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What Would Geralt Do? Witcher 2's Approach to Choice and Decision
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What Would Geralt Do? Witcher 2's Approach to Choice and Decision

October 29, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

The Witcher game franchise is built on the work of a Polish author called Andrzej Sapkowski -- neither of the games are built directly from his fiction, but it's the underpinning of everything that the games are, from their quests and story to lead character Geralt.

The PC games have gone from a cult phenomenon in Sapkowski's homeland of Poland to critical and commercial successes across the globe. And with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings released for the Xbox 360 earlier this year, the developer is finding a new audience on game consoles.

Lead gameplay designer Maciej Szcześnik and gameplay producer Marek Ziemak, both work at developer CD Projekt RED. Here, they share their insights into how they make The Witcher series work -- why Sapkowski's books are the wellspring for the games, why it's important to have a defined lead character, and how storytelling is the most important aspect of the franchise.

One of the things I found most interesting about The Witcher 2 was the decision to split the story into two different paths, and literally, probably double the work and content. Some people wouldn't even necessarily be aware that this even happened unless they talked to other people online. Did that scare you, as a decision to make?

Maciej Szcześnik: I mean, it was kind of scary, but...

Marek Ziemak: It was risky, for sure.

MS: It was risky, but we were sure that we were on track at least because we were sure that that would be something new.

MZ: And that it will be appreciated sooner or later.

MS: And it turns out it is, so after all, it was a good decision.

MZ: But I think the main reason for this was that we were trying to implement this decision and consequences system in the game.

MS: So if it was present in Witcher 1, obviously it had to be present in The Witcher 2, and we wanted to push it further.

MZ: We wanted to play a little bit with the emotions, and we started thinking, "What can we give to the players? What can we take away from them based on their decisions?" And this seemed like a pretty cool thing -- that they will have to make their own decisions, what they want to see, and take the costs of their decisions.

It seems like serious decision-making is becoming more important to games. The first phase of it was morality systems, where you get good points or evil points. That's not something that you do in The Witcher.

MZ: Actually it's also one of our more core features. We're trying to make it as gray as possible. We never have choices between good and evil.

MS: More like shades of gray.

MZ: Exactly. That's how it was created by Sapkowski in the novels, and that's what we really liked and appreciated about the books, and we tried to have it still inside of our games.

MS: Yeah obviously it's more real, but it's also more interesting. This is the main reason we are using that.

I think the problem you get when you have a system like that is that people then start making the decisions because they want the cool power that they see down the skill tree of the Light, rather than because they actually care about the moral decision.

MS: Yeah that's the problem of morality systems, I think.

MZ: And one of our friends, a designer from CDP, often says that back in the times whenever you chose the bad character, the game was always shorter, or a little bit less interesting, because usually you were just killing everyone at the very beginning. So we tried to avoid this as well.

Which came first: the grayness of the novel and wanting to adapt that, or your interest in working with a story that had shades of gray?

MS: I think we were more interested in actually introducing these mechanics... this choice-making. Obviously, it's present in the novels, but I think that the true cause was to push it further, to not use those morality systems.

MZ: Yeah, the mechanics, I think, was first in our heads, and then we've seen that it really goes well with the world. We believe that we're delivering something quite refreshing. It's a new type of storytelling, and a new type of gameplay in many places, so we were hoping for the best.

When you say "a new type of storytelling," is that something you feel only games can do?

MZ: No, definitely not. Books did it previously. How they created the world and what they were trying to do -- the emotions they were giving the reader -- I think, was there before computer games. We have possibilities to actually involve players in making choices, so [we can] take it to the next level. But I think we weren't the ones who begun this whole thing with storytelling. Obviously it was there before.

Do you view the storytelling as gameplay? Do you consider that on the same level as other parts of the game?

MS: Yes. Actually, for us, the storyline is the most important thing we have in The Witcher.

MZ: That's always the base. That's the spine of the game. Usually, first work is on the storyline, and then add all the other elements in.

