Our latest Critical Compilation spotlights CD Projekt Red’s 2015 hit, The Witcher 3, brought to us by Cian Maher. Cian is a journalist from Dublin, Ireland.
Since its launch in 2015, The Witcher 3 has been heralded as a benchmark for contemporary apogees in big-budget design. We can see its DNA in the vast majority of open-world fantasy RPGs that have been released since, primarily because it set a new standard for what a virtual world can actually be: alive and lived-in at the same time. Some people have qualms with the combat, while others reckon the camera is a bit too persnickety – but the fact remains that The Witcher 3 has cemented itself as a game that is truly iconic.
There’s so much more to The Witcher 3 than a few words on its legacy, though, which is why it’s worth delving into in more detail. Its presence has consistently loomed large over critical discourse for over half a decade — both in terms of what made it special, and what didn’t.
Among the deluge of sterling reviews demarcating The Witcher 3 as a monumental triumph, almost no critics brought up its inherent racial bias. In Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem, Tauriq Moosa addressed this fundamental flaw, and the vehement outrage that followed its confrontation:
But seeing angry responses to this simple request speaks volumes about the kind of culture we’re creating by not diversifying races, genders and so on. Consider: In The Witcher 3, all humans are white and every other being is non-human. That’s not exactly friendly or inclusive of people of color. A game can include a diverse variety of monsters, but not a diverse variety of skin colors or races for humans?
Moosa goes on to note that this presents a far wider issue, one that permeates the industry itself:
Games have progressed dramatically — not in terms of graphics, but demographics. With more people from more areas of life being represented, we perhaps are going in the right direction. But when we still have major games made that feature no people of color, when people still refuse games because of characters’ race or gender, it means we aren’t there yet.
This brings us to a rather polarizing area of Witcher discourse. Many argue that its representation of women is drastically subpar. Others contend that The Witcher 3 is home to some of the most complex women in the history of videogames. Arguments also exist all along the spectrum between each extreme.
In Where The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Goes Wrong in Depicting Women (and Why it Matters), Elizabeth Ballou offers an incisive and insightful perspective on how The Witcher 3 fails the women it depicts. Although, ostensibly, its women are powerful, independent, and teeming with boundless conviction, they are betrayed by their design. Says Ballou:
The player meets Triss Merigold in Novigrad, where she’s on the run from King Radovid and his army of witch hunters. Though she’s supposed to be undercover, her skin-tight pants, bright red hair, and melon-sized breasts mean that she’s anything but hidden. Triss represents a young, vibrant sexiness in an environment where such sexiness makes no sense.
Another piece dealing with similar themes — and referenced in this one — is Kirk Hamilton’s review for Kotaku. Midway through the review, Hamilton eschews The Witcher 3’s “Wild Hunt” subtitle for the playful but telling “Hello Ladies.” The section quoted in Ballou’s piece is the best section to refer to here, because it speaks to how ultimately gratuitous The Witcher’s treatment of women is:
Men are subjected to torture and brutality as well, but as it tends to go with these things, women are singled out for sexual violation. A low point comes midway through the story when Geralt comes upon a scene of profound fucked-upedness, a group of women who have been sexually brutalized and murdered seemingly purely as a means of motivating players to kill the man responsible. (Probably would’ve wanted to kill him without seeing a dead prostitute nailed to the wall, thanks.)
It’s not all bad. In It’s Time to Celebrate The Witcher 3‘s Yennefer as One of Gaming’s Most Complex Women, Natalie Flores argues that Yennefer’s case is almost singular in the world of videogames. Flores has one concession — that The Witcher 3 fails to depict a scene in which Yennefer and Ciri’s bond is as evident as it so regularly is in Andrzej Sapkowski’s novelistic saga — but aside from that, Yennefer is described, in great detail, as a complex woman at odds with the majority of women in fantasy video games:
The trauma Yennefer has endured may have left her wrists and heart scarred, but she’s learned to use both to create something entirely hers, something more powerful than any spell she could cast. And though her love for her family has given her reasons to cry, there is nothing pathetic in that.
Although not directly tied to The Witcher 3, Aimee Hart’s EGM piece on the 2019 Netflix adaptation builds on Flores’s points, accentuating the potential for the women of The Witcher across the board. In Netflix’s Witcher Is Letting Women Explore Its World Without Prejudice, Hart discusses The Witcher franchise as a whole. What’s remarkable about Hart’s piece is that it features conversations with women who took the game’s shortcomings into their own hands. After witnessing powerful women take centre-stage in the Netflix adaptation, and learning thereafter — or reconsidering in hindsight — that their in-game counterparts presented radically different cases, these women used the series’s background to create their own, personal stories within its world. Hart writes:
One thing that has become more noticeable since the show, is how many more women are creating their own content based on the TV series. Even something as simple as Twitter threads—where female fans are able to express their delight at seeing female characters who not only look like them but are just as important to the story as main character Geralt—has become much more prominent since the TV show was released.
