The Witcher 3 is most fun I’ve had with a game in a long, long time. As one of our contributors George Ash noted, the game is expansive as hell, and the depth makes for an experience unlike any open-world game I’ve played — and I’ve played a ton of them.
But as Anita Sarkeesian and cohort Jonathan McIntosh pointed out May 31, there is a lot of insult-hurling in the game, particularly toward women. At one point, the main female character Ciri is told by a man that he’s only ever seen a woman “ride a cock proper” as a way to imply she can’t ride a horse. Profanities, expletives and vulgarities, typical to the time periods The Witcher mimics, are thrown around often. Some might consider the degradation overkill. Here’s a quick summary of Sarkeesian’s and McIntosh’s tweets, and Forbes writer Erik Kain had a thoughtful, dissenting take on the Twitter commentary as well.
Kain’s problem with the complaints boils down to not dodging social issues in games just because they offend people. That’s something I agree with. Racism, as Kain points out, is noticeable in The Witcher 3 as well, and it’s a large part of series such as Dragon Age and other games in medieval settings. These games subtly address misogyny and racism in modern culture. The overt insults put the player on his or her heels and put him or her in the place of the “other.” As Kain points out, this might inspire empathy — an ambitious argument on his part, but a worthwhile one. Our perceptions are affected deeply by being in another person’s shoes, and that can be true even within a digital landscape.
The insults aren’t an issue to me. They do put you in a place of discomfort, which is OK. That’s what art does. It displays a reality, and if you’re uncomfortable with that reality or relate to it, it’s fine. Either way, you learn something. The problem with The Witcher 3 is that there is no dichotomy between Ciri and the other women in the game and Geralt’s reactions to derision or conflict-oriented circumstances.
Put Geralt in a situation where he’s insulted. Put any male non-playable character you run into during The Witcher 3 in that situation. It’s a fight, no question, and there’s a whole lot of beheading.
CD Projekt RED likely did this by design. Differences in reaction add depth to characters, vary their personalities and create nuance. As Kain notes, these women aren’t damsels despite falling into a world that could be filled with tropes and ladies in need of rescuing by Geralt.
But if these women have power, why not use it? Again, as Kain says, Ciri is often overpowered in comparison to Geralt during her portions of the game. So why, then, does she just smirk when a man — a man who is eating the meat off a hunt she ran, by the way — suggests all she can do is “ride a cock proper”? Put Geralt in that situation. Put any male non-playable character you run into during The Witcher 3 in that situation. It’s a fight, no question, and there’s a whole lot of beheading.
Let’s go back to nuance. Perhaps Ciri refuses to lash out during these situations, despite the constant derision, because she knows the system and must work within it to achieve her aims. During the post-hunt scene, for example, she’s sitting around a boar roast with comrades of the man that insults her along with the baron of the castle where she’s resting. What happens if she attacks? There’s a complexity there, a decision she has to make, but as a player, you can’t choose to go the route of violence. Geralt, meanwhile, always offers an option to do some head-smashing if an NPC offends his sensibilities.
That’s the problem with The Witcher 3. The language fits with the frame of the time, and it does make the player pause and think of what those words mean. It puts the gamer on edge. It makes him or her uncomfortable. But when he or she is put in that situation, what’s next? Why does Ciri smile while Geralt unsheathes his sword?
We need to take some time to think about what that lack of dichotomy means within the game itself and in the larger social scope. If a woman must sit quietly and a man can blast whoever comes at him with a wave of fire, there’s a lack of nuance, a lack of equality in power. Ciri and Geralt, in different ways, are just as strong as each other. They should be able to share a breadth of reactions — violent or not — in order to enhance the playing experience and give both characters their due.