When I think of how The Witcher 3 depicts women, handles sexism, and deals with other hot-button subject matter, I think of one quest: The Bloody Baron.
Here's the setup: Geralt of Rivia (the character you play) is searching for his lost adopted daughter, a woman named Ciri. Turns out she spent some time with a jumped-up warlord named Philip Strenger, who goes by the moniker "The Bloody Baron". Strenger has an idea of where Ciri has gone. Before he'll tell Geralt, he makes Geralt help him track down his wife and daughter, who he claims have gone missing.
And here's what happens (spoilers, obviously): At first, Geralt thinks he's dealing with a monster or some other ne'erdowell of the spooky and diabolical variety. But as it turns out, the Baron's family didn't just up and disappear. They left because the Baron was physically and emotionally abusive. As he eventually tells it, he went away to fight in the war, and he came back changed. He'd get drunk and beat his wife, punch and kick and yell until he fell into a dark sleep. It reached a turning point when he discovered that his wife, Anna, had been having an affair, and murdered her lover. Anna subsequently became pregnant, and one night he beat her so badly that she miscarried. Anna and their daughter, Tamara, finally fled, with no intention of ever returning.
The horrifying full story emerges only gradually, as Geralt pokes holes in the Baron's initial version of events. It's a shock on multiple levels, and one that does not cast the Baron in a favourable light. As Geralt, you can choose to relentlessly punish him for it, both physically and verbally. In my game, I reminded him at every turn that he'd done a despicable thing. I never let him feel like he was absolved of his sins just because he regretted them.
After a subplot where Geralt discovers that the Baron and Anna's miscarried foetus has returned from the dead as a supernatural creature — yes, that actually happens — Geralt finds the Baron's daughter. There isn't even a choice to divulge her exact location to her father. Geralt respects her wish to not be reunited with him, and that's that.
Geralt also finds the Baron's wife Anna, and her story is revealed to be even more complicated than it seemed. Pregnant and unhappy in a loveless and abusive marriage, Anna made a deal with three powerful witches to give them a year of her service in exchange for them magically "freeing" her of her unwanted child. She miscarried because of their dark magic, not because of the Baron's fists. This is where the story lost focus for me — the thrust of the tale eventually gets lost in monster hunting and larger supernatural goings-on. A lack of focus ultimately hurts what could've been an even better, more meaningful story. Still, there's never a question that the Baron's awfulness drove Anna to take the drastic actions she took.
The Bloody Baron questline does not portray the Baron as a villainous madman. He's an arsehole, sure, but he's in turns compassionate and remorseful. He seems to be alcoholic, and his excuses for his horrible actions are often pathetic. He knows he fucked up. He wants to make up for it. His wife and daughter, on the other hand, think he waited way too long to turn that corner, and they don't trust him. Why should they? They just want to move on with their lives.
The Strenger family's story — an admittedly tiny fraction of a colossal game — has two possible endings: sad, or the most depressing thing you can imagine. Even in its darkest moments it remains thoughtful and treats its characters like people with realistic motivations.
The Bloody Baron quest represents a big, daring creative decision. Honestly, it's hard to read over a recap and believe all of that made it into a modern, big-budget game. At times, it's even hard to believe it's in The Witcher 3. That's because — while often brilliant in its handling of sex, women characters, and even sexism — it's a game frequently at odds with itself. It's been called out for depicting a fantasy world where women are treated poorly to up its surface level edginess factor, even as others have praised it for confronting real-world issues, offering players a mirror upon which to view actual problems. It's even been praised as a feminist game. Of course Witcher 3 has caused arguments between players. It sometimes feels like it's arguing with itself.
The Witcher 3 takes place in a fantasy world that draws on European history. It's rooted in Slavic mythology and tradition as well as bits and scraps from countless other cultures' folklore (Greek, Hebrew, even a bit of Japanese). It's also a manly man's world, not unlike, say, Game of Thrones. Women in the game are used, abused, and pigeonholed into "traditional" roles just for, well, being women — sometimes to a point where it started to wear on me as a player.
This is where examining The Witcher 3 gets tricky. Many characters in the game use insults and violence against women (or even corpses of women and sex workers) to paint the game world in shades of bloody red. Men are subjected to horrific violence as well, but in my 40 hours with the game, sexual violence and threats have been largely targeted at women. That aspect of the game sometimes feels juvenile, purposeless. It comes across as cruise control for "edginess."
The Witcher 3 does occasionally call out the sexism inherent to its world. In those moments, it feels well thought-out, reflective on the imbalances many of its characters face in their day-to-day lives. Consider the "Master Armorer" sidequest. In it, Geralt is looking for someone who can make mastercrafted armour, the best class of armour in the game. His search leads him to a smith who looks every bit the clichéd fantasy armorer: a bearded dwarf named Feargus. However, as Geralt sets about finding Feargus the tools he needs to make top-tier armour, it becomes clear that Feargus has actually been taking credit for a woman's work his whole career.
