Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Politics of the Witcher 3 part II

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

    Having already discussed the Third Nilfgaard War in the first section, this part of the essay will discuss some of the major players as well as a lesser political situation which Geralt can become involved in.

Part I available to read here
Part III available to read here
Part IV available to read here

Emhyr var Emreis, Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd (a.k.a "The White Flame Dancing On the Grave of His Enemies")

    "Because we broke their spine at Sodden. We broke them militarily, and above all we broke their morale. I don’t know whether it is true that Emhyr var Emreis was, at the time, against aggression on such a scale, that the attack on Cintra was the work of some party hostile to him – I take it that if they had defeated us, he would be applauding, and distributing privileges and endowments amongst them. But after Sodden it suddenly turns out he was against it, and that everything which occurred was due to his marshals’ insubordination. And heads fell. The scaffolds flowed with blood. These are certain facts, not rumors. Eight solemn executions, and many more modest ones. Several apparently natural yet mysterious deaths, a good many cases of people suddenly choosing to retire. I tell you, Emhyr fell into a rage and practically finished off his own commanders."
    -King Henselt, Blood of Elves

    No more character in the whole of The Witcher franchise is more controversial than Emhyr var Emreis. He is one of the earliest characters introduced in the franchise, appearing during "A Question of Price" before returning in "The Blood of Elves" as a figure who is the not-so-secret mastermind behind Nilfgaard's aggression.

    Under Emhyr's control, the Nilfgaard have invaded the lands of the North three times, created the terrorist Scoia'tael, assassinated Kings, and been involved in numerous plots both great and small. He is also responsible for a lengthy attempt to hunt down his daughter Ciri in order to force her to marry him so that he could create a Chosen One who would rule half then world then a grandchild who would rule the entirety of it. Thankfully, he turned his back on his action at the last minute despite nothing preventing him from doing so but his conscience.

Geralt's meeting with Emhyr is a meeting of book and game history. He is meeting his archenemy, friend, and rival in the throne room of friend who's kingdom Emhyr has conquered.
    With the exception of the above noble action, there's no end to possible excuses or questions about how much he's responsible for everything listed above. Was he forced into invading Cintra? Did the marshals exceed his orders? Is fostering terrorists as partisans only to betray them for peace a valid expression of statecraft? Real-life essays can and have been written on political figures less complex than Emhyr var Emreis.

    However, the question of King Emhyr in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is not his political military or political legacy but his relationship to the monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia as well as his daughter Ciri of Cintra. When we meet Emhyr it is after being requested to do so by Geralt's long-time lover and pseudo-spouse Yennefer of Vengerberg with the explicit assumption he wishes to help a returned Ciri. Specifically, he wishes to give Ciri rulership of the Empire by naming her his heir and abdicating.

    The central choice in the game, even more so than Reasons of State, politically is whether Geralt of Rivia chooses to play the role of Kingmaker and deliver his daughter to Emhyrs. Much fan debate has been had over whether Geralt is paternalistic by refusing to take Ciri there, whether or not Ciri should be convinced to refuse him of her own accord, or other issues which we will cover in the Ciri section. What it does say, however, is that Emhyr has tired of his position as Emperor and is attempting to secure his legacy.

The next Emperor of Nilfgaard? Ciri's husband? Tool?
    Even this seemingly fatherly act is questionable, though, and can be interpreted multiple ways. Is Emhyr doing it because of love of Ciri, his desire to continue the prophecy without incest, a desire to secure his dynasty due to his lack of issue, other factors we're not made aware of, or all of the above? Emhyr remains an enigmatic figure throughout. We're also missing valuable information on what has happened to Emhyr's wife, the so-called "False Ciri" who he named Empress of Nilfgaard and Queen of Cintra in order to secure his claim to those territories.

    In the end, Geralt's relationship with Emhyr will determine the fate of the entire North as well as Nilfgaard based on how much the Witcher chooses to trusts the man's motives. If he believes in Emhyr and his sincerity, then Ciri is going to be his heir and Emhyr's political legacy his secured. If he chooses not to, Emhyr may or may not win the war against Redania but his dynasty remains in grave peril. If Geralt chooses to ignore Radovid's atrocities or support Dijkstra then the Emperor of Nilfgaard will, for better or worse, die friendless and alone at the hands of his own subjects.

