The Backlog (3): What’s Your Number?

Bad Romance and Completionism in The Witcher

Hair like snow he’s so chill (The Witcher/CD Projekt Red/Steam)

I am not always a completionist, but something about large-scale RPGs brings out an obsessive instinct in my gaming.

Skyrim, Final Fantasy XV, and Dragon Age: Inquistion are three very distinct RPG styles, but every time I delve into one of them I become deeply, emotionally, concerningly involved in extracting every last bit of content out of them. These large-scale, open-world(ish) games are built for that kind of play, rewarding curiosity and investment regularly. I’ve 100% completed Batman: Arkham Knight and Arkham Asylum, thankfully finding an emotional limit with the insanity of the Riddler challenge in Arkham City. Part of purchasing guidebooks to Pokémon games is a way of feeding this need to not miss anything, to find everything a game has to offer. I’ve played through Pokémon FireRed enough times with that guidebook to know every corner of that game. I’ve probably forgotten more about it than I have about algebra.

This is feasibly impossible sometimes, as evidenced by Easter Eggs being found in games decades later, but in games where it feels within my grasp I get somewhat addicted to the prospect. I don’t play games a ton, but I pumped 200 hours into Skyrim — my first-ever PC game as an adult — and had to let go of the completionist instinct at that point, as it became thrillingly clear I was nowhere near complete and probably never would be. There’s a point when it doesn’t become fun anymore, just a chore to finish the checkboxes — those checkboxes, often represented by icons on a map, are why I’ve never felt a ton of affinity for Assassin’s Creed games, which rapidly become an insurmountable collection of destinations that I’m frankly not having enough fun with to try and finish. To awaken that completionism, I need a certain level of either mechanical or narrative investment in doing so — either because I’m having too much fun doing the menial stuff, or because I can’t let down the characters I’ve met on the journey.

The Witcher falls into this latter category. Not The Witcher 3 — that’s another game I bought at a not-insignificant price that I now can get for half that and have never touched in the meantime — but the original, janky, oh-so-designed-for-PC-gamers-in-the-early-2000s Witcher. It has a ridiculously unintuitive combat and magic system (not in its concept but in its execution), animations that sit so firmly in the uncanny valley they’re probably registered to vote there, and some surprisingly decent voice work, though every character that isn’t noble or narratively important sounds like a 12-year-old’s attempt at a Cockney accent.

Sidebar: Seriously, people, stop using those accents for poor people or criminals, it’s straight-up classist and also a weird choice considering you’re in a fantasy world where their accents could be ANYTHING else. If you’re at an American studio, imagine the backlash if every poor person had a Southern accent and all the criminals sounded like characters from The Godfather (20 Schrutebucks to the first person to find that exact thing in a game).

For all that, however, The Witcher is a game I have fun with. As much as Cyberpunk 2077 had a disastrous launch, CD Projekt Red has historically been a studio that creates very solid game worlds and very substantial and compelling interactive narratives. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt might have been the world-shaking culmination of years of work and practice, but The Witcher provides a tantalizing taste of things to come (disclaimer: I haven’t played The Witcher 3). That world and its people are the reason I didn’t beat The Witcher the first time around; I was enjoying it so much, I didn’t want to end. The speed at which I took everything was so glacial, and thoroughness of my playthrough so deep, that I barely got through the first few chapters before I burnt out. I remember a surprising amount, though that has been buoyed a bit by reading some of the English translations of the novels. One thing that sticks out at me, of course, is the most clearly mechanical hook for completionism: the sex cards.

If you did a double take at the phrase “sex cards,” congratulations, you’ll understand the tone of the rest of this post.

Seriously, CD Projekt Red, what the hell. In the 2020s, the concept of earning completionism points by sleeping with every available woman and being rewarded with collectible ‘romance cards,’ like some mass-market alternative to a little black book, is utterly insane. Each one has a carefully painted picture of the woman you have just shared an intimate moment with, entirely designed by and for a male gaze, and fills up a little virtual binder in-game in your inventory. It feels like an R-rated version of my old Pokémon card collection. In returning to the Witcher — a game which, otherwise, makes we want to complete every task in it — it sprang back into my mind.

Truthfully, it feels like an accurate depiction of our vision of sexuality in gaming at the time. Adolescent, heterosexual, and gamified sex was essentially the norm in the 2000s, regardless of games which may have taken a somewhat more nuanced approach. Dragon Age: Origins, another game that I once started and is now in my backlog, came out two years later and does better with its depiction of sex and relationships. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a big improvement. The really key difference being, of course, that it doesn’t give you frigging trading cards every time you sleep with someone.

So as I headed back to the world of The Witcher, I knew I was going to face this particular mechanic, or at least have in the back of my mind as I played. Before I went back, I even googled “do you have to have sex in The Witcher to progress.” Unfortunately, most of the responses were articles critiquing or offering advice on the ‘romance’ system in its threequel. Romance is a title for the mechanic that becomes completely laughable when applied to The Witcher itself. It’s one of those conflicts in gaming that I think is being handled more and more effectively as time passes, but becomes more complex in RPGs like The Witcher or Dragon Age. Games like this revel in providing player autonomy, a way to work through the world that feels unique to the personality you imbue in your character and the choices they make. Main character Geralt’s personality in The Witcher is pre-ordained, but you are presented with numerous choices in the game that shape him and the world. Some of these lead to romance and eventually the appearance of one of these cards. In Dragon Age, you’re a relatively blank slate, and get to build them from the ground up through your choices and conversations; this includes who they want to romance. It’s built to feel like a character choice. Yet, when you look up The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age’s romances, you get results for advice on how to make sure you get the girl/boy (gender binaries are pretty much the standard in video game romance), the best paths to maximize the positive effects, and the pre-programmed sexualities of characters in Dragon Age. It all adds up to an encyclopedia of love at 60 FPS.

