It was understandable that Geralt wanted to blow off some steam. A battle, a false accusation of murder, a stretch of imprisonment followed by the obligatory daring escape, a boat trip, and an attempt on your life would make even the most mild-mannered monster hunting mutant a bit tetchy. Especially the boat trip.

The options for stress relief presented by the backwater swamp town in which he found himself were few and far between. Possibly a light spot of sweating your arse off, perhaps getting eaten by the monstrous inhabitants of the nearby woods. So, in the time honoured soldiering tradition, Geralt settled for getting absolutely stinking drunk with some mates.

The next morning, waking up with a thumping headache and not much else, he regretted that choice. He dragged his bare feet back up the muddy road to the tavern to try and discover what happened to his clothes and his dignity, and why in the hell his neck hurt so much. He staggered through the door and caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. His eyes were dull and sunken, his skin grey and sallow, and there was a strange marking on his neck.

“I got a neck tattoo?” he groaned.

That’s a minor, jokey sidequest from the second Witcher game, a series in which you pilot jobbing albino monster hunter and general handyman Geralt through a series of forgettable names. And, a couple of hours into my playthrough of the third instalment, it’s the best moment in the Witcher 3 as well.

Emotional resonance is something games have often struggled with. Traditional mechanics of storytelling and characterisation don’t work in nearly the same way in a medium defined by interactivity. More traditional media like books or films can help the audience develop empathy with a character by making that character take actions, demonstrating who they are and how they fit in their world. Show, don’t tell, is the golden rule of characterisation.

Games can’t do that, at least not with the main character or within certain types of games. They can show other characters doing things, or show the main character doing things within the constraints of a scripted, predefined gameplay experience. But since the main character is the player avatar, the representation that the player is piloting around the gameworld, making the main character take actions to display character traits is difficult at best, or at worst a source of active resentment on the part of the player.

The player is an active participant in shaping the story that the game designer is trying to tell. Ignoring that can lead to a strange disconnect between the bits of the game the player watches and the bits where they play. Even worse, it can lead to a situation where a player simply doesn’t care about the story or the characters. They don’t want to keep playing to find out what happens because they don’t care about any of it.

By contrast, some of the best stories come from games that formally don’t have one, and instead allow players to create their own. Recognising player agency and allowing them the room to affect the story leads to characters that people like and care about. They’re able to take ownership of their character, to have an effect on the gameworld and have that world recognise them for what they are, good or bad.

There are of course limits to this. If a game wants to tell a story with a main character who’s more than a complete blank slate, or really if it wants to tell any sort of predefined story at all, there have to be strictures limiting player action. But allowing that definition space, that area where players can define who they are or what they’re doing in this world and exercise their agency, is what sets the kind of stories video games can tell apart from books and films.

The postscript to the player choosing to have a drinking contest with some of Geralt’s compatriots in the Witcher 2 is a permanent tattoo of a naked lady with some swords peeping out from under the collar of Geralt’s character model. In a series defined by the consequences of your choices, it’s on the more lighthearted end of the spectrum. As well as that, it’s easily removable. A few leaves and herbs will apparently rub it right off.

The problem is, I forgot to do that before some story events took place. And the option to remove the ridiculous tattoo on Geralt’s neck disappeared, quite literally, into the void. So, yeah, I played through the rest of the game with a saucy sword lady winking at me from Geralt’s collar every time he was being all gruff and serious in a cutscene.

Funnily enough, though, by the end of the game I’d grown kind of attached to the little dear. The game designers had allowed my idiocy to make a permanent change to my character model, in the form of a regrettable tattoo. And in allowing me to affect the gameworld that way, they’d allowed me to create a character who was in some sense mine. Everyone else could have their fresh, clean looking Geralt, unmarred by stupid looking ink. Mine would have a permanent memento of his friends. Albeit in a slightly unfortunate form.

It was a small detail I forgot about in the time between the second and third Witcher games. When I bought the third one in a steam sale recently, the option was there to import a save from the second, preserving my choices from the previous game and carrying them forward to affect the story of the next instalment. Like a dutiful gamer, I did so, fired everything up, and started the tutorial.

The first thing I saw was a naked Geralt splashing about in the bath. His scrawny abs were crossed with shiny scars, and his long white hair flowed about his lupine face. But his mature machismo was undercut slightly by a crudely tattooed representation of a big titty ink woman stabbing at his Adam’s apple.

Pictured at top: Scrawny Gruffalo with a barely discernable tattoo on his neck, screenshotted from my own fair PC.

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