If The Witcher series of video games was a film, it would be considered a "cult hit." It has a rabidly loyal following among a growing portion of gamers, fueled by stunning graphics, a philosophical opposition to DRM, boobies, aggrieved Western male entitlement and stylized violence... kind of like Sin City.
But there's another element that makes The Witcher unique in video games. Many triple-A game franchises are crossover movie or TV properties, like Batman or The Walking Dead, but The Witcher games continue the story of a Polish fantasy book protagonist. Yes, The Witcher had a TV show and film in Poland, but these never reached English-speaking audiences in a large way. Furthermore, The Witcher games continue Geralt of Rivia's story after he was seemingly killed by a mob in the books. There's an entire past life lurking under The Witcher games that players are quite literally only offered glimpses of.
In order to present Geralt to a wider video game audience without massive amounts of fictional personal history, developer CD Projekt RED gave him amnesia at the beginning of the first game. He, like most players, is unable to recall his life from the books. This is an ironically appropriate device, because much from the books is forgotten in The Witcher games, including the geo-political underpinnings of the world of The Witcher.
With the build up to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in full swing, and the ironic angry online mobs beginning to troll anyone with any criticisms of the game series (including me) I think this context is important to provide. So I sought out economic historian and Witcher fan Adam Shaftoe-Durrant to talk about the origins of the world of The Witcher. Adam is a labour market researcher by day and a literary/genre critic during his off-hours.
This article is intended to provide context for players thinking about jumping on for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but also to give existing fans something to think about, especially regarding the series' more shocking plot twists. The Witcher is a Polish story, and so it's important to explore the country's history in the context of the games.
Warning: Lots of big words follow (And possibly some spoilers from the first Witcher game).
(Note: CD Projekt RED was approached for comment regarding certain points of the series. No comment from the developer was provided as of publication.)
In terms of the stories' allegories, why is the world of The Witcher such a horrible place? What were the real-world situations author Andrzej Sapkowski was influenced by?
This is an interesting question. I suppose the short answer is to blame The Witcher's bleak world on Sapkowski being born into a system of faulty state socialism, suffering under the decades long hangover of Stalin forging the greatest 19th century economy the 20th century would ever see. Besides treating the Soviet republics like colonies in a mercantile empire, Stalin's rule marked a period of incredible anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. If we want to find an allegorical explanation for the persecution of non-humans in The Witcher, then a good place to start is with is the Great Purge in 1936. While it didn't target any one racial group or ethnicity, a great many 'enemies of the state' were killed for reasons of paranoid delusion and rule by terror. There's also 'The Doctor's Plot' in 1953. This event is largely seen as Stalin targeting prominent Russian Jews, and by extension the Soviet Intelligentsia, as the lead up to a purge. Thankfully, Stalin died before any of that could happen. Broadly speaking though, it is safe to say that Sapkowski grew up in the aftermath of a pretty terrible time for Eastern Europe."
But there's more to it than that, correct?
Yes indeed. We can't blame everything on Stalin. If we want to dig a little deeper into The Witcher's symbolism and allegories, then we need to move past The Witcher as a strictly Stalinist/Soviet commentary. Instead, we should focus on the broader history of modern Poland; a history that Polish economic historian Dr. Jacek Kochanowicz describes as being prone to economic backwardness. This is primarily due to Poland's history of political and economic discontinuity due to conquest from outside powers."
So that's an inspiration for the fragile politics of The Witcher's Northern Kingdoms, and the constant threat from the Nilfgaard Empire?
I tend to think so. The map of Central and Eastern Europe has changed a lot over the last thousand years. If there's one consistency, it's that there were always power players, be they Ottoman, Germanic, or Russian, looking to expand their borders at the expense of smaller states. For a time, Poland itself was one of those power players. At its height, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest and most affluent states in Europe. Internal political turmoil led to the state's decline such that by 1795, the territory of the former Commonwealth was divided between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Poland, as a nation state, didn't return to European maps until 1918. While it's easy to look at the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and assume that the Nilfgaardian invasion of Cintra is an allegory therein, doing so overlooks the fact that larger, more powerful nations have been annexing parts of Poland for the better part of two centuries."
In some cases, particularly Prussia's annexation of western Poland - but not so much in Russian occupied eastern Poland - elements of the Polish people welcomed these conquerors, just as some people in Cintra welcomed the Nilfgaardians. Consider that Serfdom was a legal and time honoured practice in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; the Prussians put a stop to that."
The distinction between a landless peasant and a serf might seem arbitrary to a modern reader, and indeed it probably was for a great many Polish people who now found themselves part of the Prussian Empire. However, there are some important nuances between the two that should not be overlooked. Particularly, a peasant has the legal right to own property and leave that property for their children, who might one day leave a life of gruelling agriculture. A peasant has the right to join the army or navy, which, if they are very lucky, might lead to a better life after 20 years of guard duty, empire building, and dysentery. A serf can claim none of these rights. Though not a slave, serfs and the children of serfs are bound to the land they work in perpetuity."
So there's an historical backdrop for the tendency of Witcher characters to fight extremely hard for extremely limited rights? I can't think of any Witcher character who really understands true freedom.
I think the closest you'll ever see to a truly free character in The Witcher is Dandelion, and even his songs and poems are politicized, making him a player in events beyond his control. If there's a take away message to this period in Polish history it's that control is fragile. One minute you're Polish, the next minute you're Russian. One day you're Cintran, the next day you're on the wrong side of the river and part of the Nilfgaardian Empire."
