(Spoilers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt).
Start a snowball fight. Turn down a chest of gold. Trash an office. Help bury a body. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, these are the four steps required to save the world.
Fatherhood is a theme rarely explored in video games to any satisfying degree. This is in large part down to the tendency for the parents or children of main characters to die as part of their motivation. The only good example that comes to mind is The Last of Us, and even that leans heavily on the whole dead kids trope (I have a lot of things to say about that game at a future date).
Witcher 3 is a different story altogether. More than any game I know it makes fatherhood one of its most central themes. Though not without its own shortcomings, it is refreshing to play a game where the ultimate resolution depends not on brute force, but on how good a father you have proven to be.
(Note: I have not played either of the first two games in The Witcher series, nor have I read any of the books. All of my points stem from my experiences with Witcher 3, please bare that in mind.)
A World of Monsters
First a word on the setting. Witcher 3 is set in a fantasy world filled with both literal and figurative monsters. The lands are war-torn and lawless, thanks to an invasion of the Northern Realms by the mighty Nilfgaardian Empire. Suffice to say, the lives of everyday peasants are rather unpleasant in the present.
Things are even worse for the non-human races and the practitioners of magic. Witch hunts and pogroms have become more the norm than the exception, supported all the way by the King of Redania, the last standing kingdom of the Northern Realms.
To make matters (somehow) even worse, a band of powerful riders known as The Wild Hunt have taken to emerging from thin air, spreading death and destruction wherever they appear. This is to say nothing of the ever quickening spread of the White Frost, a Lovecraftian style encroaching force that is prophesised to destroy every world that has ever existed.
Amidst all this chaos and bloodshed, amidst the world literally coming apart at the seams, Geralt of Rivia just wants to find his adoptive daughter.
Father and Daughter
Geralt is the titular witcher of the series, a professional monster hunter with mutated genes and a rather cynical disposition. Having spent the first two games in a state of amnesia, he has at last reclaimed his memory and soon finds himself searching for his long-lost adoptive daughter, Ciri. (He is actually hired to find Ciri by her biological father, the Emperor of Nilfgaard. We will come back to this point later).
Ciri is a Child of the Elder Blood (the game does a really poor job of explaining what that means exactly), gifted with the power to shunt between worlds, and has spent the past decade being hunted by The Wild Hunt. They wish to use her powers to transport their people from their world (which has been almost destroyed by the White Frost) into the Northern Realms (which doesn’t sound so bad, save for the fact they also intend to murder everything in the Northern Realms upon arrival).
Roughly two thirds of the game is spent with Geralt on Ciri’s trail. Geralt gets into a series of ever more grandiose adventures, always one step behind Ciri. At long last, the witcher is finally reunited with his adoptive daughter. At long last, I have sufficiently established the setting and can now talk about what I came here to talk about.
Not Your Story
Geralt is the protagonist of Witcher 3. He is the only playable character for 95% of the game. The entire game series has followed his adventures. Yet rather uniquely, this game in which he stars is not at all his story.
On Geralt’s travels he may become embroiled in family dramas, assassination plots, rescue missions and conflicts for a throne. While an important cog in all of these stories, none of them find him at their centre. His chief role is in helping others finish their own stories. He may help to kill a king, but he will never strike the final blow, nor rise to power in the subsequent vacuum.
This becomes doubly true when Geralt at last finds Ciri. For the final third or so of the main storyline he takes on the role of Ciri’s chief ally. He becomes the chief supporting player in her story, important but never central, because it is not within his capabilities to save the world. That responsibility rests on Ciri.
Which is, when you think about it, the most epic possible form of the idea that ‘A parent cannot live their child’s life for them’.
Start a Snowball Fight
Which at long last brings us back to the beginning. Geralt’s chief role in saving the world is supporting Ciri emotionally. The ultimate outcome rests on choosing to do the four actions I listed in the first paragraph. I will now examine each one in kind and find out what Witcher 3 has to say about being a good father.
After finding Ciri, Geralt decides the best course of action is to assemble all available allies together in a castle and make a dramatic last stand against The Wild Hunt. This initially works very well, right up until the moment where it completely fails. The story would have ended right there, if not for a frightening display of power by Ciri brought on by grief.
Said grief is over the death of Vesimer, the oldest living witcher and the closet thing she has ever had to grand-parent. She remains distraught in the days following his death. This is where Geralt steps in to try and cheer her up.
