Witcher 3 and Diversity

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.

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.

Monsters not in Slavic Mythology

Things that are not authentic Slavic mythology: dwarfs, elves, witchers and whatever the fuck that horned thing is.

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:

Andrzej Sapkowski, Piróg alboNie ma złota w Szarych Górach, Berlin, November 1992

Andrzej Sapkowski, Piróg alboNie ma złota w Szarych Górach, Berlin, November 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.

Józef Brandt

Painting by Polish artist Józef_Brandt depicting the scene from a Polish-Ottoman war.

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.

Literally Polish Knights

Winged Hussars, Polish elite heavy cavalry. Note the leopard and tiger pelts.

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.

Posted in video games | 50 Comments

Mad Max: Fury Road

You don’t need me to tell you to go watch Mad Max: Fury Road. You have probably already seen it twice, and even if you didn’t you have likely read a dozen of glowing reviews. There is little I can say here that would change your mind about it. In a way this is probably the shortest and simplest movie review I have ever had to write. Which is why I’m about week late with publishing it. I have been trying to figure out what to say about it, but all that comes to mind is: “go see it”.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road Poster

Usually when I leave the theater I have a list of complaints about the movie I just saw, but when I was done watching Fury Road I had none. It is a perfect fusion on old school, 80’s era action cinema, modern special effects and stunt work and progressive, modern storytelling. It is a movie about women who overthrow a literal patriarchy told as an extended car chase scene. It has post-apocalyptic automobile mayhem, electric guitar flame throwers, larger than life villains, explosions and vibrant female protagonists who are neither background decoration, nor damsels to be rescued, but the actual heroic protagonists.

It’s is actually quite amusing that I have watched this film and Age of Ultron almost back to back in the span of two weeks. If you read my review you know that I was disappointed with the portrayal of Black Widow and Scarlett witch. Fury Road succeeds everywhere where the latest Avengers movie has failed me. George Miller takes all the stale sexist movie tropes and subverts them in new, exciting ways.

For example, Charleze Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is most definitely an “action chick” of sorts, but not in the same way as Black Widow is. When she fights, she does not strike sexy poses for the camera. She is not “movie beautiful” and she does not try to be. There is dignity and gravitas to her character that is absent from the portrayal of Black window, despite the fact both occupy the same action heroine role in their respective films. I mentioned this phenomenon of fight scenes and violence being depicted differently in my review of Pretty Deadly. Miller does it right: women are depicted as capable rather than sexy, effective rather than graceful. He specifically tries to avoid the male gaze, especially during combat.

In fact, Miller’s care not to sexulalize violence against women is especially topical, considering the ongoing media debate on this topic. If you have been online in the last week or so, you are probably painfully aware of the general disappointment at the way creators of Game of Thrones have been handling depictions of rape. Or the very fact that they keep injecting rape into their stories.

Mad Max: Fury Road offers an interesting counterpoint to those who claim that depictions of misogynistic, violent societies should include such scenes for the sake of realism and pathos. George Miler however proves that this argument is bullshit:

Miller does not need to show us that Immorten Joe’s wives have been sexually abused and enslaved. We already know what from the context. We can imagine the kind of trauma they might have went through without having to see it glamorized on the screen. Max believes their story and emphases with them without having to have witnessed it.

In fact, while Miller demonizes toxic masculinity by casting Imorten Joe as a literal patriarch and his War Boys as a destructive warrior cult, Max is held up as an example of positive, masculinity. Max does not mind being used as a sniper stand, because he knows Furiosa is a better marksman than him. He does not mind fighting henchmen to give her enough space so that she can take out the big bad. He never questions her competence just because of her gender. He treats the female protagonists as his equals. He never feels the need to save them from themselves. He never delivers a monologue telling them how things are in the “real world”. He trusts in their abilities, respects their judgment and recognizes their bravery. None of this diminishes his status as a action movie bad-ass or masculine hero. In fact, it makes him all the more relatable and likable. But despite being the titular protagonist, it is not really his story. It is Furiosa’s. She is the breakout star of the movie.

http://devrandom.click/post/119466943421/lierdumoa-furiosa-isnt-the-fe male-action-hero

That, in itself is somewhat ground breaking. We don’t see this in Holywood that often. But Furiosa is even more than that.

