Yeah, I know. That a gruff slayer-for-hire Clint Eastwood wannabe has come so far is a testament not so much to where Geralt started, as to CD Projekt's commitment — over one decade and three enormous games — to learning from its mistakes, and rarely repeating them. Each game has been a reinvention, and each time the protagonist's character has been a large part of that. Two years after release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and after hundreds of hours in Geralt's company, for me there's no better protagonist in the medium.
On the surface it's sometimes hard to see why. Particularly in the game's promotional material, Geralt of Rivia is little more than a gravelly-voiced anti-hero. But this is a trick. The Witcher 3 takes great care to subvert pretty much every expectation that might come with this alpha male territory. Geralt does much more than just sticking his sword in things, and I'm not talking about the sex.
When CD Projekt Red embarked upon this series well over a decade ago, adapting the popular Polish fantasy novels by Andrej Sapkowski, there was a big choice to make. Who was going to be the lead of their game?
The original plan had been to follow genre tradition and let players create their own Witcher, a newcomer to this existing world. Early versions of the game were even built with this in mind. Ryszard Chojnowski, project lead on the first game, shows a fascinating look at such a version here:
CD Projekt eventually decided that to achieve the quality of storytelling they desired, the lead character shouldn't be a blank slate. This runs against a certain strain of thought in RPGS. CD Projekt eventually chose instead to cast players as a pre-defined character, one taken from the novels, the Witcher Geralt of Rivia. It's important to remember that, initially, this approach didn't really work.
The Geralt of the first Witcher is odd. Traces of his literary persona are there, but muted. With the games serving as unofficial sequels to the novels Geralt was given amnesia at the start of the first game, a classic videogame plot device designed to give the writers an opportunity to have characters explain prior events to Geralt and players new to The Witcher's world. The exposition always felt a little forced because of this, however, and Geralt just came across as flat, a passive vessel.
For the second game, CD Projekt reduced the extent of Geralt's memory loss and revealed the causes behind it, filling in more character details. Geralt was a lot more like his book-self, but this development kind of halted halfway through a plot that was trying to give him some personal stakes in the game's grander narrative.
Third time's the charm. CD Projekt Red perfected their depiction of Geralt by finally abandoning the amnesia angle, and more completely embodying the character suggested by the books. In the game's opening hours we're introduced not just to him but the people he cares about. Geralt begins by searching for his longtime lover Yennefer and, eventually, their adopted daughter Ciri, who's fleeing the fearsome Wild Hunt. That's the game's subtitle, and Geralt's big task runs in parallel to it: bringing his family back together.
Sure, a significant portion of the game sees Geralt fulfilling his role as Witcher. The player will spend dozens of hours brewing potions, tracking beasts and slaying them. This is just the way we're anchored into his world, given a set of rules that immerse us in Geralt's unique profession. But we also see his vulnerabilities, his fears that he's incapable of helping those he loves in the face of greater threats.
Usually a videogame's protagonist is nothing but the job they inhabit. Think of a few popular game series and their heroes, then try to imagine them doing anything other than their mission. Can you possibly imagine God of War's Kratos raising the daughter he spends that game trying to avenge?
It works because from the start we're introduced to a different side beyond the sceptical and stoic monster slayer. In The Witcher 3, for the first time, we start to see Geralt as a whole person.
Seeing Geralt as a lover, friend and father figure — in addition to a badass nomadic outcast, and butcher of evil monsters — makes him dynamic in a way few game protagonists can manage. He's engaging because even a hundred hours in the game keeps revealing fresh sides of him. The Witcher 3's success as an open world is down to several factors but none of them would work half as well if Geralt's story didn't remain interesting over the whole adventure.
As a pre-defined character we are not free to do as we please, but given a specific role to play. We are forced to accept the world's complexities and culture because Geralt's limitations become ours. He's a Witcher, powerful but far from the top of the world's hierarchy, and we learn a great deal about him simply from the choices he is able to make. When he is betrayed by a grubby merchant the player might expect revenge, or at least the chance for such, but Geralt lets the man go. The player has no say in the matter. Geralt simply will not harm an unarmed man. It's this and a hundred other little details that imply his principles. Everyone who's played the game has an idea of Geralt's sense of morality, his empathy and pursuit of a certain breed of social justice, but it's never spelled-out directly by any character.
Geralt is constantly re-evaluating people and his relationships with them, trusting his intuition but never taking anyone at face value. This characteristic is especially striking because, despite the need for monster-slaying throughout their brutal world, most 'normal' folk despise Witchers. Whether it's because they're mutants, the cost of hiring one, or maybe just because Geralt's the most handsome man in the Northern Kingdoms, almost everybody scorns him.
Yet he's always there to help. Sure, it's his job, but Geralt puts himself in harms way more often than it demands, and has a winning proclivity towards teasing-out the underlying reasons for conflict and problems. Perhaps because he's so scorned by them, it's not just humans Geralt empathises with. The monsters he's been hired to kill often earn his understanding and, in turn, his help. He'll study the corpse of a beloved family member with the same detachment as he would that of a griffin. His professionalism helps him keep a level head so when the time comes to make a decision, Geralt takes everyone's plight into consideration, man or beast alike.
The people who define him most are those closest to him, of course, which is why the game focuses on letting us hang out with them for a while. Perhaps the best thing you can say about Geralt as a protagonist is you could go for a quiet drink with him and have a nice time. He does exactly that at a few points in the game and is an attentive listener, who's also glad to offer advice, tell stories, and make terrible dad jokes. When I think back on my time with the game these moments linger most strongly. A booze-up with a friendly vampire in a graveyard, and fireside confessions with a drunken baron.
It's vital for a game as huge as this and a character like Geralt to have those moments. It's why Geralt's beautiful reunion with Ciri isn't the end of the game. Because we need to go on and see them together to be able to make any meaningful choices about them. His pursuit and support of Ciri, regardless of how much she actually needs his help, only matters because he matters to her as well.
Geralt presents himself as a guarded loner, his emotions carefully-concealed, but each time you see him with those dear to him he doesn't hesitate to open up. So much so, he doesn't care about the occasion. When you as the player are given an opportunity to let Geralt compliment Yennefer at a funeral for instance, it's not just so you can pursue a romance. It's to remind you of what really matters to Geralt.
Geralt's a wonderful protagonist partly because he's rational, letting us think our way through problems, and partly because he occupies a stigmatised position in this world. Yet it's also because, underneath this way of life, his well of feeling runs deep. The Witcher 3 always seems to come down to people: so many quests have us tracing out the connections between them, showing how those threads can be made or broken. In Geralt's shoes we contemplate these networks in ways that few in his world can understand and, rather than going for easy or selfish solutions, try to chase the ever-shifting goal of doing the right thing.
Being in Geralt's presence reveals anything but the average grunting psychopath — if anything comes to define him it's the idea that, in the face of an oft-cruel world, all we have is each other. The secret is that, while he looks like a typical anti-hero, Geralt is really just a good old-fashioned hero.