Hindsight is a powerful tool. Often our lives can feel chaotic and random, but in reality we are an amalgamation of our past experiences. Most of the things that happen to us in the present are built in the past, seeds planted by our previous selves that bloom into fruition at a later time. When we look backward, it is easier to see a clear path from then to now. Sometimes you can trace multiple significant events back to a certain decision and see how that one choice had a major impact on your life. This can be a humbling experience when you realize how flippantly that decision was made; we don’t always recognize these direction-altering choices when we are making them.
When I graduated college and got married, I had trouble finding work. My degree is a double major in theater and English, and as it turns out there were not a lot of theater factories in the rural town where I went to college. As it happened my mother found a potential opportunity for me through her work. It wasn’t a full-time job, not even a part-time job – in fact the only thing separating it from a volunteer position was a stipend at the end of the program. Because it would require me to travel on a semi-regular basis the money wasn’t much of a help and of course it could interfere with any full-time positions I found locally. And my mother was not the director at a local theater or a publisher looking for a young editor; this position was completely unrelated to my field of expertise or my career goals. But ultimately, I shrugged my shoulders, said “why the heck not?” and took the position. Fast forward two years and that position which I accepted without much serious consideration opened the door for full-time work in a front line position for the agency where I am now a data supervisor. I had no idea back then that I was effectively interning for the agency where I would later begin my professional career.
Choices have major consequences for our lives, but those consequences are not immediately obvious for every decision that we make. Some choices affect us in subtle ways while others are the foundation for major shifts in our lives. Capturing the way that decisions impact real life is something that many video games try to accomplish, and The Witcher is no different in that regard. What sets it apart is the way in which it effectively recreates the nuanced dynamics of making a decision in real life. In this article we’ll examine the common techniques that many video games use to present you with significant choice, and then we’ll compare these situations with my experiences in The Witcher 3 so far.
MORAL BINARIES, MECHANIZED INCENTIVES
What are some examples of video games which give you as the player control over the choices of your character? Ones that jump to my mind are titles like inFamous, Dishonored, or the Knights of the Old Republic series. These games present their system of moral choice as a binary option. Good and evil, light and dark, low chaos or high chaos – while occasionally these games do offer nuance or a middle ground you are for the most part locked to two distinct paths. Every choice you make is framed within this binary, and there are powerful forces that influence those decisions before you ever make them.
Each of my examples use game mechanisms to give you an incentive to follow a particular course of action. In inFamous and in Star Wars, your character’s abilities are directly related to the path you choose. Making good decisions pushes you down a path that prioritizes defenses and healing, while making evil decisions unlocks abilities with greater destructive power or more debilitating side effects. When you make a choice that goes against your chosen moral alignment, you are punished by becoming less effective mechanically, losing meaningful bonuses or slowing down your progression of abilities. Dishonored uses a lighter touch but still attaches clear mechanical consequences to your choices – the more chaos you build, the more deadly weepers and pesky guards you’ll have to deal with when moving around the city.
This transitions nicely to my second point about how most video games handle their morality or choice systems: there is a clear right answer. Once again the subtlety varies from title to title. In Dishonored, for example, there are clear reasons why you might wish to take the high chaos or “evil” route; justifying murder is relatively simple when your targets are slavers, corrupt politicians, and vicious killers. But often in Star Wars particularly there really isn’t a great reason to make the evil choice. You’ll meet a beggar on the road and your options will be something like “give the beggar $5,” “ignore the beggar,” or “murder the beggar in cold blood in front of his whole family.” The games so want you to be good that the evil choices are ridiculous, with no understandable reason why you would engage with them. Often in the real world, decisions that we might observe and declare to be evil are still the clear result of a chain of events, and may even be motivated by that person’s own definition of goodness. I know many of the individuals who I would consider to be real-life examples of evil are still motivated by what they believe to be a moral imperative. But most games don’t dive this deep, and we get a caricature of evil at best.
HOW THE WITCHER IS DIFFERENT
(note that this section will have spoilers for various quests during the Velen arc of the game)
So we’ve seen examples of how a few other video games handle their systems of choices and consequences – what sets the Witcher apart? I think the first and most obvious difference you’ll be able to identify is that there is no clearly mechanized morality system to the game. You don’t get “goodness points” or “dark power” or any kind of obvious gameplay benefit from following a certain path all of the time. This gives you the freedom to choose differently in different situations, considering the specific context of each decision when you make it rather than always trying to angle for a particular path. This doesn’t mean that no choices in the game have mechanical outcomes, though. Instead, mechanical outcomes are natural consequences of your decision.
