“The Witcher” Series: Reading vs. Playing

The book cover might originally look like this...
The book cover might originally look like this…

In the 1990’s, Andrzej Sapkowski published short stories and novels set in an original fantasy setting. These center on Geralt of Rivia, a witcher who wields magic and hunts monsters.

But I played The Witcher video games — well, the second one, anyway — before I ever read Sapkowski’s books. It’s only in recent months that I’ve picked up two of the books, and I’m glad I did. Like the games based on them, they feature some riveting adventures with one of the greatest fantasy heroes I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

It’s exciting to play The Witcher games as Geralt. He’s a badass character, and the world from his perspective is vivid and fraught with danger — just as it should be in an action story or video game. But one of my favorite aspects of role-playing games is the character development, and if that can roll all the way back to character creation in the very beginning, so much the better.

But wait too long, and your Kindle edition looks like this.
But wait too long, and your Kindle edition looks like this. (Cloud Atlas is way worse.)

As I talk about quite a bit here, I enjoy creating characters from scratch. Sometimes I make them in my own likeness, but I also have fun role-playing as someone who looks, thinks, and makes decisions differently than I would. Often my characters are bolder than I am. Geralt certainly is… but I didn’t conjure him from my imagination, so it doesn’t quite feel like it counts.

So what about this prospect of the upcoming The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt being the last in the trilogy but not the last in the series? It sounds to me like future Witcher games may depart from Geralt’s story in a way that invites more player involvement from the beginning.

After all, we already know that The Witcher 3 is going to be open-world and non-linear, meaning there’s already more freedom and exploration being built into it. It’s not a leap to say that freedom in an open-world game means more customization — or, to put it another way, more room for individuality. Those are great role-playing features. (I say that even though I’m on the fence about how much open-world exploration I can take, not being the biggest fan of riding a horse anywhere in real life or game life.) Perhaps — I hope, I hope! — all of this freedom means that future games will allow players to navigate “Witcherland” with their own characters. (And I’m not the only one.)

Screenshot from "The Witcher 3"
Screenshot from “The Witcher 3”

It comes down to the difference between books and games. In the Witcher books that I have read so far, I’m invested in Geralt as the protagonist. I want to see how his story plays out. I want to know what happens to him in the end. I see world — or specifically his corner of it — through his adventures, watching his story as a bystander. And it’s a thrilling read.

In the video games, I also follow Geralt’s story and experience his adventures. But in the games, I’m actually making choices for him. I’m fighting with his silver sword and downing his potions before battle and engaging in conversations… as him, that is. What so many gamers love about video games is being able to jump into a fictional world and interact with it, and in The Witcher trilogy, I take on the role of Geralt to explore. It’s a fun role, but it has its limitations as far as games go.

I say all of this not to complain about The Witcher games at all. The Witcher 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, and I would not change the series to insert my own character in Geralt’s stead. Already, CD Projekt RED has departed from the books to allow for in-game decisions, which is just one great way to make the most of what video games can do that books (sort of) can’t.

However, as an RPG fan, I want to interact with the in-game world from more than just one angle. Sure, The Witcher 2 lets you choose between two story paths, but even if I follow Iorveth (an elf), I don’t have the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be one of the Scoia’tael.

In future Witcher games — I’m talking later this decade — I would love to experience the Witcher universe from new perspectives. And once I play as one character, I want to be able to go back and play as someone entirely different, addressed differently by NPCs and living out a different life or story from the start. Personalizing the Witcher series in that way would really harness all that video games have to offer as a medium.

— Ashley

8 thoughts on ““The Witcher” Series: Reading vs. Playing”

  1. After I finished the original Witcher on PC many years ago, I hunted down and bought The Last Wish, the only book translated into English at the time. I liked the short story nature of it, picking out different events and viewpoints, and I liked how it introduced the world.
    I love the Witcher universe and I love the character of Geralt of Rivia. CDProjekt has done an amazing job translating Sapkowski’s vision into an interactive medium, as well as giving us options, but options that feel natural to Geralts personality.
    While The Witcher 2 is one of my favorite games ever and I am still reading the Blood of Elves, I don’t know how I feel continuing on without Geralt. I feel this series, be it in the form of books, shows, or games, IS Geralts story. While the world and its horrors are important, at the heart of it has always been The Witcher. With Wild Hunt being the last of the “Geralt trilogy” I wish it would be the end of the Witcher series in general. Usually I would be fine exploring other options and the world as a new character or one of our own creation, but this time…I just don’t want to. I like following this unique hero on his journey’s through this familiar but different fantasy world, Geralt is what helps make it different, and without him, it just wouldn’t be the same for me.

