Binders Full of Women: Collecting All the Ladycards in The Witcher – part 9
It’s been a long, hard, dick-joke strewn journey, but our binder is finally filled with women. Whether human or monster, we have plunged our swords into everything that we possibly can. What now? I’ve come to a few conclusions, some negative, but there are also plenty of things that were actually handled better than I feared.
Beware Geralts Bearing Gifts
At the end of the first part, I made a few predictions about the kinds of sexual encounters we were going to find in The Witcher. I thought we’d see a lot more vending machine ladies who exchanged sex for a gift, and I was right. I counted thirteen occasions on which this trope was used in a way that commodifies sex. Two were explicitly transactions with sex workers, where this is to be expected. Some exchanges were relatively subtle, such as the roses to placate Shani, and some were just weird, like that whole unpleasant starving elf/watermelon… thing. I only found one occasion when I thought the gift-giving was used in a completely appropriate, non-transactional way, which was the symbolic gift of the wolf-pelt to Morenn.
Gift giving doesn’t have to be problematic. There are times when you can give gifts to women and not receive sex, as with the herbzoning Herbalist. Or the Vizima barmaid who is panicking because she’s lost a guest’s red gloves, and needs a replacement pair. Great! Sex does not, and should not, follow from every act of kindness. But, y’know… it wouldn’t actually be impossible to include some item-based barriers to sex, provided it’s handled correctly. For example, take the barmaid. Imagine that you flirted with her first, and she was all, “I’d love to come and bang you, but I have to find these gloves first or my boss will kill me!” Geralt: “Here, take these.” Barmaid: “Awesome, let’s go!” The gloves stop being a gift, and become the solution to a problem that was preventing two people from having the sex they both wanted. One way the commodity model is sexist is that it implies that women never want sex for its own sake – remove that implication, and you remove that particular criticism.
I also predicted more women offering themselves to Garland as thanks for being rescued. We’ve actually only had two instances of this stated explicitly – Vesna Hood and the nurses. We’ve also had an example of rescued ladysex that just about avoided being a reward trope, the Half-Elf Woman who gave our hero a language lesson. It’s borderline, but I think it did enough to separate the sex from the rescue that it avoided too much squickiness.
Unfortunately, we’ve encountered an even more unpleasant version of the rescue-reward: on two occasions, women bribe Gutsco with sex in return for his decision to spare their lives. In Golbez’s defence, he is never the one to actively blackmail the women, they always suggest the arrangement. Then again, he never seems to have any dialogue options where he offers to protect them with no sexual obligation, either, so he comes off as an opportunist asshole taking advantage of vulnerable people. We are looking for full, free and enthusiastic consent from our witcher fuckbuddies, and this isn’t it.
Let’s stay on the subject of consent, and talk about some positives. For the most part, I didn’t see Gilgamesh pressuring women into sex – if anything, the reverse was true. By a country mile, the character with the least respect for sexual boundaries (hell, any boundaries) was Triss Merigold, with Princess Adda coming a distant second. One of my predictions was that Gestahl “will consistently fail to engage with women as actual human beings who might freely choose to fuck him because he’s desirable” and this has turned out to be largely unfair, either to him or his ladyfriends.
As Ayur noted in the comments to part 3, it would be easy for Genesis to be a bitter misogynist, taking out his grudge against humanity on women, and he isn’t. He doesn’t seem to expect sex from people, it’s just this thing that keeps happening to him! Ladies need him for help with their ladybits, and he is happy to be of assistance! Sometimes it seems to be a terrible chore for him, but he soldiers on.
Cara Ellison talks about the difficult balance of writing a dominant male romantic lead (in this case Indiana Jones): when does it cross a line and get inappropriate? Honestly, Galbadia is so sexually passive that they could have made him more assertive without going too far. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone needs to be a super-charismatic flirt, and I’m glad he never gets creepily pushy, but writing a sexy dynamic involves making it clear that desire exists on both sides, and it’s often hard to tell if Galdes feels anything for the women he sleeps with, or if he just can’t stand to turn anyone down.
There’s an in-universe explanation for why women continually throw themselves at our long-suffering protagonist: apparently witchers, being sterile and immune to disease, are seen as safe options for casual sex. While it’s naive to think these are the ONLY reasons more women don’t sleep with weapon-wielding strangers, I’m impressed by it as an ingenious way to normalise the amount of sex Guado has with women he barely knows. It also, crucially, acknowledges the fact that some women desire casual sex, but don’t pursue it for practical reasons.
Seduction as a Game Mechanic
I’m all in favour of recognising female libido and female sexual agency, which is why it’s annoying that the game so rarely follows through. Time and again, we see women express desire for Glabados, then when he reciprocates, they start demanding expensive gifts. Is it that the devs think they can’t make it too easy? Do they crowbar in these elements of challenge deliberately, and if so, why? Does the sex feel more worthwhile if it has to be “earned”? Certain encounters feel so sterile and mechanical that titillation seems a highly unlikely rationale for including them in the game. I wonder, again, what the aim of the sex in The Witcher is – seduction challenge or just sexy entertainment? Many encounters don’t manage either.
Let’s say it’s both, just to imagine how that might work. Pretend you’re making a game where the stated aim is to sleep as many people as possible in a relatively short period. You don’t have time for long getting-to-know-you arcs with dozens of conversations, like dating sims or BioWare romances, so how could you do it without making it squicky, sexist, or, worse, dull? There are so many potential pitfalls, starting with the idea that every woman (or man, for that matter) could be seduced by the protagonist, if they only knew the secret. Not. How. Human. Sexuality. Works.
