World Goes Wild for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
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small, World Goes Wild for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Screenshot from The Witcher 3. Photo: Press release, the-witcher-3-wild-hunt_3.jpg
Over one million people pre-ordered The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and many more are sure to be eagerly awaiting the release of the newest game inspired by Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of fantasy books.
Its producer, CD Projekt RED, created the first Witcher game for PCs only, whilst their third instalment in the series is set to be released on next-gen consoles – PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – as well.
The popularity of the books is not the only factor behind the games' success – not all of the novels have even been translated into English. Starting with the first Witcher game in 2007, CD Projekt RED were able to capture the unique spirit of Sapkowski’s works. Two aspects of the Witcher series are crucial for its popularity among gamers all over the globe: the hero and the game world, and their interactions with each other. They clearly stand out from those of other fantasy games.
The most unusual aspect that draws fans towards the books and games is the hero himself – Geralt of Rivia, the witcher. “Witcher” is the rough English translation of the term “Vedmak” from Slavic mythology, which comes from Proto-Slavic “vědě” ("to know"). This type of hero is also known in western folklore, especially in Britain, where they were known as “cunning folk”. Sometimes they were named “white witches” – though this was used more rarely, mostly by folklorists and not ordinary people, because the term "witch" generally had connotations of evil.
Similar figures also appear in the folk tales of many European countries – for example, in Sweden they are called “klok gubbe” ("wise old man") and in Italy they have several different names: include praticos (wise people), guaritori (healers), fattucchiere (fixers) or even simply mago, maga or maghiardzha (sorcerers). Vedmaks were believed to be male witches, but less vile then their female counterparts. They were practitioners of folk magic and medicine, could lift curses or protect crops from failure, and provided aid to villagers in medieval times.
The witchers of the books and games are based on these beliefs but Sapkowski expanded their role. Geralt is one of many witchers who travel across the country – and they are not simply folk healers but a mixture of alchemist, magician and warrior, trained from childhood in a special academy to be professional monster-slayers who protect commoners and livestock from predators.
Although this may sound familiar, witchers are not some kind of paladin or Tolkien’s Rangers of the North. The world of the franchise belongs more to dark fantasy than typical western high fantasy settings. Nobody wants to become a witcher – new candidates are mostly orphans or children taken from their rightful parents in lieu of payment for solving a monster problem. This is called The Law of Surprise. Many villagers heard enigmatic words from witchers that a reward should be something they "had left at home without knowing or expecting it". In Slavic mythology, The Law of Surprise was originally a form of payment for the services of a demon, and witchers were believed to be the servants of the devil. It is also a common trope in fairy tales. Sapkowski even refers to one of these – in the short story A Question of Price, Rumplestelt the gnome is mentioned – he is clearly an allusion to the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin by the Brothers Grimm, wherein a vile creature helps a princess in exchange for her newborn child.
And as if that was not enough, one does not simply become a witcher by being an orphan and undergoing extensive training. Young boys (girls are exchanged with dryads, who also capture children) are subjected to intense alchemical procedures involving mutagenic compounds. They gain resistance to disease, a boosted immune system and quick healing, as well as increased strength, speed and reflexes which allow them to excel in combat – if they survive the process.
Witchers are also capable of using some basic magic and alchemy. But everything comes with a price – as creations of primitive genetic experiments they are also completely sterile and unnaturally long-lived. They are less like humans and more like mutants created to be perfect killing machines and easily recognized by their cat-like eyes. They are hated and feared by regular people as much as the monsters which they fight, partially because unlike other fantasy heroes, witchers never work for free. They try to stay neutral in conflicts and avoid errands which involve killing humans. But they are still handy to have around – although politicians and rulers view them as dangerous and unpredictable. Witchers rarely stay around after the job is done – their destiny is to be travelling mercenaries, and they never question this path. The exception is Geralt – the main protagonist of the books and games – who, despite his rigorous training and mutagenic transformation, has some human emotions left…
The witchers may seem like an anomaly, but they blend smoothly into the world depicted in the books and games. While most fantasy domains are simply an alternate version of the European Middle Ages with the addition of magic and weird creatures, Sapkowski created a more unusual mixture of different inspirations, twisted and made darker and more grim. Fairy tales, for example – Geralt meets Renfri, who lives with seven gnomes and robs travelling merchants. In the first game he helps Vesna, who has to make it through the forest to her grandmother’s house. And Arthurian legends – the witcher seeks advice from the Lady of the Lake. Slavic beliefs and legends aren't excluded – Geralt fights striga, basilisks, rusalkas, vodyanoi and koshchey, and one of the main quests in the first game is an explicit allusion to the drama Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki, but with the main roles played by a nightwraith (“nocnica”), a noonwraith (“południca”), and, of course, the witcher caught in the middle.
