The narrative design in The Witcher 2 is some of the best I've experienced in videogames, which is to say some of the best in any media, as videogames have unique hurdles for the storyteller to overcome as well as unique strengths to be utilised. What I mean by narrative design is the way in which the game's story is structured for the player to experience and control.
At least Geralt can hold his drink without staining his fancy armour coat
While the dialogue can be enjoyable it too often suffers from phallocentric humour, impersonal fantasy jargon (I personally don't have a problem with this, as you may have noticed I likelong words), and some uninspired lip syncing in places. At one point, the Witcher (beast slayer) you spend considerable time tracking down takes a swig of vodka in preparation for your epic showdown, only to poor it all down his chin, but he doesn't seem to realise and carries on flapping his mouth just barely in time to the script's syllables. But I can forgive this, easily, because the sense of agency you as the player are given over the world and your character is so potent that the surface details can do little to ruin that deeper satisfaction.
In the screenwriting book I have been reading they say characters are defined by 'action', and action in this case is not necessarily physical action, 'action' is decision, choices that express the character's growth or sentiment or values. So when a player is given these same pivotal choices in the context of an emotionally, morally, and ideologically weighted story, they tend to grow attached and invested. This 'action' projects the player's own personal development onto the narrative and develops as the player's values and sentiments evolve. Even if no emotional ties form, there is still a dark satisfaction in the rhetorical outmanoeuvring of a king in his own court, or the stabbing of an ally in the back as you forsake his cause for that of the rebel Elves. However far the dialogue falls short, these choices remain satisfying as they split the plot into great dirty branches, cleaving whole sub-plots off as new twigs of fiction sprout in their place.
So God Damn Pretty
While many games revolve around power fantasies, and even the Witcher 2's protagonist is portrayed as a formidable warrior (though the games crushing difficulty even on 'normal' seems to thematically undermine this assertion), few games seem to allow the player to wield power over other people in ways more interesting than the very binary: should I end this life or not? Or, how should I end this life? Both are pretty bleak. So when The Witcher 2 offers many situations in which you decide the political fates of small inter-citizen feuds, a village's leadership between divine right and the woman of the people, or the future of an entire kingdom, if you are willing to keep up with the complexities of the plot- the player's input into the proceedings can feel very rewarding.
Sometimes the choices do boil down to who must die and who will live- not necessarily at your hand (which again emphasises the player's control over other people), and the player falls under the shadow of their hubris as they make the choice. Its the consequences of actions like this that made the choice interesting in the first place, the prediction and anticipation of its outcomes. If you allow your bloodthirsty but loyal friend to kill a king in vengeance, then the characters around you are going to feel serious ramifications as they attempt to sort out the resulting political mess.
So with choice comes consequence, and somewhere in the space between the two is the player's expectations. Without this expectation the player is not making choices they care about, there must be an element of intentionality for the player's expectations to be either fulfilled or subverted. And here the developer has the power to evoke different emotions, from the satisfaction of an outcome predicted, to a tragic backfiring of the player's sentiments. Usually one follows the other, if the game's feedback to the player was 'if you make this choice we might screw you over' it would be frustrating and so the short term consequences must be formulaic. After many more hours of gameplay though this decision can resurface and demonstrate how it has had a lasting impact on the world the player inhabits in a way that subverts their expectations. I'm going to call this commitment to consequence the reason The Witcher 2 so successfully includes the player in its most inner workings and fosters that certainty of dizzying agency.
When I mentioned the phallocentricity (yes that is actually a word) of the dialogue, I didn't mention that this can be said for the game as a whole. Its portrayal of female character's is almost entirely defined by the 'male gaze' and in such a patriarchal period as the middle ages perhaps this is appropriate. Predictably there are ways this undermines the game's attempt to create intimate 'romantic' encounters that deepen the player's relationships with other characters, and also their understanding of the protagonist: Geralt. I assume this is what the game is trying to do, because from the way some of these scenes are framed compositionally you'd be forgiven for thinking it was ripped straight from some kind of medieval erotic fiction, the focus being largely on the physical rather than the emotional. This is a shame because the player only stumbles upon these moments with the game's main character's by pursuing the dialogue options that conduces intimacy between Geralt and a love interest, a pursuit that leads to a closeness between the characters only to be marred by a scene of sorceress flavoured voyeurism and objectification. While this would perhaps be an enriching element of The Witcher's world in other circumstances, here its cost on the character development isn't worth the polygonal nipples.
