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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.