The Witcher game franchise is built on the work of a Polish author called Andrzej Sapkowski -- neither of the games are built directly from his fiction, but it's the underpinning of everything that the games are, from their quests and story to lead character Geralt.
The PC games have gone from a cult phenomenon in Sapkowski's homeland of Poland to critical and commercial successes across the globe. And with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings released for the Xbox 360 earlier this year, the developer is finding a new audience on game consoles.
Lead gameplay designer Maciej Szcześnik and gameplay producer Marek Ziemak, both work at developer CD Projekt RED. Here, they share their insights into how they make The Witcher series work -- why Sapkowski's books are the wellspring for the games, why it's important to have a defined lead character, and how storytelling is the most important aspect of the franchise.
One of the things I found most interesting about The Witcher 2 was the decision to split the story into two different paths, and literally, probably double the work and content. Some people wouldn't even necessarily be aware that this even happened unless they talked to other people online. Did that scare you, as a decision to make?
Maciej Szcześnik: I mean, it was kind of scary, but...
Marek Ziemak: It was risky, for sure.
MS: It was risky, but we were sure that we were on track at least because we were sure that that would be something new.
MZ: And that it will be appreciated sooner or later.
MS: And it turns out it is, so after all, it was a good decision.
MZ: But I think the main reason for this was that we were trying to implement this decision and consequences system in the game.
MS: So if it was present in Witcher 1, obviously it had to be present in The Witcher 2, and we wanted to push it further.
MZ: We wanted to play a little bit with the emotions, and we started thinking, "What can we give to the players? What can we take away from them based on their decisions?" And this seemed like a pretty cool thing -- that they will have to make their own decisions, what they want to see, and take the costs of their decisions.
It seems like serious decision-making is becoming more important to games. The first phase of it was morality systems, where you get good points or evil points. That's not something that you do in The Witcher.
MZ: Actually it's also one of our more core features. We're trying to make it as gray as possible. We never have choices between good and evil.
MS: More like shades of gray.
MZ: Exactly. That's how it was created by Sapkowski in the novels, and that's what we really liked and appreciated about the books, and we tried to have it still inside of our games.
MS: Yeah obviously it's more real, but it's also more interesting. This is the main reason we are using that.
I think the problem you get when you have a system like that is that people then start making the decisions because they want the cool power that they see down the skill tree of the Light, rather than because they actually care about the moral decision.
MS: Yeah that's the problem of morality systems, I think.
MZ: And one of our friends, a designer from CDP, often says that back in the times whenever you chose the bad character, the game was always shorter, or a little bit less interesting, because usually you were just killing everyone at the very beginning. So we tried to avoid this as well.
Which came first: the grayness of the novel and wanting to adapt that, or your interest in working with a story that had shades of gray?
MS: I think we were more interested in actually introducing these mechanics... this choice-making. Obviously, it's present in the novels, but I think that the true cause was to push it further, to not use those morality systems.
MZ: Yeah, the mechanics, I think, was first in our heads, and then we've seen that it really goes well with the world. We believe that we're delivering something quite refreshing. It's a new type of storytelling, and a new type of gameplay in many places, so we were hoping for the best.
When you say "a new type of storytelling," is that something you feel only games can do?
MZ: No, definitely not. Books did it previously. How they created the world and what they were trying to do -- the emotions they were giving the reader -- I think, was there before computer games. We have possibilities to actually involve players in making choices, so [we can] take it to the next level. But I think we weren't the ones who begun this whole thing with storytelling. Obviously it was there before.
Do you view the storytelling as gameplay? Do you consider that on the same level as other parts of the game?
MS: Yes. Actually, for us, the storyline is the most important thing we have in The Witcher.
MZ: That's always the base. That's the spine of the game. Usually, first work is on the storyline, and then add all the other elements in.
MS: Every other element has to support the storyline. If not, it's not suitable for our game.
Do you feel a tension between storytelling and other types of gameplay? Because obviously that is something the medium always struggles with.
MZ: Yes, we definitely can see the problem, and it's very often in our discussions. For example, when we were designing the combat system, or things like this, we must be true to all the things that are present in the books. We don't want to spoil the fun for the players who know the books by heart. And we still want to keep the same feeling as people who read the books. I'm not sure if I'm clear on this -- we want to continue the trend. The gameplay is totally connected to the storyline, to the world.
MS: Actually we want to motivate the player by the storyline and by quests, so we rarely make random encounters, or things like that, for example. We try to connect every fight to the storyline, if it's possible.
