The lobby is dimly lit, the elevator is slow, and the already cramped space has been decorated with all kinds of gaming paraphernalia. I’m at a game preview event, and after a few minutes of awkwardly checking my phone and making small talk, the elevator finally arrives. I crowd in with a designer and several other journalists, and we slowly climb up to the fifth floor. More decorations have been set out there, but it’s hard to tell what is here for the event and what is here normally. Surely the gigantic Buddha head has nothing to do with the game, right? What about the carousel tiger? I say hello to the one other person I know here (another journalist) and take my seat with the maybe thirty other people. After a few minutes, the presentation begins, and we’re shown the intro cinematic for the game we are about to play.
The game in question is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and the place we have gathered is The Alchemist, a bar in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMa to regulars) district. The bar has an unusual setup. The building itself is small, but with several floors. The beginning of our presentation takes place on the fifth floor, and later, when we actually play the game, we will be on the second floor of the building, where it seems like the main portion of the bar is. The bar is pretty hip. The fifth floor has a standing bar, an exposed brick wall, nice white leather furniture.
As the presentation begins, Damien Monnier, senior gameplay designer for the game, takes the stage. He tells us a little about the game and what we should expect for our preview. Three hours of the game split into two different sections. He also spoke a little bit about Ciri, a female character that people will actually be able to play as during the game. Ciri is “an important part of the game,” Damien says. “So important that we wanted players to experience the game from her point of view.” I was a little saddened, however, because it seemed like we would not get to play as Ciri for very long; just one or two sections of the game. After his presentation, we get to play.
The Witcher series has had a somewhat problematic history with how it views women. The first game even gave you “trading cards” with depictions of naked women every time you have sex with someone, a puerile gesture in an otherwise darkly grim game. Perhaps naively, I had hopes that this game would have a more mature outlook. Those hopes were quashed, however, when the game opens in a classic Witcher tradition of offering up a naked woman for the (assumedly straight male) viewer in the first few minutes of the game. This scene would have made me uncomfortable if I was playing alone, so I was even more embarrassed by being surrounded by many other people, some playing the game and viewing the scene too, and others (several of whom are women) just working the bar. How did they feel about this, watching an audience of all men interact with a nude woman in this videogame? Furthermore, Geralt is also naked in this opening scene, but while the camera languishes over the woman, Geralt is never shown from the waist down. Now, Geralt is not exactly my type, but having some parity at the very least would have been nice.
As for the game itself, the gameplay has changed only slightly from The Witcher 2. It is still a third-person action RPG, after all. The combat has been made slightly easier from the previous entry, which had a reputation for being notoriously difficult. Still, the game was not easy; I died a handful of times to the first boss of the game, a large griffin. You still have your collection of magical spells. You also have traps, bombs, and potions that you can craft, all of which will be necessary to come out ahead in the typically difficult combat encounters.
The preview opened slowly as it follows Geralt and his mentor and friend Vesemir tracking down an old flame of Geralt’s, Yennefer. The plot didn’t do a whole lot to draw me in, and after an hour or so, I would have taken a break in the game in normal circumstances. I pressed on, however, and finished the first chapter. The next section took place a bit further in the game and I found it much more engaging. It involved Geralt in a different nation altogether. The player is basically given the choice of who will be the next king between a brother and sister. I chose the sister, finding her much more capable and intelligent than her short-tempered and headstrong brother. I helped her investigate an attempted sabotage of the meeting of the nation’s leaders, and afterwards, the other impressed jarls decided to make her the very first queen of their land. There was a short coronation and that is where my preview ended.
As I basked in the glory of the queen’s coronation, one of the designers came by. “Oh, you chose the sister,” he said. “Yeah, she was awesome!” I replied happily. “That’s interesting. Most of the people today chose the sister too.” He seemed confused, then went on to say that if I had found a side quest with the brother, I probably would have changed my mind. I simply nodded, but in my mind I was wondering if he realized that maybe people chose the sister because she was a better character? Or because they thought a woman should get some glory in this game for once? I shook the thoughts out of my head as he drifted away.
Some argue whether the word “fun” deserves a place in serious game criticism. It might be subjective, but the word fits The Witcher 3, in that it’s fun to play. Combat is fast and brutal, and figuring out all the different uses your spells, bombs and traps have is both intellectually and tactually stimulating. It has issues, however, and not the kind that can be patched out (though there are a fair share of bugs to be stamped out before release too). I saw no people of color in the game at all, for one. Women are treated poorly, either as objects to be desired or as inconsequential (though Ciri wasn’t really shown, and I am definitely still interested in playing as her). These thoughts swirled around me as I filled out the survey they had passed out, watched some other people play, caught some conversations, and then quietly left The Alchemist.
Bryce Duzan is a freelance journalist and game designer, and strives to bring a queer perspective to board games and tabletop RPGs. He can be found on Twitter with the handle @Spincut.