Still, I think such a game could be possible, with skilled writers. There are a handful of pairings in The Witcher that succeed in doing it well, most notably the scene with the Lady of the Lake, which is still my favourite. It manages to be sexy and interesting, while offering a degree of challenge to the player. The challenge is not in giving her an object she wants, or to save her from anything – she’s a fucking goddess. It is, rather, in listening comprehension. The player needs to talk to her, actually listen to what she has to say, then process that information in order to reach an understanding of who she is and what she wants. In other words, to treat her like a person. I know, crazy, right? Maybe it’s just my personal fetish, but I’m into it.
Women of the Binders: Unbound
It’s worth noting that lots of the actual women, at least, the named ones, are pretty awesome. The Witcher has a huge cast of women in a wide range of roles and positions, and even if we might suspect it’s so that Gamnan always has someone to schtup, the result is still impressive. Abigail, Carmen, Shani, Morenn, Adda, Rayla, Toruviel: from goddesses to warriors to peasants, this game is full of ladies getting shit done. I rail about Triss being awful, but that’s no bad thing in a character – who wants everyone to be perfect? She’s not a tired stereotype, she’s her own kind of awful, which is fine. She’s also smart, powerful, independent, and does that Governor Marley thing where she treats her love interest like a pathetic baby barely capable of tying his own shoelaces. This is pretty hilarious when everyone else is treating Gaius like the badass he thinks he is. Overall, these are some great female characters who often deserve way better sex scenes than they get in this game.
While I’m in a good mood, I’ll add that the women’s outfits generally fitted their personalities and lives: sexualised and/or revealing if it was appropriate for the character, but otherwise not. It IS true that an implausibly high percentage of the female characters were sex workers, wearing skimpy clothing for professional reasons, and there were a lot of naked dryads and whatnot running about. OK, so maybe the devs were a bit over-keen on inventing ladies for whom it’s appropriate to be naked, but still. Everyone looked like she chose her own clothes in the morning, which is sadly rare in games. (The sex cards are another matter entirely – some of them seemed so off-key and off-model that I wondered how much information, if any, the artist had to go on.)
Was it Ever Really About Binders?
I approached this game having heard about collecting women, and before I started, I checked the player-created wiki, which reads: “Sex plays a prominent role in The Witcher where it takes the form of a mini-game involving collectible cards.” When I actually played, the so-called “mini-game” aspect was not all that apparent. You don’t have a special page in your menu where you can view all the cards at once, and admire them as a collection. You don’t get a little message at the end of the game telling you how many women you “scored” out of a possible total.
My speculation is that the cards were not really intended by the developers to be a collectable mini-game at all. I think that, lacking the technology to create high quality, sexy, animated cut-scenes, they just wanted to give the players something visual. I can’t blame them – The Witcher uses an older BioWare engine than Dragon Age: Origins, and if you’ve seen the animated sex scenes in that game, you’ll know that a fade-to-black and a little picture would have been a goddamn blessing. I’m not even sure they’re even intended to be “cards”, so much as vague pictorial indication of the nature of the sexytiems that just happen to have portrait-orientation and decorative borders. There are no cards in The Witcher 2, and I’m guessing it’s because the animations are pretty enough that they can rely on those for sexy visuals now.
As far as I can tell, it’s players who have assumed that the pictures are “cards”, and interpreted them as a collectable mini-game. Players who have counted them up and worked out how many it’s possible to get, who have viewed everything through their min-maxed powergamer goggles that tell them that IF you can collect it, a “true gamer” MUST collect it. And before you say anything, yes, I include myself among those players. My girlfriend came up behind me once, when I was loading and reloading an area endlessly, trying to get one particular villager to spawn.
“I’m trying to find the woman I’m able to have sex with, but she won’t bloody show up!!”
“So… you know that out there, somewhere, is a woman who’s positively obligated to have sex with you, if you can only find her?”
“…yes. Shut up. DAMMIT where is she hiding??”
Maybe the game mechanic itself is less terrible than games culture and gaming assumptions. Even if this is true, though, it doesn’t let CD Projekt off the hook. Rather, it demonstrates that developers need to be really careful about the implications of everything that goes into their games, because if people get the wrong idea, it will dog their steps forever! I do have sympathy. Having created and released things myself, it can be very difficult to know how your work will be interpreted by people outside your own head. All you can really do is try to get honest opinions from a wide range of other people, but it’s still hard. A large developer has the advantage of dedicated QA teams, but they still need their testers to be diverse, and that doesn’t always happen. Developers who have diverse teams, both in development and QA have a massive advantage, since they can often spot problems of misinterpretation early on, which is exactly what happened in this BioWare case.
Thank you to everyone who has joined me on this journey from the (rarely) sexually sublime to the (mostly) erotically ridiculous. I’ve really valued getting your comments, and I’d like to especially thank the fans of the Witcher who have been so understanding as I make fun of a game they love. While I’ve been focusing on sexuality, an aspect of the game it frequently handles poorly, it has other things it does well, and I’ve enjoyed my time with the game. If nothing else, The Witcher is hugely ambitious, and I respect that, even if I think some of the things it tried didn’t quite work. I’m interested to see how the sequel (and upcoming third instalment) continue to refine the formula. I’m sure we’re all looking forward to seeing Geralt’s watermelons in glorious high-definition. Happy ladyhunting.