Very recently I had to prepare for a formal event with a very strict dress code. I was told I’d have to wear a proper shirt and pants, and cut my hair. Past that, I’d have to shave my beard, and above all- learn how to bow, which is a shame because I have curtsying down. But the strange thing was, what should have been a nightmare for a post-op trans woman, was actually a lot of fun. Such is the nature of virtual worlds and roleplay, and such is the reality of playing Geralt of Rivia in CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3. A massive open-world RPG where you not only play a man, but your status as such has a plethora of gameplay consequences. It made me reflect on how, and in which context I’m comfortable roleplaying, and on the discussion surrounding the ability to play as your gender.
This post contains very mild spoilers for the first act or so of The Witcher 3, and general spoilers for Tomb Raider (2013).
The Witcher 3 is one of the most detailed open worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of traversing within a video game. So much so, that it has made me view last years’ Dragon Age: Inquisition in increasingly poorer ways. The latter’s deluge of fetch quests and busy work was fine mere months ago, but the former’s abandonment of all of that in favour of short vignettes and remarkably detailed optional questlines, has made it so I don’t think I can go back to merely exploring a pretty world; now I need meat. Some of The Witcher 3’s vignettes are quite simple, but peppering the world with them amidst much larger goings on gives the world a character, and sense of place that’s lacking in so many other games.
Much of The Witcher 3‘s detail is vested with Geralt himself. The travelling Witcher (mutated super-humans with cat eyes who hunt monsters for money) is a man’s man. He’s at least six feet, buff as hell, carries two swords on his back (steel for normal folk and animals, silver for monsters), speaks with a low rough tone, and his chin is chiseled to perfection. Also abs, all of the abs, and his back has been flayed so as to leave incredibly sexy scars just fucking everywhere. More interestingly as time passes in-game, Geralt’s facial hair continues to grow. Spend enough time without a trip to a barber, and Geralt have a full shaggy beard (that might get even longer, I haven’t gone long enough to see).
This has led to an experience I never thought I’d have again: Having to shave my beard, and deciding how to style it. You have a few options for both hair and facial hair, and I spent a bizarrely large amount of time trying to decide on a look. I even visit the barber frequently, because I enjoy having a clean shaven look. I should hate the idea of having facial hair, but instead playing as a man makes it more than okay, it’s strangely enjoyable.
Upon reflecting on this, I think the reason why I accept (even welcome) the chance to play a man, is because Geralt is very much a character. No matter how you play Geralt, there are central tenants to his personality which not only gives him consistency, but also ground him so that I can relate to him as a person. Geralt is on the trail of Ciri, a woman and adopted daughter-figure of his; despite the ability to roleplay, Geralt will never deny his affections for the young woman. Geralt is at times a smart ass, egotistical, he can be willing to throw a fight to help a guy out, or unwilling to do so (with the option of giving the guy the winnings after). He can flirt with and fuck numerous lady friends (and prostitutes), or save himself for someone he loves. There are options, but that level-headed, confident and professional, very paternalistic man at his core never changes.
I enjoy playing Geralt because he is a character in his own right. Like writing or reading a novel with a male protagonist, when they are defined I can even relate to him on numerous levels. His protectiveness of Ciri, and at times complicated relationships with various women (particularly the sorceress Yennifer), and his cool headed nature are all things I can relate to. Obviously not in the exact same way, but it’s never exactly the same regardless. What I can’t relate to about him, simply is the result of him having details and personality quirks that are foreign to my self; nonetheless the fact that they are there means I can view him as a person. His depth of character makes it easy to get lost in the details, and it’s remarkably enjoyable roleplay how I would do things, with the knowledge that Geralt and my self are quite different. First and foremost, he’s a character not a blank slate, and that (perhaps counter-intuitively) allows me put myself in his shoes all the more easily.
Basically all I know is that at one point, Geralt was hired to find out who was brutally slaughtering people in an alleyway. With the scent of the killer in the air clearly leading the way, he decides to check in and ask the local brothel owner regardless. At which point he decides to spend a night with one of the girls, because why rush things? The game gave me the option to roleplay exactly how I’d respond to such a situation, and I thank it for that.
This is what separates characters like Geralt, or Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, from other male protagonists where you’re expected to roleplay. The issue with a lack of female protagonists is two-fold. First, I do wish that there were more women to play in games where the protagonist is well-defined. Even if I do enjoy playing as Geralt and Adam Jensen, it is true that male protagonists outnumber female by a considerable amount. However more importantly, is that games which present you with a blank slate should have the option of either gender.
