The multi-award-winning Witcher games have sold over twenty million copies over the last decade, with avid fans from outside Poland accounting for the majority. On behalf of Culture.pl, Piotr Kubiński talks in-depth to Marcin Blacha, Story Director at CD Projekt Red, about how the lauded game studio tackles the enormous challenge of creating The Witcher’s immersive world.
Piotr Kubiński: You’re the co-author of one of the greatest export hits of Polish pop culture. In my opinion, it’s the depth of the world shown in the game that has made it so unusually immersive. How do you achieve such an effect? Do you collect materials, make flashcards like some writers do? What does the workshop of a video game writer look like?
Marcin Blacha: Well, in the case of The Witcher our task was a lot simpler, as the game is an adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories and novels. So, a lot of work has already been done by the author himself, rather than by us: he’s created the world, the characters which we can draw upon. Of course we add new characters to the original ones, as at some point the source becomes exhausted – you can’t process data sourced from books over and over again. And anyway, none of the Witcher games are an adaptation in the sense that they replay a well-known story in a computer game language. They’re based on the world created in the original, plus some of the characters, but all the stories are made up by us.
But I smiled to myself when you asked that question, because everyone has different ways to collect information and do research. We very often use The Witcher Wikia [an Internet encyclopaedia of the Witcher universe created by fans], where we can find all the necessary info about the world created by Sapkowski. But in seeking inspiration, we sometimes note down certain things that might be needed later. Once I bought a tear-off wall calendar and hung it on a corkboard in our studio. Every day I tore a page off and read the information printed on the other side of it, usually a recipe or a joke.
Once, however, it was a mini-dictionary of bird trills. There was information on what you call a trill of a given bird in Polish: there’s a name for a nightingale’s trill, and another for a lark’s trill, and a different one for a wood grouse’s trill. These words were so interesting – I had never heard some of them! – so I put aside that page with an intention to use it in the future somehow. And the moment came when I had to write a script for a scene in which two characters – Geralt and Yennefer – hide from passing sentries behind a tapestry in an old fortress. The hiding characters had to keep quiet – but there couldn’t be total silence for the whole scene, so the sentries had to be engaged in some conversation. That’s when I wrote a dialogue in which one sentry explains to the other that there are different words for each bird’s trill.
I remember that scene. In my opinion, it’s those sorts of fine details forming the game’s world that make your productions unique.
Yes, and well, The Witcher is a tribute to the Polish language and to Polishness in general. At least I always treat the game that way. If the world must be filled with something, we look for inspiration, for something we feel attachment to, something important to us that associates with things we think warmly about. You then naturally make recollections about your past, about what surrounds you, what you’ve read and what had an impression on you. These are all those beloved bricks we use to create our game’s world.
As far as the Polishness goes, the Witcher series does include a lot of those elements. The famous Forefather’s Eve quest which refers to a pre-Christian ritual and to Mickiewicz’s drama is just one of many examples which can be found in the third game. I initially wanted to ask whether you created that quest while thinking of Polish gamers (who understand the reference), or rather of foreign ones (who have little chance of recognising it) – but maybe the question should be asked differently? Maybe you created this quest simply thinking about Polish culture, about where we come from?
Well, in truth, it’s a mixture of all those factors you mention. We certainly always think about gamers when we develop a game, but while working we adhere to a certain principle: in order to make our vision convincing to a gamer, we must turn him on to something. Our method to get the gamer interested is to show him what we like ourselves and tell him: ‘Look, how great it is! How could you not love it?’ As it turns out, this works not only with Polish gamers, but with those abroad as well. The world is full of gamers who don’t know all those Polish customs and traditions – like the forefathers’ custom – but nonetheless they like those elements of the game a lot.
I have to ask you about one of my favourite side quests in The Witcher 3, which was The Fall of the House of Reardon, a reference to The Fall of the House of Usher and other short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. For me it was fascinating that this quest even included subtle references to Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, a book which itself makes many very subtle references to Poe. It’s clear that the people working on the plot had a broad awareness of literature.
This is an extremely interesting story. The Fall of the House of Reardon is the work of two designers: Dennis Zoetebier (who is Dutch) and Karolina Stachyra. At first, it was supposed to be a very small quest, without any additional meaning. But as it developed – when the designers started to play with it – they started to improvise and add subsequent elements. Now I’m unable to even say exactly how that had happened – but it certainly wasn’t like they sat down and decided ‘Well, so now let’s make a story like Poe’s’. It was a more spontaneous brainstorming of ideas, associations and inspirations. I also really like this quest because I love gothic tales, stories about ghosts and haunted houses. At least one quest like that has to be included in every game we produce. Besides, Hearts of Stone – an add-on adventure to The Witcher 3 – was a culmination of our stories about a lady in black or a haunted house. When working on the quest Scenes From a Marriage in that adventure, I made use of stills from the film The Tomb of Ligeia and other adaptations of Poe as visual references for the artists creating the character and venue concepts.
