Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Politics of the Witcher 3 part III

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

Part I is available to read here
Part II is available to read here
Part IV is available to read here

     Having discussed the issue of the majority of political aspects to the Third Nilfgaard War and the succession of Nilfgaard's dynasty, even briefly wading into the politics of Skellige, we're going to wrap up our essay with a couple of other points I think the game touched on.

Church and State

    "To think, a year ago, guards bowed their heads when mages passed."

    -Triss Merrigold, "Now or Never."   

    "Witch hunts are never about witches."
    -Geralt of Rivia, upon his return to Novigrad after finding Ciri.

    Whatever your beliefs in real-life are, it is an undeniable fact that poker-brokers and manipulators make use of religion in order to advance their own agenda. There are few things more vile than wrapping yourself in the trappings of religion to justify personal ambitions, though just as often it is the people who genuinely believe their rhetoric who are the truly dangerous ones. We see both sides of the position with the Eternal Fire in Novigrad.

    The Eternal Fire originated in the short story of the same name in The Sword of Destiny. It was already portrayed as a corrupt church with torturers and its own secret police. However, it is interesting to note that it was not racist or against magic. The two qualities it seems to have degenerated into being solely concerned with in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

    Geralt of Rivia is hired by Eternal Fire to find a doppler despite his mutation, mages are free to walk the streets, and both halflings as well as dwarves do big business. The only individuals they are concerned with are monsters, those affected by silver, which is a vague distinction but one many would be willing to overlook even amongst Witchers. The religion is also a local cult of Novigrad, unimportant outside of its borders.

Jacques would be ashamed of the Eternal Fire has become! And he was crazy!
    The racism of the Eternal Fire does not appear until The Witcher video game when the religion is exported to other lands by Jacques de Aldersberg a.k.a Alvin. Due to his experiences with the Scoia'tael, the time-traveling Jacques developed a profound hatred of nonhumans and elves in particular.

    As the leader of the Order of the Flaming Rose, the Eternal Fire's military arm upon the absorbtion of the Order of the White Rose, he deliberately provoked nonhumans as part of a long-term stratedgy to seize power in Temeria. Jacques' racism passed itself down onto the knights beneath him and became internalized by the soldiery as part of the order's dogma. A note: Jacques de Aldersberg was openly both a mage as well as a knight, throwing fireballs from his sword in battle as well as known to his soldiers as a supernatural being.

    Yet, by the time we meet the Eternal Fire in Novigrad, they have begun a full-scale pogrom of magic-users and monsters (including harmless dopplers) with an eventual switch to persecuting nonhumans. The origins of this activity is, apparently, the work of King Radovid of Redania who is patronizing the church as well as the Order of the Flaming Rose. We never hear anything about King Radovid's religious beliefs but it seems entirely possible has come to believe in the church.

    It's just, as King, he can influence its policies to suit his own prejudices which the Eternal Fire is all too happy to comply to. The truly scary thing? We encounter many Eternal Fire preachers and fanatics who seem to genuinely believe all of the rhetoric being spouted about both mages as well as nonhumans despite their status as enemies of the faith having been made up whole cloth within the past seven years.

    People in the North are stupid.

    We see another nasty use of this kind of mentality with the Crones in Velen who control the local population through a series of rites and festivals. They have created a system which gives them regular human sacrifices of children as well as young adults while paying them back only in magic acorns. Not only are the villagers prone to setting up altars and icons to the Crones, they seem genuinely happy with the arrangement. We see a much more harmless variant on this with the "All-God." A Sylvan has taken to impersonating a god in the region and giving valuable farming advice in exchange for gluttonous sacrifices of food.

    Really, he's almost saintly by comparison.
    Indeed, the only religion shown any degree of respect in the game is the worshipers of Freya on Skellige.

Lodge of Sorceresses

    ‘Nonsense,’ coughed Codringher, looking intently into his handkerchief. ‘A sorcerer spying for Nilfgaard? Why? For money? Risible. Counting on serious power under the rule of the victorious Emperor Emhyr? Even more ludicrous. It’s no secret that Emhyr var Emreis keeps his sorcerers on a short leash. Sorcerers in Nilfgaard are treated about the same as, let’s say, stablemen. And they have no more power than stablemen either. Would any of our headstrong mages choose to fight for an emperor who would treat them as a stable boy? Filippa Eilhart, who dictates addresses and edicts to Vizimir of Redania? Sabrina Glevissig, who interrupts the speeches of Henselt of Kaedwen, banging her fist on the table and ordering the king to be silent and listen? Vilgefortz of Roggeveen, who recently told Demavend of Aedirn that, for the moment, he has no time for him?’
    -Codringher, Time Of Contempt
Philippa thinks she sees better than she does.

    The Lodge of Sorceresses, one of the most important organizations in the Witcher books was effectively destroyed in Assassins of Kings. The source of their temporal power in the North, the "special relationship" between mages and monarchs, was destroyed by Philippa Eilhart alienating both King Radovid as well as King Henselt (the latter through her proxy in Sabrina Glevisseg). Alienating may be too kind a word since King Radovid blamed her for the death of his father while King Henselt witnessed Sabrina murder thousands of his men as part of a poorly-conceived gambit to deny him to Pontar Valley.
    By the time Letho's assassination campaign is complete, only the most hateful anti-mage monarchs in the North are left alive. Such dramatic turnarounds are not all that uncommon in Renaissance-era monarchical societies. The arbitrary nature of royal power means that individuals who were, previously, incredibly powerful can end up in a dungeon or dead soon after.

