Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Politics of the Witcher 3 part I

Warning: This essay will contain spoilers for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and some references to The Witcher novels.

Part II available to read here
Part III available to read here
Part IV available to read here

    I love The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I truly do. I think it is basically what I wanted from Skyrim but never realized it in an open world which had all the wonderful intricate storytelling of the Witcher series. The game isn't quite as good as Skyrim for replay value because, say what you will about Bethesda's storytelling skills, they know how to make level-scaling monsters you can spend forever fighting.

    That's not what this essay is about, however, but a discussion of the politics of the Witcher 3 and a larger question of what sort of points it's trying to make. The United Federation of Charles has a history of analyzing games through a political lens with things like Deus Ex: Human Revolution (here), Batman: Arkham City (here), Dead Rising 2 (here), Grand Theft Auto 5 and Feminism (here), and even The Witcher 2's use of Sexuality and Visual Storytelling (here).

    But what is the meaning of the Witcher 3? For a lot of fans, there's no meaning at all. The political aspect of Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was praised in many circles for its Game of Thrones-esque twists and turns with every character having a coherent understandable motivation.

    Antagonists Henselt, Philippa, Shillard, and Letho could be sympathized with even as the most heinous of characters, Loredo, were clearly a product of their corrupt environment. By comparison, Wild Hunt has been criticized for having a significantly less complex story as well as a "dumbed down" conflict.

    I disagree.

    As such, we will be analyzing the various political elements of the game and what sort of statements the game may be making as a whole.
The Third Nilfgaard War

    "Not this war, Geralt. After this war, no-one returns. There will be nothing to return to. Nilfgaard leaves behind it only rubble; its armies advance like lava from which no-one escapes. The roads are strewn, for miles, with gallows and pyres; the sky is cut with columns of smoke as long as the horizon. Since the beginning of the world, in fact, nothing of this sort has happened before. Since the world is our world... You must understand that the Nilfgaardians have descended from their mountains to destroy this world." -Dandelion, The Sword of Destiny.

    “No, Meve. It is ugly, indeed, but the Lion Cub, if she has survived, must now die. For reasons of state.”
- Vizimir, The Blood of Elves.

     The Nilfgaardians have a somewhat complex role in The Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. When first introduced, they are portrayed as an unstoppable juggernaut of destruction which reduces poor Dandelion to tears as he struggles to recount the horrific Massacre of Cintra. Later, in The Blood of Elves, Sapkowski muddies the conflict as while the Nilfgaardians are still vicious ruthless conquerors, it is made clear the Northern monarchs are not much better. For all the horrors the Nilfgaardians brought to Cintra and ruin to Ciri's family, the North plans to bring them again as they have no intention of sparing Ciri anymore than Nilfgaard's marshals intended for her grandmother.

    Assassins of Kings
actually carried this portrayal over as while the Nilfgaardians were an all-consuming danger looming over everyone's heads, we were treated to a scene in the Pontar Valley where helpless soldiers on the side of Aedirn were faced with an army of ruthless Kaedwin conquerors. When faced with such an immense evil, they could not help but note that the Kaedwin were humans every bit as much as them and that a few weeks ago, they were buying goods in each other's markets and intermarrying. King Henselt is every bit the ruthless, evil conqueror that the offscreen Emperor Emhyr is (and a rapist to boot) with no question the only major difference between them is Emhyr is better at the game than Henselt.

Is Emhyr any worse than the Northern Kings he fights? Or does the fact he brought war to the North make him responsible for all the deaths which have ensued?
    The Third Nilfgaard War is shown to us primarily through the lens of White Orchard and Velen as we see the bloody ambiguity of it all. The innkeeper at White Orchard summarizes that the Black Ones are invading and that's terrible but it wasn't as if King Foltest was all that good to them in the beginning. We hear, off-screen of the atrocities committed against a Temple of Melitele, as well as see the destruction of a nearby village. We also see the basic humanity of a Nilfgaard deserter who helps a White Orchard resident survive the aftermath of a pointless battle. We're also shown the duality of the invaders in White Orchard's garrison commander who is a man who wishes to be merciful to the Northerner residents but is forced to engage in draconian brutality in order to maintain order because, at the end of the day, he is an occupying force.

    The ambiguity of the war is never so perfectly highlighted than in Velen, the so-called "No Man's Land" between Redania and Nilfgaard's forces. We see, for the first time, the kind of brutal and inhuman atrocities a lot of gamers expected from Nilfgaard's invasion committed against the locals. The thing is, they're at the hands of Temerian collaborators against their own people rather than Nilfgaardians against Temerians. The Nilfgaard commander gave a local alderman fifteen lashes for giving him spoiled food. The Bloody Baron's men give a hundred or two hundred lashes for a similar offense on the Notice Boards. We also hear about them engaging in rape and plunder. On a technical level, this is all Nilfgaard's responsibility because the Temerians under the Bloody Baron are now servants of Nilfgaard but these are people which, just a few months ago, were the very people defending/ruling the land.