That tension can really exist in the RPG genre, I think, in particular, because the story can be so heavy and the gameplay can be so abstracted, very often. Do you feel it's important to give deep system-level gameplay, in an RPG?
MS: They are important, but not for all types of players, I think. This is my personal opinion. So it's very good to have them, but it's also very wise to let players kind of skip them, or just play with them just a bit, and we do it in The Witcher. You can choose different difficulty levels, basically. So it's obvious; it's common.
MZ: Yeah, so if you had chosen the easy one, you could only have fun.
MS: Enjoy the story.
MZ: Enjoy the story, exactly.
MS: And don't bother with developing your character.
MZ: But if you've chosen normal or hard, you would have to be really good in fighting, and developing your character, and stuff.
MS: So this is our way. It's a common way, but it's proven to work.
Games have been criticized for generally not having the depth of story of a novel. Do you feel like you've gotten to the point where you have as much depth as the original novels? Or do you feel like you have a way to go in terms of…
MS: I think we're very close, and we want to push it even further with our new games, so I hope we'll eventually get there.
MZ: Yes, I totally agree.
Is it a matter of presentation, or is it a matter of the actual design of the way you tell the story?
MS: I think both. We use very intense visuals -- we use a lot of cutscenes, things like that, so we are really very intense in that one. So the presentation is very important for us. We want to be as close to movies, films, as we can get.
But the design of the stories are also very, very, very important -- because if you can spot any not coherent solutions, something that stays out and doesn't sit to the actual story, you lose immersion.
MZ: But games are also a totally, of course, unique type of media, right? The interaction with the player, the possibility that the player has the power to create his own story often, or at least has some impact on what's going on in the game's world.
And I think the true art, or challenge, is to give players freedom on one hand, but on the other hand limit their possibilities so that they won't break their own immersion. So that's something we're constantly trying to polish -- not to limit the players too much, but on the other hand, not to give them total freedom, because that will just spoil the plot. It's very hard to have a story-intense sandbox, I think.
Your game has a strong lead character. A lot of RPGs don't, right? They have a create-a-character -- something like Skyrim, for example. Do you think that this is crucial to having a story? And also, what does it do to the player to have a defined character rather than their own?
MS: I think it helps to build a more interesting story, because you have a defined character, so you don't prepare the storyline for just any type of character.
MZ: They're custom, they're precise, they're hitting your character -- your player -- directly. That's fairly cool.
MS: For example with NPCs, this is an obvious thing, but NPCs can relate to your character and they know him, things like that. So I think that it helps to build the story base.
MZ: But it's of course just one of the approaches, because for example Skyrim, right, they have a totally different approach.
MS: It's also a cool game.
MZ: I wouldn't definitely call our approach better. I think it's just different. I enjoyed Skyrim a lot and sometimes I just want to -- bang! -- go into this huge world, create my character, and play with it a little bit.
MS: Just have fun.
MZ: Yeah, just have fun. And I think it's a bit different experience than playing The Witcher, which is really story-intense and you've got your character. You cannot change it too much.
MS: It's actually story-driven.
MZ: Yeah, it's a different approach.
Does the person who's playing a game think of the person they're controlling as themselves, or do they think of it as that character? Or where is that line? Have you thought about that line?
MS: Yeah. I think that you have to like the character you're playing. Obviously if you cannot feel the same emotions as the character, you will lose, I think. But in our opinion, Geralt is a very strong guy and he's quite unique, and you will like him for sure. A lot of people would like to be like him in some situations, right? So that helps, and I think that kind of answers your question.
There was a lot of talk earlier in this generation of the idea of the characters in games being aspirational. They're someone who the player would want to be, but I don't really personally buy into that. There's a difference between empathy like you're talking about, and also wanting to be somebody, or idealizing someone.
MS: I think that this idol type of thing will not work. I think it's all about empathy, actually. It's similar to watching movies, right? If you can empathize with the main character, you will feel his emotions and you will be able to understand his motivations, and you'll be able to eventually understand the storyline, and you will be able to like it. And if you're not able to empathize with the main character, basically you're watching something.
MZ: I think the same thing happens in The Witcher. People often, when there's a situation where you chose something, people often ask themselves questions what would...
MS: ...Geralt do?
MZ: Yeah. What would go well with the type of character I'm actually playing, so what would Geralt do? And the thing we are really proud of is that some of the players say that he would probably choose this thing, and the others say he would choose the other thing. So we're delivering two choices.
MS: So they are defining the character. They are defining their own Geralt also.
