Starting at the Beginning
Dungeons and Dragons is perhaps the ultimate game when it comes to blank slate protagonists. They are the ultimate silent avatar, taking on whatever personality we give them, whether it be similar to ours or wildly different. When writing the character’s story, the player is free to create the person he or she would like to be, or the person it might be interesting to be, for a few hours every week.
Having a good avatar is important and can have a great influence on the gaming experience, for better or for worse. But while the player may inform the characters from whatever chosen perspective the character is supposed to have (e.g., from a certain alignment or due to events in their backstory), the character is, essentially, yours and you in the way that only original characters can be.
In a game like DnD, the whole game can be tailored – to a very loose extent – to the character’s actions, because I’ve never heard of a dungeon master straight-up saying that a person’s unexpected, yet in-character, action is not allowed. Those actions are always validated in some way.
Role-playing games that are presented as video games pose a challenge to this freedom, because the game is programmed to meet many different choices, but at the end of the day, the gamers’ choices can only be taken into account to a point. For instance, I’ve found many “better” ways to do things in a game, but because that was not part of the program, there was no way I could do it. No rolling for initiative or other favorite dice rolling quip inserted here.
In a video game, blank slates can be blank, but only in the broadest sense of that term. Decisions can be open-ended, but again only in the broadest sense. What does the character look like? Are they good? Evil? Pragmatic? Are they a silver-tongued diplomat, or do they let their weapons do the talking?
Different Strokes for Different Folks
These broad strokes also are subtly inserted when video game romances are involved.
Often, when faced with the choice of romancing a character in a game, the player chooses the person who they, the player, like best. It’s at this moment that, often, role-playing can go out the window. The choices isn’t necessarily made for who the character likes best or who would be best for your character.
Or, alternatively, we are choosing a character for a trophy or just to see how the story plays out, but that is beyond the scope of this particular article. We are staying firmly in the fantasy world of video role-playing games.
In any event, these character romances fall into the category of being a new, shiny relationship, and the player gets to experience the exciting rush of budding romance. They are not asked to navigate the waters of an established romance where real Love with a capital L truly lives, after all the passion has burned off and all the shiny excitement has faded.
At the core, which game characters we choose to romance says different things about our silent protagonist. However, this can be overshadowed by the fact that we, the player, are choosing someone we like.
The profundity of our choice is thus easy to miss because, at the end, the main character is inspired by us and what we like. Or, what we think matches whatever narrative we are creating for that particular playthrough.
For instance, in the Mass Effect series, a Shepard who falls in love with Ashley – a straight-shooting, no nonsense military woman with a cutting sense of humor and just a touch of surface racism – could be said to be a much different person than one who would find Thane – an assassin with a dead wife who is nearing the end of his own life.
Who a character chooses to be in a relationship with with says a lot about their character. And so art imitates life, as who we choose to be in a relationship with also says a lot about who we are.
A Glitch in the Matrix
There is one thing that happens out in the physical world that doesn’t occur in games: IRL, one is expected to choose a person that they wish to marry/be in a long-term relationship with. And this starts to step out of Being Madly In Love and move into the more mundane aspects of relationships, like actually being compatible with the other person.
After all, people can’t help who they fall in love with, but they can control who they marry.
Mass Effect 2 and 3 came close to this, but again, as Shepard was a “blank slate” character, the profundity of the story was lost. For instance, during my first playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy, Shepard romanced Liara and then, after some events happened during the Shadow Broker DLC, I got so absolutely disgusted with something Liara did that I could not forgive her. However, Shepard stayed with her because I knew that staying with Liara would probably result in more interesting story. IRL, that’s a terrible reason to stay in a relationship with someone.
My second playthrough, I decided going in that Shepard was going to be a heart-breaker who eventually settled down with Samantha. I knew how everyone’s story ended, and so I could sit there and manipulate the world to my narrative’s whims.
But… what could both of those situations have said about Shepard as a person?
The first time, I might have said that Shepard wasn’t bothered by the thing I was. Or perhaps she was quietly resentful but had more important things to deal with at that particular moment in time. The second playthrough, my Shepard was not emotionally invested in anyone until Mass Effect 3 when she saw her life slowly coming to a close. Those are very, very different people, aren’t they?
Enter The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Women in Witcher 3
In Witcher 3, players assume the role of Geralt, the brooding, cat-eyed monster hunter as he goes on a quest to save his protege, Ciri. So far, so much hero-saving-the-princess. And, in typical RPG fashion, the player has an amount of control over how the story plays out, based on decisions made and dialogue choices taken.
However, Witcher 3 isn’t your average RPG. Folks jumping in to the series for the first time, like me, will find that Geralt has a lot of history behind him, and a lot of people that he has history with. As unamused as he looks, and as flat as his voice is, Geralt has a rich backstory that plays out beautifully in all of his relationships.