His solution: Start a snowball fight.
Because sometimes there are no words that can help. Sometimes the only way to heal is to let time do its work. The best Geralt can hope for is to put a smile back on his daughter’s face, if only for a few minutes. And it works, better than even Geralt probably intended.
By reminding Ciri that all light and happiness has not fled, by reminding her that she still has people who love her, the snow ball fight is the first step in her recovery. Geralt’s greatest ability (the game literally remarks on this) is not his fighting prowess, but rather his knack for making Ciri laugh. Because sometimes a laugh is worth all the gold in the world.
Hey, speaking of gold… (Best segue of my life).
Turn Down a Chest of Gold
As I mentioned earlier, Geralt is initially put on Ciri’s trail by Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard and Ciri’s biological father. The second of Geralt’s four faithful decisions comes should he honour his side of the bargain and present Ciri to Emhyr.
Should he do so, Geralt will be presented with a chest full of gold. It is an enormous amount of money for someone like Geralt, probably adding up to more than he has ever earned in his entire life. Should he take that money he would never have to work a day in his life again. He could retire from the incredibly risky business of hunting monsters forever.
Yet the game hopes you turn down the money. Why? Because to take the money is to communicate to Ciri that he did not search for her out of love, but rather for coin. To take the money (right in front of her, I might add) is to signal that material wealth is more important to Geralt than her well-being.
It is particularly thematically important that this chest of gold is offered by Emhyr. The chief reason behind Emhyr seeking Ciri is so that he can abdicate the throne and let her succeed him. The political tide in his country has turned against Emhyr due to his frequent and expensive war-mongering. He believes that letting Ciri take the throne is the best course for him to escape being over-thrown and still be able to continue his conquests.
In short, Emhyr wishes to use his daughter as a pawn in his own ambitions. Taking money from this man, affiliating with this man, is tantamount to treating Ciri in the same fashion as this man. Geralt turning down the money proves he is a better father to Ciri than Emhyr has ever been. It proves he values her personhood more than his own ambitions.
Trash an Office
This one is quite similar to starting a snowball fight. Again the importance of cheering up your child is emphasised, though this time in perhaps an even more extreme case.
As I mentioned earlier, Ciri is a Child of the Elder Blood (look, I get that this is undoubtedly explained in the other games and books, but I feel this was way too important a plot point for me to have to Google what it meant) and is the only one who can stop the White Frost. Should she fail, all life in every possible universe will be extinguished.
Try to imagine what that knowledge does to a person.
Try to imagine what it must feel like to have all that weight resting on your shoulders. Imagine that people have sought to use you for their own ends since the very second you were born. Imagine that you have been fleeing a band off nigh-on all powerful soldiers since before puberty.
The fact that Ciri stays level-headed and rational for 90% of her journey is a massive credit to her internal strength. Yet occasionally she falters, and it is then she needs Geralt’s emotional support. When she learns that Avallac’h (an elven sage she has come to rely on) may only be using her for his own ends, she flies into a rage. Geralt tries to calm her and she says:
“What? Do you feel I’ll level this place like I did Kaer Morhen?
Shame I can’t do that at will because I’d really like to now.”
So what does Geralt do? He walks over to a table, knocks a glass bottle to the ground, smiles at Ciri and waits. Ciri immediately grasps his wordless communication and knocks over a goblet. Things escalate quickly. Before long the office of Avallac’h has been thoroughly trashed and Ciri is once again happy.
Now that is what I call parenting.
Help Bury a Body
Ciri is not exactly used to people helping her out of kindness (see the above examples of Emhyr, Avallac’h and The Wild Hunt as to why). Imagine her delight when a young man named Skjall fishes her out of the sea and helps nurse her back to health. He even helps her escape from The Wild Hunt when they attack his village. It is no surprise she should wish to see him again when her path takes her back to Skellige.
Unfortunately, Skjall has not exactly prospered in the interim. Helping Ciri ride to safety was interpreted as running away, and in Skellige cowardice is punished harshly. Rechristened Craven by his village, Skjall sought to reclaim his honour by slaying a werewolf. Instead, he died horribly. Then his body was used in a black magic ritual. (Has any character ever been screwed over quite so much as Skjall?)
