This month is Romance Month! All of our articles in April deal with romance or relationships (or both!) in games.
In many respects, The Witcher is an excellent game. I got hooked on the story almost as soon as I started playing, and I found the combat system tactical and challenging, especially on Hard difficulty. But I wasn’t far into the story when it became clear that The Witcher was going to be a guilty pleasure. This realization came when I had my first romantic encounter.
Now I’m not opposed to the inclusion of romance and sex. On the contrary: as one of the most important aspects of human life, I think romance is actually under-represented in games (Rob Gallagher’s article unfortunately behind a paywall). As such, the first time a romance option came up, I welcomed the more adult content. However, examining the implementation of sex in The Witcher reveals that it is anything but “adult.”
The first romance scene occurs between the protagonist, the titular witcher Geralt of Rivia, and a sorceress named Triss Merigold. When Triss is injured in combat with a mage, Geralt must find certain herbs to make a concoction to heal her. Upon doing so, and after a short rest, Triss is feeling well enough to want to get frisky with Geralt. Pursue the correct dialogue choices, and the two of them get intimate, safely away from the camera. And you get a card, with a half-naked Triss on display! This scene is obviously problematic, but it is also one of the most disappointing in the game because Triss is actually quite a strong female character. She is a very powerful sorceress, and she’s also an openly sexual woman. Many of the NPCs even comment disparagingly on her revealing attire, calling her a “slut,” while others claim that she is “not a real woman” because she is unable to have children. Triss brushes these criticisms aside, unwilling to let others determine for her what it means to be a woman. And while her character design is certainly buxom, we shouldn’t take this as something that disempowers her, lest we parrot the NPCs in trying to say what a woman should look like. Given her characterization, Triss is not the damsel in distress which we see so often in videogames. That’s what makes the romance scene so disappointing: in order to set the scene, the writers decided to strip her of all her power, and make her the damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued. Far from the powerful woman she seemed, Triss is shown as no match for her male adversary, and must be rescued and taken care of by men. But after the sex scene, she goes back to being a hardcore sorceress, refusing to live up to the ideals of others. It seems that she was temporarily disempowered just so she could be, for a brief time, that ideal woman in need of saving, so that she could be seduced by our strong male protagonist.
If this were the only problem with The Witcher’s depiction of romance, I might be inclined to overlook it, since there are many examples of negative representations of women in games. But The Witcher is so adamantly sexual that its sexism doesn’t stop with Triss. You see, Geralt isn’t a one woman type of guy. Over the course of the game, he can seduce over twenty female NPCs, some of whom he barely talks to, and most of whom he never encounters again. Many of them follow the damsel in distress pattern. For example, the second woman Geralt can seduce, Vesna Hood, must first be rescued from rapists, and then plied with wine. Others must be won over by purchasing the correct type of flowers or jewelry. Then there are the prostitutes, who can simply be purchased. In the game, then, not only is Geralt a womanizer, but the women he seduces are either disempowered victims, or goods to be bought or exchanged for. In either case, women are passive objects in contrast to the active male protagonist. And while Triss at times breaks this mold of passive femininity, it is telling that when it is time for her to be a sexual object, she immediately becomes passive or must be given jewelry (Triss Merigold can be seduced twice over the course of the game).
This portrayal of romance can be understood as an attempt to “gamify” sexual relationships. In order to get sex from female NPCs, the player must do something: fight enemies, get a special item, or choose the correct dialogue options. This approach to relationships in games, however, is extremely problematic. As Alex Raymond argues, drawing on Thomas Macaulay Millar, games which have these types of romance mechanics propagate a “commodity model” of sex: “sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it. Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction.” This model of sex (as opposed to a “performance model”) is thoroughly dehumanizing, as all women are valued for are their bodies, and their ability to give their bodies away. Men by contrast have much more freedom, being able to “exchange” a wide variety of “commodities” (time, goods, socio-economic status, etc.) to get what they want.