    The contrast between Emhyr and his rival in King Radovid the Stern is also a nebulous one as neither individual has any 'right' to the lands involved. Putting aside the idea Kings and Queens have any such moral right in actuality, Emhyr is a foreign invader but King Radovid is only the "rightful" ruler of Redania but the game calls attention to the fact he is in a prime position to seize all the lands of the North after the war. Wise Old Vesemir and presumably others believe Radovid when he claims that he will restore the previous borders of the Pre-War era but Geralt is skeptical.

    We, as gamers existing in an out-of-universe perspective, know that Radovid is lying since if he wins the war then he will immediately use his position to build a Redanian Empire. Dijkstra, our only other candidate for monarch, also builds a Redanian Empire while Roche submits to Nilfgaard in exchange for favorable terms as an autonomous Principality in Nilfgaard's Empire. In short, there is no choice between a "Free North" and a "Enslaved North." It is a choice between Nilfgaard or Redania as conquerors with the best options being a just but ruthless dictator (Dijkstra) or peaceful collaboration with Nilfgaard (Roche).

The Madness of King Radovid

"Radovid is a stern king, but a just one."

-Random peasant chatter.

"I content someone apart from myself has finally gotten the idea to rid the world of the degenerate."
-Philippa Eilhart on the plot to assassinate Radovid.

    Complicating the issue is one of the most controversial decisions of the game: the design choice to make King Radovid the Stern a madman. Previous encounters with King Radovid had highlighted his skill at politics, ambition, and practicality. They had also illustrated his passionate hatred of his former mentor Philippa Eilhart and capacity to unleash a nightmarish pogrom against magic-users across the North.

    The newer version of Radovid seems sleep-deprived, prone to rambling incoherent statements about eating the insides of chess pieces, and whimsical psychotic punishments for those who offend him. Even if Geralt does nothing but what Radovid wants, for example, he will order the Witcher's death in "Reasons of State" for example after explaining the murderous tortures he inflicted on those who didn't bring him any news of Philippa Eilhart.

Most gamers will incline themselves to slaying the magicidal genocidal despot. However, some gamers may know the resulting fallout will kill tens of thousands.
    The UFoC will make no commentary on whether this was a bad decision or not, merely highlight that history is full of seemingly intelligent capable leaders who, upon arising to absolute power, degenerated tremendously. This is hardly restricted to the past, either, with the stories of Saddam Hussein as well as Gadaffi illustrating the corrosive effect unlimited authority can have on even seemingly strong minds.

    What this does illustrate, however, is that players are left in an uncomfortable position where even if they choose to sympathize with the North over Nilfgaard, King Radovid's madness poses a direct threat to their loved ones. Geralt's immediate circle of Triss Merrigold, Yennefer of Vengerberg, and Ciri of Cintra are all threatened by his anti-magic pogrom. This circle will get larger once Radovid moves to nonhumans. While Geralt may content himself to being neutral under most circumstances, this is a direct threat to his loved ones.

    Or is it?

     Most gamers will incline themselves to slaying the tyrant but the fallout from King Radovid's death won't just be minorities saved. It will means a collapse of all resistance in the North and the conquest of the land by Nilfgaard. Which would be alright if it happened immediately but the "best" Nilfgaard ending has Redania continue fighting even without Dijkstra and the war dragging on for what will likely be years if not another decade or more.
Reasons of State

    "Tomorrow at noon, the commander of the Army Group "Center" will sign a truce in Emhyr's name...a truce whose wordin' we agreed with Dijkstra."
    "So back there in Velen, when the trolls nabbed you..."
    "Yes, I was returning' from the last round of talks. Emhyr will keep Aedirn and Lyria but in exchange for Radovid's head and a stop to guerilla tactics, he will withdraw from Temeria."
    "Which will become the Empire's vassal state."
    "Self-ruled, internally! With its own courts, administrative structures, and army!"

    -Thaler, Geralt, Roche, "Reasons of State."

    "There will be no truce with Nilfgaasrd. Redania, under my enlightened rule, will fight on until it wins. And when it does, it will unite all the North, including Temeria."
    -Dijkstra, "Reasons of State."

     The North is a big place and to slay a monster is to potentially kill tens of thousands. It will also perhaps mean that Geralt will spend the rest of his life hunted as a regicide--why he bothered to investigate Letho as well as King Foltest's death (regardless of personal reasons) in Assassins of Kings. Geralt of Rivia knows there are no easy answers when it comes to punishing the powerful and that may include one as disgusting as Radovid.