Upon learning of his unfortunate demise, Ciri insists on visiting his grave. This is Geralt’s last fateful decision, whether or not he thinks they have time to do this. Should they go looking for the grave, they will find that (to add insult to copious injury) Skjall has not been deemed worthy of burial. His body is instead rotting in a ditch.
Ciri and Geralt give Skjall the proper burial he deserves. Some of the villagers take issue with this, so Ciri (after punching one of them in the face) explains to them that Skjall actually saved their lives by leading The Wild Hunt away. This is perhaps one of the most cathartic ‘Reason You Suck’ speeches in gaming history.
Not a lot of analysis is needed on this one, as Ciri was the chief actor in all of this. It is worth noting that if you find yourself saying something along the lines of ‘That nice boy who helped you died horribly and I forbid you from visiting his grave’, you might not be the greatest parent who has ever lived.
Witcher’s Are Not Perfect
Should Geralt choose to do those four simple things, Ciri will take care of the rest. After The Wild Hunt is defeated, she enters a portal to the source of the White Frost and vanquishes it from existence. The multiverse has been saved. Ciri and Geralt get to live happily ever after.
(By the way, should Geralt choose not to do those four things, Ciri will die and he will commit suicide by monster. In this game there is a steep cost to pay for not supporting your daughter emotionally).
So is Witcher 3’s exploration of fatherhood without flaw? Not quite. There are a couple moments where the writing or characterisation is slightly ill-conceived. Geralt’s insistence that Ciri not fight in the aforementioned big showdown against The Wild Hunt is a one such issue; While it makes a certain tactical sense to not have the person The Wild Hunt is trying to kidnap fighting on the front lines, Ciri is basically the most powerful person in existence, so keeping her away from danger feels a little overbearing.
Whoreson Junior and the 400 Word Digression
There are other minor quibbles, but one big problem I would like to discuss is the demise of Whoreson Junior. The circumstances surrounding the fall from power of this thoroughly detestable crime boss are perhaps the most frustrating in the game, because of how close the developers get to making a really good point and yet somehow screw up just terribly in execution.
Whoreson (yes there really is a character called Whoreson) betrayed Ciri, kidnapped and tortured one of her companions, and tried to murder her. When Geralt eventually catches up with him, he finds a house strewn with the mutilated corpses of sex workers. Geralt (normally the soul of composure) flips out and beats Whoreson for a prolonged period. Then, should the player choose to kill Whoreson, Geralt says the following.
“Let me tell you where things stand.
I’m looking for this woman, cause she’s like a daughter to me.
And that’s why I just can’t let this go.”
Really Geralt? That’s why you can’t let this go? Perspective mate, big picture. Whoreson’s treatment of Ciri was unforgivable, I am not disputing that, but I think the more pertinent fact here is the copious corpses of mutilated sex workers! Is that not perhaps the more heinous crime? Should that not be your primary concern here? It is rare that Geralt completely misses the point regarding atrocities, but valuing your daughter’s safety over the murders of dozens of other women is not exactly the sign of a great person.
(Side Note: There is another reason this scene drives me crazy. The bodies of the murdered sex workers could not be displayed in a more exploitative fashion. The fact that the chief purpose they have been killed is to demonstrate that Whoreson is a bad guy [which we really, really did not need clarified] is pretty tasteless.
What is even worse is the fact that this scene could be done correctly if they has focused on a worse monster; King Radovid of Redania, the guy who supplied Whoreson with women in the first place. There was a really worthwhile point to be made here about people on the fringes of society suffering due to the uncaring nature of the ruling class. It’s like the game set itself up to do this, then swerved away at the last second into some really unpleasant territory. Goddammit does this whole thing drive me nuts).
But I digress. The point is that the portrayal of fatherhood is very good in Witcher 3, but that is not to say it gets everything right all of the time.
Being a good parent is recognising when you must let your child live their own life. In the case of Geralt and Ciri, that means supporting your daughter as she seeks to save the world. She makes her own decisions: It is a father’s job to support said decisions, and help her through any rough moments along the way.
Geralt is the most skilled fighter in the world. This is a fantasy game. In almost any other circumstance he would save the world through brute force. Witcher 3 is great in no small part due to it subverting this expectation. This was never really Geralt’s story anyway.
This story was about Ciri, and Geralt had an important part to play. He started a snowball fight, turned down a chest of gold, trashed an office and helped bury a body. He made sure his daughter felt happy and loved. Ciri took care of the rest.