The Witcher and Vocation

The Witcher and Vocation

~ short essay on The Witcher video game series, developed by CD PROJEKT RED, based on the creations of Andrzej Sapkowski.

The witchers set out in search of the stolen secrets – classically, to the four corners of the world.

For a witcher, “The Path” is the road they must walk. It comprises their whole existence – everything personal and professional, beast hunts and tavern converses. It’s a long trek through the wilds of the world doing what they were designed for: killing monsters. It is their destiny; it is the core of their job as violently mutated, nigh emotionless human beings.

In The Witcher trilogy of role-playing games, you take on this role of monster slayer.

In this world, there are knights and ladies, kings and queens, sorceresses wielding magic, witches cursing children, werewolves transforming under the moon, vampires drinking the blood of the innocent, ghosts haunting tragic ruins… bards singing bops and bedding women. A vast landscape of war and political intrigue exists between the four major northern kingdoms of Kaedwen, Temeria, Redania, and Aedirn, each in constant struggle against their mighty imperial foe from the south in Nilfgaard. The Elder Races of gnomes, dwarves and elves struggle for independence and acceptance in a human-dominated society that either forgets about them — or wishes to genocide them into oblivion.

A conflicting world of mythic mysteries and fated journeys, and destiny, and the “Law of Surprise’’ awaits men of action like witchers. ‘Witchers‘ are alchemically-enhanced mutant mercenary warriors who use their expert sword and sign skills to hunt monsters away from civilized lands.

But in this world — just like practically every hunt that Geralt of Rivia, the “White Wolf” and the titular Witcher of this saga, undertakes — nothing is ever as it seems.

Geralt and his ward / child of destiny, Ciri

Knights are usually just oafish murderers; princesses are sometimes the secret identity behind the monster prowling the castle grounds at night; sorceresses simultaneously advise for and plot against their monarchs; witches themselves are not good or evil, “twisted” is a better word; werewolves speak and may be cured; vampires can retain their human heart (though maybe not for long); all ghosts must be exorcised with the truth of their existence. The Elders either participate in human society as artisans living a second-class life, or as guerilla fighters attacking from rogue bases in the wilderness.

With kings and queens, the perception is closest to reality — they are mostly power mad tyrants being manipulated by everyone around them, who ‘rule’ the realm according to their most convenient impulses. Monarchs oversee kingdoms unraveling in endless war and moral decay.

These worldbuilding facts and circumstances are what make The Witcher games so damn good. Especially in the context of the character you play within such madcap conflicts. As you stride through this complex and adventurous world in Geralt’s shoes, you take part in its most integral flows as an agent to the powerful and disempowered alike. Our witcher’s character is revealed as you quest, always as a freakish outsider who must choose how his sword is swung.

With every monster you hunt, solving or slaying them through wit or violence, Geralt illustrates the painstaking beauty and wholeness of Andrzej Sapkowski’s world. Even as a killer, our witcher acts *humanely* – often with a sense of dry humor to it all.

“…you can try to lead honorable lives, clear your conscience, start again – like humans. The choice is yours.”
“Evil has ceased being chaotic…”
“Life is simple, unpredictable, and beautiful.”
“War demands sacrifices…”

“A battle in which elf, dwarf, and human will stand side by side.”
“The King of the Hunt ordered me slain…”
“Remember! ‘Tis not flesh a monster makes…”
“Rumors rarely find confirmation in reality – especially the ones about foreigners.”

The Witcher games have you in control of Geralt in an action RPG setting, an open world with chapters where you must explore your surroundings, take jobs from innkeeps, sorceresses, and kings. Strangers mostly, many become enemies, and some are even lovers. The core gameplay experience involves fighting groups of men and monsters from a 3rd-person perspective, using:

  • your twin swords in a dodge-attack dance,
  • magic ‘signs’ both destructive and controlling,
  • brewable potions which enhance your abilities,
  • constructible bombs that explode like grenades upon your enemies,
  • and a handy crossbow that can ground griffins and cockatrices in flight

It is quite a satisfying gameplay loop.

15 Best Boss Fights in the Entire Witcher Series
The Witcher cast of characters

Described by many as neutral or “anti-political,” Geralt of Rivia is a mercenary warrior who travels the world hunting monsters for coin. He has his patrons and his jobs, and has little time for the proverbial game of thrones. He has no problem killing those who oppose him. Geralt wields a pair of swords to do the work — one steel for Men and one silver for monsters.

~ On Geralt’s twin swords: A separate blade being utile based on who you are fighting — humans vs. monsters — is one of the best gameplay x narrative mechanics I’ve ever seen in a game

But he’s not without his reason, or a heart (despite the witcher mutations and their sterilizing, emotion-dulling aftereffects). Far from being a psychopathic cop, or an unfeeling assassin, Geralt is, in fact, a gentleman. Especially to his many sorceress acquaintances and lovers.