    1. Yeah, I could see that. Geralt is an ideal character to follow in this world, because he has special abilities, an interesting past, he meets the “celebrities” of the world, he’s an outsider, the subject of gossip and poems even, etc. And people sometimes call the world “Witcherland,” so yes, it is very Geralt-centric!

      I guess I feel that the world is so detailed and expansive, it’s become bigger than Geralt as a character. That’s just the way I see it, though. I’m also a fan of series like Dune that introduce you to lots of characters and even jump around in time, which would be awesome to do in a Witcher-based video game world, I think. Even though I do really like the character of Geralt and agree that so far, this has been his story, I’m even more a fan of the worldbuilding in the series.

  2. I think creating your own character in the potential Witcher 4 would be problematic. If you were to play an elf or a dwarf that would mean losing a lot of quests, because there are too many racist people in the Witcher universe. So, the game would have to be designed around that, it would have to be Witcher: Scoia’tael, which I, too, think is a very interesting idea. However, then, you would lose the possibility of choice, and creating your own character, again.

    I believe the developers will just choose Ciri as the protagonist for the next Witcher trilogy. She’s different enough, and allows for new possibilities.

    1. Yes, it’ll be interesting to see if the game will feature a customizable protagonist or someone else from the books. Ciri would be a good choice!

      As for the racism, etc., I would love to have that factored in if we are able to create/customize characters. In the games so far, you’re always addressed as “Geralt” or “the witcher” or some variation on that. It would be interesting to have NPCs address you differently based on your race, similar to how it’s done in Skyrim… but better. (I think Skyrim has a lot of things that don’t quite work or make sense in that department!) I even like the idea of having to do some quests differently based on your background and skills. I know it’s a lot to put into a game, but it would be so exciting to have the personalized experience.

  3. Since I’m polish I read Sapkowski long before his books were ever made into games and I loved them. The stories are so raw, thrilling and the adventures are original and entertaining. The games though, I wasn’t able to get into them at all. The first one was really slow and the mechanics were just bad but I’ve heard plenty of good about the second one. I agree that it would be so great to develop potential of multiple characters sort of Skyrim style. To see prejudice towards people from Nilfgaard and so on. Can’t wait to see what they do with the third game. I just love all CDProjekt does since they are from my country and there is so few polish companies that actually are successful in the field of video games.

    1. That’s awesome you read the books first! I’m a bit jealous, as I generally prefer reading before watching or playing. I’m reading Blood of Elves right now and am enjoying it even more than The Last Wish. Besides the action and character development, I like all of the details Sapkowski includes to transport you into the scene, so to speak — makes the world feel very believable. As for the games, I definitely prefer the second to the first, and the mechanics are better!

      I agree about the Skyrim-style prejudice, etc! That’s exactly what I was thinking. It would be an ambitious undertaking, but I believe CD Projekt RED could do a great job with that kind of personalization and detail — and in a few years’ time, who knows what a new game engine could do? There is so much conflict in the books’ setting, it would be exciting to explore those conflicts from many angles.

  4. Nice write up, Ashley.

    I am a huge fan of Geralt of Rivia, although I have only read the books (still not the last one as it started a bit strange for my taste but definitely I will give it a chance. As about the games – I have them both and I still have no idea how I haven’t played them. Once I started the first one I experienced some really strange crashes which made me replay long parts of the game (not pretty used to quick-saving) and eventually turned me off the franchise.

    Cheers!

    Longy

    1. Thanks! It’s good to hear from another Geralt fan. =) The second game is great, though I have to say I’m enjoying reading Blood of Elves even more than playing the games!

      It’s interesting you mention crashes because my Witcher 2 game crashed every 2-3 hours on my PC too, always on loading screens. It was irritating, so I learned to save frequently. Definitely worth working around that if possible, though. And I suppose the next best thing is watching someone else play (which I’ve done quite a bit with The Witcher 1), as the games are so cinematic with lots of gorgeous settings and cutscenes, as I’m sure you’ve seen!

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