World Games, Diversity, Outrage, and The Witcher 3

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Soon after its release, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt became the center of a controversy related to the idea of racial and ethnic diversity in video games. (editor’s note: In case you missed it – read our review for the game here.)

It’s true – the game has absolutely no people of color, every human in there is white. Some of the voices criticizing Witcher for the lack of diversity accuse the developers of a prejudiced and myopic worldview while others understand that there might be other reasons behind it (like the fact that, according to the 2011 census, 97.1% of people living in Poland are ethnic Poles and that the only statistically significant non-European minorities are Vietnamese and Amenians) but still see it as another game about white people in the industry filled with games about white people.

I propose an alternative solution. We should, just like the latter group, look at the wider context of a modern gaming world. Instead of reducing the issue to a simple ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ dichotomy (which is much less important in the countries with no history of slavery or worldwide conquest) though, we should look at Witcher as another game within the emerging trend of ‘world games’: video games rooted in the developer’s local culture, history and ethnicity.

The Rise of World Games

Never Alone, a game about Native Alaskan culture

Never Alone, a game about Native Alaskan culture

The concept of world games gained mainstream recognition after the release of Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa), a two-player cinematic platformer set in the world of Native Alaskan mythology and heavily inspired by a mythological concept of a neverending snowstorm (Kunuuksaayuka). The game had an explicit educational value with live-action documentary footage about the lives of Inupiaq people.

Survival horror game DreadOut took a slightly different approach to the idea of making a game based on a local folklore. Instead of directly retelling the myths, it transported them into the modern setting. It’s a game not unlike Fatal Frame, only with ghosts from Indonesian legends. The educational aspect is still present though as DreadOut contains an encyclopedia of ghosts, which allows the players to learn the myths they were based on.

Upcoming action-RPG Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan is a Cameroonian game often described as ‘African fantasy’. Its developers have an ambitious idea of creating a new genre they call kiro’o. Kiro’o is supposed to blend African traditions, myths and stories with modern fantasy to give people all over the world a chance to experience those stories in an accessible, easy to understand way.

None of those games can be really called diverse. Never Alone is an Alaskan game, DreadOut is an Indonesian one, while Aurion will probably keep its focus entirely on West Africa. Still, those games work in favor of diversity in the wider context by allowing gamers to experience different culture through their favorite medium.

The Witcher 3: A Quintessential Polish Game

The Witcher 3 as a game about Polish culture

The Witcher 3 as a game about Polish culture

While The Witcher 3 is neither explicitly educational nor set in a world of Slavic myths, it is an undeniably Polish game. It’s not just that it’s made in Poland – it’s rooted deeply in Polish culture. While it may not be obvious in the translation, many of the monsters you encounter in the game are taken directly from myths and legends. Utopiec (‘drowner’) which attacks people who swim in lakes and rivers, poroniec (‘botchling’) which is a ghost of an unborn child that can be turned into a helpful spirit if you bury it under the threshold, leszy (‘lechen’) which guards the forests – those are all creatures described by Slavic oral tradition. If, like me, you came from the region known as Holy Cross Mountains, you’ve heard legends of witch sabbaths on Łysa Góra (Bald Mountain) – and if you played The Witcher 3, you were given a chance to climb a fictionalized version of Bald Mountain and even fight against the witches.

Witcher takes influence from Lord of the Rings but it also has missions inspired directly by classic works of Polish literature – Forefather’s Eve quest is not only based on an actual pagan ritual but also on a play by one of the most celebrated Polish poets. And if you’re not the kind of person who reads XIX century poetry, you can always appreciate the fact that at one point the game alludes to internet culture by having two dwarves talk about fishing while directly quoting a (sadly not available in English) popular copypasta. Those references can elude foreigners but they’re obvious to Polish gamers. The same goes for the audiovisual aspect of the game: everything from floral patterns on the walls of village houses to the folk songs that play when you enter combat is either Polish or more generally Slavic (some of the songs are, for example, Croatian or Bulgarian).

It’s also important to note that Witcher is not just inspired by Polish culture – it’s also influencing it as Sapkowski’s books are the most popular works of Polish fantasy literature. Video game adaptations were planned since before the books were finished and a movie based on the books attracted some pretty well-known actors despite the fact that it was a total disappointment. When CD Projekt RED announced the first game, it generated so much hype (despite that at the time the state of both Polish game industry and adaptations of Sapkowski’s books were pretty bad) that even of Poland’s biggest metal bands made a song about it (with video containing clips from game’s trailer). Speaking of bands, there was a band named after a relatively minor character from the books that got popular enough for CDPR to notice them and have them play all the folk songs you hear in The Witcher 3.

Conclusion

Ostatnie Życzenie (Last Wish), a Witcher short story collection

Ostatnie Życzenie (Last Wish), a Witcher short story collection

It’s easy to pass judgement based on superficial qualities but it takes a lot more effort to suppress the initial outrage and actually learn about the things you criticize. Books and video games from Witcher series (despite being a fantasy story filled with elves, dwarves, dragons, wizards, sword fights and other elements of ‘standard fantasy setting’), if approached with an open mind, can be a starting point for those who wish to learn about Poland – from medieval legends to modern popular culture.

For those willing to do some research, they don’t blend in with dozens of other fantasy games but stand out from the crowd by exploring culture no other games (aside from an obscure DOS strategy game) focused on.

Further reading

Maciej Miszczyk

About

I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.