The Witcher 3 and moral ambiguity · 4:01am
I've been playing The Witcher 3 a lot lately. It's a good game, and a lot of the praises I've heard are accurate. It's got a big, living world with a good story. But one of the more frequent discussion points is the game's supposed moral ambiguity. In this game, there are supposed to be no right answers, no black and white. Only shades of gray.
It's a shame, then, that actual ambiguity pops up a lot less than it ought and the "gray" is closer to black.
A foremost feature of the Witcher series is that it can be incredibly dark. The world is filled is filled with racism, poverty, war, social injustice, famine, all that fun stuff, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. An unfortunate side effect is that not-self-centered people are hard to come by at times; people may have their reasons for acting the way they do, sure, but those reasons can be completely devoid of empathy and basic human decency. A surprising amount of "moral ambiguity" in the game is actually "choose which dick doing dickish things you're siding with". And sometimes, even that can fail; both sides can be dicks, but one of them is just so much more dickish that they're the evil to the other's bad.
As an example, one sidequest has a man asking for help. His son has been dangerously ill. Cursed, he suspects. A bit of poking around finds that an herbalist the man was in bed with is responsible, taking revenge for the man cheating on her. The child will eventually die if the curse continues its course, but she'll lift it if the man leaves his wife and child and goes back to her. On the other hand, it's also possible to lift the curse by transferring it to the herbalist, killing her in the process. Now, I can understand that cheating is bad. I can understand the one cheated on would be angry. It's supposed to be ambiguous in the "is this revenge deserved?" sense. The problem comes in that the herbalist did not target the man who wronged her, but a kid who had nothing to do with it. The "ambiguity", at least for me, boiled down, "he's an asshole, but she's a fucking asshole". There really wasn't any ambiguity at all; the would-be child murderer should die.
Moral ambiguity is not assholes being assholes to assholes. Even if you can argue that one side is the lesser of two evils, it's still evil.
One of the more ironic things about the "Blood and Wine" expansion is that, in spite of its much lighter tone (one sidequest involves you getting high and helping your horse with detective work), it actually does moral ambiguity a lot better. In fact, part of the reason I think it does moral ambiguity a lot better is because its tone is much lighter: the world has much less assholes in it, so most people have a reason for doing sensible things that isn't self-centered -- and when those reasons are at odds with each other, it's a lot easier care about one side, the other, or both.
One sidequest has Geralt helping out a young knight who has his eye on a lady. Based on some of her actions, he suspects she's cursed or sick and wants Geralt's help in finding out the truth. After doing some snooping, Geralt gets to the heart of the matter: due to a curse placed on her before she was born, the lady is slowly turning into a bird-like creature. Geralt promptly offers to lift the curse, and he knows of two methods: transfer the curse to another (probably weakening it in the process), or remove it completely in such a way that will leave the lady with seven years to live at most. Not wanting to harm someone else, the lady requests the second way. But if you tell the knight about the curse, he immediately offers to take it on himself, knowing full well what it entails.
So: harm no one and shorten the lady's life, or transfer the curse to an informed, willing sacrifice? It's fairly compelling and either side can be justified in such a way that isn't utterly dickish. The lady doesn't want anyone to be hurt because of her, while the knight is in love enough with her that he's willing to be hurt to give her a normal life. It's easy, very easy, to argue that either side is "better".
That's what moral ambiguity is to me: both sides are acting reasonably. They're doing what they think is best, both for them and for others. I'm not saying moral ambiguity should involve no bad actions whatsoever, but I should at least be able to understand why they're doing what they're doing without becoming a sociopath.