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SPOILERS: Mild spoilers for Witcher 2 mid-game.
Around half-way through the second act of Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, presuming you have sided with the elves and dwarves, Saskia – Vergen’s Joan of Arc figure – has fallen sick. She is healed by the magician Philippa Eilhart using ingredients that you have retrieved. Amongst a crowd of Dwarvish onlookers, Eilhart prepares a magical flower, applies it to her own lips and transfers it to those of Saskia by means of a kiss. At that moment, an onlooker turns to his companion and, in the comedically broad Scots accent characteristic of Witcher 2‘s dwarves, blurts out: “It’s my favourite kind of magic – lesbomancy!”.
How I laughed! Witcher 2 has exceptional artwork and world-building, the best example of a genuinely divergent narrative in any game I have played to date, remarkable characters like Loredo whose swaggering pot-belly perfectly incarnates the Italian aphorism that if you give a man a hat, you make him a king. But the moment that sticks in my mind is ‘lesbomancy’ – and I did laugh, long and loud.
And yet, the line obviously has no place in the game. It is a joke that is sexist, heteronormative and borderline homophobic – both presupposing a straight male listener and sexually objectifying a scene which otherwise is not otherwise particularly erotic. Without any particular thought I had accepted the kiss as exemplifying the intimacy of magic, it had not occurred to me to view it through a lens of erotic titillation until the joke landed.
But although sexual objectification and straight male gaze are totally valid and essential reasons to revisit and edit a work, they are not the immediate reason why the joke ends up on my imaginary cutting-room floor. I did laugh and I would be a hypocrite to deny it on those grounds alone. The reason why I would have cut the joke is simply that it it serves no purpose and is therefore utterly immersion-breaking.
There is no meaningful context for the ‘lesbomancy’ joke; Witcher 2 is not a comedy, it is generally played straight; the joke does not serve any purpose to illuminate the attitudes of characters in the game; the coinage is not even delivered by a character from whom wit and wordplay are expected. If the same line had been delivered by Burns Flipper in The Longest Journey it would have been entirely consonant: Flipper goes out of his way to talk in a crassly sexual terms, trying to shock April. He obviously believes himself to be very funny and a silly joke of this sort would have sat naturally in his role. But Witcher 2 has no Burns Flipper – the line is delivered, as I recall, by a random onlooker.
To my mind, the joke is in the game for one reason only: because the guys at CDProjekt thought it was too funny to leave out. A writer coined the word; they all laughed uproariously; perhaps it became an in joke? Then when their Herod came, they set aside their devkits and project schedules and sheltered their little darling from his editorial infanticide. The line stayed in the game because, for a moment, the individuals working on the game stopped being studied creatives, honed artisans and hard-nosed businessmen and were simply a bunch of guys enjoying a childish and inappropriate joke.
Despite being entirely detrimental to the success of the game as a creative work, I’m glad that “lesbomancy” did not get cut. Although problematic on many levels, the joke represents a moment of rare openness. A moment when the covenant between producer and consumer, between their roles as developer and player, is put aside and the fourth wall is dismantled not by intellectual design but simply to share a stupidly adolescent joke.
At the most commercial end of the game-making community, those roles of developer and player are more than just greasepaint, slapped on to help one man stand in place for a thousand and warn an audience to suspend its disbelief during the performance. The reality of playing a major commercial game is that player and developer are as distant as Eloi and Morlock: the individual developer’s works are subsumed into the heaving mass of the game, to be wrangled by project leads into a form that will satisfy a group of publisher executives, who will then push back – on cost, on timing, on content; the executives are accountable to those further up the corporate food chain; the marketers and focus-groupers turn the game into a product, shaping its presentation and prepping its target market; eventually it lands on a real or virtual shelf, neatly wrapped and with a price-tag attached. By the time a player buys the game and plays it, the individual fingerprints of the developers are are all but invisible, smudged away in a relentless process of commodification.
This process can of course lead to some exceptional and boundary pushing team efforts – huge open worlds, Hollywood-busting levels of spectacle. However, it does mean that the end experience, while great entertainment, has little to do with the communication of creative expression from one human to another. It is the polar opposite of listening to a musician performing live in a small room.
So do I like the ‘lesbomancy’ joke because it represents a more direct creative communication? Not quite – there are some fantastic independent game-makers whose games communicate a personal creative vision very directly but the line in Witcher 2 is something a little different.
The joke is honest not because it represents a baring of the soul for the purpose of direct artistic communication but because it represents CDProjekt putting aside their role as artist altogether. It is as though an actor, midway through a play, drops out of role because for a moment it is more important for them to speak openly to the audience than to perform the play.
In the case of Witcher 2, the developers have done this not for grand purposes, not to promote a some good works or share a dedication to a fallen colleague, but simply because they could not resist sharing a joke. They had a bit of a laugh, they wanted to share it with people and in the end that was more important than the integrity of the artwork they were making.
Is the joke childish? Certainly. Inappropriate? Very definitely. Offensive? Quite possibly. It is a joke that would have been better shared in private with close friends sharing a similar background and prejudices. It is not a joke appropriate for broadcast. But it is also very rare that game-makers let players see them without their make-up on or see the finger smudges and coffee stains on their work. To see a team drop its guard so wilfully in a game of similar scale to Witcher 2, is unheard of. Even more so that it was simply because they were unable to keep a joke private. It is that childish honesty — that innocence, for want of a better word — that makes the moment unexpectedly memorable for me. For that reason alone, I am glad that ‘lesbomancy’ stayed in – although I would most certainly have cut it out.