The woman, Yonna, had been posing as Feargus' assistant. She confesses to Geralt that she's sick of the sham and decides she wants to make something herself, without her pesky pimple of a middleman. After you collect some supplies for her, Yonna and Feargus have an "armour-off" in which her armour proves far superior. It's a public humiliation for Feargus, and even the soldiers Yonna and Feargus are working for can't deny she's the better smith. It's an interesting usage of the sexism that's so often present in The Witcher 3's world — and one that, once again, confronts a real world issue (women not being taken seriously in the workplace) and calls it out for being shitty.
For every time The Witcher 3 hits the nail on the head, however, there's another instance where it's comically clumsy. Let me just say: I like that The Witcher 3 is so sexy. I think it's awesome that Geralt is a sexy dude who does sexy things with sexy ladies. It's fun. It's a free, open approach to sex that you don't see in the Mass Effects of the world, where sex is a deal-sealer, a legally binding contract you sign, usually near the end of the game, when you enter into A Relationship with another character.
I also like that, in some cases, some women in The Witcher 3's world are in full command of their sexuality. Sorceresses use Geralt for sex just as often as he uses them. Sometimes it blows up into a bigger thing, sometimes it's just, "We fucked. OK, cool. Later!"
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. And, sure, I get it: they're sexy ladies, and they know it. They're not afraid to use that side of themselves to tip the scales of an otherwise bullshit world in their favour. I definitely do not object to that.
The game just overdoes it. Let's use Keira as an example. She's a sorceress Geralt ends up questing with to find Ciri. They hit it off pretty well. But from the moment you meet her, she's wearing this outfit that looks like it belongs on a porn set. It's hilariously impractical, allowing her nipples to oh-so-slyly peek out from the right camera angles.
Even in serious scenes, I couldn't stop wondering, "OK, when is the cheesy saxophone music gonna start playing? When is Geralt gonna be like, 'Let me help you out of that silly thing. And here are my sexy friends Roach and The Wild Hunt for a foursom — [TURN BACK, TURN BACK, THIS HAS GONE TOO FAR]." It works fine when The Witcher 3 is embracing its lovingly schlocky, romance-novel-cover vibe, but when things get serious or dramatic, it can be a distraction.
Keira remains an excellent character. She has interesting motives and goals, and she plays Geralt like a fiddle, romancing him (instead of the other way around) in a way that feels both sincere and manipulative. It's a really cool dynamic, and it left me feeling conflicted about her afterward. She manages to by sly, attractive, and — unlike many video game characters — believably sexy despite the peep-show attire, not because of it.
Another example: Ciri's outfit, which always reveals a bit of her bra, tantalising you even though she's basically Geralt's daughter. She is another intriguing, well-written character — one of the game's best — but aaaaaaa, weird boner. Poorly timed boner. Wrong boner. When my girlfriend watches me play, she likes to find creative ways to work nipples into characters' conversations:
Geralt to the woman pictured below: "How do Dreamers work? How do you see people's pasts?" My girlfriend: "And how do your nipples stay in your shirt?"
Is it funny? Absolutely. Does that outfit "offend" me? Nah. Does it distract me from the dramatic impact of what is by and large a well-written, interesting story? Yeah.
Despite the ways it turned me off, I appreciate what The Witcher 3 tries to do. I do not believe it always succeeds but as I said earlier, it goes for it. The game's creators want to give their players something to think about. This game contains a main story quest that explores domestic abuse, miscarriage, and has a (surprisingly emotional!) monster-foetus twist; it's a game where characters treat sex with refreshing frankness even as they get involved in outlandish sexual scenarios. The Witcher 3 is unusually unafraid to tackle subjects other games would gloss over by leaning on tropes or by pretending those issues don't exist.
Last fall's Dragon Age: Inquisition provides an interesting counterpoint to The Witcher 3. BioWare's game still challenges its audience, but in a different, almost directly opposing way. Inquisition tests preconceived notions by depicting a world in which currently contentious subjects — for instance, trans characters and gay characters — are accepted, not squabbled over. That's awesome, and I'm glad there are games that let people of all types be who they want to be without ugly prejudices spitting all over their parade.
The Witcher 3's approach is more direct. CD Projekt Red's game stares down problems — it attempts to depict things as they are rather than sugarcoating them. To interrogate, dissect, and understand. That approach can create a space for reflection, discussion, and growth. Both games are valid. Could a game more directly focused on those issues untangle them better than The Witcher? Probably. Games have only scratched the surface of this sort of subject matter, and I hope they continue to explore it. Who knows? Maybe another Witcher game will do it even better.
During the search for the Baron's wife and daughter, I came across a family who'd given the Baron's daughter, Tamara, shelter. In the telling, the man of the house went to great lengths to say that his wife was the only reason they'd taken Tamara in and protected her. He confesses to Geralt that he was a coward, said that his wife was braver, wiser, and better. As he talks, his wife stands in the corner, silent, perhaps worried that Geralt is going to rat them out to the Baron. There it was, a brief moment of characterisation that didn't need to happen. It was just there, and it said a lot about this woman's lot in life.