Witcher 3 is a fun game. It is also a game almost exclusively about white people. There are white humans, white elves, and white dwarfs with Scottish accents, and about a hundred different types of monsters that come in all shapes, sizes and colors of the rainbow. While playing the game you will encounter many Noonwraiths, Neckers, Drowners, Luberkin, Ghouls, Fiends or Warewolfs but you will not see a single person of color. Game critics picked up on this, because it’s 2015, so of course they would. Very predictably bunch of “gamers” jumped to defend it pointing out that game is based on “Slavic mythology” and that complete lack of people of color is somehow “historically accurate” seeing how the setting is supposed to resemble pre-Christian Poland.
As an actual Slavic person, who was born and grew up in Poland, I feel that I should chime in here.
Witcher 3 does not contain any people of color not because of “mythology” or “history” or “book lore” but most likely because CD Project Red never even considered adding non white characters to their game. They literally forgot that non-white people even exist, which is something that happens when you are a white person, living in predominantly white culture, and consuming predominantly white media. You can literally spend a few years making a cool video game, designing awesome monsters, and interesting characters, and not even once consider giving one of them a darker skin color. Folks who made the game not evil racists (at least I don’t think they are), they just happened to do a thing that white people very often do, which is to ignore everyone that does not look like them. By doing so they contributed to erasure of non-white people in the industry. Witcher 3 is yet another game that features exactly zero people of color. This is a problem.
It may not be a problem to you, but it is one to many, many people who love and enjoy video games. If you don’t understand why it is a problem to them, or why they would like to see themselves represented in their media… Well, you are a part of the problem.
If Witcher 3 was the only game released this year which was found lacking with respect to race and representation, we would not be having this discussion. But it is not. It is a part of a cultural trend that extends beyond video games and into all popular media we consume. It’s an issue that is bigger than video games.
Because of that, criticism that calls game devs out for lacking diversity it is valid, and constructive. This is something we most definitely should be talking about in reviews, so that CD Project Red (and the industry as a whole) can improve. After all, the dev team did not fail out of menace, but out of ignorance. And the only way to combat ignorance is to make people aware of these issues. Defending the lack of diversity in the game citing “mythology” or “historical accuracy” is incredibly silly and disingenuous.
Firstly, Polish/Slavic mythology isn’t really a thing. You can’t talk about it in the same way as you talk about Norse mythology or ancient Greek or even Egyptian mythology. There is no concrete body of mythological lore you can print in a book and use as a game setting.
The ancient Slavic people that roamed central and eastern Europe territories that we now recognize as Poland left virtually no written records. Most of their religious beliefs, customs, rituals and stories have been very successfully erased from history by the efforts of the Catholic Church. For example, there is no such thing as a Slavic people’s version of the creation myth. Doubtlessly such a myth must have existed, but we have no knowledge of it. It was lost to history. While we know of a handful of Slavic gods that were worshiped, most of what we know about them is based on conjecture based on analysis of the precious few stone and wooden idols that were not smashed or burned by the Inquisition, and church records.
In fact, most of what we know about the religious customs of the day has been sourced from notes of Christian monks about three or four hundred years after the last Polish pagans have died. The same monks who have been actively suppressing that very knowledge for more than a few centuries. There are scant few bits and pieces of folklore that has survived to this day via oral traditions, customs. Some are enduring part of Polish culture to these days. But even those those were scrubbed and sanitized over the ages loosing much of their original meaning and significance. So anyone telling you that Witcher 3 is based on actual Slavic mythology is full of shit. We literally know more about the religion and myths of fictional land of Westeros than those of very real, pre-Christian Poles.
Yes, some of the names of the monsters in the game are indeed based on Slavic, and more specifically Polish folklore. But the rest is almost entirely made up. The Witcher novels on which the game is based are pretty standard Fantasy with some “domestic” themes and folklore thrown in. In fact, A. Sapkowski’s entire shtick for early Witcher stories was to take a classic fairy tale (more often something from Grimm Brother’s rather than from actual Slavic folklore), apply 90’s style “edgy” filter by making everyone curse like a sailor, have the Witcher blunder into the mess and then reveal the good guys are actually the bad guys at the end. The books are standard Fantasy pulp, with very standard Fantasy elves and dwarfs imported directly from Tolkien. Geralt’s story arc pivots around fairy tales and trope subversions to ultimately fall into an Arthurian heroic archetype. Sapkowski swims in anachronisms and constantly winks at the readers to the point of breaking the fourth wall.
Also, Witchers, mutated monster slayers with super powers are not, and never have been part of Slavic mythology. Or any mythology for that matter. They are entirely made up by A. Sapkowski who, could easily trademark the term “witcher”, if he has not done so already.
Coincidentally he said pretty much the same things about Polish mythology in an essay he Publihsed in 1992:
Witcher 3 pedigree is as much D&D, pulp fantasy and Tolkien as it is Slavic mythology. Sapkowski never intended it to be held up as a celebration of Slavic mythology. He was mainly interested in writing interesting story, with interesting setting and cool characters. You can read the rest of the essay (in Polish) on Scribid.
So please, spare me the whole “based on Slavic mythology” excuse, because it is bullshit.