The game's designers were inspired by the books, but have expanded the bestiary in every sense. In the third game, players have the chance to meet the famous leshy – male woodland spirits who protect the forest – and the even more famous Baba Yaga – an ugly, sadistic witch, waiting to carry off naughty children. They drew much inspiration from The Slavic Bestiary released a few years ago to give players a unique experience of strange, uncharted lands. As the designers stated, Slavic beliefs are still relatively unknown in the west and they want to change that. And it has been well received – players appreciated an original world in which they are not forced to fight yet more cliché orcs and trolls.
But even familiar fantasy tropes are different in this world – like the Old Races. Humans dominate, and racism is not uncommon. Elves were once a proud race – now they are discriminated against by the humans, even being victims of pogroms, and many younger elves have become guerillas to fight the “haired apes”. Some dwarves join the fight against the humans too, but others try to blend in and live in human cities. Gnomes seldom interact with humans but they produce excellent weapons. Dryads hate humans and hide in the woods. And even the humans fight among themselves. It is grim, gritty, pessimistic low fantasy, set in a cruel world which even bears some semblance to our own, contemporary reality. The Witcher stories draw inspiration from fairy tales but certainly don't feature such tropes as altruistic heroes and clear-cut evil villains living in a magical kingdom. Its characters are not simply black and white, just shades of grey.
References to modern society are a peculiarity of the world of the Witcher franchise. The author sometimes uses them as heavy satire and sometimes to highlight and criticize human attitudes: corruption, racism, discrimination against women, abuse of power by rulers, social stratification. Readers and players can learn that politics plays a big role in this world. Stories about the witcher are famous for their intricate and complex political plots, wherein kings with well-hidden agendas and even more well-hidden assassins vie for power. The Lodge of Sorceresses has their own plans – their members are advisors to kings but very often conspire against them. Aristocrats try to defend their own interests. And even the common people, who mostly mind their own business, can be very cruel and ruthless when endangered by the other social classes. In the third game, a protracted war ravages the various domains as the Emperor of Nilfgaard invades the Northern Kingdoms, and Geralt is somewhere in its midst trying to find his stepdaughter Ciri and the sorceress that he loves.
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The story of the Witcher books and games does not revolve around its main hero – he is just a cog in the machine, desperately trying to stay neutral but also to save himself and those he cares for. This type of storytelling was a novelty in fantasy books, and still is for games. That is why gamers have fallen in love with the Witcher series – there are too many productions whose main character is the Chosen One, destined to save the world, or the kingdom, or the princess, or some combination of the three. In the third Witcher game, CD Projekt RED placed the emphasis on just existing as a witcher – the world is larger, there is a lot to discover, and many small quests to complete. A new feature is free-roaming monsters to track and hunt for money. Players can choose their own path and avoid the main quests for some time. And even if they focus on the storyline, the plot is more personal. Geralt is a significantly older man who mostly cares about his own personal issues, and this is reflected in the gameplay. Politics and saving the kingdom merely form the background.
In 1986, Andrzej Sapkowski created a fresh type of hero for fantasy literature. Typical characters in this genre tend to be one-dimensional – either good or bad. Geralt the witcher is different; he operates in morally grey areas, and what is really at stake are his beliefs and values. He is also questions his humanity and his ability to bring order to the world – he knows that a single man cannot fight each ruler, mage, and soldier. He often has to choose the lesser evil.
CD Projekt RED successfully transferred this element to their games, which have very interesting consequences for the players. They constantly face moral choices, and it is hard to predict how their decisions will affect the game. Playing as Geralt allows players to do some true role-playing, with a choice system which actually radically alters the way the story plays out. And it is not uncommon to have to choose between two bad options, or to discover that a choice which was previously considered worse is looking better in the light of recent events, like in a quest when a knight asks Geralt to find his sister, who he believes might have been captured by vampires.
The witcher learns that she is indeed now sided with the vampires (who reside in a local brothel), but that she chose this life to escape from her brother, who was forcing her to marry an old aristocrat. She would like to live forever and save her beauty. What Geralt does is up to the player. He can kill the vampires (after all, that’s what witchers do), but save the girl by killing her brother also – she won't be happy but she will at least be free. He can act against the witcher’s code: accept the vampire queen's offer (and have sex with her servants), and when the knight stumbles into the brothel, the witcher still can side with him or try to defend the vampires. Every choice means a different reward and different consequences.
Geralt of Rivia came to life in the books. But he needed a new type of medium: games. Acting out a scenario filled with quests and choices allow players to feel how it is to be the despised mutant in a morally ambiguous world. This is not another story about a knight in shining armour, and aside from being entertaining, it can also tell us something about humanity and the modern world. Reviews for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt reveal that the third part of the game seems to emphasize this aspect even more. It is sure to be a fitting ending to the trilogy of Geralt's adventures.
Author: Paweł Kamiński, Spring 2015