Spoilers abound for a decade old game. You've been warned.
The Witcher series of computer RPGs comfortably sits beside the likes of The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect as among the most important of the last ten years. Despite this, and despite the popularity and acclaim of later titles, there's a sense that the first game remains relatively unacknowledged. The releases of Assassins of Kings and (especially) The Wild Hunt were followed by seemingly innumerable forum posts from prospective newcomers asking whether or not it was essential to play the first game. The answer to that question is, well... no. It is not remotely necessary to play The Witcher in order appreciate its sequels. The way the player interacts with his environment, particularly in combat, is ultimately a very different experience. The story is self contained and, from the perspective of Assassins of Kings, simply one of many adventures Geralt of Rivia has had over the course of his eventful life.
The Witcher lives or dies on the appeal of Geralt. I don't know whether or not this is true for the literature these games are based on (though I suspect that it is), but there's no denying The Witcher needs Geralt in much the same way Mass Effect needs Commander Shepard. The Witcher actually beat Mass Effect out of the gate by a month, and is, or should be, considered every bit the watershed moment for modern RPGs as Bioware's science fiction classic.
As a storytelling mechanism I'm not sure that Geralt's amnesia was ever all that useful, but I do realize what they were trying to do. After all, Geralt is the exact opposite of a blank slate, and he stands opposed to the legions of nameless, faceless, voiceless RPG protagonists just waiting for the evil empire to burn down their village and for the man behind the keyboard to fill in the necessary details of who they are. Geralt has already done things. The Northern Kingdoms are absolutely filled with Geralt's many friends, lovers, and enemies. Just about anyone of consequence knows what and who he is just by looking at him. This is the starting point for Geralt in The Witcher, and so CD Projekt Red made him forget all of it so that he could rediscover who he was, and ultimately is, alongside the player. In Assassins of Kings he would get back some memories at certain points in the story, but he is afforded no such mercy in this game. Many conversations involve various characters telling Geralt what past encounter they remember him from and whatever incredible act of heroism they had the privilege of witnessing. He reacts to this praise with the same sarcasm and feigned indifference he offers to the distrust, fear, and scorn he receives from the general population for being a genetically enhanced monster slayer.
As a witcher, Geralt fights with two swords (steel for human opponents, silver for monsters), has access to a suite of spells and can brew alchemical potions from collected flora and monster parts. The character progression system is built around enhancing these core abilities, and success in the tougher encounters requires using all three. From this the typical combat loop emerges: The player takes potions as needed before the fight, and then he engages the enemy with the correct sword drawn. From there, he chooses between the three combat styles of "fast", "strong", and "group" depending on the number of enemies and what style that enemy type is weak against. Spells serve various support functions (crowd control, damage over time) and operate on a similar system of varying effectiveness against different enemy types. From there, player input generally revolves around hitting button prompts at specific intervals to do add multipliers to the damage being done. Most fights are over very quickly if the player is hitting these prompts correctly, or are otherwise over very quickly because Geralt will have died to a group of drowners or whatever. The Witcher is not loved for its combat, and it's the weakest aspect of the experience. This is the biggest thing it shares in common with its sequels, and for what it's worth I prefer it to the clunky system found in Assassins of Kings.
So we have an RPG where the player is given one very specific role to play, both mechanically and as a function of storytelling. At what point, and to what extent, does player agency come in and how much does it even matter? The first part of that question is answered easily enough. Geralt often has multiple dialog choices, and various plot related decisions he makes have far reaching consequences. In a cool (if slightly gamey) touch, the true final boss will list off the player's various choices and judge him accordingly. The most prominent of these choices involve which faction the player joins, if any, and which of the beautiful redheads Geralt romances. While these choices allow the player some say in what Geralt says and does, the intention is to present these problems as difficult choices that our protagonist could conceivably go either way on. None of these choices change who the man is, and are largely independent of the main thrust of the story and Geralt's motivation for participating in it. His actions in Vizima, and ultimately in cooperation with the Kingdom of Temeria, are all in service of his single minded goal to retrieve the alchemical secrets of the witchers that were stolen from their hidden retreat at Kaer Morhen and to find justice for the young witcher that was murdered in the theft.
Getting to the bottom of the second part of my rhetorical question involves exploring the appeal of Geralt of Rivia and how these games find their identity through him. Witchers occupy a unique position in society. They're needed, but unwanted. Prejudice keeps them on the fringes of society but the existence of monsters all but guarantees that everyone from local mayors to kings will occasionally have cause to hire them for their superhuman skillset. Think Van Helsing and you'll have a good idea how this arrangement works. For this reason Geralt has friends in both high and low places, and they invariably draw him into the political and/or supernatural goings-on wherever he happens to be at any given moment. Geralt simultaneously possesses the ability to effect a great deal of change on his surroundings but without the responsibility to have to do anything he hasn't explicitly signed up for. Witchers are supposed to adhere to a code of neutrality, though if Geralt decides to get involved in whatever dispute is rocking the nearest backwater fishing village there's not going to be much of anyone around to tell him he can't do it. Those that try usually end up facing a steel sword.