Dijkstra is a real a******. Which does not bode well for his chances to be ruler of the first Northern Empire.
    The game also makes it so the alternative isn't necessarily better. Dijkstra will use his status as a crime lord, fortune, and connections to become Chancellor of Redania if his plan kills Radovid but this just means he starts an aggressive campaign of unification which, essentially, turns the North into Nilfgaard 2.0. This may be the best ending for the North as a whole in terms of power because Nilfgaard is a 1st world nation to the North's present 3rd world status but such change will be harsh.
    It also means Roche, Ves, and Thaler must die.

    In what is the most controversial decision, Dijkstra makes a sudden decision to back out of heretofore unknown secret treaty with Nilfgaard. This is already a somewhat monumental betrayal by everyone involved as these details weren't shared with Geralt. Thaler admits that they intended to manipulate Geralt and they emphasized protecting mages rather than their own interests. Dijkstra promptly quotes the Scottish Play and intends to kill Thaler, Roche, and Ves so he can keep the fighting going.

Contrary to the "Never Say Die" rebel of fan imaginations, the Roche of Wild Hunt is one who wants peace for his homeland and as much freedom as can be negotiated.
        Most gamers have an affection for Roche and Ves over Dijkstra, who is obnoxious at the best of times. Roche and Ves, likewise, are people who will help against the Wild Hunt whereas Dijkstra will give financial support under only very specific conditions. Still, one cannot help but think Geralt would feel betrayed by all of them.

    His desire to help others being manipulated to assist in a backdoor politics deal is a much-much worse betrayal than the Commander of the Nilfgaard garrison's when he lied about Yennefer's location. It's also possible that Geralt thinks the biggest threat to Ciri is her own father and may choose to side with Dijkstra or walk away just to spite Nilfgaard.

    A tough decision as the consequences are what will decide whether Nilfgaard wins or loses the war. No other choice matters.


    The depiction of the Third Nilfgaard War is a murky and unpleasant swamp from which there are no easy answers. It's interesting to see, more than anything, that Geralt really is an outsider to the conflict for the majority of the game. He has very little stake in who wins the war until both the Emperor and Radovid choose to involve him. Even then, it is not a series of battles or decisive wins which turn the tide of the conflict but the specific death of a leader in feudalism. Geralt can be the decisive blow-deliverer for the war but, ultimately, there are no real "good guys" or "bad guys" in state-terms. Both Emhyr and Radovid can both be viewed under the lens of evil as the former is a ruthless conqueror and the later is madman.

    One thing I do appreciate as a historian is the focus on the idea of a truce as the ending of the war. In real-life, the vast majority of wars aren't not won by any sort of decisive one-sided victory over the other but terms of agreement. In a way, it's almost tragic that the treaty between Nilfgaard, Temeria, and Redania falls through as that would have been an excellent ending to the situation. Certainly, it screws Lyria and Aedirn, they were not even invited to participate in the negotiations, but that's how it sometimes works in politics too. But here, the opportunity for self-interest trumps morality on both sides. Roche, Thaler, and Ves care only for Temeria not the rest of the North. Dijkstra cares only for the economic and political prosperity of Redania. Neither side deserves Geralt's help.

    But he may give it either way.



  1. I would say that the best ending for the North is siding with Roche. We know that the populace of Nilfgaard is becoming war weary. Sure, Emhyr kills all his enemies at home, for the time being. We know that Roche's activities were causing enough distress for Emhyr to give them quasi-independence. It seems that the Nilfgaardian empire will collapse as soon as Emhyr either dies or is put in a position of weakness. Temaria would be in prime position to go fully independent. With the rest of the Northern Kingdoms probably soon following.

    1. That's a very interesting bit of speculation either way. Empires are historically very hard to maintain across multiple borders, especially for long periods of time. It's notable that Dijkstra actually attempts to rectify this by doing large-scale resettlement in order to break down the national barriers of the North. The biggest issue with Temeria is who is crowned royalty of said land and whether they intermarry with the next Emperor like Voorhis.

    2. Empires are hard to maintain when you give the populace you are occupying no reason to stay. Which the Nilfgaardians aren't really doing. Remember, even if you kille Dijkstra that still leaves Cleaver and the King of Beggars in charge of Novigrad with the same conditions if the Nilfgaardians try to take Novigrad. Massive riots in the streets and the fleet getting burned in port. This is bolstered by what Roche was able to do. Insurrection is primed in the Northern Kingdoms.

    3. Amusingly, I'm going to tackle that in the third part of the essay. My position is, unfortunately, that the Alliance is going to fail by the end of events.

      I'd like to believe you're right, though, and Temeria will rise!

  2. I love reading your essays, great job dude!