Unless you’ve been living on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears while singing a merry little tune, you’ve probably heard about the lack of representation in CD Projeckt Red’s The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. On this day, I come not to make apologies for The Witcher in its video game incarnation. Like the most recent iteration, both the first and second Witcher games don’t score a lot of points on representing people of a non-white ethnicity.
As a result, I’ve seen a few writers/critics who are content to throw out the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the Witcher. From my point of view, this is a foolish tack to take. If holding The Witcher to task on its problems demands a wholesale dismissal of the series, then the state of criticism has fallen to dangerously poor levels. Have we become such angry and reactionary inquisitors that we believe the presence of a single sin taints the whole of a creative work? I should certainly hope not.
Though The Witcher may “fail” in its representation – scare quotes in play only because a lot of the lambasting is coming from North American writers offering a moral judgement on a Polish game (not to say morality doesn’t cross nationality, only that a presumption of pan-cultural norms could be an essay in and of itself ) – I do not accept that its shortfalls cancel out its successes in terms of grappling with complex political ideas.
The Witcher, regardless of medium, hosts the usual suspects of fantasy. Both the books and games depict a world largely dominated by humans, but also featuring elves, dwarves, hybrids, dragons, and an entire D&D manual’s worth of monsters. The relationship between Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, and his world, however, is never so simple as the hero going out to slay the dragon and mount its head on a spike. To compare Sapkowski’s vision of humans living with dwarves and elves to Tolkien – as some are wont to do – is to completely ignore the core conflict of Sapkowski’s world. Specifically, humans are a colonizing force that set up empires on the lands belonging to the elves and the dwarves.
Every major human city within the world of The Witcher is built on the ruins of the elven civilization. Even the word “elf” is positioned as the human designation for the people formerly known as the Aen Seidhe. To the North American audience, humanity’s arrival in this fantasy setting easily works as a parable to the European settlement of the western hemisphere. As it was between European settlers and North/South America’s indigenous peoples, humanity’s arrival to The Content of The Witcher was in too great a number and armed with technology that kneecapped the natives’ ability to resist conquest. Though the humans of The Witcher didn’t have the biological advantage of introducing new diseases to the elves, as was the case in North America, humanity’s ability to breed like rabbits, compared to the Aen Seidhe, stood as a considerable advantage. Say nothing for the internal dissent that humanity created within the elves when humans and elves began cross breeding and creating a sub-species loathed to both sides.
In both the novels and games, elves and dwarves are beaten people. Living on the margins of society, their businesses are routinely appropriated by local governments. Outside of city walls, non-humans are consigned to whatever poor-quality land humans don’t want – notwithstanding the forests of Brokilon where the dryads hold dominion as a race of fantasy Amazons.
Non-human resentment toward mankind’s brutality gives birth to an armed resistance movement, the Scoia’tael. Like any insurgency against the state, the Scoia’tael are seen by some as terrorists and others as freedom fighters. In the novels and games, alike, they are often the pawns of competing empires that would use the promise of a non-human homeland to leverage the elves and dwarves of the Scoia’tael as soldiers in proxy wars. Ignoring this element of The Witcher’s culture is akin to brushing off the significance of America funding the Taliban during the Cold War as little more than a historical footnote.
These politics, in my humble estimation, represent The Witcher at its narrative best. Humans who are sympathetic to the plight of non-humans are often those most powerless to affect change. The people who could improve the lot of non-humans usually cling to the prejudices or profits of their oppression. It is a world absent simple, righteous truths. Geralt, or the player acting as Geralt, must navigate a world filtered through the very real systems of power and control that shape our world. In The Witcher – and life – sometimes there are no good choices, only a choice between lesser evils.
While it is true that The Wild Hunt and The Witcher, as a whole, could do better with its representation of people of colour (and sex workers), it’s a simplistic nod to confirmation bias to write off an entire corpus of work because some parts fall short of an audience’s world view. Art demands better than such a juvenile approach to criticism. Indeed, it is a poor critic who puts their own desire to be right above a meaningful interaction with the subject material at hand. Common decency demands we not turn a blind eye to The Witcher’s problems; this same virtue holds us to a meaningful engagement with the series’ virtues.