[Heavy spoilers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Last of Us.]
The Witcher is a series that hasn’t, historically, been noted for the respect it shows its women characters. Plenty of people have mocked the first game for the romance cards you could obtain every time you had sex with a woman. I will join the mocking here—that was funny. Kinda depressing, still funny. As such, I expected the third game to be a bit like that.
The first few hours did nothing to eradicate my assumption. There’s this questline you come across quite early on in Wild Hunt that references domestic abuse and the abuser in question is portrayed moderately sympathetically. It involves a man who’s beaten his wife for years. He even killed the man she left him for and took her back home. Then he had the gall to claim that her insults were too much for him to take. Eventually, the wife left him again. He sends Geralt to track her down. The Witcher finds her living in a swamp in the thrall of a coven of monstrous crones. The relatively ‘good’ resolution to this story involves accompanying the Baron to rescue her. The Baron then takes his wife into the mountains in search of a healer.
What moral am I to glean from this? That sometimes one ought to go back to their abuser if they appear contrite? I left feeling sympathetic to the wife and the Baron, who did appear apologetic and pitiful, but annoyed that their daughter hadn’t left the Eternal Flame to care for her mother. That’d be a better ending in my view. Still, the world sometimes provides you a choice between two unideal options.
I was willing to accept the received opinion that The Witcher 3 was a good game, but that its treatment of women was a bit terrible. Then I went to Skellige. The islands did nothing to dissuade me of that notion, but there’s more to the story than that.
When you first arrive in Skellige, you come across a Viking funeral. The previous King of the Isles is about to be sent out to sea. Just before he does, a woman amongst the mourners runs out.
“You need not do this, child,” someone tells her.
“I know, but I want to,” she says as she boards the boat to join him.
As the boat is pushed away from the dock, an old woman comments:
“‘Tis madness, such a young lass.”
“Birna should be the one goin’, they shared a bed for longer,” replies a guard.
Then an arrow is let loose and the boat goes up in flames. Clearly, it is tradition in Skellige for the wife or mistress of a dead King to burn with him.
At the funeral, you run into Yennefer, a past lover of Geralt’s and a sorceress, who offers to escort him to the wake. There, Geralt can express surprise at the honor of having been “seated next to the sons of Jarls, exclusively.” If he does, Yennefer will reproach him, saying that Cerys an Craite is also seated with them and she is the daughter of a Jarl. “Jarls’ daughters are,” she informs him, “in no way inferior to their sons.”
This comment passes by without rebuke from either Cerys or the Jarls’ sons. Yennefer speaks as if she is informing Geralt of a detail about Skellige society. What passes renders Yennefer’s claim dubious, however.
Skelligers select their next ruler through a contest. Reportedly, a council of elders crown whoever has performed the greatest feat during the interim time. Cerys expresses doubt that this is what will occur in practice, as she believes that their fathers have already been deliberating on who might be the next ruler. One of the Jarls’ sons criticizes her, saying that she only speaks that way because she is “short of strength and skill,” calling her out for failing to participate in a race with them and her brother up a mountain. In response, Cerys ends up challenging Geralt to a race. If he wins, he’ll humbly say that he only beat her by a hair. She’ll mourn the fact it doesn’t matter how marginal her loss was, as it was still a loss.
So, Skellige is a land that values physical agility and strength in its leaders. This puts Cerys, whose strength lies in her wits, at a disadvantage. Much later on, just before the coronation, you can learn that the Isles have never before had a Queen rule in her own right. When the time comes for the candidates to put their names forward for the throne, Crach an Craite, the local Jarl, gives what is presumably a stirring speech:
“A king must be wise. A king must command respect. A king must have bollocks. We’ve no lack of men like that. Let those who feel worthy of the throne of Skellige step forward.”
Awkwardly, Cerys throws her hat into the ring or, rather, lays her weapon on the table. Her father shakes his head as she does it. There was about as much tension in the room as there was that time that everyone presumed that Harry Potter, a mere forth year, had placed his name in the Goblet of Fire.
