Reviewing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

It’s been said that, if being a video game protagonist were a disease, its most prominent symptom would be anmesia. The second-most-prominent would, of course, be kleptomania.

Video game heroes forget things in order to preordain otherwise nonsensical plot twists, and they steal things because the people who play games—or the people who have been playing lengthy RPGs for years or decades, in any case—tend to be the kind of people who need to collect or complete all the things. For that same reason, we could add a third symptom, namely an unhealthy preoccupation with solving other people’s sometimes-petty problems. Hence side quests.

And from that same love of tidiness and acquisition and metrics, we get an obsession with reviews. So in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am one of the 1,000 bloggers to whom CD Projekt RED magnanimously sent copies of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in exchange for nothing more than a thoughtful review.

I don’t usually write reviews per se, but a deal’s a deal, so here goes. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is more engaging, more ambitious, and more interesting than most other games of comparable genre and price. The visuals are nothing short of gorgeous, and the newly-released Xbox 360 version (which was the one I played, as was the deal) pushes the now seven-year-old console as far as I’ve ever seen it pushed. The combat and character-building focus on the intricacies on one particular class (withcers, in case that’s not clear) rather than swimming in the vast, generic soup of knights/warriors, mages/wizards, and thieves/rogues. Witchers are kind of all three, and also none of the above, and it works remarkably well.

Fair enough? Cool, fair enough.

Though while we’re at it, full disclosure-wise, I should note that I never did play the original Witcher, nor did I ever get around to reading the series of Polish novels on which it’s based. So I’m playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings as a double-amnesiac, compounding the gaps in Geralt of Rivia’s memory with significant, extradiagetic gaps in my own knowledge about the game’s fiction.

I’m sure that I’m missing innumerable little things—references to characters, places, and events of which I have no prior knowledge—but the overall effect is actually incredibly compelling. As I mentioned in my recent write-up of Dark Souls, I love hashing out a game’s meaning by diving head-first into its mysterious, and perhaps even inexplicable, imagined world.

So for starters, here’s what I’ve pieced together about witchers.

1. They’re mutant “warrior-monks” who live long (but definitively mortal) lives.

2. They hunt monsters for pay, using special silver swords that they carry alongside their standard steel ones.

3. They believe that the guilty must be punished and that the innocent must be protected.

4. They brew potions and cast magical signs, the latter running the gamut from shields to snares to Jedi mind tricks.

5. They’re incapable of reproducing sexually, but oh-so-capable of having super-sexy sex with sexy sorceresses.

Geralt suffers from a profound case of videogameprotagonitis. The mercenary monster-slaying aspect of his work lends itself well to his agreeing to solve people’s troubles, most of which seem, conveniently enough, to involve monsters. He labors throughout the franchise to regain his unsurprisingly spotty memory. And as for his kleptomania—well, there I’ll plead double-amnesia and say that, I don’t know, maybe witchers are culturally permitted to wander into people’s homes and places of business and take anything that isn’t nailed down? Or maybe the good people of Temeria are wont to leave out extra cups of iron ore, like winegalsses for Elijah, or something.

Also notable: The Witcher 2 features sex scenes that contain—I shit you not—actual sex-acts, a far cry from the sexless titillation of the first Mass Effect or, for that matter, the mostly-suggested action movie sex of the second Mass Effect. I wouldn’t call these sequences an unqualified success, and Geralt’s sexual itinerancy does have a potentially unseemly gotta-catch-em-all quality to it, but The Witcher‘s sexual encounters have some playfulness, some humor, and even some genuine tenderness. They’re a cut above, as game-sex goes.

When it’s not pausing to attempt sexiness or humor, the world of The Witcher is as dark and filthy and scorched as the Dragon Age games seemed to think they were. This is largely because The Witcher aims to make the player a participant, rather than a mere messianic tourist, in a fundamentally sick society. Dragon Age, for all its virtues, often drifts toward near-total ludo-narrative dissonance—why don’t Templars, who are tasked with hunting blood mages, care if I use blood magic right in front of them?— whereas The Witcher 2 does a remarkable job of putting the player in Geralt’s shoes. Activities that are eccentric or taboo in the narrative—from collecting herbs for potions to meditating in order to create and drink those potions—manage to feel eccentric and/or taboo during gameplay. I guess that I am indeed sort of a weirdo for stopping to pick flowers while being perused by giant crabworms, but don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

More than that, by applying intrinsically binary (or sometimes, tertiary) choices to truly intractable ethical situations, the game makes it mechanically necessary to think in terms of Geralt’s straightforward, Quixotically consistent moral code. And by denying the player any transparent metric for determining his or her moral efficacy (no Paragon/Renegade slider here), the game aims at a sort of Žižekian hysteria that more closely mirrors our relationship to real morality than to the game mechanics we usually call “morality.”

Half of doing the right thing is figuring out what the hell the right thing is, and the other half is living with the consequences of your choice. The Witcher 2 obscures the former, and introduces consequences long-term enough to discourage quick-saving, thereby complicating the latter. Do you side with the brutal, racist powers that be, or with the straight-up terrorists opposing them? To say that there’s no perfect answer would be a considerable understatement.

Both whichever choice you make, you can be certain that the consequences will be compelling, and that there will be strangely compulsive new errands to run and inventive new monsters to slay. Also, there will be more junk to pilfer from unsuspecting and uncomplaining peasants. And new potions to brew, and new swords to forge. It’s a world worth getting lost in, and that’s what counts.

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