The argument from “historical accuracy” is also moot and void, because the game does not take place in a historical period, but in an entirely imaginary setting. But if we wanted to be sticklers about it and say it is supposed to be “based on” Poland as it existed at some point in time (but, you know, with elves, and werewolfs and drowners) it still would not make sense. As I mentioned above, we don’t know much about Polish history prior to year 966, when pagan chieftain Mieszko I was baptized and crowned by the Roman Catholic Pope. This was a shrewd political move as it legitimized Poland as an official Christian nation, and meant our western neighbors could no longer try to annex our territories in the name of “spreading the faith”. The story of Mieszko is literally page one of our official history as a nation. We really don’t know all that much about our pagan ancestors. We do know that Slavic people did travel and traded by sea and by land, and not just with their immediate neighbors because that’s what you do when you are in Europe.
Poland, as you may be aware is not some lonely island in the middle of a Pacific ocean where it would be isolated from other cultures . It is a country smack dab in the middle of the big cultural melting pot that is Europe. At the height of it’s power, Polish and Polish allied territories stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Poles traded with, and warred with the Ottoman Empire, Tartars, Mongols and etc.. Polish medieval fashion was full of Eastern or Southern influences. The staple of Polish nobleman attire were ornamental silk belts, and Winged Husars (elite cavalrymen) would adorn their armor with leopard pelts. Neither silk nor leopards are native to Poland, but these materials were imported from Asian and African nations. That means traders, scholars, political envoys… Not to mention that Polish territories also have always had sizable population of Roma people.
I have not noticed it at first, but others pointed out that the map of Witcher 3 universe is essentially a map of Poland rotated in such a way as to specifically erase the neighboring regions that had significant non-white population:
The world of The Witcher books and novels is most emphatically not just the world of Poland. Great swaths of the third game take place in Nilfgaard, the plain-as-day Holy Roman Empire analogue. The Northern Kingdoms are rather obvious as the fragmentary kingdom of Poland before the time of Casimir the Great in the fourteenth century, although individual kingdoms like Temeria have strong flavor from other medieval monarchies like France. There is even a group of islands to stand in for the kingdom of Denmark! The Witcher is Polish, but it is definitely peddling a vision of neo-medievalism that encompasses the greater part of Europe. And, at least for me, what is the most striking aspect of the map? Well, it’s been rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise and cropped so that Poland’s eastern and southern neighbors functionally exist no longer. It’s just fuckin’ deserts and mountains there, move along. That means no Huns, no Avars, no Magyars, no Pechenegs, no Khazars, no Cumans, no Turks, no Mongols, and no Ottomans can have analogues here, none of the nomadic peoples of color who shaped the face of medieval and modern Europe. That’s really weird, isn’t it? A history of Poland without Hungary or the Golden Khanate is unimaginable to me, yet here it is, and people are defending it as “historically accurate,” whatever that means.
Granted, the world was not designed by CD Project Red. This particular bit can probably be entirely blamed on Sapkowski, and as an author he has the right to set up his world any way he likes. But people defending the game using “historical accuracy” should probably note how the map was manipulated to specifically exclude a number of Poland’s neighbors.
My point is that if you wanted to include a non-white person in a story set in Poland at any point in history, it would take a minimal amount of research to come up with a believable, and historically “accurate” back story for that character. In fact, this works for just about any region or time period in medieval Europe. Observe:
Q: How do we get Morgan Freeman into a Robin Hood story?
A: IDK, crusades or something.
Done. It makes sense (just as much as anything in Robin Hood story would), is historically plausible, and does not really require complex explanation. It’s literally that simple.
But, once again, the world of Witcher 3 is not historical Poland. You don’t really even need a plausible explanation. If CD Project Red wanted to be even a little bit diverse, they could totally do it. Perhaps by including some traders from the tropical Zerrikania that is mentioned but never described it in much detail in the books. Or maybe some people who live in Southern parts of Nilfgraad Empire happen be brown and some of them become soldiers in the army that is now occupying the Northen territories? Because, why not?
Someone could argue that this would be breaking with the so called “book lore”, but would it be though? The developers of the game already had to take many liberties with the source material when they translated and packaged it for English speaking audiences. For example, all the Dwarfs in the game have Scottish sounding accents. Why is that? Well, mainly because of Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Gimli I assume. Sapkowski never specified that his Dwarfs sound vaguely like Scots because in his books they do not. They all speak Common, a language which just happens to sound like Polish because Common languages in fantasy setting always happen to sound like whatever the fuck language the story is written in. It’s a fantasy trope.
But when the voices for the characters were recorded, the development team made an arbitrary choice to make Dwarfs sound one way and not another. There have been plenty of other arbitrary choices made to fill in the gaps, or flesh out things that were not described in much details in the book. Sapkowski never really said that all of his characters are intended to be white. Some characters are described as fair skinned or pale, but nowhere in the books does it say that everyone is. So would making a character whose ethnicity and skin color are never mentioned to be non-white a bigger departure from the source than say… Giving Geralt a plot induced amnesia and having him wander through the world, having weird non-cannon adventures in between the books. You know, like CD Project Red have been doing since their first Witcher game?
So please, stop using my culture and heritage to try to validate your own prejudices. As an actual Pole, and someone who read the Witcher novels before the games introduced them to English speaking world, I can tell you that I would not mind seeing people of color depicted in that universe. It would not somehow devalue my culture or heritage to see non-white people in the game loosely based on the beliefs and folklore of my homeland.
If you do mind, and the very idea of people of color existing in a setting based on our culture and folklore offends you for some reason, then that’s entirely on you.