And, yet, Jarls’ daughters are equal to their sons? Really, Yennefer? Really? It is almost as if a society can be sexist without people realizing that it is. In Skellige, you will come across the occasional shieldmaiden and no one actually protested when Cerys decided to run for the crown, but it would appear that, despite apparent legal parity between genders, the society is still unequal due in part to the values it has as well as its traditions. I mean, a young woman just burnt to death. Something is wrong here.
If there’s another way to interpret this, I can’t see it. The writers at CD Projekt RED are exploring actual gender inequality and I think they’re doing it well.
To return to the matter at hand, the claimants to the throne would traditionally slay ungodly beasts for their “great feat.” Cerys, however, sails to Spikeroog to help free Jarl Udalryk, for she believes that he has been cursed. If you go to her aid, you’ll discover that Cerys is right. The Jarl does not, as the locals believe, possess the ability to commune with the gods. Rather, he is possessed by a Hym, a demon who feeds on the guilt of the victim. The Jarl was there when his brother drowned and, as such, feels responsible.
There are two ways of freeing the man from the curse: either you can kill the demon or you can trick it. If you choose to trick it, Cerys provides the solution. She convinces Geralt to throw a baby into a fire before revealing that the babe was an illusion. This tricks the Hym to move onto Geralt to feed off his guilt. The Hym then vanishes upon the realization that Geralt committed no real misdeed. In order for the trickery to work, you must trust Cerys. Together, Geralt and Cerys can free the Jarl of the demon.
Cerys is directly contrasted with her brother Hjalmar, who attempts to slay a giant so folk can move back to an island. If Geralt tracks him down, he finds Hjalmar in quite a state—all barring one member of his crew have died in the process. Hjalmar and Geralt can defeat the giant together, liberating the island, but at great cost.
Once Cerys and Hjalmar have concluded their business, they return to their father’s house for the feast where the ruler will be decided. Tragedy strikes, as some of the revelers transform into bears and attack the candidates. Hjalmar and Cerys survive, but their house’s honor has been stained as the attack occurred under their roof and they cannot point to the culprit. Predictably, Hjalmar will claim that he knows who’s responsible and will go after them. Cerys, meanwhile, will look for evidence. If Geralt aids one or the other, then the throne of the Isles will go to the one he helped. Naturally, if Cerys becomes Queen, then Skellige will prosper economically, while if Hjalmar becomes King, raiding parties from the Isles will continue to plague the Continent.
In my opinion, I think that Cerys makes for almost an objectively better ruler. It seems the best warrior doesn’t always make the best leader. However, Wild Hunt doesn’t play into the Women Are Wiser trope entirely. For instance, the guerilla warrior Vernon Roche appears much more level-headed than his lieutenant, Ves. She goes on a murderous rampage at one point. So, there’s a strike against essentialism.
Another thing happened in Skellige that I’m inclined to write about: I decided to complete a task that Yennefer sent me on. She wanted Geralt’s help to obtain a djinn, or a genie. She tells him that she wishes to find the genie so she can break the magical bond between them. Geralt, you see, once wished that their fates be bound together. As a result of this bond, Yennefer cannot be sure whether her love for him is genuine or some magic trickery. In the end, Yen gets her wish, and the two of them can kiss afterward. On a ship atop a mountain. It was all very romantic.
Still, it’s necessary that you allow her to make an informed decision about Geralt in order to wind up with her in the end. You have to respect her desire for agency.
Now, let’s move on to Ciri, the character around which the main story revolves. I really liked Ciri. She’s Geralt’s adopted daughter of sorts. She is a deft hand with a sword and has the ability to manipulate space and time. She’s also kind of the heiress to the Nilfgaardian Empire—very much The Chosen One of this universe.
