In 2015, post-Game of Thrones, The Witcher series tells a fashionable sort of low-fantasy story. But at the time, it was unusual for a fantasy RPG to be so firmly rooted in and driven by character as opposed to fantastical elements.
“I think [George R.R.] Martin and [Witcher author Andrzej] Sapkowski have something in common, but it’s not specifically their books — or more precisely, the distinct stories these two writers tell differ in terms of mood, tempo, protagonists, the lore of the worlds they’ve created, and so forth,” said Stępień. “What they share is the assumption that their protagonists, and most characters, in fact, are motivated by largely mundane matters and that their motives are often purely egotistical.”
But the other thing that defined The Witcher from the start was its alien-ness. The Witcher was not drawing from Tolkien, Shakespeare, and King Arthur stories for its inspiration, but the culture and history of a specific region.
Borys Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz, the Lead Writer for the English edition of the game, explained, “The grim, conflict-ridden, monster-infested world, wherein life is tenuous and war or the prospect of it are ever-present: Arguably, this is a reflection of centuries of Polish and northern/eastern European history. Poland and much of eastern Europe consists of vast plains across which, over the centuries, armies have marched repeatedly, in one direction or another. And the associated imagery seems indelible to us – burning villages, soldiers taking down border barriers and markers, planting new posts to mark out conquered territory, refugees streaming across the landscape…”
Contrary to what current-events watchers might think, Nilfgaard isn’t an analog to an imperialist Russia, or a German empire, in Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz’s view. In terms of the politics of Northern Realms, they are closer to the Tatar and Turkish force that menaced the southern plains of Eastern Europe for centuries. But of course, the partition of Poland and its occupation and political subjugation in the 20th century are all events that resonate throughout the fiction of The Witcher.
Still, there are places that The Witcher is more pointed in its influences.
“Take King Foltest of Temeria,” Pugacz-Muraskiewicz said. “On the surface he’s a strong, bellicose monarch. Underneath, he’s deeply tainted [by a] daughter born of his incestuous union with his own sister, a daughter who at one point threatens his reign. Compare him to Poland’s King John III Sobieski, arguably one of the country’s most impressive rulers, who commanded the forces that lifted the siege of Vienna to end the Ottoman incursion into Europe in the 17th century. At the same time, he married a syphilitic widow, was afflicted himself, and lived with the complications, which were nothing to scoff at.”
Or there is the rise of the Church of Eternal Fighter and its militant wing, The Order of the Flaming Rose. It’s a story that lurks in the background of The Witcher games, but by the time you reach The Witcher 3, the Church has enough political and military power to operate with impunity. Their rise in The Witcher parallels the virulent influence of the Teutonic Order and the crusades to Christianize the European periphery in the Middle Ages.
“[This topic] could potentially spawn a minor dissertation,” he admitted. “I haven’t even intimated at the more literary and cultural references [in the Witcher series], like the friction between the Romantic and Positivist worldviews, the coexistence of superstition and science, the Frozen or Ice Plains at the tail end of the game as reflecting a strong trope in Polish culture: namely, the revisiting of past triumphs and tragedies.”
But this is the stuff that unites The Witcher series, despite the ways that CD Projekt constantly changed their vision for the game based on their resources and experience. It’s why, long before The Witcher could be anyone’s idea of a blockbuster franchise, it was important to the people who played it.
“This is a truism, but deep transformation and adaptation have been key. Foltest and Radovid are not direct references to Sobieski or any other monarch, Nilfgaard is not the Ottoman Empire, nor the Soviet, nor any other, the Scoia’tael guerillas are not Home Army fighters, nor, for that matter, are they Apache warriors, and the Order of the Flaming Rose is not the Teutonic Knights,” Pugacz-Muraskiewcz said.
“These things are at one and the same time none of their references and all of their references. And that is exactly the nature of resonance.”