I promise this will get to the Witcher 3 eventually, but first…
For six months I worked as a wedding caterer. I attended two or three weddings per week to set tables, serve drinks, deliver hordervs, etc. It wasn’t a bad job as far as basic service industry work goes, certainly better paying than working at MacDonald’s, and more exciting on a day-to-day basis than waiting tables at a restaurant.
But the most interesting aspect about that job was the weird disconnect between the customers and the staff. For the people we served, it was always one of the most important days in their lives. It was a celebration of a multi-year relationship which would hopefully last indefinitely. It was the end of a process that took six months or longer to set up, cost tens of thousands of dollars, and involved hundreds of planners. The events themselves would be attended by between 150 and 200 friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and fortunate acquaintances. The end result was a day of extreme emotion. Elation for the bride and groom if it all went well, devastation if it didn’t. Bittersweet sentiments for the parents who witness the final dissipation of the illusion that their child isn’t an independent person. Joy for the guests who share in the revelry of dancing, cavorting, and drunkenness.
And yet for the staff… it was always just another day on the job.
Prior to starting to work there I had been to three weddings; now I’ve been to almost 50. Maybe that’s not a lot by the standards of an industry professional, but it’s still more than 99.9% of the population. I’ve seen good weddings and bad weddings. Happy brides and grooms and miserable ones. Hilarious toasts and boring ones. Aesthetically pleasing decorations and Dr. Seuss monstrosities. Gorgeous couples, ugly couples, mismatched couples, gay couples, a lesbian couple, and de facto trophy wives. I’ve seen Joyful drunks, grumpy drunks, funny drunks, mean drunks, drunk staff members who shouldn’t have been drunk, drunk bosses who really, really shouldn’t have been drunk, harassing drunks, and vomiting drunks.
I still get that weddings are fun. I can still see the energy and recognize the heightened emotions in the room, but the luster of it is gone for me. I have trouble distinguishing them from any other large party with annoying ceremonies attached. What is one of the single most important events in a person’s life was just another day on the job for me. I don’t know exactly what to make of that, it was just a strange feeling I had throughout my six month tenure on the event staff.
Imagine my surprise when I got about ten hours into the Witcher 3 and was hit by deja vu. Though Geralt the Witcher was a professional monster hunter, and not in fact a wedding caterer, he seemed to experience the same disconnect that I felt when dealing with customers.
By the time the Witcher 3 starts, protagonist Geralt has been a witcher for decades. He’s seen every type of monster imaginable in the world and knows how to dissect each one to extract the right fluids to concoct an oil with which he can coat his silver blade to kill more monsters. He has massive scars all over his body, including his face, from hundreds of dire fights with eldritch monstrosities which could kill a lesser man without a thought. Geralt knows how to be a witcher.
Throughout the game, Geralt consistently strolls into a random village in the middle of nowhere, checks the local bulletin board, and takes notice of potential witcher contracts. They could be anything involving monsters. Maybe some poor woman was recently widowed by drowners, or a distraught bride killed herself and became a noonwraith which haunts the local granary, or some unfortunate entrepreneur can’t send workers into his new mine because it turned out to be a fiend shelter. Whatever it is, Geralt takes the notice and pays the poster a visit.
For the vast majority of Geralt’s employers, this is without a doubt one of the most significant events in their lives. Whether they just lost loved ones or friends, or their property is haunted, or they just want to get rid of the random local monster prowling about, they are hiring a witcher! Witchers are the stuff of legends. They are bad ass career monster hunters who have undergone literal genetic mutation to make them more beastly (they have cat eyes and supernatural senses) to fight their foes. Children are told bed time stories about witchers slaying griffons. Kings, merchants, and peasants alike rely on them for what no other man can accomplish. And let’s not forget that witchers have a certain reputation with the ladies… let’s just say that witcher’s are considered incredibly cool, have amazing adventure stories to tell, are in good physical shape, chronically move from town to town, and are infertile.
And here one is! At a peasant’s pathetic mud hovel in a random 40-person village in the middle of nowhere!
When Geralt walks up to this peasant he knows that he won’t hear anything he hasn’t heard before. But for the peasant, it’s a chance to talk about one of the most significant events in his or her entire life. It could be a wide eyed rant about a creature seen briefly on a foggy night. It could be a heart-breaking account of a loved one’s last moments. It could be a pissed off merchant lamenting his misfortune. Etc.
I absolutely love the way the Witcher 3’s writers handled this. It really is one of the most brilliant aspects of a great game. Geralt’s responses subtly differentiate with every customer, but no matter what he says, it comes from a place of…normalcy. Sometimes even weariness or monotony. Geralt may truly feel for the grieving widow, but he has heard the teary calls for help from hundreds of grieving widows. So the best he can do is lower his voice, muster some sympathetic platitudes (“I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’ll avenge his death,” etc.) before going out to kill his thousandth grave hag.
