Why The Witcher 3 gets the ups and downs of self-employment so right

I’m on the hunt for my daughter but I’m dead out of money. I don’t have potions, I don’t have food and my sword is broken. So, before setting off, I ride to a military checkpoint in search of cash for supplies. Pulling a notice from the board, I take on a monster-hunting contract. Realising it’s not a monster but a band of elves, I attempt to talk to them and, once that fails, punch them to death.

Lots of games have you doing quests and tasks, but only The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes you feel the highs and lows of finding gigs, switching jobs and chasing down payments. Yes, freelancers don’t tend to punch elves and, no, Geralt of Rivia might not have to fill in a self-assessment tax return, but the life he leads is one of the best representations of self-employment in gaming.

I’ve been self-employed for two years now. When I started, no-one had really heard of me and I had no real reputation in the industry, so I had to get pragmatic and take whatever work I could to keep myself afloat. I hosted and organised events, did video interviews, ran a podcast, wrote blog posts, created white papers, knocked up an ebook. I even hosted bake sales. And I did it all because I had to. You don’t begin to realise how close the breadline is until money is landing in your account on the whims of half a dozen financial controllers. You take all sorts of work from all sorts of people.

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It was in the midst of this madness – where I’d switch between doing my books to interviewing advertising executives – that I started to realise most of the games I played were utterly disconnected from my professional experience. In fact, I was almost entirely hammering away at games where I had a clear job to do. I completed the Mass Effect series, where I was a devilishly handsome commander in a depressingly structured military hierarchy. And my favourite way to unwind remains Football Manager, a game all about getting results or being fired by your bosses with nary a regret.

As I was getting more used to my status as the boss and sole employee of my company, I felt disappointed that there weren’t many games that represented my employment experience. Then I played The Witcher 3.

Going solo

The glorious thing for me about the game is the fact that self-employment is central to Geralt’s identity. He knows that he’s a freelance monster slayer, the world knows that he’s a freelance monster slayer and everyone treats him as such. The result is that you can spend the entire game experiencing the madness of being an independent professional, including making the same sorts of pragmatic decisions I did.

In a similar way to me theoretically being a writer when it suits me, Geralt is theoretically a Witcher only when it suits him. Sure, he’ll take on contract work that fits his job spec when he needs it: slicing down basilisks, wyverns and manticores is what he was trained to do, after all. But by toting a business description as vague as “freelance monster slayer” and taking advantage of people’s confusion over what that entails, I managed to get Geralt involved in all sorts of coin-paying shenanigans I’d be proud to call my own.

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There was the time I herded a load of magical pigs into a cave for a bit of extra cash. I once haughtily declared killing one monster as “a chore and not Witcher’s work”, but still went in and cut the git down for cash. Even the main storyline, which is about your search for your ward and adoptive daughter Ciri, isn’t technically Witcher work. But when the Emperor of Nilfgaard is paying stupid amounts of money for something you were going to do anyway, you might as well put it in accounts receivable.

One of the smartest things the game does is to subtly ensure you do actually have to work. Little touches such as restricting the amount of currency that shopkeepers have to buy your loot and forcing you to cough up for armour repairs mean that money is scarce. This forces you to make questionable decisions, particularly when coin is short early in the game.

You start off by asking for pay after every job, even though you suspect some people would head-butt you if they weren’t so terrified of where you’d insert your sword. You’ll start lowering fees for people you like and the causes you support, while raising fees for the jobs you hate. You’ll even start going for a regular shave, because no-one likes being stubbly in a business meeting. Right?

Money worries

In short, after playing The Witcher 3 you’ll begin to understand how someone who is self-employed sees the world. You worry about making money, but you also worry about how you’re perceived to be making that money. You know reputation matters, and you certainly don’t want to have a bad one. You begin reining in spending so you have cash in hand if some valuable equipment busts up.

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Plenty of titles encourage us to think and behave like a big-shot leader with huge budgets and workforces, but very few encourage us to think like small businesses. Of course, part of the reason for that is dreaming big is fun and there’s joyful escapism to be had in heading up a football club, prison or industrial military complex. And even though we’re unlikely to ever run one, the most fun in games is often found in things we can’t do.

But Geralt of Rivia showed me that there is a way for games to quietly demonstrate the practicalities of self-employment in an entertaining way, and I’d personally love more games to give freelancing a shot.

Next: Beyond the Crystal Maze: Oubliette and the continuing rise of escape games

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