Here’s an example from my experience. Upon arriving in the region of Velen, I went to an inn to progress my main quest and while there was harassed by a few brutes operating under the banner of the Bloody Baron. I didn’t want the situation to escalate into a fight, but I also didn’t want to be forthcoming about my origins or intentions in the area. I tried to offer them drinks but the fact that I wouldn’t talk about my purpose pissed them off, and I ended up in a fight. After I killed the henchmen inside, the innkeeper warned me that there were more in the front and I needed to sneak out the back door. Trouble is, I got mixed up – I went out the wrong door and ended up fighting and killing even more of the baron’s men. This complete accident – this battle that I tried in the beginning to avoid – had consequences for me throughout the Bloody Baron questline because his soldiers were hostile to me for a significant amount of time. I didn’t get “evil points” for the whole world – there are some characters in the setting who would look at me as a hero for intervening against the baron’s soldiers – but my decision had clear mechanical consequences for a specific faction and complicated some of my later missions because of that.
One thing that games with a choice mechanism will do because the choices have a mechanical impact on your stats is make choices blatantly obvious. inFamous, as I remember, was particularly dramatic about it. When a choice comes up splashes of blue and red cover the screen. “Press X to save the schoolchildren, press triangle to set the school on fire,” something along those lines. Because making the wrong decision could literally affect your ability to fight or gain new skills, the game understandably wants you to know which decision leads to what kind of karmic shift. Witcher is able to avoid this and make moments of decision a little more subtle. Some choices will still feel big and important when you come upon them, but there have been some situations where I didn’t even recognize that I was making a choice until a later point.
In Velen, an allied character named Keira sends Geralt on a quest to investigate a curse that has befallen the people living near Fyke Island. Fyke Island holds a tower that belonged to a nobleman who kept on staff a scientist studying a deadly disease. When the tower was ransacked and destroyed, multiple ghosts formed as a result. One young woman died in a particularly horrible way, and her ghost begs you to put her to rest by giving her bones to her lover to bury. The situation seemed pretty straightforward and I didn’t think to question the woman’s motives. However, it turned out I should have been more suspicious. Infected and influenced by the terrible diseases being studied in the tower, the woman’s ghost had actually become a disease-carrying wraith called a pesta, and my actions allowed her to escape the confines of the tower and spread her disease across multiple nearby villages. At the time I was playing the game just like any other video game, following the questline without much consideration or additional investigation. This quest was a lesson in how even the smaller side quests in the game still led to choices which could have meaningful consequences for the setting – even if those consequences are less meaningful for the main storyline of Witcher 3.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the way that The Witcher handles choices and consequences is that your choices almost never have a clear “black and white” outcome. The Continent is a grey and messy place. People that you might be inclined to consider as bad people are not so cut and dry as that – or even if it is, you may have to work with those bad people anyway because of power dynamics or the fact that they have something you need. The decision to do something good for one person may inadvertently harm someone else. Even when you make a choice that you feel is the clear right answer in a given situation, the consequences of that right answer will probably make it feel wrong to someone in the setting.
One of the most significant choices you make during the Velen arc of Witcher 3 is a choice between two magical forces in opposition to one another. One is the Crones, ancient witches who impose their magical authority over the people living in a swamp called Crookback Bog. The other is a druidess trapped by the Crones whose ghost has used its powerful magic to turn nature against the humans who live near her resting place. The Crones have asked for the death of the druidess in return for information, but they are clearly evil beings with foul machinations in mind for a group of orphans living on their land. The druidess – while certainly suspect in her own right – offers to save those children when she strikes out against the Crones. Having zero trust for the Crones and always wanting to do what I can to protect children, I chose to side with the druidess. What I did not anticipate – what I could not know without playing the game beforehand or using a guide – was that saving the children meant the deaths of two other characters significant to the story of Velen, and a regime change that would potentially be bad news for the people living there.
As a video game, there is one aspect of decision-making in Witcher 3 that cannot be emulated in real life: the ability to reload an old save and do things differently. If you don’t like a choice, you can always go back and make a different choice at the pivotal moment in question (provided it wasn’t so long ago that you’ve now saved over it). This is something that I personally have made a choice not to do while playing through the game. I don’t want to spend my Witcher 3 experience reloading the game over and over, poking and prodding at the world for what I consider to be the “optimal route.” Because at the end of the day, based on my experiences so far I have to assume that there is no optimal route or right answer at any of the key decision points I have encountered. Each alternative choice would simply lead to a different set of consequences, and while those consequences may be ones that I like better in some cases, I want to experience the impact of the choices that I make in the moment.
Wild Hunt is a fantastic example of choice and consequences in video games. It takes the elements that make real life choices so meaningful – natural consequences, subtle moments with significant aftereffects, and no clear correct path – and uses them to create a unique experience for each player. My experience of Velen is one fraught with mistakes that portray Geralt not as a perfect hero but as a human person who has to live with the choices he made. For me, that makes his story all the more compelling.