    Perhaps having just reconciled with his daughter.

Ciri of Cintra

    Neutrality? Indifference? She wanted to scream. A witcher looking on indifferently? No! A witcher has to defend people. From the leshy, the vampire, the werewolf. And not only from them. He has to defend people from every evil. And in Transriver I saw what evil is. A witcher has to defend and save. To defend men so that they aren’t hung on trees by their hands, aren’t impaled and left to die. To defend fair girls from being spread-eagled between stakes rammed into the ground. Defend children so they aren’t slaughtered and thrown into a well. Even a cat burned alive in a torched barn deserves to be defended. That’s why I’m going to become a witcher, that’s why I’ve got a sword, to defend people like those in Sodden and Transriver – because they don’t have swords, don’t know the steps, half-turns, dodges and pirouettes. No one has taught them how to fight, they are defenceless and helpless in face of the werewolf and the Nilfgaardian marauder. They’re teaching me to fight so that I can defend the helpless. And that’s what I’m going to do. Never will I be neutral. Never will I be indifferent. Never!
    -Ciri of Cintra, Blood of Elves.

     Admitting to my complete and utter bias is my belief Ciri of Cintra is one of the greatest female characters of fantasy literature. She ranks up there with Daenerys Targaryen, Dana Scully, and Eowyn for people I think of as amongst my favorite characters in storytelling period. As such, I will make no attempt to hide my favoritism for her. I hope she's the main character of The Witcher 4 or her own successful series of spin-off games. Be that as it may, Ciri's role in the politics of Wild Hunt is less playing the role of one football team or another's player but the ball.

    Ciri of Cintra represents the only hope for Emperor Emhyr's dynasty to continue since there is no sign his marriage to the False Ciri has born any heirs in the past seven years. Indeed, causal chatter with the young and sprightly General Voorhis indicates that there is already plans for him to be Emperor (though this may be due to the assumption he will marry Ciri the moment she ascends to the throne in order to secure the allegiance of Nilfgaard's nobility after Emhyr's two marriages to Cintrans).

To be wield two swords or wear a crown is her choice. In other fables, this wouldn't be a choice but the Witcher is far more ambiguous.

    Ciri's opinion on ruling Nilfgaard seem to be ambivalent, at best, and the game doesn't give any options to have Geralt discuss the issue with her before or after her optional meeting with Emhyr. Being the Lady of Time and Space, rulership of Nilfgaard is less impressive to her than it might be to other people since the largest empire in the Continent is a spec of sand in the universe's very large beach. She's also been offered the less-than-welcome attentions of beings like King Eredin, ruler of his own planet.

    Part of this ambivalence may come to her past experiences with both Nilfgaard as well as Emperor Emhyr who, through accident or design, is responsible for the deaths of both her mother and grandmother. Ciri also expresses during her quest, "Payback", a desire for normal life where she is able to travel and live and love amongst the common folk. Nevertheless, should she choose to meet with Emhyr, he is able to persuade her to become Empress through arguments we are not privy to.

    The only hints are in the "Empress" ending which indicate she believes she can do more good as a Empress than as a Witcher, which may be objectively true or false depending on a variety of elements ranging from political climate to successors if she chooses not to ascend the throne. There is still a somber mood to the ascension and one cannot help but assume even if it is by her own choice, Ciri does not want the crown or its responsibilities. Book readers will certainly know that Ciri's desires are as far away from responsibility and power as possible.

Age has matured Ciri a great deal.
    The choice for Geralt to decide the future of the Var Emreis Dynasty depends on his trust of Emhyr and belief in the man's sincerity. Yennefer of Vengerberg believes that Emhyr has a right to know and meet his daughter due to their biological relationship but Ciri's choice to see him or not depends entirely on Geralt's opinion. Liberated Witcheress or not, she is very much Daddy's Girl and her father is NOT Emhyr. What we do know is Emhyr WILL persuade her if given the chance but that requires Geralt (or Ciri if you leave the choice to her) to believe they should be alone in the same room to begin with. In the end, Geralt's decision will be motivated by his own biases as well as prioritizing rather than any singular loyalty to the North or Nilfgaard or otherwise.

