So this post is two months over due now, so let me first apologize for that. I wanted to kick this last part out a good week after part two, but between my day job and accurate research it has taken me longer to work on this final piece. The game I’m going to talk about in this post has seen its fair share of discussion when it comes to issues of sex and sexuality, so I wanted to make sure that I was thorough in my study.
And with that said, here we are! The third and final part of the “Writing with Equality” series. The last two parts of the series explored a film, an anime series, and a comic that are able to avoid utilizing the born sexy yesterday trope as well as other common scifi and fantasy tropes. To round us out, I’m going to examine a fantasy rpg that is able to transcend tropes like born sexy yesterday, yet also isn’t perfect in its execution either.
The Witcher 3
If there is any rpg story telling standard that will be looked to going forward, it’s The Witcher 3. The game is easily one of the best rpgs in years featuring a dense world full of fascinating characters and Slavic inspired lore. The game is primarily Geralt’s tale, but every significant NPC comes with great development and rich backstory.
Before I go further with praise, I would like to address that The Witcher 3 is not a perfect game (GASP! Say it ain’t so!!!). While the game presents a number of strong female characters, it still falls into a number of other gaming tropes such as sexualized character designs and a lack of relationship consequences.
Many of the women you encounter in The Witcher 3 are powerful and know how to hold their own; the main female characters being Triss, Yennefer, and Ciri. All of these characters are coupled with their own individual experiences, sense of maturity, and complexity. These traits make each character feel human and attractive in their own right, but that doesn’t stop the game designers from giving each of them very revealing costume designs.
So many open cut blouses… I had no idea they were such a trend in the medieval era. Seriously, is it really necessary? I think Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson says it best in his article, “The Complicated Women of The Witcher 3“:
Some of the game’s main women characters get interesting, well thought-out character arcs, others are glorified eye candy. Regardless, their outfits are often designed for lusty, probing eyes. The game wants you to undress characters like Yen and Triss and Keira in your mind long before Geralt ever does it with his hands.
This attention to attracting “lusty, probing eyes” is an unfortunate fault since it both sexually objectifies these characters and disrupts from their great moments of character development; Kiera Metz’s story line is a perfect example. These costume choices can boil down female characters, especially characters like Triss and Yennefer who you can form sexual relationships with, to which “hot sorceress do I want to sleep with more” instead of “how attracted am I to this person because of who the are.”
This ties into another issue with many large AAA titles that choose to allow a player the opportunity to develop intimate and sexual relationships with characters in the game world; many Bioware series immediately come to mind. From a story telling stand point, many games operate similarly to a choose-your-own adventure book; you make a certain action or dialogue choice when interacting with a particular character and the path shifts accordingly. Each romance-able character usually has two paths of dialogue choices and actions that either lead to you being friends or you being lovers. This makes sense from a story structure and management stand point since it helps to kept the story threads congruent and defined while also playing into the illusion of an “open-world” game; it allows players to feel like they are developing an organic relationship even though the pathways are predetermined.
There are limits though to this style of writing. For example, in The Witcher 3 Geralt can confess his love to either Yennefer or Triss, but then the player is still free to sleep with women at brothels and other romance-able women, like Shani, Sylvia Anna, and Madme Sasha, with no consequences or repercussions. In fact the only scripted relationship conflict regarding infidelity is if you try to romance both Yennefer and Triss. Trying to carry on relationships with both leading ladies leaves Geralt tied up in a hilarious and unfortunate situation. Outside of this there is no fear that Geralt will be caught getting a little action on the side. There are no dialogue options for Geralt to express guilt or admit that he had been with someone else during the course of the story. Depending on who you choose to fall for, Triss or Yennefer will just be waiting patiently for their one and only Geralt in Kaer Morhen following the last quest in their respective story lines; all the while unknowing that Geralt has been having more than monster-slaying fun.
Now I know that characters like Shani and Sylvia Anna are characters added in through the Heart of Stone and Blood & Wine DLC story lines respectively, so it is more than likely that new dialogue options weren’t added into your conversations with Triss and Yennefer. It is possible that CD Projket Red was under the assumption that players would have completed the main TW3 story lines before tackling the DLC. It also could come down to the fact that it would be difficult for them to add in dialogue options since both Yennefer and Triss’ story lines had been written and established prior to the DLC releases.
Regardless of the reasoning, its hard to believe that CD Projekt Red couldn’t add options to relationships that could accommodate for guilt and the fall out of Geralt’s actions when it involves characters other than Triss and Yennefer. It is also interesting that when you are given the option to romance characters like Shani and Sylvia there are never any options for you to deny because of your love for Yennefer or Triss. I know this expansions are meant to be seen as separate stories outside of the main story line, but they are still connected within the same world.
We are at a point where a game’s story, interface, and game-play are constantly being updated and changed via patches and software updates, so it should be feasible to include slight changes in dialogue. Hell, even Square Enix changed up the writing in Final Fantasy XV after all of the player feedback came in.