It’s a brilliant example of how immersive can a game be, and how intertextual. In this context, I wonder what you think of discussions on whether video games can be a form of art or digital literature.
I’ve participated in such discussions many times, although I was never particularly convinced because, to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I know that games are an important part of culture – this is undoubtable. But whether they can be art or part of it? I guess so, but not en masse, meaning not every game is a work of art… And there are cases where a game is a work of art or nearly a work of art. With a game like The Witcher, I don’t think so, but there are artists who express themselves by creating games. It’s a similar form of expression to painting a picture or writing poetry.
Film might be an analogy to a certain extent: not every film is a work of art, but undoubtedly it can be a medium through which artists can express themselves, like say at Bergman’s level.
That’s true, but film or visual arts are different from games in that they are directed from the very beginning to the very end. There certainly are such forms of art – especially modern art – which assume a degree of interaction, that play with the audience. But one can assume that traditional art is much less interactive than games. In the case of games, artists are scriptwriters, but it is the gamer who is the ultimate director, because it’s the gamer who decides about what will ultimately happen in the game, and in what form events will happen. This is a controversial issue, I don’t feel competent enough to discuss it, but I can see a certain clear difference between Bergman’s films – say Wild Strawberries – and a game. Firstly, a game is usually not designed with the intention of becoming a work of art. Secondly, we have a gamer who makes the ultimate decisions on how the game will follow.
Let’s go back to the pre-Slavic motifs present in the game. I remember a thrilling quest with a botchling – a demon created from the improper burial of a stillborn infant. What does the work on such material look like? Do you look for inspiration in thematic dictionaries, old tales, literature?
As far as The Witcher, comments may be often heard that it is inspired by pre-Slavic mythology or makes use of its elements. In my opinion, that’s almost true, but not entirely true. Those elements are certainly exploited in The Witcher, but they are very much filtered – especially through the literature of Romanticism and, to a lesser degree, through the subsequent literature from the beginning of the 20th century. The truth is that every time we start creating some monster – like the botchling or a noonwraith – we don’t perceive this monster like pre-Slavic people did, because we have no idea what their perception of the monster was. We have the perception we were taught by the poets of Romanticism. Every time we look into the sources, we don’t study old Polish literature or archeologic manuals, but culture which refers to those elements. We don’t draw from the source itself, but from the pulp processed by cultures, and we try to make it look that unique way in which we ourselves perceive it.
Well, yes, drawing from the sources themselves would be even more difficult since pre-Slavic culture was preliterate, so written descriptions of rites and beliefs are hardly available. Some information about pre-Slavic beliefs comes from accounts by individuals who Christianised those people, whose job was to eradicate those beliefs.
Yes, and there’s one more thing. Our Polish perception is still very much shaped by Polish Romanticism. The game is a vehicle to disseminate some ideas – so we have to use a universal language of associations, references and clues that is comprehensible. The spirit of Romanticism helps us a lot with this task, as Romanticism is the universal language of our culture and it makes it easier to tell a story.
Let’s talk about your story – as an artist. You joined CD Projekt RED in 2006, when work on the first Witcher game was underway. How did you become The Witcher’s scriptwriter?
At that time, there were few people in Poland who knew how to create game scripts. When I joined the team, the production of video games in Poland was a bit like the Wild West: a vast, limitless area, where you don’t know which direction to go in, with a lot of dangers lurking everywhere and numerous bonanzas to discover. I felt like a pioneer because everything had to be started from scratch. Everything would surprise you because it was the first time it happened. An incredible adventure!
During the last ten years, the video games sector in Poland has become very stable, and our company grew from several dozen to approximately four hundred staff. And we – as scriptwriters – now have our well-established methods. Earlier, we pursued our Wild West quest in a wooden cart, but today we’ve replaced it with a train equipped with telephone access so that we can communicate easily. But still, if you deviate from the track, incredible adventures and unusual native mineral elements await you.
Continuing the Wild West metaphor, one can say that you headed there from the Old Continent, since before video games, you used to design role-playing games, titles such as Neuroshima and Monastyr. How much of your experience from that Old Continent is useful when working in the digital Wild West? Traditional role playing games, made on paper, are first of all stories told verbally…
…So how useful is such experience for designing computer games?
Yes! It’s very useful! Contrary to what people think, this is a very universal experience. You know that computer games are ruled by their own regulations, that those stories must be created according to some sort of rules. But those rules don’t differ very much from the rules for creating games on paper. The most basic rule says: I am creating a story so that others can have a lot of fun.
So, what are the rules for creating a good and universal story?