MS: Every other element has to support the storyline. If not, it's not suitable for our game.

Do you feel a tension between storytelling and other types of gameplay? Because obviously that is something the medium always struggles with.

MZ: Yes, we definitely can see the problem, and it's very often in our discussions. For example, when we were designing the combat system, or things like this, we must be true to all the things that are present in the books. We don't want to spoil the fun for the players who know the books by heart. And we still want to keep the same feeling as people who read the books. I'm not sure if I'm clear on this -- we want to continue the trend. The gameplay is totally connected to the storyline, to the world.

MS: Actually we want to motivate the player by the storyline and by quests, so we rarely make random encounters, or things like that, for example. We try to connect every fight to the storyline, if it's possible.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Rob Bergstrom
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One "What would Geralt do?" T-shirt, please.

Paulo Ferreira
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My kingdom for a PS3 version of Witcher 2 :P

James Cooley
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Witcher 2 is turning into my fondest gaming memory of 2012. The best point in the game for me was spending the game chasing a character to decide we really didn't have to fight. It wasn't what my Geralt of Rivia would have done. When I did it, it was unexpected -- but it just felt right.

Oh, and the dawning realization that small decisions could change the majority of the game. It was like, hey, EVERYTHING is different! Never before had choices mattered so much.

Bart Stewart
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Excellent interview. But, this:

"MS: We just cannot go against our lore."

Well, great. Now I'm going to wonder what Star Trek Online might have been like had it been developed by CDPR.

More seriously, why do so many developers so frequently choose conceptually easy game mechanics over lore fidelity? Even more oddly, why so consistently choose conventional mechanics over lore-driven mechanics if they (or their game's publisher) have paid good money for the license to make a game based on some popular bit of IP?

"Gameplay always has to come first" is the usual retort. But doesn't the decent commercial and critical success of The Witcher gamer suggest that this choice isn't always self-evidently right?

Paul Marzagalli
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Geralt is one of my favorite characters of the last decade. I was thrilled that the Witcher 2 was such a success and especially thrilled that they kept the same voice actor for the English version of the game.

Witcher 2 disappointed me in a few small ways. While I appreciated CD Project's eliminating of the backtracking that plagued the first game, Witcher 2 also felt much smaller than the deep narrative of the first game. I won't lie - I also missed the James Bond-like lustiness of Geralt in the first game. Another thing I wish CDPR had done is what Bioware did for Mass Effect 2 on the PS3 - have a comic or something that allowed you to define Witcher 1 choices for the second game. I couldn't run the game on my PC so had to get the 360 version. It would have been nice to see my Witcher 1 choices reflected in the story.

Still, it has been my favorite RPG of this year and one of my favorite games of the year, too. I'm glad they've hit that next level of success with the sequel and I look forward to them building on that going forward. My only hope is they don't shy away from the story's complex narrative, thinking they have to water it down to give it a broader appeal. Nothing would be more fatal.

Richard Redding
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I have actually played both of the Witcher games and I am looking forward to the third one as well as to see how well they incorporate the lessons they learned from the Witcher games into their new cyberpunk offering that they have in the works.

I do not necessarily have a favorite character from the series as I enjoyed them all immensely.

The morality system that is in place however, I do think could use a little tweaking. One of the subtle tweaks I would put into play would be that decisions are not necessarily light and dark or grey for that matter. It merely affects how the world sees your character. Saying this however is easier said then done. If you think about the Shannara series of books written by Terry Brooks and one of the main characters therein, Allanon the druid. Allanon did not always do things because they were right or wrong, he did them because he felt they needed to be done and always for his own reasons.

A morality system is a wonderful thing to have, but players will always find a way to abuse it and twist it to their own desires. The best way to get around this would be to make it so that the system itself has no impact on what the character can obtain, merely how it is obtained and how the world reacts to the character.

One of the few things I did not like about the witcher series, was the camera angles and the lack of ability to go into a First Person Point of View.

Overall though, I am looking forward to a third game in the Witcher series should one be made.