Furiosa is disabled, but her disability is handled with the grace and subtlety that is rarely seen in Holywood, much less in the SF action genre. Her missing arm is never a plot point or subject of conversation. She is simply allowed to be, and none of the characters treat her differently because of her prosthesis.

You could write an entire essay on the many ways Furiosa is an amazing character. But if she was the only female protagonist in the movie Miller might have fallen in to the same tokenization traps as Whedon did. Instead, however, he wisely side-stepped those issues by making her only one of many varied female characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a summer blockbuster action film in which the main protagonists are disabled women, women of color, pregnant women and elderly women. I was especially overjoyed to see Melissa Jaffer (whom I haven’t really seen since the days of Farscape) cast as a tough, motor-bike riding, rifle shooting desert scavenger. I was even more impressed when I heard that she did her own stunts.

For these, and many other reasons, many critics hailed the film as a feminist triumph. Granted, not everyone agrees. There has been a lot of discussion whether it can be called a feminist film, and what makes film to be feminist. I already shared my thoughts on it in a Storify the other day so I will include it here, rather repeat myself:

Whether or not Mad Max: Fury Road is actually a feminist picture, it is still a fantastic movie with great characters, memorable action sequences and unique aesthetic. When I first heard they were making a new Mad Max movie I did not think I could get excited for it. The genre seemed overplayed and dated to me. George Miller however knocked it out of the park, proving not only that he can resurrect an old franchise in style. He made it clear that he can make modern, progressive movies better than folks half his age.

I hope that folks at Marvel are taking notes. This kind of movie making is what we need to see in 2018 when they finally give a solo film to Captain Marvel. After her stint as Furiosa, Theron should be a no-brainer pick for Carol Danvers.

Posted in movies | 4 Comments

On YouTube rants…

I have noticed that video is increasingly becoming the preferred communication medium on the web, especially for the younger generations. This is especially noticeable amongst the newly formed gator/puppy set which has spawned in the August that never ended, but not limited to just them. Any time these folks get some thought in their head that they feel is worth sharing with the world, they turn on their webcam, ramble off the cuff anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours and then promptly upload the whole thing to YouTube without editing.

Back in my day (only a decade ago, but that’s like a million internet years) we might have called this “vlogging” but I haven’t really seen that word used in ages. Personally, I always thought of vlogs as prepared essays with with visual components. To me the whole point of doing a video to show viewers examples of the stuff you are talking about. What Anita Sarkesian is doing is a good example: well researched, well edited, succinct, to the point visual essay with concrete examples of game-play and game dialogs. On the other hand, someone just talking “off the cuff” into the camera for twenty minutes in a single unbroken cut is…

Well, to me it just seems lazy. Here is the thing: I can read faster than you can talk. Therefore, if you have a message you want to get out there, the most efficient way of doing this is via text. Text can be absorbed very rapidly, even if it is an unstructured stream of consciousness jumble. I can skim long articles pretty quickly without losing too much information, but there is simply no way to skim a video. You can skip around, but that’s not the same. Skipping feels lossy. When I skim I can still look at the length and shape of the paragraph, check the opening and closing lines, scan for relevant keywords within and etc.. The best YouTube can do for me at the moment in this respect is to show me still thumbnails of what I can expect to see on the screen when I skip to that point. Which, if I’m watching a 20 minute unbroken rant, is always going to be your face.

Writing things down takes some effort. The very process of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and so on forces you to think about structure and flow. You can’t just vomit words in the exact order they pop into your mind. Written word has rules, and ignoring them yields unreadable and confusing mess. But if you use video, you can just ramble, talk in circles, get tongue tied, correct yourself and go on tangents without losing too much coherence. Our brains are pretty good at making sense from unorganized, jumbled speech, because that’s how we communicate on the daily basis. So you can talk to a camera the way you would talk to your friend, and chances are most of your viewers will at least get a gist of what you’re saying. But the fact people can comprehend what you’re saying doesn’t mean you are coherent, or that you are not wasting their time. Because you are.

