The Boy Who Cried White Wolf: On Polygon’s The Witcher 3 Review

I consider Polygon’s review of The Witcher 3 poisonous to the industry: to gamers, to game developers, to game journalists.

But before we dive deep into details, a disclaimer. The review has been written by Arthur Gies. Mister Gies is someone who — without knowing me, talking to me, giving me the benefit of the doubt — decided to announce it to the public that…

You read that right, The Reviews Editor of a big gaming website decided to publicly call me indecent, terrible human being because... Well, it’s not exactly clear why, and I can only assume it’s either for not demonizing #GamerGate, or for my critique of Feminist Frequency, or for both.

I did reply:

To be clear, I don’t mind that much. People like Arthur Gies are basically gifts to #GamerGate or whoever needs an example of how certain type of a “social justice warrior” operates, gifts that unfortunately keep on giving. I mention the above simply to tell everyone who suspects this post on the Polygon’s review is out of spite or a form of revenge or whatever: “It’s not, and I hope my arguments clearly say why, but — and that’s the whole point of disclaimers — you be the judge.”

Now to the review itself.

When it comes to wordsmithery, I think the review is well written. There might be some smaller issues including self-contradictions but honestly nothing huge and worth talking about. I think the review does a good job helping gamers make an informed choice.

Except, of course, when the review goes full social justice in two places and exposes the level of poisonous — or should I say toxic? — incompetence I wish a big website like Polygon never displayed.

I have stated many times before that I don’t mind a difference in opinion, and it’s weird we even need to reassure each other that having one is not a problem.

This is what I said in the interview with Niche Gamer:

It’s in the consumers’ best interest that websites and mags differ in opinion. That one praises a game while the other dislikes it. What is the alternative here, that all publications speak in the same voice? So let’s just have one website to rule them all? If they’re no different, why would we need more than one? No, obviously we need games analyzed and critiqued and reviewed from multiple angles. The end result is that a game can get 10/10 from one publication, and 5/10 from another. But that’s fine.
[…] In short, I am all for variety in opinion, and that’s why whenever I read reviews of something, I sample every kind of opinion, from “I loved it” to “I hated it”. We should not fight against that variety, and we certainly should not get emotional just because someone else does not like the same things we do.

However, I also added this:

Note this is not about being a bad or good critic, that one is different. A good critic will fight their own bias, try to empathize with different takes, look for unusual, interesting angles, and only then express and explain an opinion. A bad critic pushes their agenda even despite facts or reason.

And in the case of the Polygon’s review of The Witcher 3, we deal with the latter.

First, here is what the review has to say about races:

Now, why exactly is this a problem?

Let me start by saying that, contrary to what some of my colleagues say, The Witcher 3 could, indeed, feature other races than white.

The sometimes used argument is “This is a fantasy game, you have dragons, you can have non-white races” does not make much sense to me, as the fantasy core of The Witcher is the Slavic mythology, and while dragons fit, non-white races simply do not — the same way white people are not a part of Egyptian mythology.

However, The Witcher formula, both for books and games, is that it’s the Slavic mythology mixed with generic fantasy (e.g. elves and dwarfs) mixed with certain anachronisms (e.g. characters often use modern terminology). And such formula easily allows us to imagine foreigners from the faraway lands being guests or even a part of The Witcher 3’s world.

Actually, we already know that non-white races exist in the Witcher universe. The books talk about Zerrikania, and the first game featured Zerrikanian sorcerer Azar Javed, who was clearly not white.

So it would not be a problem if the third Witcher featured non-white races. It’s just that it’s also not a problem when it doesn’t. It’s a non-issue.

I wonder if the reviewer would complain that a game based on a Norse mythology, one about a warrior fighting his way through the frozen Scandinavian lands, featured no Asian people. I wonder if it would be a problem for him that a game mixing aliens and Maya mythology featured no African Americans. I wonder if it’s a problem for him that Yakuza 3 features, like, just one white guy and he’s kind of an asshole.

So yeah, the fact that a post-modernist remix of fantasy and the Polish folklore made by Slavs does not feature non-white characters, is a non-issue.

Note that I am not sure that adding “strangers from the strange lands” to the game would solve anything for the chronically offended. Based on everything I learned about them in the last year, and I learned a lot, if you put a person or a few from any non-white race, they would be called “token characters”. It is the Token Minority trope after all — and, as we know thanks to the megaphoned dilettantes, tropes are bad, mmkay?

The only way to please the outrage factory would be to have every race, every gender, every minority imaginable represented equally. As long as the hero, Geralt, is not a straight white male. And whoever replaced him, they would certainly not be allowed to be nicknamed The White Wolf.

If you think I am exaggerating, then you haven’t been paying attention lately, have you? I so envy you — and I’m not even kidding.

Worth adding that The Witcher books and games have a lot to say about races and racial conflicts and co-existence. These things are actually the backbone of the universe. The subject is just covered allegorically through Slavs, elves, dwarves, and other beings, and not exclusively and obviously through the human races. Allegories tend to work this way.

But while I think that shaming developers for the lack of non-white races in their game is wrong, it’s nothing compared to something much more disturbing you can find in Gies’ review.

