Finally playing The Witcher after having slept on it for years reminded me of "discovering" The Wire. It's a peculiar feeling, indeed, to be bursting with enthusiasm and eagerness to share all you know, while hipper friends give you pitying looks as if to say "about time," and those poor souls as yet unenlightened wonder what all the fuss is about.
If you fall into the first category, you've known for years about the world of the Witcher, a series of video games based on the fiction of Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski's original short story was published in 1982 and, according to the kind folks at Wikipedia, had been given different treatments in tv and film over the years before his countrymen in the software company CD Projekt decided to adapt it into a computer role playing game (CRPG).
But, for those who haven't had the pleasure, let one of the recently enlightened guide you into this wildly imaginative take on otherwise tired Tolkien fantasy tropes.
Like the equally brilliant Mass Effect series, which plays The Sopranos to the Witcher's The Wire, you start the game as an established character, instead of creating him or her from scratch.
The player is Geralt of Rivia, a witcher. Witchers are basically warlocks -- adepts of sword and basic war magic -- who were taken in by the secret order of witchers as young children. There, hidden away from society, they were subjected to extensive training and exposed to mutagenic compounds designed to transform them into peerless monster hunters.
But witchers are treated with suspicion and sometimes hatred. Since they are mutants, it is an open question if they are still even human. The game alludes to a fallen order in which witchers were more acknowledged, but in the game's present day they are considered anachronisms and embarrassments.
The game as game is typical of a CRPG, in that you gain experience and loot by killing monsters and completing quests. Your character is improved by distributing "talents" awarding for gaining levels. In both games, you can emphasize either magic or swordplay, with alchemy--the crafting of potions and oils to enhance your effectiveness in combat. In the second game, alchemy is developed further into an entire path of character development. I was not in love with the original Witcher's gameplay, which can feel repetitive. In both games, you are simultaneously very powerful offensively and quite weak defensively, making your character a bit of a "Glass Cannon", in the wonderful parlance of the hive-mind/website TV Tropes. This becomes particularly frustrating given the game's parsimonious attitude towards autosaves -- a moment's carelessness can wipe out an hour's play.
No matter, however, because even though combat varies between exhilarating and pedestrian and gameplay is occasionally annoying, the real action is in the immersive story. The Witcher is one of the few games where playing on easy mode doesn't take much away from the ride.
Geopolitically, the game world is recognizable as medieval Europe. Kings rule, but national boundaries are far from set, and intrigue abounds. Into that world goes a healthy dollop of Tolkein-esque fantasy. Recognizable archetypes like dwarves, elves, werewolves, ghosts, and vampires are present though there's something of a twist to each. (Tom Bissell found the exploration of these tropes to be tedious, but I respectfully disagree. Also see Erik Klein's disagreements here.)
Dwarves, for instance, are squat, gruff lovers of mines and precious stones and elves are lean, tall, long-lived forest dwellers.
Predictable enough, right? Except that these dwarves and elves are also the victims of relentless pogroms by aggressive human populations who range from non-violent racism to outright genocidal fury. The dwarves try to get along with the humans by offering their craft services and financial acumen, but the elves have turned to terrorism or freedom fighting, depending on who is in charge of etymology.
Tolkein's world was created largely during World War II, which may account for its straight forward tale of good versus evil. Having not read the books, I can't say if Sapkowski's original the Witcher rejects the hopefulness of Lord of the Rings, in which a plucky group of nearly pure good can overcome darkest evil, but in the Witcher games you almost always have to make a choice between two bad options. It's a testament to the immersive quality of the game that each time you're forced into a choice you have a slight tug at your real life conscience. You might like to have the easy choice of supporting Abe Lincoln instead of Pol Pot, but instead the game gives you Pinochet or Castro as prospective allies.
The Witcher is not as wide open as Skyrim, but it provides what could be called bi and tri-linearity. Every once in a while a major decision comes along which excludes all other possibilities, and it is as paralyzing and intoxicating as it sounds.
The original Witcher is only available on the PC, while the Witcher 2 is available on PC and Xbox 360. I played the Witcher 2 on Xbox 360 and thoroughly enjoyed it.