If you've played a role-playing game in the last several years, be it Mass Effect or The Elder Scrolls, chances are that most of the game involved people asking you to go places, bop things on the head, and return with items for a reward. Unless you've played The Witcher.
As The Witcher 3 starts catching more eyes, friends who haven't played the series inevitably end up asking me "should I play the first two games in the series?" Many people will recommend playing The Witcher 2, a great game with solid controls and a unique twist that effectively gives the player two games in one. While I'd agree with that, I'd also add that everyone should play the first game, because it is one of the best role-playing games of all time, maybe even better than The Witcher 2. It's a true RPG, one that focuses on choice and consequence, rather than character-builds or parties, and to that end, it's one of the finest examples of the genre… but there's a caveat.
In just about every conversation I've had regarding The Witcher, someone always admits to quitting, usually during the game's extensive opening swamp section. It's hard to blame them. That's where I originally quit, too.
The Witcher is structured linearly, and it seems as though it was also built that way. As a result, the game gets progressively better, as if the team was coming to grips with the tools at their disposal and learning to make a better experience. The second act improves upon the first, the third improves upon the second, and on it goes. Despite some of the game's initial awkwardness, it's easy to form the impression that there's equal amounts of brilliance and inexperience behind the game. By the fourth act, The Witcher finally comes into its own, and that's where things get really exciting.
At the encouragement of my friends, I picked it back up, beat the game, and ended up having one of the best roleplaying experiences of my life, from Act IV onward.
Here's a setup: Geralt, the eponymous Witcher, returns from the dead only to find some of his memories missing. From the prologue through the third act, Geralt has been chasing down a shadowy secret organisation which has threatened to topple the kingdom. On the way, he's had to deal with a race war that's threatening to burst into flame and the betrayal of the Witcher organisation by Berengar, one of their own, while also protecting Alvin, a young boy with mysterious powers.
You arrive on the coast of a large lake. The space is a lot more open than the swamps, forest, and cities of the game's first half, with the village of Murky Waters itself is set amidst hills and fields. You're out in the country, but that's not all that's changed -- instead of a Tolkienesque fantasy based around race politics, you're now dealing with an Arthurian village where everyone's very excited about an upcoming wedding.
One moment, you were solving murders and dealing with political intrigue, and the next, in Act IV, you're talking to a very plump man who is quite proud of a cow. You can talk to the cow, too. It says "moo."
People in Murky Waters are pleasant, their worries rather insignificant compared to the kingdom-threatening drama taking place elsewhere. It's a joyful change of pace that inspires Geralt to mutter something about wanting to hunt monsters before he gets roped into helping out at the wedding.
Fortunately for a bored Witcher, all's not well in Murky Waters. There are plenty of monsters to fight, like noon and nightwraiths, ghosts whose loves in life went unrequited. In fact, the wraiths are causing problems for the peaceful people of Murky Waters, and, as a witcher, you're perfectly equipped to handle the situation. There's also a ghost who loves gambling so much he demands you gamble with him for the life of Alvin. And the local Lovecraftian entities, the Vodyanoi, have taken to worshiping a god called Dagon, much to the chagrin of the villagers, who worship The Lady of the Lake.
It's a concern that overshadows the wedding. The Lady herself used to have an army of powerful knights, whom she loved greatly, but many died, and the rest went off on a quest for the grail. The only knight left is the Fisher King, an old man fisherman who prefers grunting to speaking. A druid worships her from afar, tending to the graves of her fallen knights; when pressed, he admits that he loves her.
It seems as though every quest in the act is interconnected in some way. Finding a bridge and talking to the repairmen, players will discover that small creatures called griggs are sabotaging their progress. This quest leads players to the village's local healer, who, it turns out, is also the one responsible for another quest regarding the ingredients for a love potion.
Every character in Act IV seems to have a relationship with every other character. Alina and Julian are getting married, but Alina's taking care of Alvin, who leads you to the hermit, who takes you back to the Lady of the Lake, and on and on it goes.
Meeting all these people results in a variety of cool quests. Are there monster hunting quests? Absolutely, you're a monster hunter. Are there item-gathering quests? Yes. Except one of those items is a cow, actually, and you're tasked with delivering it to a monster. You can't exactly fit a cow in your inventory, on account of it being a somewhat large bovine, which is just over half an imperial ton, or just about half a metric ton, depending on your preferred unit of measurement.