    Ciri would, in all likelihood, be an amazing Empress as one of the few royals for whom common people as well as nonhumans were not lesser beings. However, these very same attitudes would make her position as ruler difficult as well as isolate her from her peers (which an Empress wouldn't have anyway given the way Emhyr is treated by his subordinates). Perhaps it is for the best the Empress Ending, as such, ends on uncertainty since all politics in this game are built under a fog of war which never lets up until the ending slides.


    Compared to the rest of the game, the politics of Skellige are mercifully straightforward. The previous King of Skellige has died, leaving behind an adult son and widow (along with a second widow who commits ritual suicide to be with him in the afterlife). Due to Skellige traditions being clan-based semi-democratic, the next King will be chosen by mutual consent of the Jarls.

    Queen Bran, who is sadly a woman who might as well scream "Villain" postulates that they need to do away with this semblance of democracy and instead adopt (presumably primogenitor) hereditary monarchy as a principle. This sounds ridiculous to modern ears but is actually not that insane due to the "hard to polish a turd" problem of monarchy.

    Skellige is a primitive disunited island nation with numerous feuding clans and almost no ability to project force onto the larger world. A single dictator with a hereditary lineage offers a far greater opportunity for Skellige to be a modernized political-military force in the future. In any ending where she succeeds with her Frey-esque "Bloody Banquet" plan, her son will actually do just that.

    Geralt of Rivis much more likely to side with his long-time family friends in the Craite lineage, however. The two choices for monarch there are Cerys an Craite and Hjalmar an Craite with both bringing something to the table. From a modern perspective, Cerys is the obvious candidate due to the fact she's a level-headed peace-maker and wise despite her age. She's a bit hot-blooded but that may be a saving grace in a land poisoned by such attitudes. Hjalmar, by contrast, is kind of an idiot who's epic adventure against a giant gets most of his crew killed and only deals with the surface elements of a plot.

The best woman for the job? Perhaps. Peace is a pearl without price but those who set down their weapons invite attack.
    Cerys, however, blunts Skellige's greatest advantages by pursuing her policies of peaceful reform. It is a long-attributed saying that those who desire peace should prepare for war and with either a new more powerful Nilfgaard or the Redanian Empire rising from the ashes of the Third Nilfgaard War, Skellige will need a united military power with a modernized Navy to stand against them. Hjalmar, for all of his stupidity, may in fact be a less polarizing figure who is also able to keep a strong military. The next King Bran would perhaps, ironically, be the best candidate for maintaining Skellige independence. For those who think Skellige is unlikely to be invaded soon, it is only the timely arrival of the Wild Hunt which prevents Emhyr from launching a full-scale invasion of the islands. In that, whichever candidate won may have lucked out but for how long? One benefit, at least, for the Craites is the victorious sibling has the other to rely on.


    One of the biggest things the Witcher emphasizes in its portrayal of politics is the inscrutability of motivations, trustworthiness of one's allies, as well as the unintended consequences of one's actions. Emhyr is absolutely sincere with his offer to make Ciri Empress of Nilfgaard but Geralt doesn't know this and is left with contradictory information over whether or not he can be trusted (we see Emhyr betray Letho while sparing cities, for example).

    Likewise, Ciri's own motivations are malleable depending on Emhyr and Geralt's diplomacy. Given a fair chance, Emhyr will persuade her to support his dynasty by becoming his heir but Geralt can persuade her to forgo this path simply by saying Emhyr is manipulative. Human nature's role in politics has shattered kingdoms and changed government's courses forever and this is very often on display.

    Skellige really brings this home as the clearly most-qualified candidate may not be the best woman in the job for the long run but that largely depends on factors entirely unknown to the people who elect her as well as events which Geralt can shift in multiple directions. Ceyrs is the worst sort of candidate for dealing with Emhyr or Radovid but Cerys is likely to be able to sell peace with Empress Ciri. Cerys or King Bran might be able to come to an agreement with Dijkstra while Hjalmar would simply spark a war.



  1. Election was actually common among the Germanic tribes. The Holy Roman Empire elected Emperors from the leaders of the stem dutchies. Mostly they elected weak leaders but an occasional Otto II or Frederick Barbarossa slipped through.