This is, obviously, not how romance works in the real world. There aren’t guidebooks for your chosen partner, just the unimaginable terror and joy of becoming known by another. You don’t get to reload a save if you give them a sassier response than the one you intended and they get mad at you, and you definitely don’t get to wait five minutes as you’re speaking to them face-to-face to quickly look up the best line to get them to stay over. There’s an inherent coercive tendency, thanks to the limits of game mechanics, that pervades a lot of digital romances. Games, well, gamify romance; it becomes an extended achievement farm, built entirely on performing the personality that your virtual partner most appreciates. Games with romance sections inherently aren’t good at recreating truly reciprocal relationships. It’s not just because you’re the only real person involved that they’re one-sided: you get to have fun playing the game and following the questlines, then you get to have sex because you made the right choices with a character, and then you get goddamn trading cards.

Sorry, it’s just so absurd.

Cynically, they’re also way to extend game completion. Alternative romance paths provide more replayability and thus more value in a dollars-per-hour sense; I paid $20 for Skyrim and played it for 200 hours, so I’ve enjoyed it at a rate of about $0.10/hr. My rate is $0.30/hr for Dragon Age: Inquisition, where my female player character got to romance the massive, self-serious burly dude, knock his emotional defenses down a few pegs, and possibly shock his entire platoon who heard ‘us’ have sex for the first time (I might misremember that, but I do remember it being wild and surprisingly comedic). There are so many people to romance in DA:I, and the characters are well written enough that I kind of wanted to replay the whole game, multiple times over, just to explore all the possibilities. That’s the thing — having romance in games is fun. There are highly successful, entertaining games built entirely around romance mechanics — here’s looking at you, game about exclusively dating dads that I never played but whose very existence makes me happy at how weird and wonderful our world can be. It makes them feel more real, allows you more investment in the characters you’re adventuring with, and lets you play out romantic fantasies, literally. I had a character-crush on Shani in The Witcher, so getting to romance her was fun during my initial run at the game. I followed a quest line, engaged with her digital emotions (or at least the closest facsimile that those janky animations could muster), and boom we had a flirty romance going on. Then, of course, I got a fucking trading card, and it became absurdly clear that our fake relationship was just another path to completionism; a way to 100% life for Geralt.

The mechanic is dated, sexist, heteronormative (Geralt can’t be gay, so it’s an all-female collection of cards), and also actually sucks from an immersion perspective. For a world as well-written, carefully planned, and deep as The Witcher’s, it feels like a cheap trick that indulges the developers worst tendencies and commodifies any investment in the characters that the writing inspires. Sex in The Witcher books is admittedly just as weird and ridiculous and prolific, but at least Geralt doesn’t draw a little half-naked doodle in a notebook as he rides away in the morning to keep track of his intimate encounters. It’s pandering to the worst stereotype we have of gamers — nerdy, heterosexual dudes who live with their parents and can’t talk to girls — and literally turns every moment of intimacy and romance and sex into an object, barely discernible from the others. What’s Geralt’s number, you ask? Oh, let me just count this here stack of sex cards so I know exactly how many times he’s gotten his socks off since he woke up with amnesia at the start of the game. Being promiscuous isn’t morally wrong (though its almost infeasible to reach Geralt-level heights of studliness), but the way The Witcher gamifies this aspect of Geralt’s personality sucks.

In the grand scheme of things, The Witcher itself is just a game among millions, has already been chastised for this mechanic, and isn’t a must-play. It’s so dated at this point that the only reasons to return to it is if you can’t get enough of stuff that feels even a little like The Witcher 3 or are like me and want to play through the whole trilogy in order (something I’d like to repeat with Mass Effect and Dragon Age; I’m already dreading the time involved). CD Projekt Red got rid of the cards for the sequels, and unless I’ve missed a think-piece, it hasn’t brought them back for Cyberpunk 2077. As an adult with an average capacity for critical thinking, I can differentiate between how game romances (and fictional ones more generally) play out and how they do in our reality, even in the weird world of pandemic dating. That’s an important differentiation, but as mass media rapidly becomes a bigger and bigger part of how we engage with and learn about the world, creating better systems can only be a benefit. The real world will never be programmable into a game, and we probably don’t want that, but at least we can avoid stepping backwards and adding more gamified romances to our lives. We already get enough of that with Tinder.

As I head back into Geralt’s life as a restless, absurdly promiscuous, cyncial loner, and cringe with disappointment every time I find myself in a romantic encounter, I try to feel glad about how far we’ve come since 2007. At least when someone goes and revisits The Witcher 3 in eight years the weirdest thing they’ll find is the time Geralt and Yennefer had sex on a unicorn.

Wait, what?

Canadian he/him who likes video games, writing, and music; has more than one job, which isn’t this.