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As I continue to play through The Witcher 3, I’ve found myself surprisingly interested in characters’ faces. At first, I wasn’t sure why. They are noticeably less detailed than faces from more recent games, so it’s not because of graphical fidelity. But each seemed eminently memorable, and somehow I never seemed to see the same face twice. Where the hordes of non-player characters in most games quickly become a haze of similar looking people, often with the exact same faces appearing again and again, The Witcher 3’s distinctive cast is an impressive accomplishment. I soon realized the game’s secret. Most games include characters that adhere to a standard of bland attractiveness, probably inherited from films where everyone is good looking because they’re all actors. But The Witcher 3 is not afraid to make its characters ugly.
That’s an uncharitable way to phrase it, to be honest. Characters are seldom actually hideous. But they are outside of the conventional Hollywood view of how people should look, and once faces no longer need to be nicely proportioned, there are so many options. Large, knobbed noses. Crooked teeth. Sunken cheeks, large ears, perhaps a few pockmarks or scars. Many faces are wrinkled or weather-worn, or simply dirty. Some are broad and big boned, others gaunt. Sometimes beady eyes accompany a small mouth, other times a wide jaw accompanies an equally wide smile. Nearly everyone has a particular memorable feature, be it their slight sneer, or roughly cropped hair, or perhaps a fancy beard or moustache.
These people feel true to the Medieval Central Europe inspirations for the Witcher setting. Many are peasants who care little for fancy fashion, with simple hairstyles and functional clothing. Many more are soldiers, who also have little time for vanity. Times are not good as the game opens, during a moment of relative calm amidst war. Much territory has recently been conquered, and the areas that have not are bracing for another imminent invasion. Everyone is trying to scrape by, eking what living they can from the war-torn land, so it’s no surprise they look a bit weatherbeaten and world-weary.
Pleasingly, the diverse appearance of the cast in The Witcher 3 is not limited to their faces. They feature different body types as well, something that many games don’t bother with. I’ve heard a variety of excuses for this, usually involving the expense of building a rigging new animation models, but the result is that in most games everyone has the same thin build, the same shoulder width, and are often even the exact same height. In The Witcher 3, however, I’ve met the big and burly and the emaciated, and everything in between. The infamous Bloody Baron, a character important early in the story, is quite large indeed, and many incidental characters have been noticeably pudgy.
At least, all of that is true of the men. When it comes to women, The Witcher 3 finds it harder to veer away from pretty faces and figures, excepting a few of the older characters. This is a problem that’s been with the series since its start, and similar criticisms could be leveled at Andrzej Sapkowski’s books upon which the games are based. Sapkowski’s writing often has frank depictions of women navigating a patriarchal society, but also veers into infantilization and objectification of female characters on occasion, resulting in a mixed bag when it comes to treatment of gender. The Witcher games, however, have generally come out on the bad end. The first game infamously featured collectible “sex cards” for each woman that protagonist Geralt slept with, with illustrations of the women in lewd and provocative poses (if you don’t want to read the whole series linked there, the final post has a nice summary). This was awful, marring an otherwise interesting game. The sequel certainly improved things, but still objectified many of its female characters, and still contained its fair share of awkward sex scenes for those who sought them out. The third game has been the best on this front so far, but it’s not entirely free of its predecessors’ problems.
For example, this is the first game in which the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg, a major character and Geralt’s primary love interest in the books, appears. It’s a pretty important reveal. Her first scene? Lounging in a chair, completely naked, while she does her hair. Sure, Geralt is also naked, taking a bath, and in the books the pair were never prudish about their trysts. But did that really need to be the first scene? There are other ways to establish intimacy between characters without going straight for titillation. It’s a shame, because once Yennefer clothes herself and the two get to talking, she’s actually well written. I had some reservations about how her character would be handled, but so far she’s been great, and true to the strong character from the books. I think she’ll be involved a lot more as I get farther in the game, and I’m looking forward to that.
In the early part of the game, however, Geralt instead runs into a different sorceress. And, in defiance of reason, the game pulls the same trick with her as it did with Yennefer, inexplicably getting her naked and into a bath within minutes. Openly flirtatious dialogue ensues, and when she does clothe herself, it’s obvious that the clothing is placed over her topless character model, giving players plenty of chances to peek down her bodice. Once again, the character herself is actually written pretty well, and she’s involved in a series of interesting quests. But she’s blatantly sexualized, something that has yet to happen for any male character. I’m sure the developers would claim they’re just being true to the source material, since Sapkowski’s sorceresses tend to be particularly lustful, but it comes off as lazy at best, and at worst, clueless. Things are not as extreme for the less magically inclined women in the game, but there’s a clear trend for making them beautiful and thin, whereas the men get a much wider range of appearance.
Then there’s the fact that everyone is white. This is something that earned the game some criticism. My own feelings about it are mixed. There’s no question that non-white characters are severely underrepresented in games in general, and I wholeheartedly support better representation moving forward. But where so many games just feature white people for no reason, because that seems like a “default” person to the developers, the people in The Witcher 3 are specifically inspired by Slavs. And while Slavs have light skin, they are not often represented in games. There are people with darker skin in the world of The Witcher, they just don’t live anywhere near here, the Northern Kingdoms. Even the invaders from the south are white, the conflict analogous to a large European empire invading a smaller neighbor. There’s plenty of racism and ethnic violence portrayed in the games, but it’s not based on skin color, it’s based on species — elf, dwarf, human — or the different human cultures of the Northern Kingdoms and Nilfgaard. So one could argue that everyone in this part of the game’s world should be white, much as a game set in (or inspired by) Japan would have a cast that’s mostly ethnically Japanese.
On the other hand, the developers could have just put non-white people in the game anyway. That’s what the Witcher television series on Netflix did, and it was fine. As the series creator pointed out, the racism in the Witcher books is based on things like the shape of one’s ears, never on one’s skin color. No one in the books cares about skin color, so why not have the whole range? There’s no real downside to this. In fact, the show’s creators view it as a way to take stories and elements of Slavic culture and bring them to a global audience. Sure, those who grew up in that culture, who may be excited to see a game inspired by it rather than by a generic Tolkien-esque fantasy setting that is so prevalent, might find it strange if the characters do not all look like them. But what of it? The game would still represent Slavic culture, it would just also represent other people. I suspect this is where the decision came from, however: the Polish development team were excited to make a game inspired by their own culture, so they filled it with people who look like them. Even if the historical reality in Poland was a bit more diverse.
So, I would have preferred to have more ethnic diversity in the cast. But I still appreciate how characterful the people in the game are. I mean, check out this lout:
Or this exhausted elf:
Or this proud blacksmith:
How about a dim-witted witch hunter?
Or a stone-faced criminal:
I could go on. There are so many people to meet in The Witcher 3, and I’m sure I’ll encounter many more before I’m finished with Geralt’s adventure. I’m looking forward to it. And I’ll certainly have more to say about the game as I go on, so look for more posts in the future. In the meantime, you can read my initial thoughts here if you haven’t already, and might consider checking the game out yourself. It’s good.