The Witcher 3 Is A Folklore RPG, Not A Fantasy RPG

The Witcher 3 is a wonderful game in a very literal sense. It is full of wonder, from the startling entities that stalk its darkest corners to the stories that echo through the ages, and even the alternately bleak and brilliant weather, which I enjoy on an almost metatextual level, appreciating the techniques that paint storms and rainfall onto the world. I could spend hours just watching the skybox transform. It’s also grounded in reality of a sort though and shot through with an understanding of folklore, superstition and historic belief systems.

I don’t know much of the surface I’ve scratched but I’m nowhere near ready to tackle either of the expansions yet, partly because I spend so much time exploring every inch of every area. If someone were to describe The Witcher 3 to you, or even if you’d followed news and articles about it before and after release without actually playing it, you might think it was a game about magic and monsters, or incredible landscapes and enormous cities.

Well, it is all of those things. It’s also a game about romance and horror, and a Very Serious Gruff-Voiced Man who chases goats and sighs as he rings a tiny little bell. The sheer scale of the game allows it contain many things and to be many things, but from my perspective, the most unsung aspect of the game is the way in which it treats ordinary people. The peasants and the merchants and the blacksmiths and the herbalists and the guards and the ruffians and the children.

The Witcher 3 belongs to them as much as it does to Geralt, and in creating this vast wartorn world, CD Projekt Red have demonstrated a skill that is incredibly rare in RPG development; they show as much care and attention for their minor characters as for their major characters. Often, RPGs take on the qualities of a saga, focusing on the giants of their time and caring little for the people who don’t measure up – if you can’t lift Mjölnir or a close equivalent, you’re barely worth any screentime at all.

The Wild Hunt takes place in a world where the extraordinary is paradoxically commonplace, as is true in almost every fantasy setting, but it differentiates itself by constantly acknowledging the commonplace nature of the fantastic, and it does so by having the ordinary folk comment upon it. It’s a series of folktales rather than a fantasy epic, and that’s not just in the writing of the excellent bestiary entries or the many books you can find, or even in the composition of the contracts and quests. It’s in the lives of the people who make the world tick.

Given my love of NPC schedules, it’d be reasonable to expect my love of The Witcher 3’s folk to be tied into their mechanical behaviours, but that’s not the case at all. It’s their words that I love and the way in which CD Projekt Red have attempted to understand and reinterpret a version of the medieval mind.

You know that L P Hartley quote (and you most likely do know it even if you don’t know Hartley), “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”? The Witcher 3 may not be set in a specific time in our own world’s past but it draws on many aspects of European history and its writers and designers have effectively created a game with its own language. It is a foreign country and people do things differently, speak differently, and live differently. Even, and perhaps especially, the ordinary people.

This manifests itself in every facet of the game. Herbalism is understood by most but only practiced by a few, and more spectacular feats of ‘magic’, such as teleportation and transformation, are understood either as curses, blessings (elements of faith) or technological conceits of a sort. A mage leaves messages for those who seek him and they’re essentially Leia’s hologram playing on repeat, and acknowledged as such by one of the characters in the game, using a technology of her time, explaining the trick as something like “the mage’s version of a postbox”.

The Wild Hunt are seeking their prey in a world that is familiar with the supernatural but it’s a world that approaches the unknown with a sense of pragmatism. “What could this mean? What might it symbolise? How might we prevent it or turn it to our favour?” Those three question alone are a gross oversimplification but they show a certain logical method of dealing with the unfamiliar. The important thing, first of all, is to weave anything new into an existing structure of beliefs, to make it part of a wider set of knowledge so that it can inform and be informed by its neighbours. Mythological taxonomy, of a sort.

Somebody got eaten by a Water Hag? Probably something to do with his lovelife, or his tendency for late night drunken rambles. Most likely both, in combination. And if a witcher were to come along and sigh, and explain that, no, it’s not really about that, and then sit down with an open fire and some oil to smear on his blade, and some herbs to mash into a bottle, who could blame people for smirking? Strong, he might be, and effective, sure, but his ideas about the world are a little odd.