Guy in Bathtub ranting into a camera

Yep, that’s a dude who didn’t even bother getting out of the bathtub to share his brilliant insights on ethics in video game journalism.

If you turn on a webcam, and hurl words at it for an hour without at least an outline, and without at least some basic editing to remove filler words (umm.., err..) and stuttering you are saving yourself time while wasting mine. Considering that, according to some estimates, over 20% of sounds we make during regular, conversational speech are non-lexical vocables, false starts and corrections, this is rather inconsiderate. This is why you don’t usually see people speaking this way on TV or in movies (save for maybe, you know mumblecore stuff, which consciously mimics “natural” conversation patterns) because for the most part its just noise. Useless, pointless interference that is not conducive to getting your message across.

So if you have some thoughts you want to share, write them down, kinda like I’m doing it here. Put these words on Medium, or Twitlonger, or one of the other five million sites designed to facilitate exactly that. Ranting into camera is just lazy.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting old. Perhaps there is a generational shift away from textual communication happening right now. And why not? It has never been easier to publish video online, and with ubiquitous broadband and storage we don’t have to aggressively edit for size, like we used to. So people are taking advantage of this.

There is this vision of the future that worries me quite a bit: one in which text is dead. In this future all interfaces we input data using touch and speech, and all output is visual and verbal. Humanity is mostly illiterate (save for handful of historians and archivists who study old text) but not uneducated. Poets and writers simply dictate their books to machines, because we perfected speech processing algorithms, and we have them read to us by descendants of Siri, who have perfect cadence and inhumanely soothing voices. Scientists and engineers dictate their papers and equations. Math is done in-silico…

There are no keyboards in Her

Have you noticed how no one ever types in Spike Lee’s Her?

But would that even work? Can you read and write scientific papers without the ability to skim? Can you write good code, without actually… Writing? Up until now, education and literacy were inseparable: one depended on the other. But can technology disentangle the two? Can it help to create a society of highly educated analphabets, and would that even be a desirable thing? I’m inclined to think that this future simply won’t happen, because text is just too fast, efficient and convenient. It compresses insanely well, can be searched and indexed with frightening speed and efficiency, it can be absorbed much faster than audio and it can be translated without artifacts and side effects (such as lip movement being out of sync with dubbed speech on video). I just don’t see us ever giving up all the benefits of text, without getting anything in exchange. Because even if we get perfect speech recognition software, and machines can interpret our commands with flawless accuracy, talking is still slower, less accurate and less focused than writing. It just would not make any sense to abandon it.

But, Spike Lee’s movie Her does provide a vision of the future in which no one ever types anymore, but people still do read. And that is potentially something that could happen one day. And that’s my worst nightmare, because I can only ever properly organize my thoughts when I write. Which is one of the reasons I never felt compelled to make these sort of stream of consciousness type videos. Vocalizing my thoughts adds another layer of abstraction and takes me that much farther away from my message. I feel that dictation is nowhere near as flexible as typing. For example, have you ever tried to someone how you want them to re-format a document?

Can you copy that sentence… No that’s too much… No, actually I meant this sentence, and the short one afterwards. Now cut them out, and put them… Wait, scroll up a bit. No too much. Lower. Third paragraph… Sorry, I guess technically that’s fourth if you count that single word over there as a paragraph. So we put it here, but now we have to change it up to fix the flow…

It usually takes five minutes to explain to a human something you could do yourself in five seconds. Now imagine parsing all of this in an unambiguous way that can be understood by a machine. Editing text with speech would be a nightmare. In fact, editing anything with speech seems like an uphill battle. I think we would literally have to invent new, un-ambigous sub-dialects just to efficiently interface with machines. Or maybe learn Lojban.

I think what we’re seeing here is just laziness, and not some generational paradigm shift.

Then again, I have been wrong on things like these in the past. If this is the way of the future, I will have to adopt to that new, nightmarishly inefficient world. I don’t want to be the bitter old man who doesn’t get the new technology and refuses to get with the times. And at the very least, this strange future without reading and writing would result in more engaging, and visually pleasing Powerpoint presentations without bullet points…

Posted in futuristic musings | Tagged | 6 Comments