what you need to do.
Usually this is fine, because most video game writers don’t have much skill — or interesting things to say — which would enable them to craft meaningful discussions between characters. (Some of the back-and-forth in Dragon Age: Origins is a notable exception to this rule.) I’ve recently come to understand that subtitles can help wash away the tedium of mediocre writing, since reading them is quicker and we can get back to the fun stuff: slashing monsters and looting corpses.
But when the writing is good, we don’t want to race through conversations. We’re drawn into the ideas, and we want to bathe in the concepts. It’s been a long time since the writing in a game has impressed me like this, and I’m looking forward to more intriguing discussions along the way.
What’s more, this genuine interest in what the characters say leads me back to the game in a way that transcends mere gameplay. The combat in The Witcher is fine, but it’s nothing remarkable. The constant gathering of herbs and ingredients bores me to sobs, and the locations are nothing too glorious. Yet I’m drawn back to it constantly, because the ideas and the dialogue is really well done. Therefore I’m not racing to finish quests, the way I am in many RPGs. Instead, I’m taking my time and looking for all the little bits along the way that will pique my interest.
Hooray for good writing!