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Binders Full of Women: Collecting All the Ladycards in The Witcher – part 9

September 19, 2014

Princess Adda: Fiends with Benefits

The final part of our epic fuckquest : part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8. Today’s nicknames for Geralt are brought to you by the List of Final Fantasy Villains.

 

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.

 

De-stressed Damsels

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.

I didn’t think Toruviel quite counted as a rescue-reward, but technically, you do rescue her right before you goink. Dammit!

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.

 

Consenting Adults

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.)

Triss just seems to like clothing with bizarre cut-out sections. It’s her style; I can dig it.

 

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.

“Whatcha doing?”

“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.

 

Finally…

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.

 

 

 

 

36 Comments leave one →
  1. BourneApprox permalink
    September 19, 2014 22:47

    Thank you for this excellent series – it was both very thoughtful and consistently hilarious. I hope you plan to write down your impressions of TW2 as well, as there are plenty of us who would love to hear them!

    • Faxmachinen permalink
      September 20, 2014 01:18

      Yes, thank you for all of this most excellent permutation of words, Kateri.

      I also thought that the female characters in TW were well done, slot machine attributes aside. I didn’t much care for the ones in TW2, but I’m hoping I misunderstood the entire thing and it turns out they are awesome too. Hence why I am doubly interested in reading your persspective on that.

      • BourneApprox permalink
        September 21, 2014 03:38

        I have such mixed feelings about gender and women in The Witcher 2. On the one hand, they got rid of the whole transactional sex thing. I only did the Triss love scene (because Gunter was staying truuueee to heeerrrr), but that was surprisingly romantic and sexy, despite the fact that Giget never takes off his goddamn pants (pfffff). And at least in the case of Ves, you have to prove your respect for her to hook up, rather than giving her a watermelon. So that’s good. On the other hand, the plot leans unnecessarily on rape and sexual violence to give the story more “grittiness,” and it consistently undermines the agency of the otherwise excellent female characters (I will never forgive the game for what they did with Ves). And there are some moments of really jarring homophobia. It’s a lovely game, and the sex element is substantially better, but it drops the gender ball in some other very unfortunate ways.

        Also, just a note for Kateri: if you want to keep exploring the sexy bits of the game in TW2, the Iorveth path apparently has lots more folks to sex than the Roche path, which has only one hookup, though perhaps a more significant one (I’ve only done Roche so far).

  2. September 19, 2014 23:15

    A small correction: the engine in use in this game is the Aurora engine, used in Neverwinter Nights. For all their faults you have to give the devs credit for doing a lot with a little!

    • Kateri permalink*
      September 19, 2014 23:19

      Oh, you’re right! I was misinformed, thanks! Will edit.

  3. September 19, 2014 23:32

    I’ve very much enjoyed this series. It has given me a great deal to think about in the next installment of this series. Between this and the Metaphysics of Morrowind you have made this blog a permanent fixture in my RSS reader.

    • Kateri permalink*
      September 19, 2014 23:37

      Thanks! Based on past productivity, my next post series should be due around… 2018?

      • September 20, 2014 00:16

        Looking forward to it!

      • Faxmachinen permalink
        September 20, 2014 01:27

        Do you mind if I invent a time machine, go to 2018 and then copy-paste it into the present?

        … Actually, never mind, prior experiments indicate that to be a bad idea: http://web.mit.edu/manoli/mood/www/calvin-full.html

      • September 20, 2014 03:17

        How much of a nerd does it make me if, despite thinking it was a cute story, I’m annoyed by a logical plot hole? If the paper was written at or around 8:30 and 6:30 Calvin took it back to his own time, both 7:30 and 8:30 Calvin would have known all along that it had been written.

        Probably a pretty big nerd, I’m guessing.

      • Faxmachinen permalink
        September 20, 2014 18:18

        The workings of Calvin’s time machine are never made clear, but I’d take a guess that it travels between parallel universes in order to avoid causing paradoxes.

      • September 20, 2014 21:23

        I don’t buy it. 8:30 Calvin makes clear that he WAS 6:30 Calvin two hours before. He did the same time traveling 6:30 Calvin is doing; he’s seen all this before. (The same goes for 7:30 Calvin.) So we’re dealing with a single timeline, where time travel allows the traveler to jump around the timeline but not actually alter it. They are each just acting out their part, possessing no free will.