    Of course the Holy Roman Empire collapsed into a a bunch of smaller kingdoms eventually.

    1. Yeah, it's a common-enough tactic in many places and has a wide history. It's just, in the case of Skellige, they are in desperate need of unity if they're ever not to be the weird anachronism in the North.

  2. I remember reading a review for Witcher 3 in which the author mentions how the war for a free north is somehow important, like we as players are supposed to have a natural inclination to side with the Northern Realms over Nilfgaard. Sadly I cannot find the exact quote because I remember not which site mentioned this.

    My question is whether this is true. At the time of playing W3 I had only gotten about halfway through W2 before giving it up as being too frustrating but I didn't feel any sympathy for either side. by the end I found Nilfgaard to be far more interesting than the North. Even Temeria, with it's assassinated King Foltest and Roche's patriotism couldn't sway me from my pro-Nilf outlook.

    Now I am replaying W2 (and enjoying it way more now than when I first played it) I'm finding the Northern Kingdoms are not endearing themselves to me. So is that idea presented in the review a valid one, that by default, Geralt may have a tendency side with the North?

    1. I think the developers are going with the idea that with Nilfgaard as conquerors, we're naturally going to be interested in siding with the underdog North against them.

      Both the Witcher 2 and the Sapkowski novels also make it clear Nilfgaard is devious, cruel, and authoritarian. The thing is, Sapkowski and the games also make it clear the North isn't much better. For example, it's hard to really take the North as a valid place to protect with all your might from foreign aggression when things like pogroms happen against nonhumans while in Nilfgaard, there's racial equality.

      It actually gets WORSE in The Witcher 3. You have Emhyr who is invading lands for conquest and riches contrast against King Radovid, who is basically Hitler. So, really, Emhyr comes off looking much better. The thing is, I think they went overboard in trying to make Emhyr look good and Nilfgaard by proxy. Historically, Empires are not warm and cuddly places and I think people would be a lot less inclined to view Nilfgaard favorably if they mentioned the book fact that they practice slavery (it gets mentioned once in W3, during the gardening section).

      I think, naturally, Geralt is the sort of character who doesn't think Nilfgaard or the North are due any special consideration. He's not a patriot like Roche or even Vesemir, his mentor. Geralt will protect Nilfgaardians or Northerners from monsters. I do think, however, he might be inclined to support Dijkstra if he thinks Emhyr will kill more people than the alternative or is a threat to Ciri if she refuses to become Empress/his political pawn.

  3. Thanks for your reply C.T. I love the ambiguity of the setting but despite that I can't imagine ever siding with Radovid. I wonder if Vesemir would be less pro-Northern Realms if he new the price of a Redanian victory?

    I have never played the first game but the beginning of TW2 makes Foltest something of a fallen hero. However, one need only look at Iorveth's dialogue in that game to understand the opposition view. Do you think the Temerian patriots Roche and Thaler's plot may actually be the most optimal outcome?

    1. It's the most optimal option for **Temeria** but while the game treats Nilfgaard very-very well, the fact is, in the books, they're monsters and Aedirn and Lyria (let alone the rest of the North), falling into the hands of Nilfgaard is horrific.

      From, "The Time of Contempt":

      "“War to the castles, peace to the villages,” Coehoorn said to his commanders yesterday. You know that principle,’ he added at once. ‘You learned it in officer training. That principle applied until today; from tomorrow you’re to forget it. From tomorrow a different principle applies, which will now be the battle cry of the war we are waging. The battle cry and my orders run: War on everything alive. War on everything that can burn. You are to leave scorched earth behind you. From tomorrow, we take war beyond the line we will withdraw behind after signing the treaty. We are withdrawing, but there is to be nothing but scorched earth beyond that line. The kingdoms of Rivia and Aedirn are to be reduced to ashes! Remember Sodden! The time of revenge is with us!’"

      King Foltest is also a much more ambiguous figure in the books, having done many questionable things in the wars against Nilfgaard and also planned Ciri's murder (when she was just a hypothetical 12 year old heir to Cintra).

      Given Nilfgaard's practice of slavery, brutal military tactics, and worse, I think the best outcome is Dijkstra winning but I don't blame Thaler or Roche for trying to look after their own people first. Empress Ciri might make things more fair and Dijkstra might be a tyrant himself but I tend to think the latter have a slightly easier time of things.