The Witcher not only adopts this commodity model but extends it in the reward structure for successful seductions. I am referring here to the “romance cards”: playing card style images which are earned from successful seductions, and which can be viewed at any time by the player. Aside from literally objectifying women, these cards play into the gamification of sex: undertake a challenge, overcome obstacles, and earn a reward which can be looked back on as testament to the player’s success, just like the now ubiquitous “achievements.” These cards offer themselves quite easily to analyses of the “male gaze,” with female characters made entirely passive objects for the assumed male audience to examine at their leisure, providing scopophilic pleasure. Instead, however, I would like to look at how the gamification of sex encourages the player to adopt a misogynist attitude when playing The Witcher.
Up to this point, I have omitted a very important fact about The Witcher: you aren’t forced to sleep with every NPC you see. I don’t know if you can finish the game without having sex with anyone (I’ve looked online, and I haven’t found evidence of anyone doing this), but you certainly don’t have to be a complete womanizer. However, as Rob Gallagher argues in his essay “No Sex Please, We are Finite State Machines,” sex in games often functions “less as a motivation in itself than as a particular way of signifying or acknowledging players’ achievements” (407). It’s not that all players necessarily want to see digital pornography, especially since, as Gallagher points out, there are many sources of better quality pornographic images readily available. Rather, the player tries to seduce NPCs in order to get the reward, which happens to be an erotic scene and a sex card. The real problem is that the completionist mentality (unlock all the achievements, do every side quest, explore every nook and cranny of the map) that is encouraged by the effort/reward structure of videogames compels the player to make the avatar behave like a misogynistic womanizer. The player, in turn, is encouraged to mimic this misogyny by being provided with erotic images of Geralt’s conquests. Combined with the dreadful heteronormative slant of the game (there is never any hint of same-sex relations), the paradigm of sex presented in the game is very problematic. But it’s a paradigm that, because of the way it is incorporated into established videogame structures, the player is driven to adopt.
Perhaps the most interesting, if very tentative, defense of The Witcher’s representation of sex is that made by Justin Keverne. In his short essay on The Witcher, he proposes that, “if we want mature games in the truest sense of the word then at some point they will need to engage with themes of prejudice and intolerance. … [S]uch games will need to feature characters who are sexist, racist or otherwise prejudiced and offensive. … With such a protagonist we will need to make use of game mechanics that portray that character’s inherent intolerance and communicate it to the player.” This is an excellent point: in being compelled to adopt the sexism of Geralt by things like the romance cards, the player may come to better understand his mentality, what it means, and why it is problematic. Literature is not short of examples where the reader is asked to adopt the perspective of an unsavory protagonist, Lolita by Nabokov being perhaps the most famous example. The problem in The Witcher however is that at no point does Geralt ever get reprimanded for his attitude. At one point a female NPC gets angry at him, but this has more to do with not entrusting her with an orphaned child than with his womanizing behaviour. Even after he basically proposes to one of his love interests, he is free to sleep with whomever he likes and no one says anything. You would think that the woman to whom he has committed himself might get a little unhappy when he sleeps with, well, anyone he can. But the women remain silent, and so, yet again, Geralt is free to do what he likes, while the women are passively permissive.
For all the reasons I have discussed, The Witcher is to me the epitome of the gamification of a misogynist perspective. And that’s too bad, because aside from romance, there’s lots to love in The Witcher. The narrative is compelling, and takes a nuanced stance on racial issues (despite the absence of non-Caucasian characters), exploring issues of abjection and othering. The gameplay is challenging and tactical. The setting and characters are intriguing. In taking an all too simple and problematic approach to adult relationships, The Witcher sells itself short, and The Witcher 2 does little to improve on the formula. This game series deserves better. Developer CD Projekt’s marketing director recently said in an interview with Gamespot that romance in The Witcher 3 isn’t going to be implemented in “a Pokemon way, like ‘collect them all,’” which seems like a clear reference to the first game. So maybe, hopefully, in the third installment, we’ll get the love stories this game deserves. And I can finally play as Geralt of Rivia without feeling guilty about it.