The Witcher and the Watcher

[Cross-posted to Doubt is an Art.]

Continuing our summer of the The Witcher III, last Wednesday we kept moving through the game, taking on the “talking pigs” quest. In the course of doing so, we were presented with an array of visuals, some perhaps unwelcome, some overbearing, some bizarre (and some all three). There was camera that gave us: an angle dominated by a pig’s butt, rendered large on the screen; a lingering zoom on a naked, breasted torso in the bath; and, most strikingly, a “pan shot” of a wizard’s private realm, in which a pair of rabbits “just happened” to be furiously fornicating as the camera scanned down the hillside. Ah, cutscenes.

While The Witcher III, from these examples, seems nothing but consistent with the point of view we noted in our earlier conversations – that is, it seems as intent as ever on proceeding in ways that seek to confirm its audience’s expectations – our conversation turned to cutscenes as an element, and what we can learn from TWIII’s handling of them as against other uses of them we’ve encountered.

To my mind, there is a remarkable amount of dedication to the cutscene, in TWIII. There are many of two kinds that are familiar to many gamers (and let’s note heading into this that TWIII, like many newer games, does not short to another mode of animation for its cutscenes – they are done in the same engine as the “primary” game experience). The extended cutscene marks a major event in the narrative, and (creating a rough typology on the fly here) can run for more than 20 seconds. The other familiar length that we find in TWIII is shorter, and seems almost transitional – not usually more than 10 seconds, it handles things like a change in Geralt’s focus of attention, his initial taking-in of a scene, or the arrival of an NPC. So far, so familiar. But TWIII uses the same cutscene mechanism for much smaller segments, and very, very frequently. Gerald examines a symbol – 3 second cutscene as we hear him give his interpretation.

One reason we found these “micro-cutscenes” interesting is the way in which they propose a particular kind of relationship between the player as agent and Geralt as protagonist. And the broader question here is one of agency. Cutscenes has for quite some time in computer games been vulnerable to the charge of forcing an unfolding of the story that is out of the player’s hands; the grabbing of the camera, of the protagonist’s movement, and the provision of voice-over or other narration all mark the cutscene as occurring in a time outside of the player’s agency. As we talked about this on stream, we thought about other kinds of moments in games that we’ve played which are, for lack of a better term, cutscene-like, but which seem to end up in a different pace with regard to player agency.

One of these, which Kelly mentioned, is the quicktime event, in which there may be some loss of typical control, but at the same time the player is prompted to do something (press x as fast as possible) in order to change the outcome of this particular “cutscene” (how many fleeing refugees get saved, for example). Another example is in dialogue – Bioware in particular is known for quasi-cutscenes, such as in the Balder’s Gate series, where it is initiated outside of the player’s direct control. In those games, the (isometric-view) camera suddenly shifts to center on an NPC that begins speaking, and the dialog box appears. Bioware’s dialog options are carefully designed to be engaging, and the outcomes are often not binary or easy to predict, leading the player to feel that a lot rides on the decisions they make. The most striking of these scenes are those that are initiated by a party member NPC, presumably because the party members are otherwise so directly and fully under the control of the player. The agency is partly lost, but remains in the player’s dialog options (and, they come to understand, in their past decisions as well as their potential future ones).

In The Witcher III, however, we see an example of another way to relate player and protagonist agency. To take a frequent example, the player fully directs Geralt to move through and look around a room until an object that can be unexamined is revealed by the interface. Clicking brings the camera and Geralt to the object, and Geralt just begins to approach it, possibly leaning over slightly, or reaching for it. Here the player has something in mind – or, possibly, in collaboration with others, as often happens on our stream – including a sequence of reasoning, potential guesses about what might be worthwhile, etc. Clicking on the object is an expression of that agency, with Geralt as a vehicle. But that game then inverts that relation, grabbing focus (of camera, of Geralt, of narration) and delivers its own attitude (in his posture, expression, etc) and explanation (in his frequent talking “to himself”) of why that item was examined, folded into his sequence of reasoning, and the logic of that world.

Many years ago now, I wrote about backgammon in Greece, and the curious case of agency performed when a player would call for a particular outcome, usually doubles, on the dice (“Pentares!”[“Double-fives!”]), and – the other crucial piece – actually get that outcome. For a moment, the agency of the player and the fickle contingency of the world are in alignment, and therefore in flux, given a kind of Weberian “enchantment” to the moment. (I’ve also considered, elsewhere, Google’s longstanding “I’m Feeling Lucky” button in a similar vein.) In TWIII, the player is invited by the developers into a much more contrived alignment of agency and contingency, and I wonder if such moves, done effectively, are part and parcel of the (magical?) engagement and capture of attention a good game can achieve.



Thomas Malaby (PhD 1998, Harvard) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interest is in the ever-changing relationships among institutions, unpredictability, and technology, especially as they are realized through games and game-like processes. He has published numerous and widely-cited works on the status of games in human experience. Dr. Malaby’s work suggests that the increasing use of digital games by institutions marks a fundamental transition in modern governance. His book, Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009, Cornell University Press), is an ethnographic examination of a San Francisco high tech firm.

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