        At least, that’s the mechanism being used for most of the series. But when the paper written by the Hobbeses (shot in the dark) is given to Calvin, it introduces in inconsistency in the time travel logic. The only explanation I can come up with to explain this away is that perhaps the 7:30 and 8:30 Calvins are just lying to him. (I have no idea why they would, except that they have to say what they remember hearing their future selves say as 6:30 Calvin or else they don’t close the loop.)

      • Faxmachinen permalink
        September 21, 2014 11:46

        While the method is simple, the results are often complex. When Calvin travelled through time, he had already made up his mind to do so, and was thus aligned with other Calvins who also travelled in time.
        Calvin also does not appear to understand the method by which he travels. 8:30 Calvin returned empty-handed, because his interaction with his own 8:30 Calvin (not shown) was different than that of 6:30 with 8:30. Possibly the 8:30 Calvin went to his 8:30, found it hadn’t been done, then went to his 7:30 and convinced him to do it. And while 8:30s 7:30 Calvin may very well have written the paper, it would be in a different universe from both 8:30s 6:30 and 8:30, as well as 6:30s 8:30 Calvin.

        Your theory is interesting, though. They could certainly have lied purely out of fear of tearing a hole in the space-time continuum. Or worse, that the already written paper would simply cease existing.

  4. September 20, 2014 01:04

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both this series, and your Morrowind one. If I don’t see you on a gaming journalism site like RPS any time soon, I’ll be sad.

  5. September 20, 2014 05:29

    As a latecomer to the party, and someone who loves the first Witcher game, I am sad this had to end. Uproariously funny and endlessly enlightening too in many cases, I thank you for doing this and hope to see more witty and insightful analyses of sexism in games in the future.

  6. Paul permalink
    September 20, 2014 15:53

    I consider myself on the opposite side of the “SJW” side of gaming critique, but having read this entire series I think you did a good job. Thank you for actually looking closer at this game and not outright dismissing it because of the “sex cards” or of what you might have heard. Personally I didn’t pay much attention to these aspects of the game even though they were probably aimed at me, but reading your thoughts on it made me consider it a little closer, and I ended up agreeing with most of what you wrote. Thank you for that. I hope you take a look at the second game as well, I’d be interesting in reading your thoughts on that.

    • September 20, 2014 21:25

      I don’t understand this position. You’re the “opposite” of a Social Justice Warrior? So, you oppose social justice and those who champion it?

  7. jamesneko permalink
    September 21, 2014 07:00

    Nice =)

  8. opellulo permalink
    September 25, 2014 14:17

    Thanks for the great writing; i think more mature analisys on videogames can only benefit a media that’s still struggling for an indentity.

    I remember founding the cards in the Witcher quite puzzling: as you say they were totally out of context and design from the main game. I think they were a last minute add to mantain that “mature themes” promise they made in marketing. The sequel, while discarding the card collecting, went imho both higher and lower in gender dinamics: from funny self-aware moments (“I’m into dwarves, it must be a dragon thing”) to trown away tired tropes (including a gratuitous rape-revenge plot).

    …for this reason I would love to see your analisys on it.

  9. October 2, 2014 07:59

    How many watermelons does Geralt have?

  10. janpospisilart permalink
    October 2, 2014 16:00

    Beside being sterile and immune to disease, the process of mutation also leaves the witchers with a strange skin condition – it seems electrifying when touched (at least some of Geralt’s partners mention it, so it’s probably individual). IIRC it’s described as pleasant vibrations, small electric shocks etc. It’s quite possible Geralt is a walking Hitachi thanks to being subjected to deadly toxins as a child. Thanks, Vesemir!

  11. Dean Love permalink
    November 13, 2014 19:39

    I was beginning to think I was the only person that didn’t think the ‘collectible card ‘ thing actually existed! My personal theory is they are cards with art, but it’s our culture that sees cards=collectables and perhaps that doesn’t exist so much in Poland. It’s a connotation born of Magic, really.

    • November 13, 2014 20:03

      My impression was that they were considered “collectible” in the baseball card sense (are those still a thing?), because you CAN browse them from the menu UI. There’s a character list in there which gives you information on pretty much every named NPC (and several who aren’t) in the game, and characters whom Goosebump has slept with display a heart on their portrait. Clicking the heart brings up the card. I think it was probably meant to be considered an easter egg, but word got around about this game to the degree that these cards are one of the best-known facts about it.