MMOs are the best example, because in those games your avatar is just that- an avatar. Your character only has the personality which you breathe into it, and thus being required to play as a man effectively means that I have to be a man again completely. Other people will get to know me as a man, it limits how I can present myself, and without any reason to do so I feel trapped as I did before I transitioned. In non-MMO multiplayer games this is equally important, as again the entirety of how you relate to the world is defined by you, except where it comes to gender. This is the problem, because gender really, really affects how people perceive you (trust me, I’ve been both). Fortunately Blacklight: Retribution and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare are games which allow female avatars. You might wonder why this is important given those games are first-person, but on top of the fact other people will perceive you as male or female based on your avatar, the grunts and cries, along with glimpses of your hands and feet as you climb over obstacles are less distracting if they’re feminine. Hell, the big reason why I played Dragonball: Xenoverse was because I could make a female Saiyan, and that’s awesome! (She’s so cute!) Likewise Bloodborne let me explore my fantasy of being a woman in a Neo-Victorian setting, with a leather trench coat, top hat, and giant ass magical sword that was actually two swords depending on my mood. In all of these games, both multiplayer and single player, you’re handed a blank slate, and thus being able to choose gender is very important.
To put it succinctly: Isn’t it strange that out of all the ways people will base their opinion off of you, be it clothing, race, height, facial features, build, etc., that at many times gender is the only element which is determined?
Rust took the (very) controversial stance of determining your race (and locking it to your Steam ID), and people’s strong response to that shows how important the ability to define these things is, especially when relating to your character. People were extremely upset by the decision because their race is important to them, and having that choice taken away in a game where you’re handed a blank slate otherwise was understandably upsetting. Now, Rust doesn’t allow for female avatars either (one of the reason why I have not played it), however I hear that’s due to your character starting off naked. I will admit that I think that’s a silly reason, and while understanding the sexual context of the matter, I think it’s worthwhile to put women in the game in the long-run.
[Update – Turns out they are adding female characters (and your dick size is also tied to your Steam ID). Coincidently both these articles went up the same day.]
In an odd way, I think I enjoy roleplyaing as Geralt because it lets me play around with the gender which I left behind. I completed my transition some time ago, and since then I’ve become very comfortable with myself. Enough that I know that I’m a woman, so I don’t need to have that validated at every single opportunity. When you’re early in transition, a lot of the time you’re just trying to break free of masculinity and people perceiving you as being male, that there’s a lot more importance on being seen as female within all contexts. Now I’m comfortable wearing a tank top and jeans if I feel like it, and showing off a bit of muscle (though I’m built nothing like a man). I’m fine with doing some stereotypically masculine things, and often I’m the only woman among guys. I think in that way, playing Geralt is a non-permanent experience where I can play around with the trappings of what I used to have. I did live as a man for seventeen years, and life is certainly different enough now that I can look back and appreciate how much so.
It’s never the same, but the idea of roleplaying a man who rides into town (like it’s the wild west), and becoming embroiled in that place’s both petty and world-shaking happenings, is a powerful fantasy that’s aided by offering me a glimpse at what I left behind. Perhaps, a glimpse of what I forfeited so I could be myself.
That said, I don’t only identify with female protagonists just because they’re female. That’s certainly part of the package, but the reason why I related to (and enjoyed playing as) Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2013) was because that game is basically a trauma survivor’s power fantasy, especially if you’ve suffered sexual abuse. The whole act of starting out helpless (and going through a lot of pain and agony), before gradually becoming stronger and more proficient (like how I worked out to become strong again), to ultimately dominating the island, is one helluva trip. I think the marketing material which proclaimed: “A Survivor is Born” is very appropriate; the entire thing is both a metaphor, and literal exploration of one young woman’s journey to reclaiming her self after sexual assault. Lara being a young twenty-something, running around in a tank top, and doing a lot of stuff requiring upper-body strength, was just the tip of the iceberg in how I related so strongly to her. I thoroughly enjoyed that game (enough that I’m currently replaying it).
I will admit that Geralt being a total hunk does help in getting me interested to roleplay as him.
I alluded to this earlier, but it’s worth pointing out that playing a total badass, with a paternalistic edge towards a twenty-something woman, with scars all over, and iron-clad abs helps with other fantasies. Particularly those where I’m a sorceress and run across the man, and perhaps he’s angry with me and throws me down and… You get the idea. The point is that Geralt is fucking hot, and so having to spend time looking at those muscles while he does badass manly man stuff isn’t a chore regardless of any of his other qualities.
As with many things. video games are media which allow the exploration of fantasies, and they have immense value in that alone. I enjoy playing Geralt, because he’s a perfect balance of defined character and opportunity to roleplay. The Witcher 3 has been an absolute treat in many ways, and its ability to give me a glimpse into a past life perhaps just adds a cherry to this double-chocolate fudge sundae. I don’t think I’d enjoy being forced to roleplay a man all the time, and in my life I’m perfectly content being a woman, but if I’m at least to be forced to pretend I have a dick once more it better be for a good reason (either within a game, or because my girlfriend wants to be fucked with a strap-on).