Do you see what I'm getting at? The Witcher provides the player with a wish fulfillment fantasy. Geralt is impossibly cool, skilled, irresistible to women, and he gets to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. I'm not listing this as a criticism though, because it really is a part of what makes it so fun to play as him. Doug Cockle is the english voice of Geralt in all three games and it's his best known role. The delivery is cool and calm, and often with plenty of deadpan sarcasm. The writing is (usually) okay even in this first game, and the delivery is good enough that I fell in love with many of the side characters, from Zoltan to Dandelion to Thaler to Kalkstein... to Triss and Shani.
It's at this point that it becomes necessary to talk about The Witcher's approach to romance, if we dare call it that. There are over 20 "encounters" our Witcher can have. Mercifully, we are not rewarded with the opportunity to witness 2007 polygons doing their best to simulate an HBO sex scene. Instead the player is presented with a "romance card" depicting pinup artwork of our hero's temporary paramour in some state of undress. Some of these are racier than others, but it's all a bit embarrassing. Should a game that wants so desperately to be taken seriously be handing out trophies to celebrate Geralt's conquests? I'm not usually one to make this sort of observation, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of female characters in this game exist as some kind of objective. Sometimes you need to do a quest for them and sometimes all they want is any man off the street to walk up and proposition them (again, not an exaggeration!), but they are nearly all willing to reward our hero with vicarious affection. Indeed, one of the only named female characters that Geralt can't pursue (to my knowledge) is the madam of a back alley brothel, and there are plenty of unnamed women he can pursue as well. Their names, we're left to assume, are rather beside the point.
The only romances that matter are Triss Merigold and Shani. The former is a sorceress and the latter is a nurse. They regard each other with thinly veiled contempt out of jealously over Geralt. Choosing one over the other is mandatory and plays into a major story beat. Despite this, they're both reasonably interesting characters in their own right and there's a lot of payoff for Triss in later games. This is less true for Shani.
I may regard The Witcher's approach to romance with a fair amount of cynicism, but there's no denying that it is written into the DNA of the series. My GOG copy of Assassins of Kings actually comes with Playboy scans of the *character model* of Triss Merigold in various poses... which is so hilariously crass I don't even know what to think of it. In fact, in light of the Bioware-like sex scenes found in later games I almost prefer what the first one did. There's almost a certain innocence to the pinup cards. It's absolutely immature, but quaint in comparison to a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda proudly advertizing that it has full frontal nudity on offer in its carefully constructed scenes. It's a shame that big budget RPGs feel the need to be this desperate.
Of course that's not the only way The Witcher emulates cable programming. There's a superficial layer of grit to the world and of the people the player encounters, even if the underlying foundation is far more optimistic and even heroic than it initially seems. Cussing is frequent and the violence is bloody, but Geralt and his friends are good people trying to do the right thing. Consider this exchange between Geralt and Zoltan Chivay, which touches on one of the major themes of the series.
Compare and contrast with this scene from Assassins of Kings:
The point I'm trying to make is that the series is willing to offer different answers to the same question. It assumes that the player will come to their own conclusions, and relate to the changing world and the characters that inhabit it through how they approach these difficult problems. It really is the most important thing this series does, and it starts here. It is why, in spite of my earlier assurance that there is no need to play The Witcher in order to properly appreciate the genuine triumph that is The Wild Hunt, that I am still willing to give it my full recommendation. There are a lot of interesting things going on here, and anyone that plays RPGs for the characters should be able to appreciate what they were trying to do. Just be aware that it is a transitionary work, and for all its modern trappings it is bound to look pretty ancient to anyone not prepared for it.
And it's not afraid to make fun of itself. On a few different occasions Geralt goes drinking with his various friends, and Dandelion and Zoltan are always there. This one is my favorite because I assume it's aware of how juvenile all three of these men really are. The entirety of this conversation boils down to the sentence "Women, am I right?" as they ostensibly try and help Geralt with his relationship woes. They accomplish nothing of the sort as they get blasted and offer inane drunken "wisdom". Not everyone is going to find this endearing, but I really do. That sentiment could probably summarize the game as a whole, and it's why I wanted to write something that in retrospect reads almost defensive and slightly apologetic. With that in mind, play it or don't. I may never do so again, but I am happier for having given it 60 hours than at least most of the rest of my completed catalogue, and if nothing else The Wild Hunt proves that these crazy Poles were on to something.