  12. TheT permalink
    November 14, 2014 19:31

    Railing about W1 Triss?
    Wait till you get to know: Mrs. Airhead-“poke me and I squeak”-W2-DID-Bimbo-Triss…

  13. May 17, 2015 01:02

    The imminent release of W3 reminded me of this series. Did you ever get around to playing the second game, Kateri?

    • Kateri permalink*
      May 17, 2015 19:04

      heh, no, a bunch of other games happened, like dragon age inquisition, and then I started playing morrowind AGAIN. Someday!

      • May 17, 2015 20:52

        What a drag Inquisition turned out to be. It made a good first impression and the Skinner box mechanics kept me playing a long while, but the whole experience ended up feeling so hollow. Even Morrigan seemed like she had no idea what she was doing in that game.

  14. July 14, 2015 17:19

    I’ve finished a majority of Witcher 3 (the main quest and a healthy sampling of the side content), so I feel comfortable saying that it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. That they managed to match the scope of something like Skyrim is impressive, given the smaller team and the much, much smaller budget. But that they also managed to nail the fine details, to create a sense of specificity and intimacy instead of generic High Adventure, is nothing short of miraculous. This game puts Bethesda and Bioware to shame.

    What’s more, I think it’s fascinating to see CD Projekt’s evolution in the depiction of women across these three games. While W3 isn’t perfect, it generally treats its characters with nuance and humanity. For once the game actually seems dedicated to trying to convince the audience that the women in this story are every bit as cool and interesting as its hero.

    Triss in particular gets a scene that I don’t think I will ever forget, but to say much about it wouldn’t do it justice. (I started trying to describe it, but it needs the context of the game.) Suffice to say that some incredibly good drama in this game hinges on making the choice, as Geralt, to trust that the women in this story can handle some heavy shit without your help.

    The costumes are still silly a lot of the time. There’s still quite a bit of self-conscious “aren’t we mature” content that isn’t, really. But in my opinion, they absolutely delivered where it matters: in creating main characters who are capital-H Heroines. And by all appearances, the developers have set things up such that this game is Geralt’s last adventure, and that if (more likely, when) they return to the world of the Witcher, it will be with Ciri as the main character.

    I can’t recommend it highly enough, and would love to see the game broken down to see if it stands up as well to your scrutiny as it did to mine.

    Some recommendations, if you do play:

    1) Definitely play the Witcher 2 first. While I’d consider the first one optional at this point, you’re already over that hill; the second, though, is referenced a lot throughout the game. It’s also very good, though the third has now shown it up.

    2) Consider playing both games in Polish with English subtitles. The English voice actors just aren’t delivering at the same level.

    • Kateri permalink*
      July 14, 2015 18:40

      This is really, really wonderful to hear! I’m looking forward to playing it eventually, and thank you so much for coming to report back!🙂

  15. June 28, 2016 17:39

    So I recently wrapped up the 2nd and final expansion for Witcher 3 (which I remain convinced is one of the best games I’ve ever played), but along the way I encountered this:

    http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=712775605

    Coincidence or winking reference? You be the judge.

    • Kateri permalink*
      June 28, 2016 17:56

      I couldn’t possibly say, but it’s funny regardless! Thanks!😀

    • June 28, 2016 20:28

      I haven’t played Witcher 3 in earnest yet (and will be doing it in English I think), but I know from Coubs and videos that the Russian translation is incredibly FILTHY, in a good way. It’s an unheard of situation, probably helped by the reputation of the series for “adult” attitude, close-to-home Polish roots, local fandom and motivated localisation firm.

      Anyway, they really go to town with swearing there. Russian “mat” is way more strong and taboo for media than English fucks and shits (much less the fantasy euphemisms). Yet Russian voice actors happily spout “horse-fucked bitchcunts” like there’s no tomorrow. It’s all the more hilarious because these voice actors are very recognisable, and for years voiced literally thousands of foreign and domestic media pieces – of course, completely stripped of any swear words whatsoever. Even “bitch”, “cock” and “shit” equivalents are very rarely used in Russian media, let alone games. Yet here it’s a sailor’s day off.

      • June 29, 2016 07:37

        I strongly recommend avoiding the English voiceover. It’s just wretched. The lead actor is flat and tedious, a caricature of a video game tough guy.

        The Polish actor playing Geralt is fantastic. I don’t speak Polish, but the expressive performance shines through with subtitles. I feel like people playing in English are getting s completely different game.

      • June 29, 2016 12:23

        Thanks! That’s unusual.

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