Of course, we’ve been talking about romantic relationships in games, so the relationships we’ll be focusing on are Geralt’s relationships with Yennefer and Triss.
Please note I will only be talking about the games, and not the books.
Geralt has established relationships with both of these women, from previous games. Yennefer has been his long-time love, and Triss has been a friend that he had a tryst with in Witcher 2 (and yes, I am very proud of the “tryst with Triss” thing). It’s clear even to the newest of comers that these relationships are long-standing and meaningful to all involved.
And then, of course, Geralt is put into the position of having to choose one to be romantically involved with. Maybe you liked Triss because she was fun and caring (and dare I say hot), or maybe you liked Yennefer because she is dark and mysterious (and dare I say hot), or because she is the canon romance form the books, and so maybe you chose between them based on what you wanted.
But what does choosing one of these women over the other say about Geralt?
Which Witch for the Witcher
Yennefer and Triss are unmistakably different people, aside from the whole being-a-witch thing. On the one hand, you have Yennefer.
Dark and mysterious, she fits into the stereotypical dark-haired witch trope, and has altered her appearance to be young and conventionally attractive despite her chronological age. Her personality is what one might expect from a black-haired witch: she is crafty and aloof, fiercely independent, and actively avoids any strong bonds that tie her to one place or another. This includes, it should be noted, her romantic relationship with Geralt.
She is, in fact, the female version of Geralt: wild, free, aloof, independent, seemingly unconcerned with matters that do not directly relate to her. She goes where she goes as her whim dictates, and in order to better her own situation… not unlike the monster-slayer-for-hire witchers.
Triss, on the other hand, fits more comfortably into the devoted best friend spot in Geralt’s life.
Triss is more naturally nurturing as a person. She is faithful, thoughtful, and more obviously emotionally invested in the people and world around her. Compared to Yennefer, she is more stable and certain, and is definitely the one you can count on to be there when you come home at night. She is not as overtly calculating, and comes across as a genuinely caring person.
As mentioned before, Geralt sits on one corner of this love triangle, and must pick one or the other to pursue (or neither, I suppose. We’ll get to talking about the dangers of choosing both later). Now, if we were to truly step into the shoes of role-playing as Geralt, the chosen woman would say a lot about who Geralt is.
Yennefer and Triss represent who Geralt is, and who he could (wants?) to become, respectively. I’m sure I’m not the first person to see this pattern, but the way Geralt interacts differently with the two woman is almost unavoidably obvious. When he is with Yennefer, he is snarky and sarcastic, and when I played the game I felt like Geralt was always on alert or on the defensive when around her. This keeps with his natural interactions with the world: often sarcastic, forever bored with the petty issues being hurled at him, and – due to the RPG nature of the game – only picking up quests when they are directly beneficial to him.
When with Triss, Geralt seemed more relaxed, yet a little less sure of how to act, as if acting in ways that were not as well-practice or familiar to him. The only time we otherwise see these characteristics come out is when Geralt is talking about Ciri.
So what does all this mean? Geralt has long-standing relationships with both of them (which we’ll return to in a minute), and having both is not an option, because Yennefer and Triss will join forces to put Geralt in his place.
So it is time to choose.
Choose Yennefer, and Geralt stays with the person that is the most like him, and who lets him accentuate those characteristics that come so easily to him. He lets him stay how he is, and continue on as he ever was.
Choose Triss, and Geralt chooses the person who offers the things that perhaps he wants: stability and security. He must then let those softer, more nuanced feelings come forward and be developed more, if he wishes to keep this relationship going.
Who he chooses directly determines the kind of person he will be going forward, and that says a lot about who Geralt is, by itself: a person who wants to change, or a person who doesn’t.
Outside of the symbolism, this choice between Yennefer and Triss also offers one of the more realistic portrayals of relationships in video gaming. One detail that makes this choice so hard is that Geralt has long, caring relationships with both women. This is not a case of Geralt falling into new love, but rather one of someone caring deeply for two people, and then having to make a hard decision about what he really wants from his life.
Both options are valid, but both lead to such different emotional pathways that it is impossible to make the decision lightly.
Each of us has probably been in a situation which forced us to make hard decisions: when to make or cut ties, when to begin a relationship, when to end a relationship, and for what purpose. Do we still care for the person but realize we aren’t as compatible as we first thought? Do we choose to hang with one crowd or another because of the benefit the group would give us, or because they represent values that we hold true to ourselves?
Out in the physical world, relationships are messy. People are messy. People dealing with relationships can be even messier. And that is one of the greatests strengths of how Witcher 3 portrays relationships: there is no clear-cut, blackor-white answer. It is not a smorgasbord of relationship options. You feel the trickle of Geralt’s choices through the rest of the game.
