Look at her. She knows what I did.
I recently finished the main plot of The Witcher 3. You might have been following my love affair with it through my stories on the topic, or my weekly "What Are You Playing" posts featuring Geralt in various states of undress. My reward for 110 hours of hard work? Accidentally being a terrible dad.
I'd heard from my colleagues that the game has multiple endings, which I knew had something to do with being a good father figure to Ciri. I interacted with Ciri with that in mind, carefully sizing up every Dad Moment, though I didn't know which choices would actually affect the end.
The Witcher 3 has had a bunch of us under its spell for months now, but we're at a point where several of us on staff have now finished the game. Now that we've wiped away the tears and closed the book on Geralt's adventures, it's time to talk about the end.
Honestly, I thought I was a pretty great dad. I told Ciri she didn't have to be good at everything when she was upset after the battle at Kaer Morhen. I thought it was a valuable moment of growth for her, one both I and Geralt could stand to learn. I went with her to fight Imlerith because we were in this Wild Hunt thing together. I didn't take her to see the emperor because as far as I'm concerned he's not her dad.
I accompanied her to the meeting with the sorceresses because she seemed intimidated, and I wanted her to know I was there for the mundane dad stuff as well as the big fights. I told her to calm down when she wanted to trash Avallac'h's lab because I thought she'd later regret lashing out at a friend. I took her to Skjall's grave because obviously.
Did you know those are pretty much all the wrong choices? Because I didn't.
I was on the edge of my seat as Ciri went through the portal, like I was sending my daughter off to college. As her flashbacks played out, I honestly thought they must have been from The Witcher 2. I didn't recognise the moments she remembered. Who was this Geralt (with different hair, I might add!) pushing a drink at her while she sat with her chin in her hand? Which dad dragged her to brothels, so ignorant of her displeasure, when I had a whole catalogue of moments we'd hugged and laughed?
When the game cut to Velen a week later, I assumed it was all just some drama before Ciri came back and I found out what happened in the portal. I attacked the remaining Crone even as she told me I "could not survive this struggle." She told me Ciri was dead, but I was certain she'd show up nevertheless, swooping in to save my arse with all the skills I'd taught her.
As Geralt slumped in the Crone's house, clutching Ciri's medallion as an impossible number of monsters swarmed in, I had a couple doubts. But I still kept thinking, OK, but where are the dad endings? I got a bunch of politics, and then the credits rolled.
Confused, I took to Kotaku's resident Witcher 3 expert, Luke Plunkett, via Slack.
Yuck it up with Fahey, readers. Things aren't too funny from here.
To avoid spoilers, a room titled "Bad Dad" was soon started on Slack. It's important to stress that I honestly, honestly thought everyone got the ending I did. That must be the big deal about the DLC, I thought. The DLC must be so good because it brings Ciri back.
(I later learned that it can, but not for me.)
I deserve this.
My colleagues helped me piece together what I'd done. There was a lot of incredulity about my skipping the snowball fight to go drinking, which I promptly watched on the internet while holding my head in my hands like Geralt in the Crone's hut. I was shocked that these seemingly small moments mattered so much, but I was even more shocked that I had been so confident I'd been doing the right thing.
It was embarrassing to admit the pride I'd felt in what I thought were excellent interactions with Ciri. I'd weighed my words and acted according to my own instincts as much as the game would allow. I even thought at one point — up too late playing, a little drunk — that it was a shame I'll probably never be a father since I could make this virtual daughter so happy.
As my colleagues reminisced about their much better endings (or even their acceptable ones, because I wasn't even a good enough dad to get that), I felt gutted, robbed. I debated going back and replaying, but I'm one of those idiots who mostly saves over their save files. There wasn't a save anywhere remotely far back enough to fix what I'd done.
The problem seemed to be that I'd been playing as Geralt-As-Dad, rather than really thinking about Ciri. Luke told me, "It's bullshit arbitrary video game psychology, yes, and in that way it's no more elegant than, say, Mass Effect's virtues, but the game was testing you all along. Testing to see if you understood that this game wasn't about Geralt's adventures at all, it was about supporting Ciri and giving her the strength to finish her adventure. Which, you know, you failed. Because she died."
Ciri even says at some point that it's a story about her, not you. At the time I thought, Ah, yes, I know that. Like an idiot. I've been enamoured of Geralt, fascinated by his solitary existence and how much he stands out from humanity, charting his struggle to navigate the fuzzy morality of the world. (How he looks without a shirt doesn't hurt either.)
