I recently finished my first play-through of The Witcher, and with that said, let me immediately digress for a moment to say that despite its many well documented flaws, The Witcher is one of the finest and most rewarding PC RPGs I’ve played in years, going as far back as BioWare’s revival of the genre with the landmark Baldur’s Gate series. It’s a demanding game, due in no small part to its particularly Eastern European sensibility which, from a Western perspective, can rapidly shift from vaguely odd to downright bizarre in the blink of an eye. But underneath all that is a remarkable and compelling game that should be at the top of every RPG fan’s must-play list.
One of the most notorious aspects of the game, at least on this side of the pond, is the inclusion of “sex cards,” a series of virtual trading cards awarded to the player every time he steers the game’s protagonist, Geralt, into the pants of one of the game’s many comely maidens. While these cards were censored in the North American release to meet the standards of the ESRB, in the rest of the world they happily flaunted their assets in tasteful, hand-painted and occasionally disturbing images doled out over the course of the game.
I’m a firm believer in adult games for adult gamers, so when I learned the American release of the game was going to be censored in such a ridiculous fashion (decapitations and incinerations are fine but breasts are apparently beyond the bounds of good taste) I resolved to order the U.K. edition from overseas. I took some flak for doing so; my argument that it was a principled stand against censorship rather than simple lechery fell largely on deaf ears. Nonetheless, in short order I found myself the proud owner of a BBFC-rated copy of The Witcher.
My first in-game conquest, which took very little time to get to, was suggestive but fully covered and, thus, a bit of a let-down. The second, however, showed the goods in a big way, and with that we were off to the races. Killing monsters, it turns out, is the thing Witchers are second best at, and although I had no way of knowing it at the time, The Witcher would quickly have me raising my eyebrows, shaking my head and rolling my eyes as I wandered through a surreal, medieval sexual Olympiad.
A number of reviewers, our own Corvus Elrod included, had problems with the game’s treatment of women, and while I don’t agree with their assertions that the game is misogynistic, I did find myself wondering why the developers felt it necessary to have Geralt hopping in the sack quite so frequently. Midway through the third chapter it had become tiresome to the point of distraction, and I found myself complaining to a gamer friend that my interest in the game was waning, mostly as a result of the game’s frat-boy mentality toward the hero’s raging libido.
I began to wonder if this was the kind of “adult” videogaming I wanted; if the inclusion of wanton sex with no less than four separate species of creatures (and accompanying souvenir postcards) was really what we, the gamer collective, wanted to put forth to the world at large as evidence of our maturity. Is the presence of sex, seemingly for its own sake, a marker of gamers coming of age, or is it in fact the opposite: proof positive that we’re all giggling, juvenile idiots? I never thought I’d say this, but I began to wish the developers had cut back on the naked girls so I could get on with actually enjoying the game.
So why, then, did I find myself calling “BOOB CARD!” to my aforementioned gamer friend each and every time Geralt had a roll in the hay? The fact that it was weird, infantile, even a little embarrassing, seemed lost in those brief moments of tittacular triumph. Instantly, the commentators who derided the game for its condescending attitude toward women would fade into the background, muted and forgotten. Geralt got some action; I got a boob card!
It may relate to an idea that’s been kicking around for awhile now about the increasing number of 20- and 30-somethings who are refusing to settle into a normal, grown-up life when they leave their teenage years behind: choosing a career, getting married, buying a house, having babies. Mostly commonly referred to as “delayed adulthood,” the theory is that, for a number of reasons – social, economic, even psychological – people are taking much longer to embrace their destinies as adults. Whereas in the past, an almost obligatory entry into adulthood would take place at 20 or 21 years, both men and women in contemporary society are now far more likely to put off those commitments until much later in life. And the corollary of this behavior, of course, is an embrace of adolescence well past the adolescent years.
I’m not sure how much credence I’m willing to assign to the idea of shifts in societal norms as individual abdications of responsibility, but I suspect there’s a trace of this in everyone who calls him or herself a gamer. Videogames are by no means kids stuff, but at least a small part of the complex and deep-rooted motivations for playing them has to be a childlike desire to escape into the realms of the fantastic and impossible. Why else would a grown man with an education, a job and all the responsibilities of life want to take on the persona of a magic-wielding, sword-swinging, free-lovin’ monster killer for hire?
And what of it? Maybe it’s a problem; maybe as more and more man-children stumble into middle age, wholly unprepared for real life and the demands of a society that’s tired of waiting for them to grow up, Western civilization will drift down into an accelerating spiral of soft, flabby indolence. The unprecedented levels of affluence we currently enjoy, for which the previous generations worked so hard, may ultimately prove to be our undoing as we let it all slip away like an empty-headed hotel heiress whose greatest claim to fame is her stultifying worthlessness.
Or maybe it’s just a different way of doing what we’ve always done. When someone can adequately explain to me the difference between getting together with friends for a few rounds of Team Fortress 2, and getting together with friends to swill beer and scream at a football game on the television, I may allow myself some concern. Because while individual brands of escapism may evolve, be they books, videogames or the endless parade of drivel emanating from the T.V. set, the forces that drive us to them do not. Setting aside our adult foibles every now and then so we can duck out back for a few minutes of fun is hardly a new concept.
A lot of people don’t, and won’t, get it. My girlfriend, for instance, who I suspect sees it all as amusingly deviant, has made it quite clear that any attempt to explain why I’m watching a computer game character get laid will only make things worse. And there’s no question we could, should and eventually must elevate the “adult” content in our games to something beyond the current “Seymour Butts” level of cleverness. But what’s really wrong with indulging the little teenage idiot inside each of us now and then? It’s served us pretty well this far, giving rise to a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s outstripping both television and movies as an entertainment medium. They say that youth is wasted on the young; I say that I’m old enough to know better but think boob cards are pretty cool anyway. And that’s precisely the point: As the great Time Lord himself once said, “There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”