In the fourth act of the first game from The Witcher series, while visiting a village near Vizima, the titular character comes across Lady Midday wandering in the nearby fields. This creature is actually a young woman who refuses to accept her own death. The monster hunter needs to help her realise that she is dead.
The hunter, sceptical of his own persuasive skills, turns to his friend, the bard Dandelion, for help. He is short on time – Lady Midday needs to be gone by night. Dandelion complains that he won’t be able to put together a sufficiently convincing text in such a short time, however, in the end, he decides that somehow he will manage. When he and Geralt finally confront Lady Midday, Dandelion begins to recite a text so beautiful, coherent and perfect for the occasion that the listener might wonder what the point of the previous conversation was, implying that Dandelion won’t be able to write anything decent. Only a Polish player will actually understand what is going on, recognising in the poem recited by Dandelion verses from Adam Mickiewicz’s The Ghost (Upiór). The bard did not write his own piece, but borrowed somebody else’s poem, for a good cause.
It should be added that the girl in question, killed by her jealous sister in a raspberry shrub, is called Alina (a reference to Juliusz Słowacki’s famous work Balladyna). A large part of the fourth act is weaved out of allusions to the classics of Polish Romanticism which go well with the scenery – a wooden village among vast fields and meadows, where a strange creature from folk mythology hides behind each tree is a landscape taken almost directly out of Mickiewicz’s Ballads and Romances. It is clear that in a number of places the creators of the game drop hints for their Polish audience, counting (sometimes perhaps even too generously) on their familiarity with the Polish literary canon.
International players, however, are at a disadvantage. Some references, like the significance of Alina’s fate, will simply go straight over their heads, and if it were to be explained to them, they probably wouldn’t care much. The use of The Ghost poses a bigger problem. In Polish, it is a witty surprise, however, for someone unfamiliar with Mickiewicz’s work, it is an odd insertion which doesn’t play into the Dandelion’s earlier statement about his confrontation with Lady Midday.
The authors of The Witcher came across a typical problem for local products released onto an international market. How does one go about references to local culture or history? Should it be explained to the foreign consumer? Or should the creators leave it as it is and not worry about it being understood or not? Or maybe it should be cut out altogether? One could assume that these matters would be predominantly for translators or localisers to deal with, but in the video game industry this often concerns the authors, who have to take the global market into consideration at the very beginning of the production process – working on a high-budget game destined only for local market simply doesn’t pay off.
The elements of Polish Romanticism were thus left in the first Witcher as decorative elements, which were hard to explain to audiences unacquainted with Polish culture. In the second part of the trilogy, one could see that the authors decided to reduce the number of local subtleties. The presentation of the fantasy world is much more conventional, beginning with the visual aspects – while in the first part we would often find landscapes and buildings which were clearly central European, this time around they were practically non-existent.
The third part makes a visible return to local elements. This readily apparent in the landscapes, which immediately bring to mind associations with 19th-century Polish landscapes, from which the graphic designers drew inspiration. Mickiewicz also makes a comeback, but this time his works are introduced and applied somewhat differently than in the first part of the game.
During his journey through the most Central European region of the game in The Witcher 3, governed by the warlord Bloody Baron from the land of Velen, Geralt comes across a local sorcerer who invites him to take part in a Forefather’s Eve (which is also the title and theme of one of Adam Mickiewicz’s most famous poetic dramas). The ritual takes place on a gloomy, abandoned island in the middle of a lake, one half of which is covered in ancient burial sites, while the other has the ruins of a castle with a high tower, inside which an evil local magnate died in mysterious circumstances (a pack of rats may have had something to do with it). The ritual thus takes place in the vicinity of Popiel’s tower (Popiel was a legendary Slavic prince).
When evening comes, the Sorcerer begins Forefathers' Eve. Everyone familiar with Mickiewicz’s text will quickly notice that the words to which the crowd responds, are a clear variation on his poems. A very well written at that, as it retains the same meter and style, only citing three verses directly from Mickiewicz’s poem. Using a new text as a base, as opposed to citing long excerpts from the classical work makes the scene comprehensible without the need for any additional explanations. The English version puts an emphasis on intelligibility, which changes ‘distaff burning in fire’ to frankincense, which, for foreign audiences, is decidedly more natural in this context. The local ritual becomes global, without the need to add linguistic or ethnographic footnotes.
The setting of Forefather’s Eve in The Witcher is also worth a closer look – it doesn’t take place in a church or even a chapel but in a stone circle next to a burial site. If this place has any resemblance to a location in contemporary or historic Poland, it seems to be most similar to the gothic cemeteries in Pomerania. Although perhaps there is no point in looking for real life equivalents. ‘New visions stand before you: there is a green grassy hill, on it stand twelve druid rocks, and the thirteenth – a throne made of mossy granite’ – this is how Juliusz Słowacki described the area around Gopło lake in a letter to Zygmunt Krasińki in the introduction to Lilla Weneda. This is obviously not the real Gopło, but the lake according to The Poems of Ossian, which were very popular at the time. It is basically a proto-Slavic and Celtic fairy tale hybrid based on the pseudoscientific treatise Pierwotne Dzieje Polski (The Ancient History of Poland) by Henryk Lewestam, adapted to fit Europe’s main concerns at the time. In it, the original inhabitants of Poland are Celts, while their leader, Dervid is a ‘copy’ of the Shakespearean Lear. Such was also the case with Balladyna – the plot setting in it is local, but everything else is compiled out of themes found all over European culture.
The world of the third Witcher does not overwhelm with its Slavonic references but skillfully weaves them in among various themes relating to different aspects of European and American culture. In the major localised versions of the game, it is clear how much effort the translators put into making the names sound naturally in all of the target languages. The local elements are so integral to the whole that a foreign user won’t even notice them. However, as a consequence of this strategy, a foreign player does not see the Forefather’s Eve ceremony by the lake that could be Gopło (but isn’t) as a strange and exotic ritual, but as a familiar and comprehensible one. Perhaps the best way to present one’s own culture is through making others see their own cultures reflected in it?
Written by Paweł Schreiber, translated by AM, January 2017, edited by NR 23 Feb 2017