I think if I knew that I would already be very, very rich [laughs]… It’s difficult to say. When I talk about those rules, I mean the core rules written down in manuals, you have to be aware of, for example, Aristotle and how a story is made up of three parts: a beginning (prologue), the development (episode) and an ending (exode). But in the case of games, you also have to know when to let the gamer respond to an event, how to formulate choices so that they’re as credible as possible. One has to make a guess what the gamer will have on his mind while playing. So intuition is necessary.
When it comes to intuition, I guess a team of scriptwriters must be useful. How big was the team working on The Witcher 3? What did your work look like?
It’s a bit like a film production. The difference is that a film scriptwriter hands a ready script over to a film director. In the case of a game, the script requires continuous amendments and additions during the game’s production – sometimes it has to adjust to the production’s requirements, sometimes ideas change on a rolling basis.
I had five other people work on the script in Warsaw, and two more in Kraków. This is true teamwork, with creative contributions from all our outstanding team members, so I certainly don’t think that the story told in The Witcher is entirely my work. I simply managed the team of scriptwriters.
Do you work together on particular quests, or is it individual work? Do scriptwriters appear at work at 9am, spend their day at the keyboard for 8 hours, then leave the office at 5pm?
In case of big games like The Witcher, work on the script took several years. The first stage (let’s say: the first year) is dedicated to preparing all the materials, including designing the plot, writing it all down, and preparing documentation for use by other teams working on the game. This is the stage when we look for inspiration, describe the world’s elements, try to imagine how it’ll look, what motives we’ll employ, what characters will appear. At that stage, we do a lot of brainstorming with one another, we close ourselves in a dark place for hours or go for a long walk to discuss themes and ideas. All of this is necessary to balance out our levels of knowledge and to fix detailed sets and to have a uniform view of the story we’re working on.
When everything is agreed, when we know the whole story from A to Z, we have to fill blank spots in the script in literary ways. Then we divide our tasks – each of us takes a piece of the script we like best. And then we work individually – although we do still brainstorm, exchange ideas, or ask one another for support in more difficult parts. We often ask each other: ‘Hey, and what does Geralt do in your part when this and that happens? Because I have to refer to it’. So, some sort of common awareness is formed through the very individual contributions by each scriptwriter.
During the actual production of the game – when we start to implement gathering together all the graphic elements and the code from the programmers – we still work on the plot, but we have less time for looking for inspiration. It’s more methodical – from 9 till 5 indeed, we write dialogues, play the game, modify it. Sometimes the modifications are quite dramatic – it can be a bit like putting out a fire. Suppose we delete some quest and there’s a gap – if the script has a tree structure, it can turn out we’ve removed a major branch from which smaller branches grow. Then one has to think how to handle it and make it all fine.
So you not only write but actually play working versions of the script?
Oh, yes – we play them all the time. When the game’s still full of grey cuboids representing particular structures, and characters are just schematic grey silhouettes, we play those versions all the time to see whether our ideas really work in practice. That stage is like a game sketch, where dialogues aren’t recorded yet, only written down as a working version because we’re continuously introducing changes.
The last decade is not only the time of your work on The Witcher series, but also a time of unusual boom for the whole video games sector in Poland. Apart from the studio where you work, there’s Techland, 11 bit studios, CI Games, Vivid Games and many other smaller businesses which have succeeded on the world market. Can you talk about the Polish school of game development, from your perspective? Is there something that distinguishes Polish game designers?
Yes. I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve wondered even whether not to study it in-depth, because so far it’s only been intuition. I think that you can point to certain features which could be called a Polish school of game design – in terms of RPG as well as video games. One thing that makes the difference, to put it plainly, is imagination. All the famous Polish games, such as This War of Mine, combine professional production with great imagination. It’s not easy to come up with an idea for a game about civilians during a war, and that it’ll simulate character behaviours. It seems that Poles excel in imaginative attitudes like this towards game design. Our productions have soul. And this very soul – something that cannot be studied or analysed properly – is noticed and appreciated by gamers. The same applies to RPGs.
It’s interesting that almost all the authors who developed the script and mechanisms of the first part of the computerised Witcher had earlier played paper RPGs. And in Poland, you play an RPG a bit differently than in the West. For example, in Poland the older version of Dungeons & Dragons has never been popular, that version with the ‘gamesmaster’ arranging the board and gamers moving their figurines, throwing dice, going through dungeons where dragons and treasures await them. In Poland a different style of RPG was popular – where a story is told and throwing dice is less important. What’s important is the psychology of the characters, the way of telling the story and simulating the world. This way of thinking is also visible in The Witcher.
For us, it was very important to make a credible world, where characters feature psychological depth, and their dialogues are multi-dimensional. A story, a plot, has always been more important than a fight with monsters. The Witcher 3 seems to be a culmination of this way of thinking.
Interview originally conducted in Polish in early December 2016; translated by IS, edited by AZ.