The Problem of Sex in 'The Witcher 3'
Unlike the rest of the game's narrative decisions, there is little to no responsibility on the player to consider the consequences of their sexual activities in The Witcher 3.
Sex is a natural part of life, and, thus, it is a natural part of art.
In fact the earliest works of art, like the Venus of Willendorf are sexual in nature. So it really should not be a surprise to anyone, from Jack Thompson to Hillary Clinton, that sex would find its way into a video game. While some video games that contain overt sexuality are lewd in nature, like Leisure Suit Larry, not every game with explicit sexual content is like this. The Mass Effect series, The Witcher series, and the Knights of the Old Republic series all consist of narrative based games that feature sex to varying degrees, but in these games, the sexual content is only one part of a much larger game.
Recently I've been playing through The Witcher 3 while keeping in touch with the community that surrounds it. While I enjoy the game, especially the narrative and gameplay, it unintentionally suggests an unhealthy view of sexuality. Over the course of the game the player-character, Geralt, has the option to have sex with a few women who are part of the plot. Some of these interactions are playful and innocuous, while others involve serious decisions about the nature of the character's long term relationships.
The main decision, which sparks debate between community members, is whether the player prefers one of two women, Triss Merigold or Yennifer of Vengerberg. This binary in and of itself reveals little. The characters look different from one another, talk differently, act differently, but are generally two sides of the same sexually charged coin. The player gets to play out the fantasy of choosing between two beautiful, powerful, and fully fleshed out female characters to sleep with. For some in the community, it would seem this decision in some ways defines the player more than the gameplay style they choose to play or other decisions they make in the game's complex plot.
The problem is that the sex and the lead up to it in the game is unrealistic and deterministic in a way that many choice-based narrative video games are. Sex is treated as a game within itself, where if the player chooses the right quests and dialogue choices, they will then get rewarded with some virtual eye candy. Unlike the rest of the game's narrative decisions, there is little to no responsibility on the player to consider the consequences of their actions when they choose whether or not to have sex.
Therefore, the women in the game are in serious danger, despite being well fleshed out characters, of becoming merely sexual objects for the player to play with. This is a problem in many video games that feature sex from Wolfenstein: The New Order to Grand Theft Auto. Sex becomes just a goal for the player or just a break in between action sequences that doesn't mean anything for the player. While it has some meaning in The Witcher 3, it is ultimately shallow and devoid of any real consequence for the player.
As long as the player is communicating in what are largely predetermined conversations, there is no real “relationship” built between the player and the object of their affection. Without a relationship, sex becomes hollow and meaningless.
Senior Game Manager of The Witcher 3 Damien Monnier has explained why the opening scene of the game features Geralt and Yennifer having sex, saying, “Through sex we have shown that this is a person who Geralt would be compelled to chase after if she went missing,” and that “Sex is the quickest way in which to establish the relationship and provide a justification for the player to pursue this woman.” (Simon Parkin, "Why Sex Matters in Witcher 3, the Grand Theft Auto of Fantasy Games, The Guardian, 28 January 2015).
Basically, Monnier seems to suggest that in the game sex is a tool used to show the player that these characters have a relationship worth fighting for, but this logic does not necessarily hold up in context of the game. The player-character is able to have sex in brothels, with minor characters, and with other major characters. If sex were considered such an intimate and bonding activity between two individuals within the world of the game, it would not be something to be accomplished with half the important female characters that Geralt meets.
Interestingly Monnier claims that “We couldn’t just tell you to go find someone you don’t know or care about. It wouldn’t work.” Which is exactly what most video games do, and it works. In Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, the player is off to rescue a princess that they've never met. Now, one could argue that narratively this is not particularly effective, but considering that these games are massively successful and both the princesses in these games are beloved characters in the gaming world, it seems to have worked just fine.
A player is going to be compelled to find a person just by virtue of wanting to follow the main plot of the game. To be fair, in Zelda or Mario, the player has only one direction to go (quite literally in Super Mario Bros). The Witcher 3, as an open world game, has the additional challenge of having to entice the player to continue with the main storyline, competing with all the other things that the player can do in the game. That said, if you believe that your main quest is so uninteresting narratively that it may not be able to compete with killing a few bandits or doing a simple side quest, there are probably bigger problems with your narrative than it taking place in an open world game.
This is not only a problem in video games, of course. Movies, comics, television, music, and books often contain sex or sexually charged scenes, lyrics, or characters merely for the purpose of selling ads, copies, or tickets. But each of the mediums also have great examples of more intimate understandings of sexuality. Joseph Gordon Levitt's Don Jon is a great study in this. The main character is obsessed with sex and pornography, but it isn't until he has it intimately, in a non-objectified way, that he experiences it “for real.” The reason for this is that two characters grow in relationship together and sex is the evolution of their emotional relationship of relying on one another.
At the moment, I can think of no equivalent of this in video games. Part of the reason for this is that in all those mediums, the viewer is passive. They can witness two characters develop healthy sexuality over time. In a video game, the audience is forcibly involved in the storytelling process, and unless AI is improved, the player cannot simulate a real relationship with the characters in the game. The player cannot truly rely on the character or spend real time with them. Because of this, the characters that the player has sex with will always be in some ways an object or goal, which should never be the point of sex.
It's worth noting that I'm not trying to be prudish about sex in games. As video games evolve as a medium, sex will surely become more and more a part of the art form and that is a good thing. What is more concerning is that some are heralding The Witcher 3 as a great leap forward in the way that video games handle sexual matters. Sadly, I don't think that is the case. Rather, it is a small step in the right direction, but mostly a continuation in the direction that video games have been going since the kinds of complex choice-driven open world narratives appeared in Bioware games a decade ago.
Overall, sex in The Witcher 3 is not much different than putting a sex symbol like Megan Fox in Transformers. But that is not what a game that is attempting to be narrative art should aspire to. Hopefully, as video games continue to evolve, so will the way that they deal with sexuality.