The choices you make in your interactions with Ciri ultimately determine whether Ciri lives, the first of which occurs shortly after the battle at Kaer Morhen. Ciri is having little success with her arcane training and asks Geralt how he manages to remain calm despite everything. Geralt can either reassure her that she doesn’t need to “know everything” or say he knows a method of coping (they’ll start having a snowball fight). Telling her she doesn’t need to know everything turns out to be discouraging and counts towards a bad ending.
The second time is optional, but if you decide to take Ciri to see the Emperor, the man who started you on the quest to find her, you should turn down the payment for finding her if you want her to live. This shows that you value her as a person, not how much she could earn you. In the third instance, Ciri is preparing for a negotiation with the sorceresses. You can accompany her to the meeting, but if you do not, she will gain confidence in herself and this will count towards a good ending. Here, Geralt needs to let go of his daughter in order for her to flourish.
The forth is a bit odd. Ciri raids the laboratory of her elven companion, Avallac’h. She finds a lover of his there, who insults her and insinuates that Avallac’h doesn’t much like her. Ciri is upset and expresses the desire to wreck the place. Geralt should then encourage that urge of hers in order to edge her closer towards surviving the conclusion. In the fifth, going with Ciri to visit the grave of a boy who aided her when she was unwell counts as a positive choice. If you made more positive decisions than negative ones, Ciri will live.
Personally, I think these choices appear too small and seemingly inconsequential to be really effective. However, there’s a significance in them. Geralt, it appears, needs to respect Ciri, encourage her, go along with her ideas, and not be overly protective of her in order to guarantee the happy ending. Ciri appears to survive thanks to the power of love/self-confidence/respect or something fairly nonsensical. I am inclined to agree with the criticism of the ending from a technical standpoint. However, there’s meaning within it that elevates the entire piece. I don’t take issue with the spirit of the thing so much as the execution.
During the finale, Ciri will reveal that she plans to sacrifice herself in order to prevent the Great Freeze, the ultimate destruction of the world. Due to her elder blood, only she has the power to do so. She decides to do this straight after the showdown with the Wild Hunt, the antagonists throughout the game. This sacrifice comes entirely out of left field. Geralt has the option of encouraging Ciri to make her sacrifice or protesting. Whatever he does, Ciri will end up walking through a portal before admonishing him lightheartedly for interfering and chasing after Avallac’h (who he thought had captured Ciri).
“What can you know about saving the world, silly? You’re but a witcher. This is my story. Let me finish telling it.”
She says that entirely without malice. She says it fondly. I didn’t cry, but I could’ve.
Whatever choices you make as Geralt, Ciri will end up saving the world. It’s all a bit heavy-handed, but the finale can provide an interesting counterpoint to the conclusion of The Last of Us. In that game, Joel (a middle-aged man) steals back Ellie (his surrogate daughter) from the Fireflies. Ellie is immune to zombification, and they had planned to dissect her in order to find a vaccine, their salvation. When Ellie comes to, he tells her that the Fireflies had concluded that her immunity wouldn’t have made a difference. In doing so, he takes away her agency. Ellie cannot choose to sacrifice herself for the rest of humanity. Geralt, meanwhile, can actively encourage his daughter in her own deliberation to sacrifice herself.
Now, I won’t attempt to make any conclusions about The Witcher 3 as a whole on account of my assessment here. In all honesty, my playthough focused on the main questline and the side quests that spun off from it directly. As such, I feel less qualified to make general statements that a completionist might. Even so, there’s plenty of things I’m completely aware of that relate to the subject at hand in-game that I’ve neglected to mention. There are particularly harrowing scenes that display violence against women, for instance.
Still, in the specific examples that I’ve discussed, Wild Hunt was interesting in a manner that I wasn’t expecting. I expected to experience complicated moral quandaries. I didn’t expect to see an even halfway decent presentation of gender inequality. Or a father who needs learn to let his daughter make her own choices. Or another father who needs to learn that his daughter is actually quite good at making her own choices.