It's probably needless to say, but there are story spoilers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt revealed below. If you're not past an encounter with the Wild Hunt itself at Kaer Morhen, perhaps consider not reading on.
Parenthood is one of the main pillars of narrative literature, well mined as far back as tales have been sung, remembered or written down. At first appearance, CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a simple hack-and-slash RPG set in a fantasy realm, based around a "find the lost princess" story. But on closer examination, ignoring the amazing world building and fantastically expressive characters, my main standout feature has been the game's exploration of parenthood and how it ties into its decision-making.
The Witcher 3's main narrative thread focuses on the obvious father figure of the player-controlled Geralt, who is searching for his adopted child of Ciri. The way in which we're shown Geralt's relationship with Ciri is multi-layered – there are moments where choices impact upon her own personality and ultimately her fate come the game's ending. These moments are brief, ranging from cheering her up with a snowball fight or smashing furniture, to giving her responsibility and allowing her to make her own decisions. The player has little to go on in making these snap decisions, except the game's introductory prologue, where Geralt trains Ciri as a child in the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. As such, the choices are more difficult to decipher and can lead to negative consequences – just as proper parenthood decisions can, balanced against a child who is only growing older.
These decisions also mirror 2007's first Witcher game's attempts at something similar, where Geralt schools Alvin in morals and beliefs (which may or may not be repeated much later in his life as Jacques de Aldersberg) and must decide on the best character to raise him, Triss or Shani – the latter of whom reappears in T__he Witcher 3's DLC, Hearts of Stone.
The question of who will raise the child brings us back to The Witcher 3 – and the game's romance option also takes into account who will be part of Geralt and Ciri's relationship, Triss or Yennefer. Shockingly, it's not just about deciding who to bone, and both characters have different, but close connections to Ciri. Speaking of sex, a chapter in which the player controls Ciri when she's not fending off foes adds an interesting spin on the parental bond. You are guided through her own sexual preferences through interactions with the hots-for-her Skjall, in a somewhat surreal slice of parental voyeurism – this in addition to deciding whether or not she undresses in a Skellige spa. This awkwardness again raises its head when you make partner decisions for Geralt – Yennefer will criticise him for "parental" decisions when Ciri gets annoyed or angry, the game's attempt to present the no-win nature of some parent-child interactions.
While the Geralt-Ciri story generally charms the player, The Witcher 3 heads down a darker parental path in its much-acclaimed Bloody Baron quest line, "Family Matters". The script manages to carefully balance a story involving horrific parental and spousal abuse and violence with affecting tragedy, which can feature some salvation, depending on the player's actions. The Baron is an aggressive, selfish, wife-beating drunk. He's not evil, just terribly flawed. There is evidence that the abuse was not completely one-sided; the wife lost her child because of a magical deal and adultery was also involved, which led to the Baron feeding his wife's lover in pieces to the dogs. Much like the dogs' meal, everything's rather messy. The Baron's family leaves him as a result of his actions, but this leads to his wife being trapped by child-eating monsters, the Ladies of the Wood.
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You can choose, as I did on one playthrough, to help the Baron achieve some sort of redemption. You bury the nightmarish miscarried botchling that's terrifying the settlement of Crow's Perch, and can go so far as saving his wife – which involves a confrontation with his older child in one hell of a father-daughter standoff, in the middle of a swamp. There's a more deadly fate in store for the Baron if you let things play out that way, but "Family Matters" ultimately highlights the disastrous effect spousal relationships can have on children – his adult daughter is lost to him forever because of his and his wife's actions. She finds a surrogate family with the cultish Order of the Flaming Rose, and the Baron can't come to terms with this, something we see in flashback scenes where he helps Ciri. The player may well be sceptical of his kindness, given the story's being told exclusively from his perspective – but it's later confirmed by Ciri herself. Is the Baron's tale a warning for Geralt and Yennefer's (or Triss') possibly troubled relationship, and the effects it could have on their adopted child?
Much like Geralt's relationship with Ciri, the adopted Witcher family has a cyclical nature as portrayed in The Witcher 3. The early section of the story has Geralt's own father figure, Vesemir, accompanying and advising him through the starting zone of White Orchard. Their "mostly unspoken" bond is the nature of the Witcher and the one who created him, with the process of becoming a monster hunter a horrific ordeal of childhood mutation and pain, with a low chance of survival. Regardless, there is much adoration and respect for this last generation of proper Witchers, Geralt and his companions Eskel and Lambert. This comes to a crux at the end of Act II, with the death of Vesemir, which in part leads to Geralt's increasing presence and interactions with Ciri, who herself saw the fallen Witcher as a (grand)father figure. The death of Vesemir foreshadows Geralt's need to ensure that Ciri is set for a future where he might not always be there to come to the rescue.
This emphasis on preparing a child for life without the parent has been used to devastatingly brilliant effect in games like The Walking Dead (Lee with Clementine), The Last of Us (Joel and Ellie), and even the BioShock series (Booker and Elizabeth, Delta and Eleanor, even Jack and Andrew Ryan). The reason these recurrent themes are often used in narrative-heavy games is twofold – again, they're age-old narrative constructs, but parenting is also perfectly suited for games where choices may be required, often without all of the information being known or available, and which have significant consequences in which the player is personally and emotionally invested. The focus is not so much on childcare, but on child development – the attempt to guide and form the person the child will eventually become. This ability to have different paths and consequences also places more emphasis on the decision making process than novelist Andrzej Sapkowski's source material, from which the game series' concepts, back stories and themes of parenthood are lifted from.
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Narrative decision making with significantly different consequences is still in its infancy in the games world – particularly for big-budget games where voice over sessions, not to mention the scripts themselves and the art and design process, would need to be significantly longer to take into account major plot divergences. So parenting style choices, though not groundbreakingly world unravelling, are a good match for "either/or" gameplay, where the outcome really matters. The Witcher 3 doesn't get it all completely right – it could be argued that Geralt's interactions with Ciri are ridiculously small and quick, and shouldn't have as much of a major impact on how the story ends for her, given she's already 21. However, they are varied enough to feel realistic in comparison to other games attempting the same.
So, next time you delve into Velen, Skellige, Novigrad, or just play a hand of Gwent, take to heart Geralt's surrogate family and how this game allows you to develop it. Or, just attempt to have sex with as many characters as possible, while regretting that you can no longer collect bedpost notch Pokémon-style cards as you bonk your way though proceedings.
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