In fact, during most of the game I was much more interested in following Geralt through the daily life of being a Witcher than the grand story. I didn't like playing as Ciri, mostly because I'd spent so much time being Geralt that I missed my gear and my stats and my haircut. Looking back, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that continuing to focus on Geralt once I found Ciri was the wrong choice.
Heather Alexandra told me, "I think it's easy to assume that The Witcher is a world where you have to make hard decisions. The difficulty is realising that you can't make them for other people. Ciri is on her own quest. Once Geralt finds her, his journey is over. He can't make choices for her. If she's mad, let her be mad. If she is sad, let her be sad. She can deal with it."
After this we stole some horses. They grow up so fast.
Luke added, "Ciri isn't some neutral character, an anvil for your actions like a party member in Persona, she's Ciri. She returns to you, having been missing for ages, as an adult. She's her own person, with her own backstory and secret motives and cool sword. It seems only right that the game is cloudy in the way it deals with your relationship, because that's what it must have been like! It's like, OK, here's how I'm going to handle this girl, but what the fuck do I know? She might secretly be hating everything I'm telling her, just like in real life."
Even though it was just a video game, I had a bit of a moral crisis. I couldn't get over how spectacularly badly I'd done while thinking I was doing such a good job. I used to be a prison chaplain for goodness' sake — surely I should be good at feelings, even virtual ones? I started recalling all the real-life interactions where I think I'm putting other people's needs ahead of my own, mining them for hidden failures. Who else in my life could I be ignorant of hurting?
Heather pointed out that these questions might be some of the point of The Witcher 3: "Intentions are tricky, and The Witcher knows it. Act too fast, even for the right reasons, and there's a cost. You might break the curse on the Bloody Baron's wife because that feels right. But if you're not careful, she can still die even if you meant well."
Even though I felt like complete shit, I felt kind of good, too. The Worst Possible Ending was unbearably grisly and intense and sad. But it also felt like it fit the world of The Witcher 3, where bad things happen to everyone. My Geralt used to run around solving everyone's problems without ever being touched by them.
After my ending, the first time I ran into a character who told me their child had died, I snapped back at my computer screen, "Yeah, get in line, pal." Through his loss, Geralt had suddenly become a part of the world he'd previously stood so aloof from.
The question then became: what now? I still had Hearts of Stone and Blood of Wine to play. Before I'd reached my Witcher 3 end, I was excited there was so much more game to play, but now I could barely even look Geralt in the eye.
This is me now.
I took a week off, then grudgingly headed back into Hearts of Stone. The DLC has been appropriately titled for Geralt post Bad Dad Ending. The Geralt I play now carries the weight of Ciri's sacrifice around like a rock. He doesn't go out of his way to do the right thing. He takes his sweet time wandering over to folks who call out to him, and he charges much more for contracts than he used to. The ghost of his decisions haunts him, his foolishness and the cost of doing what he thought was right.
I pause much longer at decision screens now, and the violent or selfish options aren't as much of a stretch as they once were. Heather calls it "Geralt throwing himself into work to escape grief," which sounds about right. Luke hopes that I'll stick with the DLCs, telling me "they are rad and fun and literally involve parties. If a Witcher 3 party can't cheer you up, then nothing can."
But Geralt doesn't deserve parties. He deserves pain and misery and living with what he's done. Appropriately, the first few hours of Hearts of Stone have been pretty rough. There's a lot of violence and two tough boss fights in a row, and they both felt like the punishment Geralt deserved. I don't know if I can sustain another 80 hours of play feeling like this.
The whole game feels so oppressive and dark and trauma-filled, and all of that is in Geralt now, instead of just what's going on around him.
Geralt takes his shirt off. All hope isn't lost.
This would be a sad way to end my time with The Witcher 3, but over the weekend I found that hope isn't all lost. On Saturday night I got to the "Dead Man's Party" quest in Hearts of Stone. I was surprised how positive and moving I found it. The questions of pleasure and joy, of who Geralt is and how that affects those who care about him, felt tailor-made for his particular circumstances.
Bad Dad Geralt definitely wasn't going to be happy without being possessed, but once he was, it felt good to embody him in a livelier form. I've learned these lessons from video games before, but the particular nature of my role in what had happened, of who Geralt was and who he'll go on to become, struck a particular nerve.
None of us can avoid making mistakes, however hard we try, but we can avoid making things worse by how we decide to deal with the aftermath.
The possibility of pursuing a romance with Shani is hanging over Geralt now, and for the first time I've found myself wondering if it will affect my DLC future with Yen, rather than how much longer I'll have to deal with thinking about my terrible ending. For the first time I felt like I could roleplay Geralt into redemption, if I just stuck with it. There's a lot of Witcher 3 left. We'll see how it goes.