Geralt, flaws and virtues alike, is a spark of the modern, attempting to hold back tides of horrors but also occasionally lamenting that, in doing so, he may be eliminating so much that is interesting in the world. His outsider role has him act as an often unwilling author of the future of individuals, species and ways of life. Rather than being the person with the highest lore stat, capable of interpreting the world’s folklore in a more intricate fashion, Geralt’s scientific approach to the troubles of the world marks him as ‘other’, a character plucked from a different system of knowledge entirely.

But even his system is imperfect because in The Witcher 3, everything is imperfect, from the flakiness of magic to the attempted heroics of Geralt and others. It’s a game based in the messiness of belief rather than the clean lines of make believe. It’s The Golden Bough of RPGs and that, in itself, is a remarkable thing.

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57 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    It’s nice to read insightful supporter-funded-posts from time to time!

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    The Almighty Moo says:

    Herein lies why I am a supporter… and also why I have to now play the witcher

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      cpt_freakout says:

      Yes! Great post – I’m looking forward to playing it sometime this year, I hope.

    • tigerfort says:

      Me three; thank you Adam.

    • J.C. says:

      Honestly, I highly recommend reading all the books first before you start. They are highly entertaining to go through to boot. Then playing the entire Witcher Trilogy. Nothing beats that experience, trust me. You will appreciate it all much more and feel like you are part of a ‘secret’ club catered to you in having read the books to see all references and meaning you find in the games.

      It’s the equivalent of first seeing Star Wars Episode 4, 5, and 6, and discovering the whole Extended Universe beyond the films (Rogue Squadron, Thrawn Trilogy), but staying masterfully faithful to the world and characters at the same time.

      The books in particular I rank up there with some other Fantasy novels I’ve read like Lord of The Rings, Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones – classics that started in the 90s or much earlier; but they are far more easy to sit and read through quickly compared to those. CD Red mimicked the author’s storytelling style pretty well in the games.

      • Konservenknilch says:

        Spoilers, I guess…

        The nature of the world is actually also adressed in of the later novels, being some kind of paralell dimension to ours. Ciri is jumping between dimension (for reasons that I forgot) and, among other things, pops up in Arthurian legend, becoming the lady of the lake. It could get a bit odd.

      • Gaminggumper says:

        Reading this article really spelled out why I found the books so interesting. Every one in the books no matter how low or high, has there own take on the fantastical in their world some think them tales exaggerated to the point of ridiculous, even if they are the honest truth. Others, like stated in the article, tie them to personal flaws of themselves and others.

        And like in the article Geralt and his achievements are both respected and looked at as legend rather than real accounts. They assume no “real” person could have done everything in those tales. The first chapter of the “Blood of the Elves” is essentially a handful of various classes of society arguing about how much of the Witchers exploits are real and others a flowery interpretation of the Bards.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Nice. Does a good job of explaining the appeal of the game, and to a lesser extent the earlier games in the series. Just coming back to it now and starting with the expansions. It’s really something.

    I think the matter-of-factness with which characters treat the world is also what made the Gothic games work. I think I remember reading that the CD Projekt guys were actually fans of that series but I forget where now.

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      hemmer says:

      After a book binge and playing all the games I was reminded of the Gothic games CONSTANTLY, so it’s nice to hear they were some inspiration at least.

      We don’t have many RPGs creating the kind of world Gothic 2 or the Witcher series do, more devs should take inspiration from that. And they probably will after the booming success of TW3. Here’s hoping. *fingers crossed*

      • J.C. says:

        All I know is, I have been paying close attention to CD Red after discovering and playing through all 3 excellent Witcher games over the years. And the fact that they are going to tackle another known IP, this time from PnP (Cyberpunk), I just can’t wait to see what they can do with that setting. They also created a new division specifically for translating known IPs, like PnPs or perhaps other novel series, into full-fledged games.

