The Witcher Problem -or- How Skyrim Taught me to be a Moral Sociopath

I have never played, nor will I ever play, a Witcher game, let’s get that out of the way, first thing.
I’m not going to write a piece about the newest iteration of The Witcher that is going to come even remotely close to discussing the quality of its gameplay, its mechanics, or its aesthetics. Quite frankly, from everything I’ve seen, those three things are standard setting, stunning, or otherwise spectacular, in one way or another. Plus, I have no real experience writing a game review, and should leave it to far more qualified individuals.

I want to talk about women.

If you follow games at all, even in the relaxed fashion that I do, it’s virtually impossible to miss some kind of advertisement, review, video or spoiler for the new Witcher game; and I’ve watched, read or observed, in some fashion, many of these. There is a singular, overarching theme to all of the coverage I’ve seen, thus far, and it’s that the game is pretty much a massive step backward in how women are represented in AAA video games. The Witcher series, and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is no different here, brought high fantasy RPGs back to the realm of scantily clad, wimpy, damsels in distress, a land that we actively need to push the genre out of. It’s why I won’t spend money on, or say good things, about their product, and feel that anyone who supports gender equality shouldn’t either.

From what I can glean from my reading on the game, the whole story is about a grumbly, masculine type, being a giant fucking sociopath (or hero, depending on the tree), whilst also being a general badass throughout the game world in which he is placed. Sorry folks, that’s a fairly unoriginal protagonist (I would go so far as to say fairly typical)… Also, a few years ago, Bethesda did it, and better, with Skyrim. Let me make you understand something, Bethesda did it way better, by allowing you to be a giant fucking sociopath AND supporting the rights of females and female identified people, at the same time. That’s sort of impressive, really.

Let’s talk about Skyrim, and my life, for a minute. Both my fiance (a straight identified, white, British female) and myself (a straight enough identified, white, American male), both in our early thirties, are pretty massive Elder Scrolls fans. Me, from the days of loading Daggerfall on DOS, and her, from the very first time she set her eyes on Morrowind. We play the living shit out of Elder Scrolls games; I think the most impressive statistic is my lady love’s 400+ hours spent in in the world of Oblivion, well past the point where most human’s attention spans would have hung themselves in the bathroom. 

I think the most impressive statistic is my lady love’s 400+ hours spent in in the world of Oblivion, well past the point where most human’s attention spans would have hung themselves in the bathroom.

We mutually love the game, but we play it completely differently: the missus RP’s a character from beginning to end, every decision made is viewed through the lens of what she imagines her character’s logic and morality to be. I play the game like a complete fuckface, an utter completionist, not concerning myself with the morality of the world in which my character operates; I will get every single piece of Daedra loot that I can, and if I torch a child, resort to cannibalism, or put an innocent to the axe, I very much will. Bearing all that in mind, I still am not comfortable playing a game that would subjugate an entire gender, and relegate them to something akin to a cock sponge, with little in the way of purpose aside from the pleasure of the main character, or acting as a prop in a storyline. I view that as insulting, and a massive step backward.

What allows Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to take the moral high ground? Artistic license, and freedom of choice.  Allow me to explain:

Bethesda has a choice whenever it releases one of their titles, a great deal of it actually, of the world they present when they ship the game. Skyrim in it’s base form, the game that was presented to us by it’s creator, prior to the modding community getting its claws into it, was the game that the creators felt strongly about. In that version of the game, women are an integral part of the storyline, not in the fact that they were portrayed differently than men, far from it. The Women of Skyrim are portrayed exactly like men. That isn’t to say that they don’t fall into hackneyed or stereotyped dialogue or plots, but the very fact that there are female town guards, female shopkeepers, female mercenaries and shield maidens, or general female bad-guys who will do their goddamndest to cave my fucking skull in at the earliest opportunity, alleviates some of those stereotypes. My character kills women with equal frequency to men, for no other reason than necessity. If my avatar lowers his weapons to these characters, they will rip his fucking face off. That is important.