Oh, it’s not the sexism thing, by the way. I know that people criticize this fragment…

…but I won’t. The reviewer has the right to be a neo-puritan American who warns the like-minded people that if sexy offends them they should maybe neither play The Witcher 3 nor frequent Suicide Girls. It’s fine.

My problem is rather with this:

Forget for a second that it’s very hard to imagine a world that would be misogynistic but not oppressive. Let’s focus on the general thought instead.

The quote can be understood in two ways. One, the fictional world itself is misogynist. Two, the creators are misogynists. Most likely, considering the tone and phrases used in the review, both are true.

Let’s take a look at the first interpretation and try to understand where it came from.

Is this influenced by the work of Feminist Frequency, of which the reviewer is an admirer? This is how Feminist Frequency sees the real world:

There’s also:

Sexual and domestic violence is at epidemic levels in the real world.

And here’s quote from the review:

[…] characters acknowledge again and again that it’s hard to be a woman there, that it’s a place of violence and terror and that women must work harder to be recognized and respected. […].

As we can see, The Witcher 3 apparently simply mirrors the real world (as according to Feminist Frequency). So why is Gies saying in his critique that it was wrong for the developer to create such a mirror?

I offer no explanation but I offer good will, so let’s assume that while Gies agrees with some of what Feminist Frequency duo say, he disagrees with the rest. That would make sense, as there is no “epidemic of violence against women”. There is a very real problem of violence against women, of different levels depending on the country (but in all of them, as any sane person would agree, that level should be zero) — but it’s not an epidemic (“an outbreak or product of sudden rapid spread, growth, or development”). On the contrary. While very far from perfection, the world is constantly getting better and safer (and that, of course, includes women) — and that is the opposite of “epidemic”.

So here I have to assume that Gies understands that when compared to the actual real world, the violence is exaggerated in The Witcher 3. That it’s basically an often grim, often cruel fantasy world.

But …why is such a world a problem? Is the reviewer confusing portrayal with endorsement? Should art be propaganda for a peaceful life? Should art avoid disturbing universes?

And can I ask for some consistency as for which violent worlds full of sex are okay to enjoy and which are not?

I wouldn’t mind if Gies did not like the violence, if it was somehow too much for him. That’d be okay, we all have different sensitivities. But Gies does not really explain in his review why so much violence is a problem: it’s just a problem that is a problem because it’s a problem. All we have is a quiet echo of Feminist Frequency’s “normalizes, reinforces and perpetuates”, when Gies complains that the players can actually role-play in a role-playing game:

[…] a character who admitted to beating his wife so badly she miscarried is given an opportunity to explain why she had it coming, complete with a sympathetic conversation response option to go with it. […] the message I saw it conveying was abhorrent.

But not understanding how role-playing and world simulation work still does not clearly explain Gies’ issue with the violence. And, oh the shocking surprise, Gies does not say a single word about the violence against men or their sexualization in the game. Somehow, I am pretty sure both exist.

More importantly, how can a world in which women play such an important role (e.g. sorceresses basically run this world), and one full of heroic men and women fighting against the hateful and the evil be called “misogynistic”?

I mean, Gies himself writes that:

Again, how is such a world full of characters like these “oppressively misogynistic”? Does the reviewer even understand what these word mean?

Let’s talk more about it while we move to the interpretation two: the creators themselves are misogynists or simply bad or misguided people.

Gies is of course too smart to openly call them “misogynists”, but phrases like “the world CD Projekt has created is oppressively misogynist”, “the inclusion of so much violence explicitly directed against women feels like a clear, disconcerting choice”, “women in The Witcher 3 are comically sexualized” make it clear that the reviewer has a serious problem with the developer and their creative choices.

The thing is, neither in this case nor in the previous one the term “misogynistic” makes sense. A misogynistic developer or a misogynistic game would send a clear message that women are inferior beings and it is totally okay or even encouraged to hate or mistreat them.

Is this the message that The Witcher 3 conveys?


So… Neither is the world of the game “oppressively misogynistic”, nor are the developers misogynists?

Then why the hell do you defecate on years of developer’s blood, sweat and tears by implying their work is sexist and misogynistic?

And while we’re at it, why are you hurting feminism by inserting “misogyny” and “sexism” everywhere, whether it makes sense or not, to the point when, disgraced, these words become as effective to the desensitized public as a certain boy’s cry?

I wonder: is the review a cynical click-bait or is it all just musings of a true social justice zealot? I honestly don’t know. But I know it doesn’t matter, the result is the same: poisoning the industry that is already sick.

I did consider ignoring this review but it already went boom and I think that exposing its weaknesses — I am being courteous here — helps in the long run anyway, even if every now and then a website has a traffic spike. Soon — it’s already happening to a certain degree, I sort of mentioned it above, and personally I am already in the first stages of indifference — nobody is going to care, and no amount of “misogyny” and “sexism” is going to draw the crowds anymore.

And we can all go back to enjoying video games.

Meanwhile, I hope that people also read and share reviews of the game from other places. Let’s show that we are interested in a talk about racial issues, violence or sex — all of which are present in The Witcher 3 — without the blinding clickbait fire of ideological fanaticism.

Part 2 here.