< A few days ago, Freelancer asked me what made the story of The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt unique from anything else in the fantasy RPG genre. This post is my reply to that challenge, and strikes at the heart of why I love this game so goddamn much. >
The year is 1939 and Hitler’s tanks roll through the streets of Poland. Polish horsemen ride forth to stop the Nazi blitzkrieg, but are swept aside like leaves in a hurricane. From the east, the Communist hordes of Stalin pile on to the weakened nation. This conflict ends with Poland ripped in half. This war ends with Poland under the tight control of a puppet ruler, a once great nation turned dark and hopeless under the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain.
This was not a new experience to Poland. Catherine the Great conquered Polish territory and helped to split it up between her and Prussia a century earlier. Even before that, the Poles were trying to recover from centuries of religious war running through their lands, and the trauma of the Khans before that. This was not a happy place to live in and, given their lack of natural defenses such as mountains or seas, its people have sadly been doomed to this struggle since independent Poland was first the glimmer of an idea.
The Witcher and its Polish Influences
I bring this up in a post about The Witcher 3 because knowing the history and mindset of the Polish people can help you understand why this game feels so very different from typical Western RPGs, regardless of whether they are fantasy or sci-fi. Think about the usual fare in this regard. The Elder Scrolls games always feature you as the chosen one destined to fulfill a prophecy and save the world. Mass Effect had you control Shephard, a guy/gal who single-handedly unites entire galaxies in fighting planet-gobbling titans. Even JRPGs like Final Fantasy are guilty of this, putting you in the role of the only character(s) exceptional enough to save everyone from some horrible evil.
The Witcher 3 is radically different in this regard. Your character is no chosen one; Geralt is just some guy trying to avoid getting involved in a vast war spilling across the land. The events are just too big for him and, though he is pretty good with a sword, he is only one man who can be easily overwhelmed by a handful of thieves, soldiers, or monsters. In a typical Western RPG, you’d be leading the charge in stopping this conflict and saving the world from all of its bloodshed. Instead, the writers of The Witcher 3 portray the ordinary people of these lands and Geralt himself as resigned to the war. The sick and muddied peasants lament how powerless they are to kings who treat them as mere chess pieces. All they can do is sadly wish that the world were a better place as they duck their heads and try to get through the war unscathed. This is an eerie echo to how the Polish people have felt through the ages as their land has traded back and forth, no matter how they have resisted.
Geralt is no different. When faced with the prospect of getting involved, he does everything he can to reject it and stay neutral. Some might call his stance cynical; others might call it realistic. But it is telling that, in a video game genre that is usually about empowering the player to fix everything, the objective of The Witcher 3 isn’t to save the world. Stopping the war is not a priority, and choosing to get involved arguably makes it worse. Your task is only to find Geralt’s adoptive daughter, Ciri, so you can retreat from it all and keep her safe. Like a haggard ex-soldier trudging through war-torn Poland, your goal is not to end the conflict, but just to ride it out as best you can.
Slavic Folklore Writ Large
It should be noted that, alongside this massive war intrinsic to the main plot, the mystical elements of The Witcher 3 have a unique Slavic influence that you see nowhere else in Western fantasy RPGs. Geralt’s job is that of a Witcher, which is basically a bounty hunter who tracks down and pacifies (or exterminates) monsters instead of people. Many of the crises in the story arise from these creatures getting involved, for better or for worse.
Yet it is interesting to note that the monsters in The Witcher 3 usually manifest from the worst aspects of human nature. A Noonwraith, for example, is the vengeful spirit of a woman who died violently right before getting married. A botchling is the possessed corpse of an unwanted or aborted baby that was thrown away without a proper burial. There are specific rituals that Geralt must perform to release these spirits from their suffering.
As you do more and more of these hunts, you come to realize that the monsters aren’t the enemy. They can be dangerous, but they follow specific rules. They have behaviors you can anticipate and, oftentimes, they can be reasoned with. What’s more, not all of them are the frightening foes that you would expect. Thus it is only fitting that Geralt finds peace and solitude in bringing these “monsters” closure. To Geralt, and eventually to the player as well, engaging with this or that peculiar new creature becomes a relief compared to dealing with the potential cruelty and unpredictability of other human beings.
The relationship between Geralt and the monsters of The Witcher 3 is directly analogous to how the Polish and other Eastern Europeans have historically treated their own mythology. Slavic folklore presents creatures that are nastier than most cultures, but they are only reflections of a more brutal history. Ironically, the lessons taught here are as unexpectedly optimistic as those of The Witcher. As terrifying as they can be, if you know how these mythological creatures work, then they can be talked to, avoided, or defeated. Given how Polish history has featured indifferent conquerors using the land unpredictably and as they see fit, Slavic folklore comes across as downright escapism by comparison.
And, at the end of the day, so is The Witcher 3. But the best fictional stories are those that make you think beyond just the game or just the plot, and The Witcher 3 did that for me in a way totally unique from all the other RPGs I’ve played. Hopefully, this post helped enlighten you to how special it truly is, and maybe nudge you into giving it another try.