Note: NSFW but only very minor spoilers.
Another note: Proud to announce that this post was featured on The Border House! If you want to see the comments that were posted over there, follow this link!
I was very excited when The Witcher 2 was released earlier this year, but I quickly got annoyed with a few things (controls, balance) so I took a break from the game soon afterwards, somewhere in the middle of chapter 2. Then, I’ve spent a lot of time playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed for my thesis. When that was done, I put 153 hours into Skyrim and now I’m back to The Witcher 2.
These three games combined would make for an amazing experience: I love the openness and the beautiful world of Skyrim, but the characters are generic and flat. I love the way Assassin’s Creed makes the virtual world physically plausible and movement realistic even though your avatar is pulling the wildest stunts. I love the “adult” setting of The Witcher, it is dirty, gritty and damn funny.
Posts about the other two will follow, but this one will be about Andrzej Sapkowski’s (I spelled that correctly right away, wow!) creation in general, and specifically regarding the representation of women in the game and in its promotion. I am a huge Witcher fangirl, in spite of many things that initially annoyed me about the franchise – I went into detail on this in this post and explained what changed my mind here. I am currently reading one of the books, partly to see whether these problems are built into the franchise by its creator or if it’s the gaming industry’s doing.
If you made out the latter as the culprit, well done, but it wasn’t too hard, eh? Get this bit from the Witcher Wiki about one slight but revealing *giggle* difference between the novels and games:
After her fall at Sodden Hill and her consequent resuscitation, Triss mentions that she “will never again be able to wear a dress with a low neckline”, suggesting that some skin disfigurment still remains on her chest. In the game however, she displays a generous amount of cleavage without any traces of damage whatsoever.
While Triss’ normal attire in The Witcher 2 is almost chaste, you have ample of time to… uhm, inspect her skin for possible scarring in her nude scenes. Here is, though, her outfit, which I adore:
A general statement before you get me wrong: I do not criticize nudity (in games) per se, I just don’t want it to be an end in itself, and one thing that annoys me in particular is the double standards many guys have, i.e. female characters are expected to wear plate bikinis in combat and nothing at all in romance/sex cutscenes, while male characters wear reasonable armor in combat and keep their pants on at all times. It doesn’t make sense from an in-game perspective and it’s immature if you can’t look at a naked person of the same sex, especially if it’s just pixels.
In a scene in which Triss and Geralt take a bath in some ruins, Triss immediately removes her clothes with a spell and jumps in the water. Geralt begins undressing, but when he reaches his pants in the process, Triss grabs his arm and pulls him into the pool – pixel penis exposure averted!
However, The Witcher 2 does a good job on some counts. While the very explicit sex scenes – which must make BioWare with its “mature RPG” Dragon Age blush – caused “complaints” on forums from guys who didn’t know how to complete the game with just one hand, Triss and Ves are both reasonably dressed when out of bed. And the romancey dialogs are quite well done.
Ves is a kickass soldier, who exemplifies the “beauty vs. talent” dilemma, because she does get picked for special assignments that make use of her pretty face.
Her journal entry in the game reads:
The fair-haired Ves stood apart from the rest of Vernon Roche’s unit, and not only in that she was the only woman in an elite formation of hardened cutthroats and swashbucklers. Her girlish face and shapely body would stand out even if a uniform did emphasize them. For there is something in soldier women that attract a man’s gaze, and Ves was no exception. The reader should not, however, be mislead by this description – one does not earn a Blue Stripes membership with good looks, but with skill, determination and, at times, ruthlessness. Anyone disregarding Ves would pay dearly for misjudging this young woman. Because of her gender, Ves would sometimes receive assignments where her beauty was more important than her combat abilities and efficiency. Roche had used Ves as his trump card more than once.
Here’s a screenshot of Ves – I love her outfit, stance, hairdo, everything!
Of course, we can’t have reasonably dressed female characters, so we have to create a mod that changes this outfit to the default whore apparel… I do suppose people who prefer this one have no imagination whatsoever. Their loss, right? (btw, when I last looked, the mod had only 400-something unqiue downloads.)
Incidentially, a bug in The Witcher 2 made it possible for Geralt to undress without exposing *any* kind of skin…
Seriously though, unlike the first game, there is much less blatant sexism in the second one. The awkward pin-up cards were dropped, to name one example. Similar to the two main relationships in The Witcher 1 with either Shani or Triss, you can choose whether Geralt remains faithful to Triss or not. In general, I find Geralt to be very respectful towards women, taking into account his general disrespect towards authority, religion or mages.
Yes, The Witcher 2 is a very adult game (both regarding the general setting and sexuality), but it is much more than that. It has a beautiful world, interesting quests, intriguing and nuanced characters, original details like the bestiary that is refreshingly different from other RPGs and much more to please a fan of the genre, whether male or female. It certainly diserves the Mature rating for the nudity alone, but apart from that, there’s cursing, blood, torture, incest, drug abuse… and the aforementioned dirt and grit that makes it “adult” in the other meaning of the term. It’s not a fluffy fairy tale, it’s a story filled with pain, death, injustice, prejudice, loss in a harsh setting.
What has been used to promote the game, however, boils down to naked skin in its truest sense. For example, Triss was on the Playboy cover in Poland and in Russia, a nude calendar was produced, here’s a video from the shooting, showing a completely naked Triss and a fully dressed Geralt:
[Side note: Perhaps she dropped the Triss outfit because it didn't look as awesome as in the game?]
I really don’t care about the calendar or the video per se. What I do care about is that this is the part of the campaign that sticks, and gives a skewed image of the game. It does not do the game justice at all. I am not sure if I would have given it a second look if confronted with the marketing campaign. This is hardly how you promote a game to female gamers (who, if I am any indication, might come to love this game almost as much as the guys), or to male gamers who expect more from a game than pixel porn and are against sexism in or outside of games. Most feedback I get here on my blog is from guys, not girls, so I know they exist.
Now for a little experiment: Imagine an Oscar-winning Hollywood film with a great plot, characters and special effects that features some explicit sex scenes was marketed primarily with explicit material. I am finding this incredibly hard, to be honest. It is economically stupid to give your product an image that does not correspond with its actual content, but will most likely alienate parts of your audience while not gaining considerable new target audiences. This is of course guesswork, but I don’t think that many RPG-hating shooter fans (sorry for the stereotype, but I’m trying to make a point *cough*) would think “Hey, I hate RPGs, but this one has sex scenes, so I’m going to buy it” especially in times where you can watch screencaptures of everything on YouTube two days after the game’s launch.
After noticing similar differences between the content and campaign for Dragon Age 2, I get the impression that while many developers are (trying to be) more inclusive of the interests of female gamers (and the wonderful group of male gamers that support gender equality), the publishers go behind their backs and leave out these aspects and emphasize the “made for the male gaze” parts instead. So I can’t help but wonder: Why is the game marketing obviously more sexist than the game development? Are they too dense to realize that pleasing a decreasing percentage of gamers while alienating an increasing one is plainly irrational?
[Edit: If you understand German, here's an article with the opinions of the male journalists of PC Games Hardware, who seem to agree with me. And this English forum conversation is quite fun to read.]