One of the prime examples of Skyrim’s feminism is ironically tied up in it’s marriage system. Bethesda programmed the marriage system in the game to come with benefits, and not the lascivious kind either. In the game, when you marry another character, they return to your home, at which point they hunker down and start living the easy life… The programmers decided to allow your spouse to set up shop, literally,and run a business out of the home. My lizard brain understands that that is done for no other reason than to reward the player with regular income, and someone to make them home cooked meals, which impart a bonus, improving gameplay, etc. When looked at objectively, it comes across much different. Not only did my character’s spouse set up shop in my house, she started pawning the gear I gave her when she was still my follower, and, from what I understand of the dialogue trees, only gives me a share of of the profits, keeping a share for herself. Even the act of requesting a home cooked meal implies that my in-game spouse has the right to tell me to fuck right off. 

Even the act of requesting a home cooked meal implies that my in-game spouse has the right to tell me to fuck right off.

Bethesda continues it’s bar-setting diversity initiative by not limiting the marriage selection process at all. Sure, there are characters that can, and can’t, get married, but this is mostly due to keeping the game and its stories manageable in creation, as opposed to a social statement. Regardless of what gender you play, what race you play, you can marry anyone eligible to be married in Skyrim. So, if my big, male, Redguard character (a vaguely African/Arabic race), wanted to marry a big, burly Khajiit (literally cat people), he most certainly could, as long as that Khajiit was an eligible bachelor. They could then piss off to Riften, and live in Honeyside, basking in matrimonial bliss, adopting kids, eating sweet rolls, and chugging copious amounts of skooma. They would still have to deal with the horrible inherent racism of the local Nord population (“Skyrim is for the Nords!”), but that’s a different article entirely.

The point, I so ploddingly get to, is that by making equality a default in your world, you can avoid the title of perpetuating an outdated ideal. It’s very difficult, in this day in age, to claim that the fantasy world you created cannot be sexually and racially diverse, because at the root of it all, it’s a manufactured vision. The Witcher’s world is not Europe, and Skyrim is not either; there is no reason that you need to create a replica of a perfect medieval Europe. I don’t know why one would want to, anyway, because the last medieval Europe was pretty goddamn shitty.

Bethesda delivers a world in all their Elder Scrolls games that draw heavily from certain histories, and cultures; it presents a world of much more robust sexual liberation and diversity, something Projeckt Red CD, and many other developers, choose not to do. It’s true that the Skyrim modding community has made some absurdly deplorable mods, that change the female characters into wasp-waisted, nude, fuck toys… But the modding community is a completely independent entity than the company that published the game; a small community of completely unaffiliated scumbags making mods for themselves and their equally scummy pals. I’m not judging those guys (that’s a lie, I totally am), the people that I’m targeting are the game creators, not their hangers on.

I’m not going to defend Bethesda until my dying breath, because they definitely have room for improvement: all of their advertising leading up to the game had a decidedly masculine bent, showing the dragon slaying hero as male. They just dropped the new trailer for their upcoming Fallout 4, a game that will be as important as any Elder Scrolls game, the character in the advertising is (yet again), male… They will likely claim that this is due to attempting to sell to what they perceive their target market to be, which I will absolutely call bullshit on.  Despite that, though, Skyrim lays a solid foundation for other developers to create inclusivity as a default, as opposed to a notion.

Projekt Red CD has made its decision about the Witcher and the Witcher’s world. They want to recreate a nice, white, vision of perfection, where women are for fucking on unicorns, wearing scoop neck chemises, and occasionally swinging a sword. Their importance is restricted, they are objects, props, and nothing else. They have no intrinsic worth in this game world, and that’s their crime and their failure. Already the male video game elite are out there, telling us how we’re wrong (protip: if a bunch of guys get really offended by someone saying something is sexist, it usually is).

So, now, nearly four years after its release, I’m going to go home this evening, and load up Skyrim… I’m going to eat the corpses of my enemies, kill innocents who stand in my way, slay dragons, and be a giant fucking sociopath, as I murder and maim my way to another completionist victory… I’m also going to do business with female business owners, Jarls, and wizards, complete quests for female mine owners, assasins, or crones, because that’s natural and the way it should be. I’m not going to buy The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, I think the game represents a lot of things I feel are holding the industry and society back. Some of you may go ahead and buy it, I don’t care, that’s your choice… But, I’d think really hard before you defend it, and you may want to ask yourself why some people aren’t.

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