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    Cyphran says:

    Well put! My feelings exactly and my return to the world with Blood and Wine has been a joyous occasion.

  5. LexW1 says:

    An interesting piece, but the conceit of the headline is nonsense, and seemingly the product of not really having much experience of fantasy.

    I mean, not all fantasy is epic, or grand. Matter-of-factness is common to a lot of fantasy, in fact. Calling it “folklore” and “folk tales” as a result is pretty silly. It absolutely is not either.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Yep, pretty much.

    • ohminus says:

      No, not all fantasy is epic or grand. But most fantasy ties into other fantasy, rearranging tropes. Very few actually tie into the medieval mindset like the Witcher does.

    • gunny1993 says:

      I would say that the use of folk tale would be in reference to the use of monsters from very early European myth and folk tales. The far for instance ( represented by the sidhe) and wild hunt are both from Celtic and Norse (I think) mythology

      The grounded nature of the series should really just be called low fantasy

    • Rizlar says:

      As much as my knee jerk reaction was to oppose the idea that TW3 is folklore not fantasy, in a vaguer sense I totally agree with the idea. Where ‘fantasy’ means a developed concept of orcs and goblins and what have you, The Witcher brings things back to the folkloric traditions and absolutely earns the right to be called ‘folklore inspired’.

    • abHowitzer says:

      I think Smith means folklore in the sense that the fantasy aspects aren’t just commonplace and ubiquitous in the ‘fantasy world’ (e.g. the Witcher Contintent). Those fantasy aspects are real things that are filtered through misunderstandings into folklore.

      Compare this to the Elder Scrolls, where magic and supernaturality is just ‘there’, without a lot of attention for how it’s integrated and understood by the common man.

      Compare this with our world, where meteorological phenomena such as thunder, lightening, but also abstract concepts as fertility and such, had always been approached from a folkloric sense, with traditions, inherent causes, deities and so on.

    • Waltorious says:

      The Witcher books and games are heavily inspired by folklore. The short stories especially are often re-tellings of fairy tales, giving insight into the true events and how they become disrorted legends. And all the creatures have origins in folk tales; carnivorous plants grow on the sites of heinous crimes, souls are bound to this world and appear at certain times of the day until their pain can be eased, curses are lifted by love. All the details feel like folklore.

      Perhaps I also am not experienced enough with fantasy literature, but I haven’t encountered similar themes anywhere else. I’ve read things where magic and other fantastical aspects are part of the everyday, but in those cases they are presented as mundane. They haven’t inspired stories and rituals, no one in those books has created their own fantasies surrounding these things. But maybe this is more common than u I think?

      Still, it is absolutely not nonsense to apply the term “folklore” to the Witcher series. Much of it deals with exactly that. It’s not just that the fantastical is integrated into the world in a believable way, it’s the way it is viewed by everyone and in many cases the way the fantastical actually works that provide the folklore connection.

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    Aitrus says:

    Funny, I had the exact opposite reaction to the every-day folk of Witcher 3. They all seemed like unimportant, unintelligent drones to provide a world in which the attractive people can play gods.

    • gpown says:

      Have you been to Novigrad yet? Probably the first quest there is trying to locate a hidden society, and you go about it by asking beggars and such.

      One of them reacts with “who the fuck do you think I am, tourist information?” And it’s delivered without any pretence that would mark it were the game written by, say, Gearbox. It’s not self-ironic or winking at you desperately, it’s giving you a slap for treating the game *character* like a *game* character.

  7. Boozebeard says:

    Well this isn’t at all surprising given the source material. Many of the stories in the books are Grimm’s fairy tales turned up to 11.

  8. aozgolo says:

    I enjoyed how the smallfolk of the world intermixed reality with superstition, and often got the two confused. You’d often hear some peasant speak of some fright or horror that didn’t actually exist and was just some outlandish stretch to explain a far simpler occurrence like getting a cold or feeling lethargic, and then when Geralt confronts them with the truth of the actual monsters plaguing them will often be met with a look that suggests he’s talking nonsense about children’s stories.