MZ: Exactly. The problem is so deep and so... It's not blurred, but the solutions all go well with the type of character you're playing, and then the choice is really, really difficult.
I'm interested in the process of devising multiple feasible options. Like you said, it's not about providing like a Light choice and a Dark choice, it's about providing two viable choices that both seem like something the character might do. And that's a whole layer of subtlety beyond.
MZ: Yeah, that's very hard work, actually.
Is there someone who oversees everything, story-wise?
MZ: There is. [Lead story and dialogue designer] Sebastian [Stępień], definitely. I think the story lead is one of the guys who knows everything about the storyline in the game. He works with all the other story designers.
MS: And there is Mateusz [Kanik] on the quest team, who oversees the questing. So basically they talk a lot to each other to make it coherent.
MZ: It's their responsibility to make sure that the game is coherent, yeah.
If it all relates to like what Geralt would do, do you have a bible, a wiki?
MS: We have people that are really hardcore fans of Sapkowski.
MZ: Yeah, but the books are our bible. If there is a situation in a game that we could, well maybe not copy, because obviously we have a different storyline, but that's similar to the situation from the books we would definitely try to compare them, and try to figure out why it was designed this way. So the books are our bible.
That's interesting, and I can see what the advantage would be there. But you are defining your own story. So you don't follow the story the books unfold.
MZ: No. It's totally our story. But it goes well with the story defined in the books. I remember hearing this quite often whenever we were thinking about new solutions, or something. Sometimes someone says something like, "That would never happen in the books," or, "That's not coherent with the world from the books," and that's like the...
MS: Final argument.
MZ: Yeah, final argument. It's cutting the feature. We can't allow our game to go too far from the world described in the book.
MS: We just cannot go against our lore.
That's kind of fascinating because I think that in fiction, it's hard for people to stay true to things, when it would be so much easier as a writer to just go, "Oh yeah, I could just make this happen, and it'd be so convenient!" We see this all the time in movies with deus ex machina, or you see characters doing things that get the story from point A to point B rather than what the character would actually do.
MZ: And see, I think I can see a connection between what you just said, and between playing games without a defined character. I tried it myself many times. I'm like, "Okay, this time I'm playing a real badass."
MS: And trying to define yourself.
MZ: Yeah. In an open world game... I've created my character and stuff, but nothing forces me to be this badass all the time, so I keep on losing those emotions, or sometimes I make the choices that are not true to what I was trying to play at the very beginning of the game. And then, sometimes for me, it gets tasteless, because I'm spoiling my own game. I'm not trying to be coherent to my…
MS: You just sometimes make easier choices.
MZ: Yes, easier choices. In The Witcher, when you have a defined character, it just happens for you. You know you don't want to go somewhere. You see there's trouble, but it's Geralt, and he's going to go there. You have to do it. You can't say, "next time." No, it's him. So sometimes he's grabbing the story and trying to push it a little bit further.
We all play games and we all know this, but I think a lot of times developers don't face up to the fact that if you can ruin the game for yourself, even if you know you're ruining your own game by doing something cheesy or cheap.
MS: You'll still ruin it.
You'll do it because it's the path of least resistance, as a player.
MZ: It's like cheats, sometimes.
Cheats, or if you know a game has a deep combat system but just mashing X works, you're just going to keep mashing X.
MS: Because it requires less effort from you, and we are lazy bastards, as people.
MZ: Spoiling the system is also part of the fun.
MS: Sometimes, yes.
MZ: But when you already discover how to break the system, it stops being that interesting, I guess.
So it seems to me that somehow you're suggesting that having a character with a strong identity helps paper in the cracks of where people might want to deviate from?
MZ: I think it does, somehow.
MS: It also does.
A lot of the fantasy games just seem very bland, whereas if you read some of the darker, interesting fantasy novels, they come to life. I think some of the dark fantasy stuff that's come out recently in games has been a little bit self-consciously like, "This is so badass!"
MS: We're not trying to be too dark or too awesome, or something, or too epic, for example. We're just trying to be true.
MZ: We learned quite early that sure, we need a brutal combat system -- blood, monsters and stuff like this. But we learned that that's not what makes the game dark or shady. That's just there. That's brutality, and everyone is used to it already. Whenever you see a head popping off a character, it's not that bad anymore, because it's everywhere. We're trying to have some different tools to create this feeling of a shady world.
And the tools are narrative-driven.
MZ: Yes, mostly. And your decisions -- but your decisions are also connected to the storyline, so yeah.
MS: The darkness is just like pepper, right? You just should add a bit. If you overdose, your dish will be without flavor. You'll just feel bad.