Morals and Choice in The Witcher (which old witch, the wicked witch)

I remember, when I was a kid, arguing with a friend about whether Fable or Knights of the Old Republic was better. He didn’t like the turn-based combat of KOTOR, and I didn’t like the morality system in Fable. Left-click to be good, right-click to be bad? Fuck off. Those of you who know those games will be smiling at the ignorance of my younger self – after all, KOTOR is just as binary as Fable (although I maintain that it’s less tacky about it). The interest in morality has stayed with me through to today, where I’m still thinking about different moral choice systems in video games. One of the most recent to come to my attention is that of The Witcher. I’m a bit late to the party here, considering that the original Witcher game came out nearly ten years ago, but let’s do it over anyway.

So there’s two basic things to say about The Witcher‘s morality system. Firstly, there’s no explicitly ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices. I think it’s fair to say that none of your choices are harmless, and none of your choices are entirely unreasonable. The second thing to note is that you don’t necessarily always know what the consequences of your action will be. Sometimes you have an inkling, but you won’t know the particulars. Those are both interesting points, and we’ll delve into each of them in turn. Oh – I’m mostly going off the first Witcher here, because it’s the only one I’ve played entirely through. I’m playing the second one at the moment – I was inspired by all the hype around the release of the third. I’d never played any of them before – it’s great watching the jump in technology between 1 and 2. Anyway…

So there’s two ways to look at the motivation for moral choice systems. The first is from a branching storylines angle, and the second is from a moral simulation-y angle. In the branching storylines angle, the idea is that games are about choice, and you should be able to make choices that really impact what’s going on. In the moral simulation angle, the idea is still that games are about choice, but you should be able to make decisions that have a moral weight. In both of these examples, there’s the general understanding that games are about choice. This is the whole point of competition – if you’re competing, if you’re winning or losing, it’s your decisions that affect that. Obviously your choices carry a great deal of ludic importance in chess or hockey, for example. Both of these motivations, therefore, revolve around the desire to feed the ludic importance of choice into a narrative importance, so that your actions affect the narrative as well as the game.

Stemming from that desire, we end up with something like the binary moral systems of KOTOR and Fable. They’ve often been described as extreme systems, where the ‘moral choice’ consists of whether to be Mother Teresa or Hitler. The Witcher gets one-up on that over-simplified binary by making morality a bit messier. It removes the strict good/bad format, and gives you two situations, both with strong moral imperatives behind them. In the first game (and I suspect in the other two too), you’ve got widespread racism against non-humans, who are shuttled into ghettos and generally treated as inferior by the government and the people. So on the one hand, there’s clear mistreatment of non-humans. However, in response to this mistreatment, some non-humans have branched out into terrorism, calling themselves the Scoia’tael. There’s a fascinating question as to whether they’re freedom fighters or terrorists. What’s obvious is that there’s no immediately ‘morally good’ answer – there’s two groups of people going about things in less-than-ideal ways. Innocents are being killed on both sides – early in The Witcher 2, for example, a small town riots and strings up all the local non-humans in a fit of rage against the latest Scoia’tael attacks.

As a player, then, your job is to make the best of a bad situation. Part of the difficulty lies in exercising moral judgement in morally compromised situations, and part of the difficulty lies in the fact that you don’t know what’s coming as a result. In a game like KOTOR, I would say that most of the decisions are pretty transparent. For the most part, they’re self-contained actions that rarely have any impact on the narrative outside that particular isolated narrative bubble. There are a couple of exceptions – if you kill the Firaxin shark on Manaan, for example, you’ll probably be permanently banned from Manaan – but these exceptions are few and far between. For the most part, there are minor actions with minor consequences that don’t really pass outside the room you’re in at the time. By contrast, The Witcher has you make moral decisions and dumps unexpected consequences on you a chapter and a half later. For example: after I protected some crates for a merchant, Scoia’tael came out of the bushes and claimed that the merchant had sold them the weapons and medicine in the crates. I give them the weapons, because it’s none of my business, and then in the next chapter the guy I’m meant to contact winds up dead with a Scoia’tael arrow sticking out of his face. Was that my fault? Probably. Apparently he was rough on the non-humans or something.

From the perspective of simulating morality, it’s good that you don’t necessarily see the immediate consequences of your actions. Life is complicated, and having moral actions ripple throughout the whole narrative instead of through little isolated bubbles is really satisfying. It makes the world feel interconnected, like everything’s a part of everything else. I reckon The Witcher does morality better than KOTOR or Fable, but I also reckon it’s got some issues too. As a medium, I don’t think we’re there yet. Definite step forward, but that step really only serves to illustrate the deeper, more fundamental questions about choice and morality in video games that are yet to be resolved. More about that next week.

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