    King Henry VIII was, in particular, prone to making and breaking lives--often regretting it after the men he'd turned on were buried. Yennefer of Vengerberg successfully negotiates a pardon for the Lodge's members in Nilfgaard as part of her attempts to help Ciri, an action which is interesting as the organization existed primarily as a means of protecting the North from Nilfgaard.
    It's a monstrous act of treason on one level and simultaneously completely understandable given King Radovid's ambition to destroy all magic-users. Philippa Eilhart also shows no remorse or regret about the way she chose to play the game of thrones since she immediately begins trying to figure out how to take a position of power beside Emhyr or Ciri. Given her behavior with Saskia the Dragonslayer, either would be a fool to do anything but cut off her head, but Philippa has a way of surviving.

Some suffer for others' sins.
    It is interesting to see if the Lodge will be able to rebuild its power-base given the oppressed state of mages in Nilfgaard. They've worked with worse. The members we meet of the Lodge: Keira Metz, Triss, Philippa, Margarita, and Fringella all express different goals and ambitions based upon their status in the Lodge. Keira is interested in magical research to cure disease, Triss in protecting magic-users from persecution, Margarita in protecting her students, and Philippa in accumulating power.

    They are an alliance of individuals only loosely united in ideology and assisting each other for their own reasons. That lack of uniform ideology is perhaps the biggest truism of actual politics. So is Philippa's rather despicable statement she has no further interest in the lodge since her previous leadership status is now compromised--a born politician that one.

    Interestingly, after their monstrous portrayal in Assassins of Kings, the organization is treated as a neutral-verging-on-good organization in Wild Hunt. Given the surrounding ambiguity, this perhaps makes sense. Everyone is a mixture of good and evil in Wild Hunt's politics with even the worse, Radovid, being possibly the only one who can save the North from conquest. An ambiguous goal itself.


    “Lesser, greater, middling, it's all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I'm not a pious hermit, I haven't done only good in my life. But if I'm to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”
― Andrzej Sapkowski, The Last Wish
    The endings of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are a mixture of many world-states, all affected by Geralt's decisions both good and bad. What's interesting is the majority of things which determine these world-states are unrelated to any major decision on Geralt's part. While his choice to assassinate Radovid or not is the clear exception, for the most part, Geralt's world depends on the way he subtly influences his surrounding associates rather than directly influences them.

    While, we, the player, are able to know what does and does not achieve a specific result, the game is actually very deliberate about obscuring what's going on. Much of the larger world of politics is opaque to Geralt and actions have larger consequences than he can deal with. Unlike, say, the Dragon Age universe where choices and consequences are very clearly spelled out--Geralt is a man muddying through a world of ambiguity and lesser evils.
Sometimes, there's just no good answers.

    In one scenario, Geralt can confront his possible lover, Keira Metz about seizing a bunch of research notes from a nearby tower dealing with a horrific plague. Keira may or may not use these notes to start a horrific plague as a bioweapon or be planning something likewise unethical about it. Geralt is left with only his past experiences involving Keira to provide him insight into whether he's fighting a great evil or she's sincere in her desire to help end a plague. Keira might also want to end a plague only to be coerced or bribed into the reverse. Geralt can end up killing her for the greater good. Only, if she lives, miss out of an opportunity to save millions because she WAS sincere. Just going about it in a way which was very suspicious.

    There's no "Golden Ending" either as the Witcheress ending is one which will set Ciri on a path of personal difficulty and may have denied her the chance to do the most good in life. It is, however, the ending which she is most personally happy. The "Empress" ending is one which is full of ambiguity as well as unknowns as to what lies in store for our half-Northern uneducated girl with very unconventional opinions in a land famed for its ruthlessness. In a way, the "Everyone's Dead, Dave" ending of Ciri dying has an almost pleasant straightforwardness to it.

    The Witcher 3 could have been better. You may notice I almost completely ignore the Wild Hunt in my essay because they exist as almost nothing but moving targets save one mission which takes Avalla'ch and Geralt to their homeworld. Still, the game provides no end of complicated and multi-faceted political decisions. For me, I chose Dijkstra and Ciri as a Witcheress but this was based on emotion rather than logic.

    Other gamers may choose otherwise.

    In short, I disagree with those who claim the politics of The Witcher 3 are less complex than the previous game. They're very complex. The difference is Geralt is not at the center of the chessboard, determining which sides do what. Instead, Geralt is merely a leaf being buffeted from one side to another, only to occasionally make the wind change because he's a very-very special leaf.


  1. In my ending, Keira hooked up with Lambert. Its amusing that Yennefer negotiated an asylum for the Lodge but didn't want to take that asylum rather run off with Geralt to somewhere else.

    Also, Radovid and Emhyr taking refugee on boats was amusing to me as the intro to Witcher 2 had Letho killing a king on a boat.

    1. My ending was Keira and Lambert as well, Dijkstra taking over the North, Witcher Ciri, and Triss. I don't see the situation being too good in Nilfgaard for the foreseeable future.

      And ha! I didn't even think of that!

  2. I also chose Dijkstra and Ciri as a Witcheress based on the idea that, when a sequel will appear, this will be a state most favorable for Witcher adventures.
    And yes, there will be a sequel. The entertainment industry is currently suffering from a fear of innovation, leading to fewer 'original' works and more reboots or new entries in well established franchises (Star Wars, The Terminator, Start Trek, Mad Max etc). Considering the popularity of the series, Witcher 4 will surely appear.