    • Horg says:

      Patrick Rothfuss does something similar with his ‘old folk telling stories’ in the bar during the Kingkiller Chronicles. In those passages, the central character (who is masquerading as the innkeeper) has to sit through the distorted versions of his exploits. Subtle attempts to correct the story are met with stubborn dismissal, as far as the old folk are concerned their half heard rumors and exaggerated details are the real version, and the version they will pass on to the next generation where it will be distorted even further. Its quite endearing to see them get the story so very wrong with absolute conviction, unknowingly in front of their subject, and a clever observation on how folk legends grow and become part of a culture.

  9. try2bcool69 says:

    Where can I get me some of those Witcher-tinted glasses everyone is seeing this boring game through?
    (I’m gonna need them for the new Zelda.)

    • gpown says:

      Opposite the shop where everyone gets their Bethesda’s Game Of The Year glasses from, I guess. They’re clear prescription.

      • try2bcool69 says:

        Is that right next to the Totally Wrong Assumptions Shoppe?

    • arkhenon says:

      It’s a simple case of “Different tastes, different strokes” mate. No need to look for a deeper reason. You don’t have to like all the games. But that doesn’t mean a game is bad just because you it doesn’t appeal to you ;)

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    AutonomyLost says:

    Great article. I love this game to death and it’s interesting reading how different players appreciate and interpret it. Thanks, Adam.

  11. Pazguato says:

    Read the books. They’re really fine.

    • J.C. says:

      More like they are really awesome.

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      keefybabe says:

      And it constantly amazes me how accurate and high quality an adaptation the games are too. In my mind one of the best adaptations in any media ever.

  12. ChairmanYang says:

    I’m still ploughing my way through Witcher 2 and enjoying it tremendously, despite my excited anticipation for Witcher 3 slightly dampening my focus. I can definitely see echoes of this article’s points in that game, too.

  13. arkhenon says:

    A really good read. Kudos to the author to actually look beyond the gameplay and see the beauty and the intricacy (and the actual appeal, for me) of the setting. Although I might add, these are the things that started with the first game – and with the books, of course. They are not new things introduced with Witcher 3. This is actually the reason why the fans of the series before became the fans they are. Because it’s a more “grounded” form of fantasy, thanks to the works of Sapkowski.

  14. Artea says:

    You know, I’m getting somewhat tired of the hundreds of articles with glowing praise about how the Witcher 3 isn’t like your typical RPG. Especially since, contrary to what this article implies, it is another RPG where the world is at stake and that revolves around a chosen one of sorts (Ciri). There are plenty of unconventional RPG’s that buck trends in more interesting ways.

    • ohminus says:

      Except the “chosen one” is not the protagonist and except that the “saving the world” thing is not at all the focus of the game. It’s neither the focus of Geralt nor even of the Wild Hunt.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Which ones? I can’t recall many rpgs that deviate from high fantasy and are also well written

      • Waltorious says:

        I was going to ask this as well. I’m interested to find note more interesting RPGs!

    • MattMk1 says:

      No it’s not. It’s a story about a father trying to find his lost daughter.

      • Horg says:

        Or, how one Gwent addict carves a path of destruction across a war torn land to fuel his gambling addiction. Gotta collect ‘m all…..at any cost : |

    • Booker says:

      There are plenty? Name just 20 then please!

  15. Chaoslord AJ says:

    I quite like the way they portray magic in the Witcher games.
    The prot. only knows some parlor tricks but real magic is rare and feels dangerous like the chapter-filling curse in W2 or the vortex in W1.
    Very unlike the high fantasy common low damage fireballs and lightning which deals less dmg than say a glass sword.
    In Witcher: that kind of magic is devastating and a threat.

  16. Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

    I would say it’s a fairy tale with elements borrowed from folklore.