Then there are the ignoramuses. It’s not some random fisherman’s fault he hasn’t been trained to tell the difference between a dragon and a forktail, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying for Geralt to explain it. Sometimes Geralt rolls his eyes when he hears an obviously exaggerated story, other times he musters some composure and politely explains why the monster couldn’t have been big enough to be a dragon, so it was probably a forktail.
I never actually had to deal with it personally, but I imagine this isn’t too dissimilar from what every wedding planner ever goes through on a daily basis. What’s the difference between a merlot and a cabernet? Which one is sweeter? Why can’t the staff stay until 2AM? What if we have stragglers? How do you not know if it will rain between 3PM and 11PM on a single day six months from now? What do you mean the flower guy won’t throw rose pedals in my path for 8 hours straight?
What pisses Geralt off the most are the superstitious types. Again, Geralt is a lifelong professional witcher who has traveled throughout the known world and battled every creature imaginable. Often these beasts are literally the stuff of legends, and thus Geralt has extensively researched the various myths and tales present in each region. He’s probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject, aside from professional scholars and witches (different from witchers). He knows when a local boogie man is really just an errant lecher, or if the mythical deity in the woods that the locals keep sacrificing their children to in exchange for blessings is actually just a bunch of conniving cannibal crones.
So when some haggard wheat farmer with three teeth tries to tell Geralt what the lurking terror in the woods really is, Geralt doesn’t always take it well. Sometimes he lets the offender off with an eye roll and a sarcastic comment. Other times Geralt will resort to insulting local culture and religion like some cosmopolitan snob. Geralt understands where these people are coming from, but it’s the pretention that gets to him. In his travels he’s seen an endless parade of local customs, some beneficial, some harmful, but all equally unaware of how arbitrary they are. He tolerates these local customs as a crucial component of his profession, but that doesn’t mean he has to respect them.
When I see Geralt in this position, I’m brought back to listening to an annoying bridesmaid complain to the kitchen staff that one of the 175 guests at this wedding is gluten-intolerant and can’t eat the 2nd course spaghetti (even though the head chef insists he was never informed of this problem). To the bridesmaid this is a cataclysmic event with potentially devastating effects on the evening (especially if the chefs couldn’t muster a Caesar salad in the next five minutes). To me, and everyone else who had already worked two weddings this weekend and was equally unperturbed by a nearly identical complaint lodged against us last week, a single wedding guest missing out on a single course was not a big deal. It was boring. It was just another day on the job.
Perhaps Geralt’s personality struck a particular cord with me, but his whole attitude while witchering is a fantastic bit of writing to me. Nobody ever explicitly states why Geralt acts the way he does, but his attitude permeates every one of the dozens of witcher contracts throughout the Witcher 3. It demonstrates a remarkable attention to detail and behavior on the writers’ part. How easy would it have been to just make Geralt a casually swaggering bad ass who didn’t care about the people he was hired to help, rather than make him a man who does care but has ultimately seen too much in his long life to be particularly distraught over any single tragedy? Or alternatively, why not just make Geralt a complete blank slate like Commander Shepard or even Skyrim’s Dragon Born?
The Witcher 3’s writers made Geralt the way he is simply because they are damn good at their job and understand proper motivation. It’s easy to see why a game needs a fleshed out, engaging protagonist to keep the player connected with the main quest line, but it is far more difficult to build an interesting motivation for the dozens of random side quests in a major Western RPG. Hell, Bioware seems to have figured out how to brute force their way through the first problem by building interesting secondary characters around the blank slate protagonist, but the Witcher 3 doesn’t have the luxury of always available companions (partially because the game’s supporting characters are so well written that they have actual motivations and lives, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to go monster hunting in a creepy swamp with Geralt for pocket change).
When it comes to side quests, not Bioware, Bethesda, Ubisoft, nor any other Western RPG company I can think of has thought of a compelling way to get protagonists to stop their journey to save the world to help a few peasants with their comparatively petty problems… until CD Projekt RED.
Geralt helps random peasants in the Witcher 3 because it’s his job. That alone is sufficient motivation for Geralt to do side quests, but it isn’t sufficient for the player. There needs to be more to gain than watching a guy do an admittedly cool job. Money and experience points help, but most players end up drowning in both in WRPGs before long. There needs to be an extra layer to entice the player, whether narratively or mechanically.
I think Geralt’s personality is that extra layer. By his own admission he is not an emotional guy, but he has a consistent and subtle personality that really shines in the witcher contracts. He has a unique perspective on the world which tends to clash with just about everyone around him, yet his job depends upon travelling the lands and helping people with often deeply emotional concerns. As I said before, nearly every other game would have let such a fascinating clash go by, but the Witcher 3 holds itself to higher standards.
Of course Geralt’s personality goes beyond the strange comparison to working at weddings I discussed at the beginning of this piece, but I wanted to start there because that’s what really drew me into Geralt in the first place. I felt a connection between what I felt when I greeted a wide-smiling bridesmaid at the door of the event space before a night she would not forget (or potentially not remember), and how Geralt appears to feel when he listens to a wide-eyed villager describe the way his friends were ambushed and killed by a pack of ghouls.
What other video game can do that?