For a North American audience, this is a challenging test of perspective, and a testament to the strength of Sapkowski's allegory. Much like the ancestral humans of Temeria, Redania, Cintra, and the rest, Europeans arrived in North America, dehumanized the native population, and proceeded to make a mess of things. Even if a person doesn't know the history of Poland, there are examples of marginalized people closer to home that allow for a point of entry into the plight of the Scoia'tael and non-humans in general."
Right. That's an element that efficiently crossed cultural lines. So that covers Medieval times, up to the 19th Century. Where does more recent history influence the stories?
Post-Stalinist Poland takes on an interesting perspective that could have very well informed some of Sapkowski's bleak vision for the Northern Kingdoms. Agriculture was the primary focus of Polish endeavours as a Soviet republic. This focus occupied the majority of Poland's labour force. As state socialism provided little motivation to innovate, the Polish economy inevitably stalled and collapsed despite attempts at reform in the late '60s, early '70s and late '80s."
At the same time, the first generation of Polish Soviet loyalists were giving way to a new generation of engineers, scientists, and technocrats, many of whom were more interested in an ideology of populism and market socialism than toiling in an agricultural torpor. The new world was running headlong into the old, and this is a theme we often see at play in The Witcher. The Nordlings don't need money grubbing mutants like Geralt when the more modern Order of Flaming Rose will fight monsters as a public service."
I suppose there are also grounds to talk about Poland's interest in neoliberalism (an economic term that includes a belief in open markets, privatization, free trade, and deregulation) in the post-Soviet era and how it connects to The Witcher. Smarter people than yours truly have done so, but I must admit that I don't often see the connections. The world of The Witcher is one of the old world, as embodied by Geralt and his brothers, meeting modernity. I suppose you could make a case for neoliberal themes in the games and novels in that Geralt operates independent of state regulation as a Witcher, but it seems a weak comparison in my eyes. One of Geralt's most memorable lines is 'Fair work for fair pay.' During the height of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there was no fair pay for about 90% of the population. Under Tsarist, Stalinist, and Soviet rule, the economics of labour in Poland were not well placed to deliver on Geralt's mobilization of Marx, either. I'm not even a Marxist and I think there's a lot to be gained by viewing The Witcher through that particular lens."
It's true, economics as an element of gameplay in The Witcher games is fairly limited. You've got shopkeeps and you've got brothels, but most of the best items are found by foraging, looting, and bartered rewards, which is more about the games being RPGs than any thoughtful ludonarrative device. From a strictly narrative perspective, most regions Geralt encounters are unnaturally controlled by corrupt local government or disrupted by Scoia'tael unrest. The games seem to deal more with corruption of systems than any system in itself. Could that lend itself to a Marxist analysis arriving at an argument for more division of wealth?
Certainly. Sapkowski was trained as an economist before he started writing fiction. The Northern Kingdoms are about as far from Marx, Lenin, or Keynes as you can get. It leads me to wonder if we're not meant to look at the system in play and see it as something that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, hence Vizima being burned at the end of the first game."
The relationship between the ruling humans of Vizima, the marginalized non-humans, and the Scoia'tael is perhaps a cautionary tale for what happens when there is a prolonged state of inequity in a social structure. Consider The Witcher's second act, when Geralt has to choose between fighting for the Order of the Flaming Rose or the Scoia'tael. Siding with the Order makes Geralt a willing accomplice to the status quo. He's striking a blow for Vizima's pro-human agenda. If you side with the Scoia'tael, who are arguably on the right side of history, it means supporting a political organization that is zealous in their hate for humans - this includes women and children. Ultimately, though, this is a conflict that stems from inequity and oppression."
Between the original stories and the games, an artistic shift happens. The books describe many characters based only on their deformities, and portray beauty as an untrustworthy virtue. The game, on the other hand, features visual beauty as a selling point. How do you think this changes the messages communicated?
I think the real issue at hand here is one of empowerment. In the novels, Sapkowski uses disfigurements as symbols of achievement or accomplishment. In this way he demonstrates that the women in his world are as equally - and sometimes more - empowered as the men. What's your excuse, George R. R. Martin?"
Our first encounter with Yennefer of Vengerberg in The Blood of Elves is a subversion of the 'hero rescues woman' trope. We find Rience using magic to torture Dandelion for information on Ciri of Cintra's location. Only Yennefer's intervention saves Dandelion from what would have inevitably been a grisly death."
Yennefer is actually the one who fights Rience there, right? Not Dandelion? She wounds Rience in the face?
Indeed, Dandelion is completely at Rience's mercy - or lack thereof - and Yennefer is the active agent in his salvation. Yennefer leaves Rience with a facial deformation to remember the conflict, further fueling Rience's vendetta against Geralt without even bringing the Witcher into narrative. It's an interesting juxtaposition because we know from The Last Wish that Yennefer uses her mastery over magic to reshape herself from a disfigured person into a beauty worthy of immortalizing in one of Dandelion's ballads. Like all sorcerers, Yennefer is able to stop the aging process at whatever age she chooses. For her, power and beauty are one in the same thing. Despite this enigmatic nature, Geralt still binds himself to Yennefer. I have a very Freudian theory about why this happens, but it depends upon an interpretation of Geralt's history that is only seen in The Witcher television series, and I don't know if it counts as canon in this case."
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and CD Projekt Red.