Saturday 8 June 2019

The quest for Zireael

Ciri draws her sword Zireael for the first time
Over the past six weeks I've completed my second full run through of the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and I want to record my thoughts about it.

I set out with three main goals: to follow the 'Triss' path rather than the 'Yennefer' path; to rescue the Bloody Baron's wife, and generally explore that story more fully; and to win as many allies as possible for the battle at Kaer Morhen.

Regarding Triss versus Yennefer: these are the only two major love interests for Geralt in Witcher 3. In many ways they're similar: both sorceresses, both ambitious, both powerful politically, both manipulative, both prepared to use intimacy - and sex, although I'd like to draw a distinction here between the two - transactionally to achieve their objectives. And they're friends. In the previous Witcher games, Yennefer has not been present as a character, but in the novels, she is clearly Geralt's primary (but not exclusive) sexual partner, and it was mainly for that reason that I followed her path on my first run through. By the end of it I was pretty confident that this was a mistake, and, having now played through the Triss path, I more than ever satisfied that she is the better of the two choices.

Yennefer is more powerful and more glamorous, but has much more ambiguous morality. She willingly uses necromancy, and is unashamed at destroying treasured and ancient religious sites to draw power for her magical workings. I can think of no occasions either in the novels or in the books where Yennefer behaves in a way that is unambiguously generous. Even her care for Geralt's stepdaughter Ciri is at least plausibly an attempt to gain influence over Ciri's very substantial power.  By contrast, Triss refuses to use necromancy, and doesn't destroy other people's artifacts in the use of her power (that I can remember); she behaves with genuine generosity at least some of the time, including towards people there's no reasonable reason to expect will ever be able to repay it.

But both in the novels and in the games, there's a third choice of someone who seems better (and a better fit for Geralt's character, at least as I interpret it) than either, and that's Shani. Shani is not a sorceress, and not powerful. Instead she's a doctor of medicine, highly altruistic, extremely brave, tolerant of and generous to everyone. But in the Witcher 3 she appears only as a bit part - a potential casual shag - in the Hearts of Stone extension. That seems to me a waste of a good character, frankly, who could have made the main plot much more interesting and thus thrown light on the characters of the other two.

Whatever: when your choice is Yennefer or Triss, Triss is the warmer, the more supportive, the more caring, possibly the more sensual; although arguably Yennefer is the more glamourous, more challenging, the more exciting, the more acerbic, possibly the more sexual. My choice is Triss. I think it's the better choice.

The Bloody Baron is probably the most developed and the most narratively interesting side-quest in The Witcher 3. In my previous play through I had left his wife living with the witches in the bog, clearly mad, but caring for the children and having, it seemed to me, some quality of life. I took the view that while it wasn't a good situation, it was better than the other available alternatives. This run through, I decided to try to see whether I could reconcile the Baron with his wife, and I sort-of succeeded. The Baron and his wife (and to my great surprise, also his daughter) were reconciled after the crones were defeated; however, it didn't end well. Because I had released the spirit of the forest, Anna was cursed, and died. The Baron later killed himself. There is apparently at least one more, and significantly better, ending to this story, but I haven't found it yet.

As I said above, I set out to recruit as many allies as possible for the fight at Kaer Morhen. The Nilfgardian cavalry didn't actually appear, but had been despatched; otherwise, I had Keira Metz, Hjalmar an Craite, Ermion the druid, Letho the Kingslayer, both Triss and Yennefer, Zoltan Chivay (of course), and Vernon Roche and Ves. What I hadn't thought through was that there were bound to be very considerable tensions in that group, notably between the Kingslayer and the Temerian resistance - that was an interesting touch, and shows how carefully thought through the whole game is!

A pleasing moment was that, after the battle, Keira (who in my previous run through had been burned at the stake in Novigrad as a heretic), went off with the witcher Lambert on a quest, and we later hear that they'd married. While I hadn't previously felt particularly responsible for Keira's death, this definitely seems a better ending (for both characters).

However, related to that was one of my unexpected failures in this run: I didn't get into the narrative sequence in which Radovid is killed, and I didn't succeed in suppressing the religious intolerance in Novigrad; consequently, when Nilfgard was essentially defeated (which I had been intending), the Redanian army swept into Velen with their witch hunters and wreaked even worse desolation than I remember from before.

Whether there's any relatively 'good' geopolitical ending to the story I doubt: Nilfgard winning (as in my first run through) and Redania winning (as in this one) are both pretty appalling, but if there's a way - I don't know whether there is, and I don't want to be told because I shall make another attempt some day - of defeating both Redania and Nilgard, then I suspect that Velen, Temeria and probably Redania as well would become a seething mass of competing robber barons and warlords, with conditions for the peasantry as bad as ever.

It occurs to me that I have not explored what would happen if one encouraged Ciri to reconcile with her father, and thus possibly become empress; this might make for a better ending, geopolitically, for the world as a whole, perhaps; but it doesn't seem to me that it would be a better ending for Ciri.

I have to say here that from the point of the Battle of Kaer Morhen on, the whole story was radically different from what I remember from my previous playthrough - and I saw the beginnings of (but didn't complete) still further loops in the plot which it would be really interesting to explore some day. There is quite extraordinary richness in this storytelling.

I don't know whether there's any narrative link between the choice between Triss and Yennefer (of course you don't have to choose; you could play as a chaste witcher and bed neither) and the choice between Redania and Nilfgard. And, as I say, in this run through I didn't in any sense side with Redania - I didn't avoid the quests which would lead into the area of the story where that choice would be made, but that wasn't because I was consciously avoiding it.

On Skellige, I sided with Cerys an Craite, as I had before. To my mind, she is just a much better candidate for the throne than her brother. Consequently, I still haven't seen how, if at all, choosing Hjalmar would alter the story.

At each point where I had an opportunity to influence Ciri's choices, I chose to support her in making her own choice. That, I think, is similar to what I did before; it feels natural to me, and it also feels to me to be what Geralt would naturally do. But in the ending, Ciri went into the locked tower to bring an end to the white frost, something I don't remember from my previous run through, and in that scene I saw her recall all the times in the story when I'd taken her side and backed her up. That seemed to me extraordinarily poignant and positive, and very sensitively done. Bravo! Afterwards, when I told her father that she was dead, I genuinely believed it was so, genuinely mourned it, and genuinely wondered what misstep I'd taken; so the very end, where I was reunited with her and gave her her witcher's sword (something which definitely didn't happen on the last run) was a wonderful surprise.

To criticise - for no work of art is perfect - as I've written before many times before, the poverty of repertoire of the characters is, to me, very disappointing, and it does not seem impossible given the current state of the art that they could be given far greater depth of narrative. Whether that would take you into an uncanny valley I don't know, but I would like to see it tried.

The other major criticism I have is that - given that I play for story, not 'to win' - the big set piece fights really don't work for me. They are, for me, just boring. I'd much rather see the climax of the story through interaction with characters than just by great slash fests.

However, these are details; and they're details from the point of view of my personal taste.

So, once again: The Witcher games collectively, but especially The Witcher 3, are quite extraordinary works of cultural achievement, story tale on an epic scale which I don't believe is surpassed anywhere in any medium. If you have not experienced it, you have missed yourself.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License