The Witcher 3 And Using Folklore To Create Realism
Fantasy stories are not real, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be realistic. If you’re watching a television series set in 2021 and a dragon pops out of the ground with a million little demon minions, that’s probably going to stand out as something that is incredibly unlikely to happen out your window – but there’s a better way to handle charging these things with artificial realness, which is something that The Witcher 3 understands all too well.
There’s a technique in fiction writing called verisimilitude, which refers to a writer’s ability to imbue a character, story, or entire world with the appearance of reality. There are a variety of ways to go about this, although the most basic rule is to create a coherent logic system and ensure that you always adhere to it. For example, Geralt has superhuman speed, strength, and senses – how do we explain this? We invent a faction that subjects young boys to intense mutations that are extremely high risk, high reward. Geralt survives his and undergoes additional experiments, which is why we play as him – he’s not a particularly powerful witcher for no reason, and naturally his superiority posits him as being worthy of the series’ protagonistic role. Well. that and his affinity for drinking and hustling bandits and boatswains over cards.
The structure above is just a basic example of qualifying fantastical narrative design as realistic, at least ostensibly or in terms of a conscious and constant adherence to a fabricated logic system. The most effective method of maintaining the world of The Witcher 3’s logical integrity actually has to do with NPC chatter and, more specifically, the times in which the game seems to divert its course from logic but actually ends up reinforcing it. I’m talking about the game’s use of folklore, both in terms of its seldom truths and many, many misunderstandings.
The first area you visit in The Witcher 3 after completing the tutorial section in White Orchard is Velen, also known as No Man’s Land. I think some of the best folklore is in Skellige, which you visit much later on – berserkers who drink mushroom cocktails to become brutally belligerent bears, or sirens who posthumously metamorphose back into ordinary women. Velen, though, is where you land first, and is therefore incredibly important to establishing verisimilitude from an early point – there’s a reason the Bloody Baron’s storyline starts out by focusing on the mundane misgivings of a puerile twit.
The further you progress in Velen, though, the more things start to shape up in a way that fits the landscape. This here is No Man’s Land, marshes and meadows ravaged by the war and left sufficiently desolate to attract beasties and creepy crawlies far more deadly than Nilfgaard. While the cityfolk in Novigrad and Oxenfurt live with less monstrous adversaries in their cabarets and colleges – at least in terms of appearance – the people of Velenian villages like Downwarren need to look for their own protectors. If you’ve played The Witcher 3, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about here – similar to The Merchant of Venice, sometimes debts are paid by a pound of flesh, except in the case of The Witcher 3… well, it’s quite literally flesh. After you’ve killed or freed the Whispering Hillock, Downwarren’s ealdorman grabs a ritualistic knife and nonchalantly chops his own ear off as payment for the Crones of Crookback Bog’s continued and costly protection. If you walk along the trail of sweets – inspired by Slavic folklore’s Baba Yaga, who in turn was the basis for the Crones themselves – you’ll see the ears of ealdorman past, too.
The sweets themselves are more sinister, as you’ll know from finishing out the Bloody Baron’s questline. It’s one thing to be so committed to oral tradition that you’re willing to part with an appendage – it’s another entirely to decide you’d rather keep your ears and pay with your kids instead.
This example is a more harrowing one, but it’s the conviction of the ealdorman and the other villagers that sells it. He tells Geralt not to judge something he can’t possibly understand, a tale likely told by an idiot but regurgitated for so long that it has long since weaseled its way into mantra. There’s a simultaneous knowledge on show here, of the ealdorman recognizing the absurdity of the situation but also how futile any attempt at rationality would be. Instead the people of Downwarren quietly live out their lives under the Crones, perceived protectors who are worse than any possible oppressor. I mean, just leg it to Oxenfurt and stow away on Captain Wolverstone’s ship, mate. Skellige is way better than this shite.
Velen has tons of little folkloric details like this interspersed throughout its communities. From Jenny in the Woods to sights of godlings, to whatever the hell is happening up where Olgierd von Everec hangs out, this is an entire country that is socially, culturally, and communally constructed upon unchallenged myth. Even outside of folklore, the sheep mentality infiltrating Novigrad under the Church of the Eternal Flame reflects the kind of automatic submission to and acceptance of the spread of apathy. While this certainly – and sadly – resonates with reality, its status as a plague against rationality places the entire world in unity with itself while also enabling it to be disparate, detached, and dissonant. Sure, the war has torn several of The Witcher 3’s locales to shreds, but do you know what else is at play here? Idiocy, which is paradoxically very logical from an external point of view.
I’m not sure if you know this, but The Witcher 3 is not, in fact, historically accurate. While monarchs and morons have ascended to and plummeted from power as millions around them fought and died for nothing, I’m not sure you’d find much about gargoyles or griffins in Aurelius’ Meditations. Still, a fantasy story is perfectly capable of being realistic, or at the very least verisimilitudinous, in a way that allows us to both temporarily believe in and permanently learn from it. In a weird way, it’s the most outlandish parts of The Witcher that give its world a cohesive identity, and, as a result, its ability to convince us of its reality despite its inherent root in fiction. That and the fact that Geralt likes drinking and Gwent, because that’s probably what I’d do if I was stuck on The Continent, too.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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