The most common description for The Witcher series is that it is 'adult', 'mature', and, as Arthur Gies writes for Polygon, “willing to be ugly.” Underlying this praise (for it is always praise) is the notion that through The Witcher’s unapologetically graphic nature video games might be perceived as having finally elevated themselves beyond the realm of teenage novelties. Perhaps if video games can be just as violent, sexual, and morally ambivalent as books and movies, they will finally be taken seriously within mainstream culture.
More so, perhaps we, those who spend so much time defending a hundred-billion-dollar industry’s legitimacy, will be vindicated. It is a painful, utterly meaningless avenue by which to critique a game, but as it is so entwined with both The Witcher’s success and how the games themselves present it is worth acknowledging and deconstructing just what it means for The Witcher – and in this case, specifically The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011) – to be “adult.”
That The Witcher 2 is violent is entirely unimportant. Many games are as, if not far more violent than The Witcher 2 but in those instances, excessive violence is rightly criticized as juvenile and excessive. Far more likely the cause of The Witcher 2’s adult status is its inclusion of several soft-core sex scenes, as well as plentiful female nudity. But then, we do not see The Witcher 2 described as a high-fantasy porn simulation.
The inclusion of sex is seen as progress towards medium parity with movies and television. Once boobs are as ordinary in games as in episodes of Game of Thrones, video games will finally have escaped the puritanical tyranny that has supposedly constrained them over the years. Again, The Witcher 2 is celebrated not for artistic merit but a willingness to engage in base titillation. But there is more going on here.
At the center of The Witcher 2’s praise for being adult and uncompromisingly ugly is how it portrays women. It is not merely the fact that The Witcher 2 contains sexual content, but that sex and nudity are fundamental aspects of its world. Sex is a currency, and one employed by women to reward or ensnare the men who exist at the top of the political pyramid. A continual theme throughout The Witcher 2 is that women cannot be trusted, sorceresses even more so. Women are treacherous, manipulating, and entirely self-motivated.
By the end of The Witcher 2, every major female character has been found guilty of some form of treason, tortured, raped, or outright murdered. That many of The Witcher 2’s convoluted political scandals dissolve into literal witch hunts goes entirely without comment by the game. It is merely how the world operates, and that is what makes The Witcher 2 so insidious.
By positioning the player character – the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia – as apolitical, The Witcher 2 passes off misogyny as merely one side of an argument which must be heard out. Geralt is the high-fantasy equivalent of a modern-day libertarian centrist: someone operating under a banner of fairness, but ultimately driven by self-interest, unwilling to make any actual political stance save those which are safe and convenient. And it is hideous.
Geralt can excuse himself from politics when it suits him, and intervene when it is opportune because his right to exist in his world is not in danger. Random NPCs may yell at him as he runs to the next brothel, but he is always entirely in control of his own fate which makes all of his equivocations and insistence on hearing both sides irresponsible at best and outright malicious at worst.
At the end of the day, it is the women around Geralt who must pick up his slack, must take actual stands using any means afforded to them – whether sex or magic or treachery – because it’s the only thing they have. The Witcher 2 aims for political density, but what it arrives at is a world which proves every sexist man’s fears about women correct. That they cannot be trusted. That they use sex as a weapon against helpless men. That their attempts to dabble in politics can only end in disaster. In The Witcher 2, women are only as useful as they are willing to fuck without complaint.
I want to be clear that I am not against The Witcher 2 having sex, or for any piece of media being sexual for that matter. Sex is a fundamental aspect of human existence and a refusal to acknowledge its existence can only result in a net loss. But its inclusion in The Witcher 2 alongside its utterly repugnant gender politics is the opposite of mature. It’s sloppy, regressive, the product of a horny teenage boy’s notebook and the dreams of men who both hate and desire women.
There are arguments that The Witcher is only reflecting actual gender politics, or adhering to the source material, or even that sexism is such an integral aspect of The Witcher lore that to remove it would create narrative inconsistencies. What all of these lines of thinking fail to account for is why sexism is necessary for the story The Witcher is wanting to tell, while also missing the difference between commenting on an issue and merely replicating it.
Writing about The Witcher for Forbes, Erik Kain states “fiction is supposed to highlight real-world issues. Rape is a real-world issue. Sexism is something women actually confront in their jobs, at home. Why is it off limits to actually address that with fantasy fiction?” Kain - and seemingly many of The Witcher’s fans - see the game’s inclusion of aggressive sexual oppression as in itself a commentary. But that is not enough.
If all it took was witnessing sexual abuse to understand its existence and horrific nature in society, rape would have disappeared before Shakespeare became a household name. Replication is not commentary, in fact, it is often the exact opposite. By creating yet another game that is openly hostile to women, developer CD Projekt Red has only served to further entrench video games in the immature chauvinist muck that has excluded women from the medium for decades.
Ian Miles Cheong, in a piece for Gameranx, inadvertently defeats his own argument that The Witcher is progressive through a comparison to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). That both include gender-based oppression is seemingly enough to link them together, despite their explicit difference in framing and focus. The Handmaid’s Tale is alternative history exploring ways in which society could return to and escalate puritanical values. It is suffocating in its oppression, literarily dense, and politically direct.
By comparison, The Witcher 2 offers no directness, no explicit statement or explanation as to why women are afforded so little agency. It begins in a state of normalized sexism and if anything, only digs itself further in by the game’s conclusion. Any attempt a woman might make to reclaim some semblance of freedom is immediately undercut and portrayed as borderline genocidal. Being a strong woman in The Witcher 2 is dangerous. Being a strong woman with ideas will get you killed, but The Witcher 2 doesn’t see a problem with that. It just wants to see some tits.