  4. That's an interesting quote, thanks for that. A scorched earth approach is brutal but not necessarily a bad tactic. Didn't the north use such a tactic during the American Civil War? History sees them as the "good guys."

    It's funny isn't, how we cannot help but look at these fictional settings through our modern day and marginally enlightened perspective? I mentioned how supporting Radovid is a hard pill to swallow knowing the terrible things he'll continue doing, but from the eyes of the common folk who may see magic and sorcerers as legitimately frightening - deciding as they do to meddle in politics and shape the world - Radovid's witch hunts might be a lesser evil.

    Can you think of an argument for supporting Radovid?

    1. In this case, I think it's important to view Nilfgaard through two lens. One is they are very-very efficient brutal and modern (comparatively) in terms of statehood. They have some horrific institutions (slavery) but, generally, a much higher quality of life. The sacking and burning of Aedirn and Rivia were, IMHO, though, more a matter of national pride than a desire for efficient military tactics.

      Much like the sacking of Carthage, it was less about military achievement than anger over making Nilfgaard look weak at Sodden. Nilfgaard isn't purely 100% efficient and war crimes do occur, which is good to remember with both sides as neither have the advantage of being, "Moral but weak" or "immortal but efficient." Sometimes, the North will demonstrate surprising efficiency and power (like Nilfgaard) while other times, Nilfgaard will act like bigoted psychos (like the North) because they're not one thing or another.

      With King Radovid, the biggest benefit he brings to the table is the fact there is a sense of continuity as well as a strong national leadership to him. Dijkstra's efforts will last, probably, only as long as his Chancellorship as he is a peasant (from the books) elevated to nobility and has no monarchical or traditional ties to the land. Radovid is, potentially, the legitimate heir to the North via either his marriage to Princess Adda or control over Anais La Vallette.

      Unlike Dijkstra, Radovid not only brings a sense of legitimacy to his reign over the Redanian Empire and vassalhood but also military skill. He is also a "functioning" psychopath who's atrocities do not impair his strategic skills. Whereas Dijkstra would unite the North through economics and resettlement plans, Radovid is entirely capable of uniting the North through military victory, noble marriage, and religion.

      His patronage of the Eternal Fire and stamping out of local religions (which will be helped by the fact many of them are magically-inclined) will create a strong national identity for the North. Conversion by the sword is a horrific measure but has often worked in the past (see: Emperor Charlemagne). Even the destruction of the mages and nonhumans might not necessarily impair King Radovid from being a "good" monarch in that history is full of large-scale massacres which barely serve as a blip in national history.

      Even if Radovid is a tyrant, and he is, the thing he brings to the table is there's no indication he is incapable of siring children of his own who can take up his dynasty after himself. The next Redanian Emperor may well not share his brutality or policies but will have the weight of tradition for keeping the united North from disintegrating around him. The loss to science, culture, and economics by his father's purges, though, will be considerable.

      But yes, go Dijkstra.

    2. Thanks C.T. Do you think a Dijkstra led North could find peace with Nilfgaard if Ciri ruled? Both would benefit economically through trade if they could coexist, no?

  5. Excellent articles man, I hope you do some more on the Witcher 3.

    One thing I could expand upon on the assassinating Radovid choice is the seemingly strong national identity of the population in the North, which is more of a Renaissance thing than Medieval, as you say.

    It's very very hard to subjugate a population that feels that way, especially to lawful but elitist empire such as Nilfgaard.

    Killing Radovid gives Nilfgaard the keys to the North, and while the expansion stops amicably for the short term, it's easy to imagine that the subjugation won't stop there, even for Temeria. And it will face stiff resistance even after Nilfgaard wins its wars, leading to rebellions and consequent reprisals.

    Killing Radovid stops the pyres, yes, but how many years of war and Hanged Man Trees and burned villages as Nilfgaard subjugates the North does that get you? Leaving him alive gives a balance of power that I feel will last longer (though of course not indefinitely) than the questionable peace killing him provides.

    This is all aside from the fact that participating in a political assassination is the biggest betrayal of Geralt's personal principles in any of the games.