"The Witcher is a typical RPG," Michel Madej of CD Projekt said, "with new, fresh appeal." In the next breath, he said, "[We think it will be] the most important RPG of its time."
This schizophrenic dichotomy is actually accurate. On the surface, The Witcher doesn't really stand out. Outside of some cool combat tweaks (you can actually advance and retreat while fighting opponents) and some pretty neat weather effects, it's very run of the mill, mechanically. You kill stuff, you level up. Then, you kill some more stuff.
I was jotting down some standard notes when Madej mentioned the game is based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's book series with the same name. "He's almost as big as Tolkein where he's been translated," he said. Being a fan of compelling narrative, I started asking for more detail on The Witcher's story.
He described the world as "modern low fantasy," which is to say magic exists, as do elves and monsters, but it's gritty and riddled with many of the problems we face in today's society: racism, genetic modification ethics (it turns out even mages understand they're manipulating scientific phenomena), and so on. A horde of monsters threaten the world in a more immediate way, and you play one of five Witchers, "natural mutants" with special magical abilities, which make them more adept at battling these monsters.
However, the game isn't entirely about this struggle between good and evil. Madej said, "The story is about choosing the lesser evil." In fact, the first story-altering choice you make really boils down to how you're going to kill a guy.
You see, he's a bandit you've captured who's managed to figure out more about you than what's entirely safe. You're first presented with the option to kill him outright, set him free, or call in your Witcher buddies to advise you. As you expand the dialog calling for backup, three other Witchers show up, each one advising in a different manner. One suggests you force-feed him a special truth serum to find out exactly how much he knows about you, but it may drive him insane. Another suggests brutal torture, hoping to extract information. The last brings up the more humane "kill him before he feels anything" option. So, you're left between letting a guy go without discerning his motives toward you and killing him in any number of ways to ensure your safety.
That beats the hell out of letting HK-47 shoot a bunch of younglings, or whatever.
While letting players determine the outcome of a story isn't especially groundbreaking, cornering players into bad decisions is something rarely explored outside of tabletop gaming. To see the guys at CD Projekt attempting to tackle the concept with pre-existing IP is definitely worth following. If they can pull it off, Madej just might make good on the second part of his assertion.