With that being said, let’s talk about what the writing in The Witcher 3 gets right and that is well-rounded and mature characters; especially when it comes to Geralt’s female counterparts. The game does an excellent job of presenting women that can easily hold their own alongside the great White Wolf. In fact, Geralt wouldn’t be able to progress without the magical prowess and expert knowledge of Yennifer, Triss or the other mages of the Circle. Yennifer and Triss play especially large roles in helping Geralt to succeed in his quest to find Ciri and thwart the Wild Hunt.
Both women display immense bravery in the face of dire and overwhelming odds. The quest where Geralt and Triss must infiltrate the witcher hunter base to gather information on the whereabouts of Dandelion immediately comes to mind. Triss, without hesitation, offers to be used as bait so that Geralt can get close to their leader, Menge. Her plan is to feign capture with the use of fake dimeritium shackles and let Geralt hand her to the hunters as if he were collecting a bounty. You, as the player, must then carry along a dialogue with Menge while you hear Triss being tortured in the background. Triss can kill her torturers at anytime, but endures the pain in order to give Geralt time to get the information he needs. It is a difficult part to get through as Geralt can hear her screaming in the next room, but it is a testament to Triss’ resilience and her power once she takes her vengeance on the unsuspecting guards.
Yennifer is also no push over and she shows on countless occasions that she is willing to do anything to find Ciri. She looks at Ciri as a daughter and does many questionable acts in order to ensure she is found safely. During Geralt’s romp in Skellige, Yennifer resurrects a slain man using dark magic who may have information on where Ciri has been. The process is painful for the deceased man’s soul, but Yennifer disregards his suffering and presses forward with startling determination; even Geralt is taken aback by her apparent ruthlessness in this moment. The power of this particular spell drains the life out of the holy garden that Geralt and Yennifer are standing in, but she still doesn’t show an ounce of remorse. In this moment, the young woman she holds dear means more than any other life in existence and she will do anything she feels necessary to protect Ciri.
These women are also Geralt’s equal when it comes to experiences involving romance, sex, and sexuality. They are not unaware of their sexual appeal and some even use it to get the upper hand over Geralt; Kiera Metz being the prime example. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are damsels waiting for Geralt to notice them and be swept off their feet. There is a level of trust that must be built between them and Geralt before a more romantic relationship can be pursued. Usually this trust is solidified through a character specific quest where Geralt accompanies one of them in their pursuit of an individual goal. For Triss, it is asking Geralt to help her free the magic users of Novigrad, so that she can escape with them to Kovir. For Yennifer, it is slaying the djinn that put a magical connection upon her and Geralt to see if their relationship is more than pure magic. Both need to see and understand that Geralt is there for them no matter what.
The presentation of sex and sexuality is actually quite refreshing in The Witcher 3 and is actually handled in a very adult manner. There are characters like Triss and Yennifer that look to have a deep, intimate bond with Geralt while others want nothing more than a bit of fun. Then there are characters like Shani who drift between the two. I wish Shani had more presence in the main game as opposed to be purely a DLC character because I really like her story line and the romance that she has with Geralt. Her relationship with Geralt is much more nuance than most of the other romance-able characters in the game.
Once you have gone through the majority of the main story line in Heart of Stone, Geralt has the option of accompanying Shani to a wedding. There Shani expresses that she is slowly realizing that while she has done so much for herself as a student and medic, she truly desires a genuine romantic partner. Geralt can express that he is there for her, but Shani is quick to note that while they have fun, he comes and goes and she needs much more. The two characters can still agree to have some consensual fun by the end of the wedding reception, but come the next day Shani makes it clear that she needs some time a part from Geralt to process her feelings and what she truly needs. It is a very human scene and one that shows how complex certain relationships can be. There is no doubt an attraction between Geralt and Shani, but she understands that it can never fully be what she desires.
Gaming still has quite a ways to go in its representations of romantic relationships, sex, sexuality, and the portrayal of strong female characters, but The Witcher 3 has built a solid foundation in which to build off of. While the game does fall short in some aspects and treads upon old tropes, it presents some of the most intimate and mature relationships between adult characters to date. Not only that, The Witcher 3 presents numerous female characters that are complex, powerful, compassionate, cunning, experienced, and fully aware of their sexuality. The Witcher 3 is a prime example in gaming of how to write characters that are equal in life experience, especially when it comes to matters of love and lust.
And that concludes the “Writing with Equality” series! I do apologize again for the hiatus with this finale entry, but I hope you enjoyed reading it. I curious to know what you all think and what scifi and fantasy media you feel bucks tropes and trends like born sexy yesterday. What are some of your favorite examples?
Sound off in the comments!
* Header image is from the anime, Chobits, which is used as an example of the trope Born Sexy Yesterday in Pop Culture Detective’s video.