On Acting and Performance in Games: Geralt and Ciri

Geralt and Ciri have one of the most memorable relationships between two characters in gaming history

THIS POST MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS TO THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT.

I just recently finished The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. By the end of the game, I was floored by what I had just played. It’s rare to get emotionally invested in video game characters, but the Witcher 3 had several moments with Geralt and Ciri which really got me in the gut.

I’ve played several role-playing games over the course of my gaming career. I asked myself “What made this game different?” The answer, I have deduced,  is in voice acting and visual performance of the characters.

Performance may very well be the defining characteristic of this new generation of games. Companies that produce AAA games have settled in deeply with narrative based game-play. Story driven games rarely carry any real emotional impact. Compare any NPC in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (an excellent game in its own right) to any performance in a major Hollywood motion picture and you’ll see that in-game actors are stiff and lifeless.

Much of this phenomenon is the result of technical limitations. Technology just had not caught up, and graphics just were not realistic enough. With the newest generation of gaming hardware you have the processing power to really make facial animation happen. The Witcher is an example of a staggeringly large game that is essentially fully acted.

SPOILERS: The most memorable moment for me has to be when Geralt finally finds Ciri. Half the game is spent trying to track her down. Once Geralt finds her, she is lying lifeless and cold; it’s a trick used by the elven sage (her traveling companion) to keep the Wild Hunt from finding her. It’s a complicated scene, because Geralt knows what’s going on. The vision of his “adopted” daughter lying there lifeless is too much for him, and he appears shell-shocked. Geralt is “played” as such a straight every-man in this series, and the moment when he really breaks down is a touching one. As he embraces her, the soul that had led him to her reenters her body, and she embraces him back. Father and (adopted) daughter are reunited once again.

Once Ciri is in the picture, Geralt changes every time she is on screen. The animators managed to capture the perfect proud father face every time Geralt looks at her. The Witcher is often a man who objectifies women, but the way he looks at Ciri conveys completely different emotions: respect, fatherly love, and regret.  These complex relationships are all possible because Geralt and Ciri are able to speak without using words.

Their performance changed the way I thought about choices in the game. I found myself making decisions which were skewed towards protecting Ciri, or respecting her wishes. Much of the underlying story is about children maturing into adulthood, and turning them loose to brave the world on their own. It explores these concepts through the eyes of both the father (Geralt) and the daughter (Ciri). It even throws in a curve-ball in the form of Ciri’s actual father (Ciri was taken by the Witcher as a child, so she is a daughter to him in practice only).

When they do speak, however,  it is with some of the best voice acting money can buy. Particularly notable is Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister himself) playing the emperor. Hiring Hollywood talent is a wise move, because most actors have experience with animated films as well.

The Witcher 3 is the pinnacle of narrative based game-play at the moment. It’s a stunningly massive game, and any other game would be hard pressed to best it in a game-of-the-year contest. Geralt and Ciri are the stars of this adventure. Fortunately, CD Projekt Red understood the importance of emotion with their virtual actors.

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