I consider CD Projekt RED's The Witcher 2 to be one of the finest western RPGs I've played. It's fun. Combat has this distinct sloppy rhythmic weight to it. Cities feel refreshingly alive in the wake of Skyrim and Dragon Age 2. The plot, while unspectacular, was well paced and written competently enough for me to sink enough free time into without ever feeling bogged down in errand running. Story-shaping decisions aren't ham-fisted or too predictable. Hell, even issues of race were taken seriously. The typical high-fantasy trope of elves/dwarves replacing actual human races as the victims of bigotry is still present here, but at least racial inequality is given consideration.
The same can't be said for gender inequality. It's not even that women are ignored or secondary to male characters in terms of characterization or importance to the story. The game doesn't tackle issues of race in a particularly nuanced or revolutionary way, but at least you can see it stands on the side of, you know, not being racist. It's far less clear where the developers stand regarding gender. Many of the events don't seem so harmful when taken out of context, but it's the insidiousness that was increasingly obvious. At one point, the issue is addressed, and it makes everything worse.
Triss, a powerful sorceress love interest, needs our grizzled hero to rescue her - an overdone plot device that undermines an otherwise strong character. Prior to her disappearance, we're treated to a sex scene where we alternate (after she uses her special sexy sorceress powers to strip bare, duh) between viewing the duo as an affectionate couple and viewing Triss's breasts, which take center screen as we see the scene from Geralt's perspective. Woman-centric nudity and sex scenes aren't out of the ordinary, though they may alienate the demographic not terribly interested in this particular brand of softcore porn.
This is not a role playing game about forming a fully fleshed-out character. He's been written, our choices, while often plot-changing, don't have that much of an impact on Geralt's personality. They allow us to decide just how sympathetic Geralt is to the plight of the elves, how ruthless a hero he is, whether or not he enjoys clearing pests from his current place of residence, and how serious he feels about Triss.
These choices aren't always compelling, but the important ones usually are. At these moments, I'm able to play Geralt as a relatively sensitive, conscientious fellow in an incredibly indecent society -- rather than a sociopathic rogue.
Sadly, this simply isn't true with women. The key moment was a conversation with a female elf NPC named Gittan whom I happened upon one night in Old Vergen. She's one of the very few NPCs in town that you're able to engage. Upon greeting her, Gittan remarks how women, whose abilities are often superior to men on the battlefield, are not treated as equals off of it. This unfairly got my hopes up. Geralt is able to respond in one of three ways, I went back and reloaded my game to explore every branch of the dialogue tree.
The first option is "You think highly of your skills" We can follow this up by having Geralt lecture her about missing the opportunities available to her, encouraging her to "think less, do more." Alternatively, Geralt can challenge her to "prove it" which results in the same sort of bootstrap-pulling line, adding only that "men lead because we act" while telling her to stop idly chatting and start blazing a trail. Not really the most empathetic, socially aware choices here, but that's just one branch.
The second primary option is to tell Gittan that "we don't see eye to eye", immediately dismissing Gittan and ending the conversation.
The third option is "I don't understand" prompting Gittan to explain that regardless of abilities, women won't be able to lead. Geralt automatically responds that she's an exception, since most women don't share her dreams, to which she retorts that he'd be surprised. Now two more branches are available. We can encourage her not to give up and to try to blaze a trail. This is the closest we're going to get to a sensible response, it at least allows Geralt a bit of sensitivity even if he still doesn't show any sign of knowing what the hell she's talking about. It's personal encouragement, but it doesn't acknowledge the social issue under discussion.
Geralt's second possible response at this point opens up another subset of choices by claiming she's exaggerating. Gittan tells a brief story about a male comrade taunting her about the tactical practicality of "tits like those." Here, Geralt can use the same "don't give up" speech from earlier, or can take the male comrade's side, saying "he had a point" before awkwardly moving into the "think less, do more, godspeed" speech from before.
That's it. Not only is the best option weak, it's outnumbered by responses ranging from dismissive to naive to blatantly hateful. This conversation, which may have given all the straight male pandering a more subversive tone, ended up retroactively galvanizing every moment tinged by the male gaze. Now Geralt's sexual possibilities aren't just a way to show the rampant debauchery of the world or to deepen relationships; their most important function is allowing the player to see more titty.
When the epilogue begins we make our way through a city whose inhabitants are victims of a nation-wide purging of sorceresses, magicians, and other freaks. This was a surprisingly poignant moment. It was legitimately horrifying as I walked through what was one of several cities ravaged by the impassioned slayings of Geralt's kin by reactionary bigots. This scene leads to a strange, almost appropriately underwhelming final confrontation with the kingslayer you've spent the game pursuing. It's an awkwardly melancholic conclusion, its triviality palpable in the wake of genocide. The Witcher 2 and its developers stand against bigotry by coaxing us into standing on the side of the dehumanized and oppressed, but they don't seem to think that includes women, effectively reinforcing the negative attitudes they seemingly abhor.
It's possible that much of this is part of the story arc. Who knows what'll happen in the Witcher 3. Perhaps the coming genocide will affect Geralt enough to open his mind, or Triss will dispel his chauvinistic qualities in favor of something closer to feminism, like Yoko Ono did for John Lennon. After all the Witcher 2 is supposedly a pretty big step in the right direction after the pinup card collecting of the first, so there is reason to hope that they'll eventually get it right.
Shortly after the Gittan conversation, Geralt stumbles upon a sorceress spanking her short-shorts wearing, bare-breasted apprentice with an unmistakable resemblance to a modern-day coed. Remaining hopeful isn't easy.