I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played [The Witcher 3]

Oh no. Here it is. One of those moments where you’ve got to make a snap decision, but you can feel in your heart that it’s a biggie.

Damn. If I let her go off and do this, she’s not ready. She’s going to get hurt. She doesn’t understand the risks. This could end badly – so badly. I’d be an idiot to let a teenage girl walk into that situation without her father.

But if I make the call for her, if I insist on shoving myself into her decision, then I’m also diminishing her as a person. I’m robbing her of the opportunity to become all the woman that she can be. And that’s starting to mean more to me than ‘keeping her safe.’  There’s going to come a day when I’m not there, when I can’t keep her safe. She’s got to be able to make it on her own.

I’ve spent the last week second-guessing my choices as a “parent,” worried that I could have chosen better … This wasn’t what I expected when I popped the game disk into my PS4 in December.

The Witcher 3 is a video game by a Polish studio based on a fantasy series popular there, one that is just now making its way into the American market. (You should immediately go buy the first book on Amazon, because if you like fantasy at all, you’ll enjoy it.) The books and games center on the story of Geralt the Witcher, one of the few remaining members of a guild founded in the book’s Middle Ages to fight monsters who prey on humans. As people began to populate the land (a clone of Eastern Europe) back in the day, witchers were created through mutation and strong drugs to be faster and more capable mutant humans, able to take down the terrifying creatures that the humans discovered in their land. But that was hundreds of years ago, and the witchers are a dying breed now, a relic of an older and less-enlightened age, and despised by most people as an aberration.

witcher-3-screenshot-4-840x473Geralt is a pretty hard man at the beginning of his story. Unlike many fantasy RPG’s which throw you into an open world to craft your own story, Geralt brings his own strong, established personality and a definite story arc. He reminds me of a 1930s noir detective. He speaks in short clipped sentences and sees the world in his own version of black and white. To a witcher, the politics of men matter little. His job is to kill the monsters that men can’t kill … though he wisely recognizes that many “monsters” are far better than the rich men and rulers who devour their subjects through greed and corruption. But he wasn’t created to deal with them.

***SPOILERS AHEAD*** YOU SHOULD STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED THE GAME
and you really should play this game! ….One of the best I’ve ever encountered. 

Into Geralt’s hard and lonely life comes a child, a Child of Destiny, a consequence of the Law of Surprise. (“As payment, give me something you have at home that you do not expect.” Or “Give me your first child, the one yet unborn.”) Geralt has little use for Destiny since he survives by hard training, fast reflexes, and avoiding the stupidity of a fight he cannot win. But Destiny has other plans, and inserts into his life a six year old, blond firebrand named Ciri. Geralt, when he has a home, lives with a couple other bachelor witchers in a drafty, crumbling castle. His idea of “fun” is either drinking or working out.

But suddenly, he’s a dad. And through the power of video gaming, now so are you.

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Ciri grows up, as children are wont to do. And so does Geralt (who’s 100 years old, by the way, when the story opens – witchers don’t really age thanks to their mutations). And so does Yenefer, Geralt’s on-again/off-again love interest, a woman who’s so polarizing, the Witcher fanbase sorts itself into #TeamYen and #TeamTriss. Yenefer is a hard woman to love. That’s a long story and I’ll leave it for the books or games to unravel for you, but it’s worth noting that I couldn’t stand her for the first several hours I played the game (or the first several hundred pages of the books). I came around later.

But what makes the Witcher 3 a stunning masterpiece of storytelling is the way it thrusts you into the job of parent, so craftily that you don’t realize it’s happened. Geralt is on a mission to find Ciri #becauseplot and along the way you’re asked to make decisions, often in the heat of a moment, about how you’re going to respond to Ciri’s attitude or request or needs.

Do you coddle her? Encourage her? Forbid her? Protect her?

It matters. There are three endings to this game, and one of them is horrible. Gamers talk about how that ending crushed them. The other two endings are “good” but also bittersweet. Parents can’t keep their kids forever. It’s not what’s meant to be, no matter how much you enjoy their company. You’ve got to let go. The big question is, will you be able to live with yourself once you see the embodiment of all your parenting choices? #allthefeels

What struck me, once I finished the game, was how much Geralt and Yenefer (and I-as-Geralt) had changed because of parenting Ciri. You realize you’re making decisions differently. They’re sacrificing themselves for the sake of this girl they’re raising. And as Ciri becomes more and more their heart-child, a woman they will fight and die for because they love her that deeply, their sacrifice is redemptive. By sacrificing themselves, they save themselves – from a life of loneliness and bitterness and selfishness. “He who saves his life shall lose it; but he who sacrifices his life for My sake, shall find it,” said Christ in the Gospels. Learning to live and love sacrificially has consequences, primarily for the person who’s learning to love selflessly.

Please dive into this game if you have any inclination toward video games at all. I promise, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, I’ll probably find you bawling your eyes out at the ending, like I did…. because that’s what a great game does for you. It drives home its story so that you cannot escape it, so that you feel it and walk around in a daze for a bit afterward, wondering how you could have been a better parent…..

I recommend reading this lovely short piece on the quality of The Witcher 3‘s storytelling.

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Over 800 awards for this game. Nothing to sneeze at.

You might also enjoy this great analysis by the guys at Extra Credits on how The Witcher 3 uses choice and romantic dilemmas to force the player to confront his/her own character:

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