Aside from representation, one of the most prominent topics discussed in relation to the women of The Witcher 3 has to do with monogamous relationships. Meghan Blythe Adams and Nathan Rambukkana co-authored a paper on this, titled, “Why do I have to make a choice? Maybe the three of us could, uh…”: Non-Monogamy in Videogame Narratives, in which they argue that the initial, ostensible possibility of polygamy — which is deceptive, in that this is a game in which any relationship intact at the end is strictly monogamous in nature — also points to The Witcher 3’s complete absence of queer discovery.
In The Witcher series, the player cannot make this fruitful transgression into queer discovery. At one level, this inability is a result of the designed nature of the game-world, but at another, the game’s array of sexual partners acts as a kind of buffer against queer possibility.
The macrocosmic space
One of the things that The Witcher 3 is most known for is its densely populated space as a functional game world. Although people usually appreciate this fact, it’s not often extrapolated further — when you dig into reporting on the process, you’ll find that The Witcher 3’s development was long, arduous, and difficult, and this largely influenced the stamp it has made on the zeitgeist.
In his piece for Eurogamer, simply titled The writing of The Witcher 3,” Keith Stuart spoke to lead writer Jakub Szamalek about the complexities involved in writing a game on this scale:
I remember one day, a lead environment artist came over to my desk and said, ‘we are working on the fortifications for Novigrad – what kind of stone are the walls made of?’ I said, ‘I have no idea. Is there any information in the novel?’ They said no. So I said, ‘let’s look at the level together and study the geology – if we look at that river, I don’t think there would be any hard stone, so let’s look where the river goes, it heads toward those mountains, so they could have hewn the stone there and brought it down via boats.’
The Witcher 3’s entire makeup consists of similarly detailed constructions. Wolves form packs and follow the scent of recently deceased animals, while villages have functional water sources and specifically engineered supply chains to maintain their upkeep — a piece of my own actually delved into this phenomenon with insights from quest designer Philipp Weber:
“Of course The Witcher is fantasy, so it doesn’t have to be fully realistic, but it always needed to be believable,” Weber said. “That’s why our level designers and environment artists did some amazing work creating the world, and why you see Novigrad surrounded by fields providing the city with food, why there are supply lines, why Skellige villages have a source of water.”
It’s not just the environment that benefits from this incredibly attentive rationalized realization though. In his Eurogamer piece on the making of Gaunter O’Dimm, Kirk McKeand discusses the inspiration behind The Witcher 3’s most nefarious and notorious villain. For PCGamesN, Andreas Inderwildi interrogated the myths in order to extrapolate the basis from which Crookback Bog’s odious Crones are derived.
The starving peasant whose cow suddenly died probably begged to differ, and The Witcher III agrees with that sentiment. Outside the mindset of the deluded fanatics of the cult of the Eternal Fire, there is little concern over spiritual harm throughout the game. It is indeed the maleficia employed by the Crones that are the real danger. The effigies found in the Crones’ basement that they use to curse Gran – alias Anna – would have looked familiar to a maleficium-fearing peasant nursed on dark superstition some centuries ago.
This consideration extends to each individual strand of The Witcher 3’s seamlessly interwoven world. For Heterotopias (paywall), Lewis J. Gordon argued that The Witcher 3’s forests function as sites of resistance, and are intertwined with the currently endangered Bialowieza Forest in Poland, whereas at Unwinnable Justin Reeve tackled The Genius of Beauclair Palace, a spectacle of architecture found in The Witcher 3’s second and final DLC, “Blood & Wine”. Rob Dwiar analyzed The Witcher 3 from the perspective of a landscape designer for Eurogamer, while Andreas Inderwildi compared The Witcher 3’s cityscapes — alongside those of Dark Souls and Bloodborne — to medieval paintings.
Perhaps a lot of this boils down to the fact that The Witcher 3 was based on a saga of intricately interwoven fantasy books. It’s quite clear how rich its source material is from Robert Purchese’s excellent interview with Andrzej Sapkowski, published over on Eurogamer. What’s interesting about that story, though, is how little faith Sapkowski had in the video game adaptation:
“I was stupid enough to sell them rights to the whole bunch,” he says. “They offered me a percentage of their profits. I said, ‘No, there will be no profit at all – give me all my money right now! The whole amount.’ It was stupid. I was stupid enough to leave everything in their hands because I didn’t believe in their success. But who could foresee their success? I couldn’t.”
The microcosmic place
All of the above pieces tackle how the world of The Witcher is constructed with business in mind. The world lives and breathes, operating as a functional space with ties to real-life, origins in resonant tales from folklore, mythology, and history, and measurably considered characters and cities with sufficient lore premises to seem realistically constructed.