The Lodge of Sorceresses = the most gorgeous women in existence

What struck me most about Geralt, as I spent copious time with him across the trilogy, is just how much of a silent *hero* he becomes. Rarely through word, always by deed. Via his choices — which the game gives you ample opportunity to dictate his Path — Geralt may become a protector of the innocent for its own sake, beyond the monies such work earns him. And moreover, his prime course in every witcher mission is to find the truth of the matter, beyond the simple hunting and killing of whatever specter happens to be haunting the village, town, or castle. This means conversation and deduction – and understanding, with and about the monsters themselves.

“Curses are tricky, they play on irony. Always gotta figure out what the catch is.”

One narrative brilliance of the Witcher world, penned by author Sapkowski in a series of novels and short stories written primarily in the 1990s, is how much of a role irony plays in the birth of its monsters. Monsters here are borne from curses, which arise from negative human emotions — such as hate, envy, or a desire for revenge. Thus, many monsters are a human manifestation, a mistake or regret for the transforming party. Curses can be prevented, or reversed. Just like in fairy and folk tales of Euro lore, defeating a monster has everything to do with understanding the history of circumstance that brought it about, and less to do with magical fires or silver swordplay necessary to put the “demon” in the dirt.

Though a non-violent approach is not available for every quest, and doesn’t always work, I appreciate the ambiguous nature of The Witcher’s conception of good and evil. Giving the player agency to determine what is and is not redeemable in a world so tragic, where redemption may seem impossible, is an excellent message to speak into existence through Geralt’s fantastical travails.

Going for *understanding* as the prime directive is what drives Geralt’s investigations into monster matters. Performing witcher work this way triples as 1) a better, less dangerous solution, while 2) often saving the life of one or more of the accursed parties, and — 3) is clearly the Path that Geralt most enjoys.

~ Geralt loves to mumble the developments of a hunt to himself as he goes, like a noir detective. You hear it throughout the series. It’s a very satisfying way of ambient storytelling as the player explores scenes via your Witcher sense

Geralt of Rivia, White Wolf, the “Butcher of Blaviken” and by the third game well-known throughout the lands as a man to be respected, feared, and ogled, is actually at his best as a detective. More than just a warrior, the Witcher is an experienced hunter and investigator, serving as a kind of diplomat between the world of Men and monsters. Aided by cat-like reflexes and supernatural martial abilities, Geralt can fight with the best. But his job requires a more comprehensive approach.

The Witcher series is at its best when Geralt is conversing with the “monsters,” attempting to solve the problem of their presence not as a life in need of being extinguished at all costs — but as a tragic development with a potential mystical solution worth being pursued.

A witcher ends up being less a warrior x monster slayer, more a detective-diplomat… therapist, who gets to the bottom of a case with questions as much as weapons. And there is no better man for the job than Geralt; there is genuine satisfaction in the role for him.

No, not a job or a role. As you play through the Witcher games, you’ll realize *vocation* is a much better word for what Geralt does.

“I like being on the Path. Like picking up a lead, a trail… I like the tension right before a fight. And nothing gets my adrenaline flowing like battling a beast. Even gotten used to people treating me like a freak, an outcast.”

Truly, Geralt enjoys the little things in his life as a witcher. He loves the hunt, the tracking and the clue-by-clue progression of an investigation. He revels in the thrill of a good fight. (And fuck.) The player shares in all these joys as well thanks to CD Projekt Red’s excellent gameplay and narrative flows. (And yes, the well-acted sex cutscenes as well.)

Ikigai comes to mind to describe the existence of our charming witcher:

What the world NEEDS + What you are GOOD AT + What you can be PAID FOR + What you LOVE = IKIGAI

Witching work indeed checks all these boxes for Geralt. After playing through his satisfying misadventures, I am envious of the man. Not just for his strength, or his prowess with women, or his great skill at found-fatherhood —  but for his finding of true vocation. Though not without much sacrifice and life-or-death struggle, and the whole orphan & trial of death thing all witchers must undergo… by the end of the series, Geralt undoubtedly has a home on his Path.

Geralt’s Path as a witcher is rich with action, meaning, and joy. These sentiments are shared by the player as he embodies this strange, silver-haired, cat-eyed hero’s march across the land, helping people and monsters alike. I must mark the Witcher trilogy as among the best I have ever played in terms of gameplay, narrative, character, music, presentation, worldbuilding, cinema. Everything. Especially the third game, Wild Hunt, and its two brilliant expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine. I could write a lot more about the series, but it’s best to just play it. ~