Opinion: Moral Choice And The Witcher 2 – Nobody Does It Better
Warning: Major Spoilers Below
The other day I finally got around to completing the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher 2, and it’s fair to say that the complex RPG proved to be a memorable gaming experience for all manner of reasons – not least the sheer audacity of its eye-widening violence and air-colouring profanity.
However, above and beyond its joyously decadent gameworld, rich characterisation and compelling storyline, the thing that most impressed me about the title was its supreme handling of that enticing yet slippery modern RPG staple: the moral choice system.
In recent years we’ve become used to games asking us to make crucial decisions about what course of action to take or who to side with, as well as our character’s general approach to NPCs and the wider gameworld – in terms of both actions and words.
In theory, it’s a terrific idea that allows for widely diverse experiences within the same game, with both the decisions you make, and their consequences, shaping a vastly different playthrough and outcome.
In practice, however, moral choice is generally implemented quite poorly – or at least in an overly simplistic way. Frequently decisions will offer you two fairly binary choices between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, which is a painfully unrealistic and woefully obvious way to conduct proceedings.
Points-based moral systems are also open to manipulation or, at the other end of the scale, prove overly restrictive. For example, the karma system in Fallout 3 allows mass-murderers to become ‘good’ if they simply donate large enough sums of money to a church (how very medieval), while Mass Effect’s paragon/renegade dynamic encourages you to adopt either an approach of measured diplomacy, or a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude, for the entire series – even if different situations call for different tactics.
As for consequences, many games fail to adequately implement outcomes that seem balanced and reasonable. Fable III will actually brand you as the bad guy if you quite reasonably take tough decisions in order to save your kingdom from a terrible fate, while savvy gold savers can simply ‘buy’ the best ending. Even the mighty BioShock offers just as much of a reward incentive to save the Little Sisters as it does to destroy them, rendering the entire point of its moral system utterly moot (unless you genuinely wish to play as a complete, child-murdering psycho, that is).
The Witcher 2, on the other hand, masters moral choice in a way that allows you to judge each and every decision on its own relative merits. There is no points-based system, and the player does not have to choose between world-weary protagonist Geralt being an angel or a monster; a noble paragon or a reckless renegade. Instead, you navigate the various dilemmas in terms of their own specific complexities and context, attempting to balance very relative rights and wrongs that are far less clear than they would typically be in other games of this type. Indeed, when it comes to the game’s best quandaries, they are about as far away from your typical ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ scenario as it is possible to get.
The gameworld of The Witcher 2 is a thoroughly murky and gritty one, much more George RR Martin than JRR Tolkien. It is a world of extraordinary brutality, shameless corruption and simmering racial tensions; a world where the ambitious and ruthless hold the keys to power, and where even the noblest of individuals is forced to make harsh compromises in order to survive.
Moral choice in the game reflects this perfectly, with decisions that are fundamentally grey rather than black and white; generally framed in terms of personal feelings vs duty or, to put it another way, what you want to do, balanced against what you ought to do.
For example, if you adopt Temerian special forces bigwig Vernon Roche as your ally, the second chapter of the game gives you the option of allowing or averting regicide, which is the very thing you are meant to be preventing in the first place. The arrogant, merciless King Henselt viciously executes all but one of Roche’s friends and allies after a plot against him is uncovered (raping the sole survivor to boot), even though these soldiers were themselves innocent of the scheme in question. Naturally, Roche seeks bloody vengeance, and it is up to the player to allow him to strike down Henselt, or prevent him from doing so.
The trouble is, while Henselt may not be a particularly noble or pleasant ruler, he is a powerful and effective one, and eliminating him would have potentially dire consequences for all the Northern kingdoms, removing another strong opponent to the powerful Nilfgaardian Empire in the south, and potentially plunging the entire realm into chaos.
Having invested myself heavily in the game’s lore and backstory by this point (if the above names mean nothing to you – don’t worry, it takes a while), this gave me significant pause, and it proved a genuinely agonizing decision. I really wanted to let Roche exact vengeance on the despicable, unrepentant monarch, but I also understood that doing so would potentially do more harm than good. In the end, despising Henselt for his smug cruelty and boasts of invulnerability, I allowed emotional desire to take precedence and, as I looked on, Roche gutted Henselt like he were a bloated, bearded pig. Justice was enacted, but at what cost?
Later in the game I was faced with a similar dilemma of the personal vs the political when, at a pivotal diplomatic summit in the city of Loc Muinne, I apparently had to choose between saving Triss – the woman Geralt loves – or rescuing the last surviving child of the slain Temerian king Foltest: seemingly the last hope for securing a stable, united Temeria.
The gravity of this choice felt really quite significant, and I confess to being surprised at how unsure I was of which route to choose. In the end, after much deliberation, I elected to help Roche rescue the royal girl (after all, having already buggered up one kingdom for the sake of personal satisfaction, was I really going to let Geralt’s dick get in the way of saving an innocent child, and another realm?).
Now, on the face of it, you could argue that this crucial decision results in something of a cop-out, as replaying the final stretch taking a different path revealed that both Triss and the girl survive regardless of which action you take. However, what eclipses this revelation – and ultimately proves much more impressive – is how wildly divergent the wider consequences are for the separate choices.
Save Triss, and the despicable sorcerer Dethmold escapes, Roche and the princess become fugitives on the run, and disorder breaks out on the streets of Loc Muinne between rival factions. Rescue the girl with Roche however, and hand her over to King Radovid for protection, and not only does Temeria become a protectorate of Radovid’s realm and the girl his future bride (however creepy that may seem), but an appalling slaughter of mages then occurs on Radovid’s orders throughout Loc Muinne, with countless magic-users graphically cut down, strung up and – in a cut-scene that really made me wince – impaled on stakes.
It is both the difficulty of the decisions themselves, and the stark, somewhat unforeseen contrast of their outcomes, that really sees The Witcher 2 establish itself as the king of moral choice. In its posing of overwhelmingly complex, difficult dilemmas to mull over, and the realistic ‘butterfly effect’ by which decisions ultimately ripple out into the wider gameworld, the RPG gives you serious food for thought, and vividly confronts you with the stark consequences of your actions – whether they be for the better, or for the worse…