On Criticism of The Witcher 2’s Third Act

This generation particularly has been plagued by the frequent drawing of comparisons between film as a medium, and video games as a medium trying to replicate film.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself –  for example literature and film are often compared as a way to tease out the differences in the devices used by both mediums to convey symbolism,meaning or the development of characters from two dimensional protagonists who act out scenes, to those that have a back story, and with that, motivation.  So the comparison between media is an absolutely legitimate form of writing, criticism and academia.

Video games are no different in that they too have their own devices through which the developer (storyteller) chooses to tell their story.  Characters are given dimension through conversation and back story, symbolism is pervasive through visual imagery and deeper meanings or messages are often embedded into the set narrative or even the interactive decisions the player makes throughout the course of the game.  Whether the intention of the developer or not, all of the elements that make literature and film ripe for consideration and debate by academics across the world exist in their products – less obvious perhaps, but there nonetheless.

Unfortunately the comparisons that are usually drawn between film and videogames particularly tend to focus on the more obvious film like qualities that gaming has adopted.  Scripted action sequences, high quality voice acting and the use of professional cinematographers are often used as points of discussion by the games media and by enthusiasts more broadly when attempting to legitimise video gaming as an art form or legitimate story telling device.  While these are all important points of comparison they are a natural evolution of the medium through the improvement of technology and the increased level of investment that comes from the ‘mainstreaming’ and increased interest by people generally in the industry, and while these are all incredibly important when it comes to appealing to the mass market they in many cases are nothing more than aesthetic improvements to what developers have been achieving with video games for at least two hardware generations.

The Witcher 2 is an example of all of the above.  The game is full of cinematography that is fit for film, action sequences that are perfectly paced and characters and a world that are deeper than you would expect from a majority of films that are released into cinemas these days.   Add on to this the adult nature of some of the themes and narrative contained in the game and you’ve got something that is ripe for comparisons with other, more mainstream media.  And the game deserves it, what it does it does well, and when playing the game you can’t help but feel that this is a game that marks a turning point in what can be expected from a video game narrative and its characters.  In and of himself the main protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, is a complex and intriguing character who seems to understand what those around him don’t, that the ‘world’ is highly political and complicated game, and that there is no right and wrong or black and white.  This dynamic is one that is developed and played on throughout the course of the game and is one very well worth experiencing, if you haven’t already.  Put simply Geralt is one of the more interesting characters you will play in a video game.

But these aspects, the cinema like aesthetics and well-developed characters, are not the only points of comparison to film and literature.   Structure and pacing of a story are particularly important given what video games are trying to do with the introduction of complex narratives and worlds.  Video game enthusiasts have become accustomed to a narrative structure that has evolved organically from very simple and humble beginnings.  That is that video games, traditionally, were not out to tell a story but rather were to entertain through well considered and designed game mechanics and the rewards from perfecting those.  While this theorem behind game development has fundamentally shifted toward one that places near equal emphasis  on story telling to that of the mechanics that govern the player’s interaction, the structure of the story that enables the narrative to move forward has not evolved with it.  And this is just a function of the medium, in a situation whereby the storyteller doesn’t have complete control over the narrative experience by virtue of the fact that the player ultimately is in control of many of the factors that determine the way in which a story moves forward.  This is certainly a very stark contrast between film and video games when it comes to building up to a climax or resolution of a plot point, where control is taken away from the storyteller, the pace and sense of urgency can often suffer as a result.  Developers have begun to address this through instituting ‘points of no return’ in their games, where the story move forward arbitrarily and control is taken away from the player to ensure that plot points are conveyed in a meaningful way.  Essentially this is making sure the story that needs to be told is told in the way it was intended.

Which leads to my defence of the criticisms levelled at the abrupt conclusion to the game’s final act.  While Act 3 of the game is markedly shorter than those preceding it, the expectation that it will follow the structure and duration of the former Acts is a legacy expectation of when games weren’t attempting to hit those high emotional notes at the conclusion of the game, where levels were all created equal and where plot points were few and far between and usually conveyed through non-interactive cut-scenes.

In light of this, think about how the Witcher 2 tells its story.  If you turn the structure of the story that the developer CD Projekt Red is trying to tell upside down and consider the Third Act to be a resolution to the climax and revelations from the Act before, then it is absolutely imperative that the plot points are revealed in a deliberate and pre-determined manner.  By taking control of the pacing of the final act, the storyteller is ensuring that the sense of urgency that Geralt and those surrounding him arrived at the end of the Second Act is maintained, explained but more importantly resolved in a timely manner by the end of the Third, and final Act.

If you consider many of the greatest films ever made, the final scenes are used to provide sound narrative backing to the climax in the scenes before it.    In that way, the Witcher 2 is the closest a video game has come to matching the narrative tone, and cinematic qualities of a film to date, because not every story ends with a bang, or with everyone and everything meeting their maker in a hail of gun fire and explosions.