It’s a true case of Love with a capital “l,” in all its mess and glory. Sometimes art imitates life in more ways than we realize.
Who did your Geralt choose? Do you think your choice mirrored your Geralt’s values? Do you think the people we choose as partners says something about us? Do you believe you can love someone and know they are not the right person? Or does the heart always know best? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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I originally felt that Yennefer was the best for him despite the strife in their relationship, but I started to realize the way he’s different with Triss (that autocorrected to “gross” 🤣). Triss actually seems to care about Geralt, she Yennefer seems far more interested in Geralt chasing her than being with him.
I think it really comes down to a difference between unbridled passion and a long-term, stable relationship. Triss is the one Geralt chose and Yennefer is the one he feels fated to be with.
I do think that it’s possible to love someone who isn’t right for you, but it’s far more fleeting and unstable than loving someone who is the right person.
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I think that’s a really good descriptions of the differences between Triss and Yennefer. It really plays out that way in the game(s?), as well. It definitely comes down to stability versus feelings/fate. And regarding loving someone who isn’t right for you… I think that turns into a relationship that isn’t always healthy, no? Marriage is, after all, a partnership and living arrangement.
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It’s interesting hearing how you stayed with Liara despite disagreeing with something she did. I’ve done that kind of thing in games too, just because I wanted to see how things played out or keep the romance going (versus not having one)! I remember during my first playthrough, I romanced Kaidan in the 1st game, and then in the 2nd game fell for Garrus once he was an option. I love how you have to essentially break up with Kaidan in the 3rd game if you go that route! It made it so realistic, and it broke my heart a little that I had changed my mind like that.
Also, I totally agree that you get invested in the relationships based on your own preferences! I can’t romance somebody in a game that I’m not at all interested in. What’s fun is exploring a few different, attractive options in multiple playthroughs… 🙂
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Yeah, the Mass Effect games do make the people/romances very realistic and versatile in that way. Shepard has some explaining to do, and choices to make, and I think that made the relationships richer.
And you’re right! I’m trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to try new romances across multiple playthroughs, which is surprisingly difficult when I personally am invested in one character or another. But it really is so much fun to explore the different options!!
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I have to admit, somewhat sappily I guess, that whenever I go sight unseen into a game with romance options, I am bound to to be drawn to a character that reminds me in two ways of my first date with my husband: (1) the character makes me laugh; and (2) the character exudes charisma. Both are quite relative to my own tastes, of course — I found both in Kaiden, for example, while I know others find him dull. I’m not sure how either Yennefer or Triss would measure up; but I do know that if neither met these criteria initially, I’d have a lone Geralt all the way.
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That’s fair!! I have noticed I have a “type” that I tend toward, as well, which for me tends to be personality as well. I think it’s really cute that you tend toward romances in-game that remind you of your husband 🙂
A fun moment I had with Witcher 1, last time I was playing through, there’s a point where it forces you to make a similar choice, choosing between Triss and Shani, and then choosing whether or not to settle down with your pick. I was going to not settle down with either, as that more befit my morals as the player in that situation, but the game did include a big scene of Geralt hanging out with his friends before having to make the commitment and discussing his thoughts on the matter, which did swing me more towards settling with Triss because that seemed more in character with where he was headed. It was a really revealing moment for him, and I was more than happy to go with his take rather than my own, because that felt more fulfilling to me.
Choices can be fun in games. But I do find I like to make sure the choices I’m making line up with what the character’s really out for. It just doesn’t feel quite as fulfilling if, for example, I’m playing as this hard as nails, devil may care, only out for himself dude yet still acting out my personal impulses to help everyone and be as good and true as possible. Big major choices like that seem to work best either when you’ve got more of a cypher avatar, or are ones that your character would honestly be truly torn over, which is a lot harder to pull off.
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I suppose on the bad side of that concept, the first time I went through Mass Effect, my character turned into a lesbian after a game of not paying much attention to Liara because I had gotten Kaiden killed and I wanted that achievement for romancing someone. That felt like a less than holistic way of moving the character, not so much her own impulses as myself just stepping in and inserting the way I wanted it to go. Was not quite so satisfying.
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Hahaha Gotta watch out for that accidental lesbianism! But yes, I can definitely see how choosing a romance option for a trophy would not be as satisfying of a choice as something that happens more organically.
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I agree that making choices that are in line with the way you think the character is going can definitely make a big difference in story satisfaction. Anything shoe-horned in isn’t going to feel “right,” and it’ll read like that in a story, too. And you’re right that there is a balance between how the player sees the character, and the way that the MC is programmed. That’s one of the things I really liked about Skyrim: you really could just write your own story as you went along. That’s not a good fit for every game, but it worked there. Otherwise, you’re right, it can lead to some very complex feelings between the player, character, and game events.
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