The Social Justice Witcher
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is finally getting its Complete Edition. It’s high time for the ultimate version of a game that redefined the cinematic role-playing genre. But while The Witcher 3 gets and deserves praise for being utterly gorgeous or having amazingly well-constructed quest and world design, there’s more to it. The Witcher 3 is a game committed to social justice--and because of that commitment, it’s a fantastic game.
Maybe you had a mental record scratch at that idea. “The Witcher? Social justice? Are you serious?” After all, The Witcher doesn’t have the reputation for being nice. This is fair. When the first installment was released, it was infamous primarily for giving out nudie cards for the women your character slept with. The main character, Geralt of Rivia, is a straight white male. It’s dark fantasy -- the genre that attempts to depict human violence, sexuality, and oppression in fantastic settings -- which has taken something of a beating thanks to Game of Thrones’ overwhelming popularity (and missteps). And as both this franchise and Dragon Age have risen to prominence simultaneously, The Witcher has gotten the reputation as being the edgy, mature, “realistic” counterpart to Dragon Age’s increasing focus on fluffy woke progressivism.
Yet Wild Hunt transcends all that. Lemme give you an example. In the initial tutorial zone of the game, White Orchard, you’re given a quest called “Devil By The Well.” A local peasant, with a sick daughter, needs the clean water of a haunted local well. It’s Geralt’s job to figure out what manner of wraith is to blame, and get rid of it.
The process for this is simple: Geralt has to figure out the truth, and then he has to use that truth to set the wrongs to right as best he can. In the case of the “Devil By The Well,” the witcher’s investigation uncovers that nature of the target -- a fire-based noonwraith -- as well as her past. She was the resident of a newly-created village, formed by folks fleeing an oppressive lord. One day that lord showed up, confronted his former peasants, and brutally murdered them. Geralt, uncovering this, finds the woman’s corpse, as well as a bracelet that symbolizes her life. He then burns her, to set her soul at ease, and, because this is still a video game, has a boss fight against the wraith.
Taking this in broader terms: in order to solve his quests, Geralt has to understand what oppressive violence created the unspoken problems of the area, then he has to use that knowledge to make those areas better. He can’t fix everything, but nothing in the world of The Witcher 3 can be fixed at all without confronting the core sins of the past.
Geralt serves both as a journalist and activist in doing this: uncovering the truth, and using that truth to untangle the village’s problems. And the game reinforces this: the music that plays in the scorched village of “Devil By The Well” is slow, vaguely threatening, but elegiac -- it screams “a tragedy occurred here!” above all else.
The difference between radical activism and simplistic charity is similar to Geralt’s process. In order to make anything better, Geralt, and effective activists, have to uncover the root of the problem. There is a core historical crime that has to be understood and resolved for any progress to be made. The fact that an aristocrat murdered an entire village of his people has to be revealed in order for that village’s well to be made usable. (It’s metaphorically comparable to someone arguing that homelessness isn’t fought merely by giving money to homeless shelters, but instead by addressing the root causes of homelessness.) And like all truly great fantasy, The Witcher 3 uses metaphor as a driving force of its storytelling.
This is a consistent thread throughout the entire game. It occurs both at the micro level -- where many quests and monster contracts go through exactly this process -- and at the macro level, especially in the game’s two expansions. In both Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine, a crime or curse drives the entire narrative, and Geralt must slowly bring it to light.
Now, this may sound like it’s how quests are normally designed in game, but it’s not necessarily. The Witcher 2, for example, operates within the same kind of dark fantasy setting, but it has an early quest that illustrates a completely different model. Early in the game, Geralt meets a group of soldiers threatening and deriding an elf woman, Malena. Elves are an oppressed race in the world of The Witcher, and the soldiers are attacking her in explicitly racist and sexist terms. Malena is accused of leading soldiers into ambushes led by elven guerillas, but she swears she’s innocent.
In the course of the quest, Geralt investigates her claims and discovers that the soldiers are right: she has been leading them into ambushes. If she’s given the chance to explain herself, she leads the humans into an ambush. That’s it. There’s no twist, no explanation, nothing that makes the quest anything but straightforward. In the meantime, it both justifies the soldiers’ nastiness and commits to the trope of the deceitful women.
So here’s the key difference between the two examples: The Witcher 3 is concerned with making all of its characters understandable. It is fundamentally humanistic, giving solid motivations to as many characters as it can. The monsters are not merely monsters; they serve as metaphors for the viciousness and foolishness of humanity. In another monster contract, the wraith is a woman murdered by a man she didn’t love in return. As you progress through the game, they grow more complex: a late-game contract has a collection of monsters capture Geralt, and turn the tables, demanding truth and explanation for how he treats them -- the metaphors for oppression become oppressed beings in their own right!
Now, this is still a modern cinematic RPG, filled with “moral choice” of deciding whether to help the true murderer, or leave stones unturned, even if it leads to future death. But The Witcher 3 subtly encourages players to do the right thing, to uncover the truth and act on it. Why? Because it’s more interesting. It’s better writing and quest progression to give these quests both depth and humanity . Even if you’re making the choices coded as “evil” like letting murderers get away with their crimes, the nominal villains usually comprehensible reasons for their actions enough to give Geralt plausible ethical deniability.
What’s more, choosing not to uncover the truth is fundamentally unsatisfying. The writing in the game is generally so good you’ll clearly realize when things have gone wrong, but occasionally you can see the cracks, and they’re revealing. In one quest in Heart of Stone, Geralt is supposed to find a herbalist’s missing apprentice. If you don’t investigate quite enough before talking to the people who actually know, Geralt takes their lies as truths, and the quest just peters out--so it feels like it’s broken, as opposed to an actual legitimate choice that you, the player, made. There are hundreds of quests in The Witcher 3 and this kind of failure is shockingly rare -- but it reveals what would have happened had CD Project Red not committed to telling interesting stories at every possible level.
But for those stories to be interesting, the player -- and player character -- would have to be able to follow through. And they do, because Geralt and The Witcher 3 are built around the social justice concept of “listen and believe.” Every time Geralt meets a person who wants something, he has the opportunity to listen to them, and believe them. They might be lying or obfuscating or telling the literal truth, but they all have a story -- and that story forms the core of what happens next.
Because Geralt, the titular witcher, isn’t limited to listening and believing. As a witcher -- a mutant with superhuman abilities, controlled by a player with, ah, the ability to reload save games, Geralt can actually act to solve these problems. It’s a fantasy, of course, making the world a better place by resolving its problems with a pair of swords on one’s back. But it’s a fantasy based on The Witcher doing the right thing by committing to social justice. And that fantasy has made one of the best role-playing games of the generation.