But there is also criticism that sets out to specifically analyze The Witcher 3’s minutiae. In her piece for Rock Paper Shotgun, Alice Bell argued that it’s actually a better game if you completely ignore the plot:
But I‘ve figured out that I was trying too hard to force myself to care about the main plot, which is a thing I do not care about at all. I’m sure it’s great if you’re an avowed fan, but I have no idea who any of the women involved are, or indeed, why almost all of them want to rub their nipples over Geralt. I have no investment in the big skeletal winter warriors who can turn entire villages into an iced-up freezer shelf. My revelation was: I do not have to care.
Meanwhile, Gareth Damian Martin cleverly grapples with this in SYMPATHY FOR THE SPOON-COLLECTOR IN THE WITCHER 3: BLOOD AND WINE. As well as illustrating “Blood & Wine”’s excellent implementation of scenes in which it is difficult to remain unsympathetic — essentially, ostensible monsters are rehumanized, as opposed to the somewhat tropey practice of the opposite — Martin manages to get to the heart of a sequence in “Blood & Wine” that is so absurdly confined, it’s singularly brilliant:
But as the Spoon Collector approaches Geralt’s hiding place with madly roving eyes, the scene transforms. Here, we are given the chance to attack, or to try to lift the creature’s curse. Both choices lead to wonderfully bizarre events. Choose to attack and you’ll trigger a battle where the Spoon Collector swims through a pool of spoons like a cutlery-obsessed Scrooge McDuck. But attempt to lift the curse instead and Geralt has to sit down to dinner with the damn thing. Suddenly, the creature transforms from sinister to slapstick, as the Witcher tentatively guides the creature into sitting with him, like teaching a child to eat through imitation alone.
When you consider the Spoon Collector alongside other facets of The Witcher 3, it makes sense. In a longread for PC Gamer, Samuel Horti collected 30 little touches in The Witcher 3 that show its amazing attention to detail. Each and every one of the examples here highlights the construction of place within space, which largely sums up the critical consensus on the environmental aspects of The Witcher 3. While it struggles to represent diverse demographics, and has been criticized for its depiction of women, and lack of people of color, The Witcher 3’s world has been lauded ever since players first walked its winding paths.
Khee Hoon Chan got to the core of this for Unwinnable in their short but smart piece, Geralt of Rivia, Anthropologist, in which they argued for the significance of the nonessential, non-mainline narrative beats. In a way, the world of The Witcher is communicated through what Geralt overhears when he is not in a cutscene, or in the final third of the main story.
Witcher 3 is known for its splendid core narrative, but this measure of care for its background characters also extends all the way to each of Witcher 3’s numerous monster slaying quests, which in the hand of other developers would quickly become monotonous and repetitive. Like a cultural anthropologist, Geralt uncovers more about this universe through these contracts, keenly and patiently listening to villagers as they share their joy and woes.
Entire video series have been devoted to this. Sam Greer’s Subtext Adventure (autocaptions) is one of the most wonderful, longform studies of The Witcher 3 on the internet, offering fresh, considered, and razor-sharp thoughts on each and every intricacy of the game. Greer’s incisive study is impressively all-encompassing, and at all times aware of the conversations happening outside of itself.
Meanwhile, Joseph Anderson’s The Witcher critique: The beginning of a monster (manual captions) is a monster in and of itself — being the first part of a trilogy, it’s over four hours long all on its own. It is mostly positive, but Anderson is unafraid when it comes to bashing a game he loves — it is refreshing to see the conscious effort made against forgiving biases born from personal preference, and interrogating them twice as hard as a result.
As a means of concluding this, there’s one piece of personal writing on The Witcher 3 that remains both unique and incredibly important. For VG247, Lauren Aitken wrote about how The Witcher 3 shows what it’s really like to live with mental health issues. It’s a riveting and essential read that highlights parts of the discourse that were relatively undiscussed as other aspects of the game asserted their individual prominence.
The Witcher 3 struggles with depicting marginalized groups, and often operates with a male-based audience in mind — Ballou’s piece pointed out that around the time of launch, at least 74% of players were male.
In other conversations, however, it has been widely accepted that The Witcher 3 remains noteworthy for its world, both in terms of overarching space and tucked-away places. As a whole, critical consensus acknowledges its immense scale and intensely communicative sense of self. But discourse also centers on how, within that, everything is written into being for a purpose — there is very little backdrop, and even esoterica is rarely irrelevant.
Critics are still grappling with The Witcher 3 today — there could reasonably be yet another seminal piece published the day after this Critical Compilation. It’s likely that would be the case even if this were to be posted several years down the line, too, because The Witcher 3 is a complicated beast — so much so that even Geralt himself would likely fail to slay it.
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