Congratulations, you're now a cowherd, delivering cows to monsters for dinner! It's a great way to flip the fetch-quest archetype on its head, sending you off to fetch an item you literally cannot carry, taking it away from innocent villages and delivering it to monsters instead.
Then there's the quest with the gambling ghost. Sure, you could hit the ghost with your magical monster-killing sword, but wouldn't it be a great deal more fun to beat him in a few rounds of dice poker? Another quest involves simply chatting with the Lady of the Lake, teasing her at first, learning that she is tired of being treated like a goddess all the time, and attempting to woo her. Unfortunately, it leads to a moment where Geralt says "your eyes are like stars," and the Lady rejects this praise, because the stars are cold and distant.
Geralt is perplexed by this. He's not the ladykiller he thought he was. Several lines of poetry, and she's rejected each one. So he finally gives in and complements her arse. Which, apparently, is exactly what she wanted to hear.
No monster killing, no item gathering, just talking.
Another quest involves convincing a ghost that she is, in fact, a ghost. To do so, Geralt must participate in a poetic duet with his sidekick, the bard Dandelion. As Dandelion speaks to the ghost, you are required to finish his sentences. If you succeed, the ghost will understand that she is unable to get married, and is thus able to pass on to the afterlife.
One of the main quests is about monster killing, but the problem is, Geralt is unable to do direct harm to the monster in question, the ferocious and foul Dagon. So what can the player do? Start killing off Dagon's followers, whose love sustains him. Rob him of that love, and Dagon dies.
These quests present a drastic change of pace, not so much from the game, which has plenty of other great quests, but from RPGs on the whole. Killing creatures to obtain items is all well and good, but it's hardly the only kind of role-play experience out there. The Witcher recognises that these games aren't so much about the skills you choose but the choices you make, from the missions you take to the people you befriend to, yes, the skills you choose. It's a game that recognises that role-playing involves more than just character builds and murder efficiency.
Of course, The Witcher not the only RPG to have managed that. Obsidian's Fallout New Vegas had a wonderful variety of ways to deal with and complete quests, for instance. Deus Ex: Human Revolution's vaunted conversation battles made dealing with people more interesting than simply "click on all available dialog options." The Witcher's inventiveness is cool, but there's more to Act IV than that.
Act IV isn't just about its intricate web of quests, it's a thematically coherent, deep tour through two inextricably intertwined ideas: love and motive.
Games, at their very core, are unique because they're about doing stuff. Reading a book or watching a movie is a passive experience. In games, if a character says, "Hey, protagonist, would you like to do stuff," the protagonist is probably going to go do stuff. The player has to make decisions and take action. And why do we do things?
A lot of the time, it's because we love doing them.
I eat the food I eat because I love cooking it. I play certain genres because I love them. I hang out with certain people, because, well, I love my friends to pieces. So many actions people take are motivated by love, and The Witcher's Act IV is a really cool multifaceted examination of the topic.
Act IV places two species at odds because they love different gods. It gives us men who dedicate their entire lives to serving their goddess, because they love her. One ghost isn't so much evil as it is misguided, even in death, it loves gambling so much that it would try to gamble for human life. The monsters themselves embody failed loves -- twisted creatures, no longer recognisable as human. We're even faced with a crime of passion. Berengar, the guy who betrayed the Witchers? He wanted to be a father and husband, and being a Witcher prevented him from doing so.
The Witcher's fourth act is something special. It takes the clever role-playing ideas throughout the first few acts of the game and makes them work in an environment and world completely different than what came before. The drastic tone shift brings some wonderful variety, but Act IV takes the next step and brings them together to form a cohesive statement. The Witcher reveals love to us, lays all its forms bare, and examines them.
I started out replaying the chapter for this article somewhat bored. Getting back into the swing of things, remembering how to craft potions and fight monsters...it was pretty rough. The Witcher is an ugly game, too, with wonky animations and poor textures, a far cry from The Witcher 2, a game so graphically capable it toppled Crysis: Warhead from the graphics throne.
The more I played, however, the more I found myself sucked in. Originally, I'd intended to ignore most of the side quests, but I soon found myself shopping by proxy for elves, brewing potions for bakers, giving gifts to people, making peace between races, and, yes, busting a few monster heads along the way.
The Witcher shows that there can be more to RPGs than just fighting people. When the third game comes out early next year, I'll be there, day one, all thanks to Act IV.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.