Ever have a great idea for an all encompassing post on a topic then forget several major things from said topic?
In my last post I talked about my own personal experience with the vampire myth, highlighting my favorite portrayals, films and even games. And yet I left out possibly one of the most defining recent examples of a vampire story-line, one that had me once again rooting for the vampire: Blood and Wine, the expansion to The Witcher 3. This is all the more egregious because it was one of the prime examples of a case where the vampire was the tragic hero in my eyes. So let me make up for leaving this out by telling you the story of how I met Dettlaff in The Witcher 3, and the impression he left me with. Spoilers ahead, you have been warned!
The Witcher is a story about a mutant monster-hunter, in a fantasy world, named Geralt. He wonders the land killing dangerous creatures nobody else is willing to face in exchange for coin. Every now and again though he is sought out by more wealthy and powerful people, even kings and queens. One such event takes Geralt to the land of Toussaint, where the local duchess asks him for help finding out what kind of monster is killing her knights. As the title of the expansion suggests, it is not hard to guess that the creature in question is a vampire, a man by the name of Dettlaff, as Geralt finds out from a friendly vampire he knows, who shows up to help track him down. But the thing about the Witcher is that nothing is as it seems. The writers of the series love to frame situations with clear heroes and villains, that would be totally straight-forward situations in other stories, then toss a few twists in along the way. Good and evil are completely subjective terms here, and as with most Witcher story-lines, this one too is far from as simple as it seems.
Vampires in the world of the Witcher operate by somewhat different rules than in most other versions. They do not burn up in sunlight, for instance, nor are they repelled by garlic or religious symbols. Their transformation abilities are restricted to a single, massive, bestial human-bat hybrid form. But by far the greatest departure from the common rule-set is that vampires do not require blood to sustain themselves. Blood is like alcohol to them, a substance they can survive without, but one they love and crave despite that. So there is nothing other than cruelty and greed behind those vampires who choose to hunt humans for their blood. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure they count as undead in this world.
Geralt’s vampire friend describes Dettlaff as one who does not partake in the addictive behavior of blood consumption, and through magical means we even get to see Dettlaff execute one of his murders, all the while showing great regret both before and after the deed. Almost as though he is not in control of his own actions. The answer ends up being quite close. As it turns out Dettlaff was being blackmailed. A woman he fell in love with had been taken hostage by criminals who were using her as leverage to force him to kill the duchess’ knights. This kind of moral gray area is pretty much standard for The Witcher. Was he wrong to do it or not? I’m not just being leading when I say “you be the judge”, because I honestly can’t be sure myself.
Giving the monsters human sides is another thing the Witcher does often, so sympathizing with Dettlaff was not surprising to me, hell, I was kind of expecting it. But this would not be a main quest story for a Witcher game without at least one more big twist, and huge moral choice at the end. Geralt goes to rescue the captive lover to free Dettlaff of the blackmail, only to find out that the woman in question was the one leading the bandits. She is the duchess’ sister, and she is out for revenge for her childhood banishment for being born under a bad omen. And as you can imagine, when Dettlaff finds out he goes mad with anger, demanding that the woman be handed over to her or he will wreak devastation on the city until she is. And he follows through. Despite the fact that the sister wanted desperately to murder her, the duchess is entirely unwilling to hand her over to Dettlaff, so Geralt has to take matters into his own hands. As the result of a series of end game choices as to whether to lure out Dettlaff or kidnap the sister, one of several things happens. So let me try to be as systematic as I can with how I approached the endgame. Trust me, this is important.
Based on the interactions I had with the sister (I know, I forgot her name and am too lazy to look it up, sue me) I had absolutely no qualms about handing her over to Dettlaff. Her backstory ends up being something along the lines of being banished from her home for being born under a bad omen, then being abused by the knights quite badly. I don’t know many of the details because when prompted to inquire further about her past I simply told her I didn’t care. Geralt, who speaks more from his own hearth than mine most times, did take the words right from my mouth when he told her she was less interesting than she thought she was. I’m not denying that she has the right to be angry for what was done to her, I’m not even going to argue that the knights didn’t deserve death since even though they never acted as anything other than perfect gentlemen to me she may have known a side of them they didn’t put on display. Where I drew the line at the time was what she did to Dettlaff. He loved her. He loved her enough to murder people he considered honorable men to keep her safe. To a vampire struggling day after day to keep his evil urges in check, to force him to kill, turning him into an accessory… that was more or less the point where I thought to myself: Fuck her. I would hand her over to him, and if he ended up killing her I would say she had it coming. Alas, this is the point where I expected too much of the game.
Due to my gamer tendency to complete everything I possible can, I ended up helping the sister retrieve an item of sentimental value to her. I did this not because I cared about her feelings in any way, just because it was a task and I wanted to tick it off. However, when I went through with my plan to hand her over to Dettlaff it came into play. I was expecting Dettlaff to prepare to murder her, at which point I would be given the opportunity to interfere or let him (as it happened in a previous expansion in a similar situation). Instead the item in question teleported her away to a place of safety. Dettlaff was furious. He was convinced I had tricked him, and would listen to nothing I said. In his rage I had no choice but to kill Dettlaff, and because I earlier ignored the finer bits of the sister’s backstory, I was missing key information for a certain line of dialog. As a result I received the bad ending, where the naiv duchess tried to forgive her sister, who ends up killing her with a hairpin just before getting shot herself by a crossbow bolt. Fuck me, right? To then make matters worse, the friendly vampire – whose name I do remember: Regis – I mentioned earlier ends up hated and hunted by his kindred for aiding in the death of a fellow vampire, so literally all my intentions went to shit, everyone I cared about died or ended up otherwise for the worse.
And the irony here is, that if this was all a result of wanting to hand over the woman to the vampire, if it was some cruel act of karma come to teach me a lesson and punish me for being bad, I wouldn’t be making such a fuss about it. But it was an act of compassion that ruined the whole thing, namely me going the extra mile to get the sister her keepsake. I know this, because I naturally reloaded my save game from before that event and ignored it. The events change in the following way: Dettlaff kills the sister; I was given the choice to let Dettlaff go, which I immediately took without a second of thought; the vampire swarm attacking the city disperses; the duchess has Geralt thrown into prison for a bit, until she has her mind changed by on old friend of the witcher’s; the duchess lives; Regis is not hunted by the other vampires. And the ending I got still seemed to try and convince me that this was the wrong choice.
Out of curiosity I looked up the other ending, the one the game considers to be the “Happy ending”. Basically imagine the original scenario I got playing out, except if you talk more to the sister, you can eventually convince her to forgive the duchess. In the same scene, where the two got killed for me, they end up hugging it out, and they all lived happily ever after. You know, except the two vampires. One is dead, the other now ostracized by his kind. But who cares about them, I guess? This was not the first time The Witcher’s sense of the correct conclusion to a plot-line was very far from mine, but this one really stuck with me. Specifically because the game made damn sure we saw how much Dettlaff hated to kill, so I assumed he would get some redemption in the end. Yet what the game considers to be the good ending ends up with him dead.
Anyway, that is the beauty of games like these: they are open to interpretation. Each player has their own experience, and what you expect or hope for will likely be very different from what I do. I am pleased that my version of the story ended in a way I was happy with, even if the game did its damnedest to make me feel bad about it. After all, who hasn’t felt so betrayed by a woman, who tricked them into murdering her enemies, that they later unleashed a swarm of angry vampires on humanity until they handed her over to them to execute themselves? … No one? Just me? Well… pretend you didn’t hear that. Later!