    By the way, both of those are fantasy. The very definition of fantasy is to imagine the impossible or improbable.

  17. Rumpelstiltskin says:

    Well, “fantasy” is generally a modern-style narrative in a folklore-inspired setting. I think some bits of TW are indeed folklore, but as a whole I’d say it’s about 80% fantasy.

  18. Murdock says:

    Geralt must live forever.

  19. Laurentius says:

    It’s CDPR take on source matrial, which is good. What I really like about DLCs and I find partiuclarly fun is that they uped the creepy/scary moments, it really is fiting. Sure, Gralt is professional but it is cool that going to these cementeries, cursed mansions etc. is giving me creeps.

  20. MattMk1 says:

    The Witcher games ARE nothing like typical Western RPGs, in some ways – just not necessarily the most obvious ones.

    I’d moved to the US from Poland as a teenager, and even playing the English-language version of Witcher 3, I’m constantly reminded (mostly by little things) that this game is the product of the culture I was born in, rather than the one I live in now.

    It’s just an endless parade of tiny things – a particular landscape, a turn of phrase, a throwaway line in the bestiary – that echo something I remember from my childhood. The Witcher’s world is not Poland, the characters are not Polish, but the game is just steeped in details that make it resonate with me in a way no other RPG ever has, and which, for the most part, I didn’t even realize I was missing.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      That’s so cool, thanks for that!

    • UncleLou says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head there, and I’ve said that before about The Witcher (and Gothic) – it is immediately apparent that the developers are Europeans, just as it is immediately apparent that, say, Bethesda aren’t. Which isn’t a criticism of the latter of course, just an observation.

  21. SoulForMachine says:

    Great observations. I don’t play RPGs but I liked The Witcher from the start for its storytelling and atmosphere of European folk tales. I could totally do without leveling and looting.

    • Gaminggumper says:

      Playing on the easiest setting largely makes it a “story mode”. You’ll have some combat, but won’t need to spend the loads of time crafting potions, and gear to stay powerful. You should get what you need from the most obvious of treasure chests, without having to go through every basket and dresser.

      The game is still going to be gigantic, but you can probably mainline the narrative without too much trouble. Of course doing so would rob you of the depth in the world.

  22. DThor says:

    Nice. I push myself to think of other games where I can remember a little side story and smile, or get a little sad or melancholic… they truly are incredibly rare. People driven to do terrible, desperate dark deeds for love, prank calling sorcerers dressed as women, or adventures with stone testicles – I mean seriously? So few games reach those levels of insanity while maintaining a non-ironic tone. I truly hope it inspires other game devs to reach for pinnacles other than bigger explosions.

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    Benratha says:

    Still playing, still discovering stuff. For example, in Novigrad I swear I walked past two beggars reciting some lines from “Life of Brian” – the bit about a leper being cured.

    • Booker says:

      Totally. No single person will ever recognize all references in this game. You’d have to have the entire Wikipedia in your head.

  24. notenome says:

    Its an exceptional game and my personal game of the decade.

  25. Revanean says:

    I contend that the main character of the Witcher 3 is neither Geralt, nor Ciri, nor any of the other major or minor characters that make up this fabulous world.

    It is Princess, the pellar’s goat.

  26. Necrourgist says:

    *SPOILERS INCOMING I GUESS*

    In regards to the title…Isn’t that obvious though? It’s a slavic folklore RPG with some less-so folklore-y phantastic stuff added to it, but at its core, the Witcherverse basically comes down to “Humans somehow got to this planet, human civilization evolved similar to that of our Earth and Ciri was on Earth”. Well. Damn. Spoilerific indeed.

  27. IronKettle says:

    I wouldn’t get ahead of yourself. All fantasy rpg’s are based on clean lines of make believe? You really don’t go into how this is not a fantasy rpg but a folkore rpg, or really even define what constitutes a “folklore rpg”. This article reads like somebody gave you a headline to use and you had to write about it, there isn’t really a solid point about the given topic.