That's not to say the entire female population in The Witcher is made of seductively dressed sorceresses and prostitutes.
It'd be impolite to say no...right?
Triss, the woman Geralt begins the game with, is a royal advisor and her unique position of power makes her personal sacrifices for Geralt all the more affecting, and consequentially when she goes missing the sacrifices Geralt must make have greater context. Ves, the only woman working in King Foltest's royal guard appears to be fulfilling the archetype of military woman who silently does her job and doesn't take any shit. She takes an interest in Geralt after he treats her as his equal in a sword fighting tournament halfway down one of the games two possible main plot lines. She expresses her frustration at not being viewed as a soldier but as "a pair of tits atop an arse." While this appears to give the game's writing a glimmer of self awareness: it doesn't go much way to balancing the abundance of prostitutes in the game who appear to serve very little function beyond titillation, though many seem to justify it as 'authenticity'.
Woman of The People
Saskia is a third strong female character, a warrior of the people leading the common folk in an uprising against the royalty of the Dwarven village. The fact that she's a warrior seems to need constant visual reinforcement by her insistence on wearing shiny armour at all times, what also apparently needs constant visual reinforcement is her femininity: here symbolised at all times by her cleavage. Empowering and subtle right?
Ves confronts Henselt
While The Witcher 2 clearly holds sexuality as one of the core components of it's personality and its lack of nuance when dealing with the subject escalates as the plot develops and more heads start to roll (violence also happens to be one of the core components of it's personality). With this blend of strong and deep characters rubbing shoulders with the most misogynistic of the stereotypes I can only applaud The Witcher 2 for its approach to diversity, not just with gender, but race too. Here there is a distinct tension between the human and 'non-human' populations that adds a layer of social intrigue to most situations the player is presented with. If only the execution were more mature. But back to the head rolling: as the player's choices begin to come home to roost, characters with a sexual orientation that doesn't conform to the heterosexuality portrayed in mainstream media really start to get it in the neck quite literally. Why is it that the gay mage is a sadist who kills a rank of innocent soldiers and then is brought to justice by having his throat slit and balls amputated? Why is it that the lesbian sorceress who betrays your cause gets captured and her eyes are removed with a spoon? Its not that these characters didn't do horrible things worthy of a grim end according to The Witcher 2's bloody sense of justice, its that only the straight ones can be heroes when they're not 'ploughing'.
Straying from a chronological storytelling structure in games is generally problematic, but The Witcher 2 finds a way to rise above the usual obstacles in it's opening chapter. The player begins in prison as Geralt who is being interrogated about the events leading up to his arrest, which take the form of four responses. Each of these can be spoken in any order and in this way the player can restructure the opening hours of the game to reveal different aspects of the plot creating new meaning to previous information in an interesting way. By using this prison interrogation to frame what is effectively the prologue: the narrative is established on the player's terms in an engaging way that avoids forcing exposition.
So Ridiculously Pretty
Alternative perspectives on the game's plot is something The Witcher does sparingly and to great effect. According to the choices previously made the player will come across opportunities to step into the shoes men Geralt has killed to ascertain their purpose in attempting to perform regicide, or assume the role of a great king as he approaches a meeting of leaders. The dialogue you hear as you arrive creates context for the events about to unfold. This act on the game's behalf seems to imitate the conviviality of a friend explaining the complex motivations of the character's in their favourite film. Its the eagerness to share this animated world in innovative ways that instils the same enthusiasm in the player.
Alternative Perspectives: Henselt's Shoes
Here's a Witcher 2 review that says most of it better, and probably more concisely. Because I know you're desperate to read more about it ;)
The full gallery of Witcher 2 screenshots. The game is so f*cking pretty I have racked up 392 of them over two play throughs.
"Interesting read. Good info about the complimentary colors used in the game.
Note on the technical side of bounced light: they render the colored scene and normals from the shadows point of view (along with a shadowmaps usual ZBuffer), create a grid of irradiance volumes around the camera and sample the shadow map information to calculate bounced lighting. Then they render it to the light buffer. That's just a summary. Placing lights at bright spots in the light buffer wouldn't work as lights would disappear when they go out of view.
For some other stuff, like static indoor scene lighting, they just use more deferred lights to act as bounced lighting. " -Cry-Styves, Crytek Staff Member.
Someone posted on the thread this really interesting video on the indirect lighting in the new Frostbite 2.0 engine that Battlefield 3 will be running on. Pretty impressive.