The Witcher series of books and games are among the most beloved in both mediums. With the recent launch of the new Witcher TV show from Netflix, we decided that it would be a good idea to take a look at the history of this amazing franchise.
But what is The Witcher? Well for the people who do not know of this phenomenon, it is a fantasy book series from Poland that has spawned several award-winning video games, multiple fan works, and a couple of popular TV series. It is a dark high fantasy centered around the eponymous Witcher – Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter who has to deal with the often-confusing morality and politics of his world.
The Witcher books
The history of the franchise starts with a short story written for a contest. The first one titled “The Witcher” was written for a contest held by the “Fantastyka” magazine, specialized in science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. Ironically, while very well received, the story managed to win “only” third place. Still, seeing how popular his work was, Sapkowski decided to continue writing and expanding his world.
I am incredibly grateful that he did, the short stories (2 books + 1 later on) and the saga following them are extremely interesting reads. There is a lot of social and cultural commentary, some of which pertains to Poland’s society during and after Communism. A few of his characters are among the deepest or most interesting I have ever had the pleasure to interact with in a fantasy book. Yennefer is a crowning achievement in character design by herself, and the inclusion of themes and ideas seldom seen in fantasy at the time (such as motherhood) was a bold move.
The world deals with problems of post-humanism, greed, political instability, bigotry, nepotism, the power and weaknesses of religion, and many other topics. With that said, this is not a cynical work. Good does not always win, hell it often loses, but so do the forces of Evil. Most people are complex individuals whose troubles and ambitions are understandable, the politics, while not A Song of Ice and Fire or Dune level in importance, are still fleshed out and make sense.
The world itself is also very interesting. Multiple Eastern and Central-European stories and monsters, alongside Arthurian legends and myths. Some of the short stories are actually retellings or “what ifs” on some of our real-world fairy tales.
A word of caution, though, the books are sometimes a bit campy and pulpy. I do not know when it was that literary critics decided that these qualities are worthy of derision in a written work, but it does seem like something certain people may not enjoy. Also add in a lot of dark humor and you have a work that while excellent is not for everyone.
I need to make one thing clear – Sapkowski is a sardonic individual. I adore his work and consider it to be the best The Witcher has ever been… and likely will be, but he is not exactly above reproach as a man. Some of his statements on CD Projekt Red’s work and video games in general, while very understandable, is ultimately also wrong. Still, he has seen some real hardship as of late and his works speak the loudest so if you are a fan of the games or shows or any other part of the Witcher Universe, please try them. The original work is more than worthy of your time. As is the Hussite trilogy, if only we could get more attention on that masterpiece too…
The Witcher TV Show
Before the games or Netflix’s adaptation, there was also a Polish TV series as well as a movie. I will be honest, neither were that good. The TV Series is interesting for sure so many fans still do watch it. It has decent casting and is an OK show to watch. The movie is not a good experience. The Witcher saga is likely not a series that lends itself to a movie in all honesty, TV is a far better fit.
The Witcher 1
This is the second time The Witcher hops to another medium and boy was it exciting. CD Projekt Red’s debut title, simply called The Witcher was released in 2007 for PC and it quickly became a cult classic.
It is quite notable in a few ways. The games, starting Witcher 1 of course, do not actually retell the books, a la Metro 2033. Instead, the take place after the ending of the main book series and accept almost all of the events from Sapkowski’s work as canon and important. The way this was handled is honestly quite smart but explaining it here would spoil both the books and games.
The launch was rough though. While many loved the world, the fact this was the studio’s first real game was obvious. Technical issues were abundant and stability was rough to put it mildly. It was released in one of the finest years for PC Gaming ever, and had to go toe to toe with technological juggernauts like Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Crysis, Enemy Territory Quake Wars, STALKER… you get the picture. It could not hold a candle to any of those games on pure technological terms.
With that said, many people from Eastern Europe who were fans of the books did go out and support the studio. The passion for the IP alone was enough to help the game survive in its tumultuous early days. That is not to say that the developers were standing there twiddling their thumbs. They took a lot of the feedback and went back to the game and fixed it proper. That takes guts and determination. The Witcher 1 Enhanced Edition is a massive overhaul, fixing numerous bugs, introducing new content and improving stability. CD Projekt Red also showed immense support for the modding community and in general made what was a game full with promise and shine.
These days, The Witcher 1 has not aged all that well, even in its enhanced edition state. Its graphics were never top notch but it obviously looks quite bad next to modern games, it does not hold as well as other Witcher titles. Some among the gaming press question if its worth revisiting such an old title. In my honest opinion – it is definitely worth it. There is pure love and unbridled passion thrown into this title and it shows. Graphics matter, but a good world and interesting characters and quests matter a lot more and The Witcher 1 has them in spades. Attention to detail in the world was put on a pedestal, engine limitations be damned. Its combat is very weird, true, but if one were to give it a fair shake, they’d find out that it is easy to get used to. Gamers with a little bit of patience will definitely appreciate this rough diamond.
The Witcher 2: Assasssin of Kings
The Witcher 1’s ultimate financial and critical success paved the way for CD Projekt Red to feel more confident and ambitious.
Picking up right after the ending of the previous game, with a fresh art style, new gameplay elements and a massive, absolutely monumental improvement in technology, we have The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. This is also the first game in the series to eventually make its way on consoles and the last time the developers gave us direct, top notch modding tools on PC.
It was a massive success, easily surpassing The Witcher 1 in financial and it cemented CD Projekt Red as more than a passionate bunch of rookies, but professionals who can stand toe-to- with thetoewother juggernauts in the fantasy action RPG space. The Witcher 2 has a better realized version of the characters, many of the voice actors now feeling more confident in their roles. It also has the most realized and nuancedpolitical situation in the entire series. To boot, depending on the choices you make in the first main chapter of the game, the following chapters change entirely! Making content many gamers won’t experience is as bold of a move as they come.
Unlike the first game, The Witcher 2 and its enhanced edition have aged well visually. Make no mistake, it is no Crysis 3 or Last Light, but it looks very good even to this day. Its gameplay is also less “weird” and easier to get into. I personally prefer the somewhat more charming, if rough Witcher 1 overall, but there is no denying that the sequel is one damn fine game.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
This brings us to the latest of the mainline games by CD Projekt Red, and perhaps the most ambitious one – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The launch of this title was quite the experience, with CD Projekt Red’s ambitions and hard work finally putting them on the map as not just a good developer, but one of the best.
The Witcher 3 is massive, beautiful, has no DRM, amazing expansions (Hearts of Stone is among the best written stories in gaming) and feels like a complete experience made with love. It is a game with a solid ending, amazing quests, great characters and decent enough (for most people) combat. Hell, there is a full-fledged collectible card game in The Witcher 3 and it is actually quite decent to boot. The open world built for the title is outstanding, a true masterclass in how to approach world-building and design, so much so that other developers making internally coherent worlds should take note.
The way this game interacts with its source material is very impressive. I had friends of mine read the books and jump into Witcher 3, paying only a bit of attention at the start and understanding the full story. It is a game that was made by people who loved the source material to bits and actually understand it quite well. This is not to say there aren’t questionable changes to the lore. What happened to The White Frost and some relationships in the game honestly leaves me scratching my head, but all in all it is an amazing example of remediation, and even if it is technically not canon to the books, it makes for an awesome expanded universe.
I feel there is a need to critique a few things in the game proper though, not just its interaction with the source material. There was indeed a graphical downgrade, overall. Even if some things like character models and animations were improved, lighting and distant level of detail did get cut down over time. The game’s launch was better than that of other gigantic open-world games, but it was still rocky. The developers did improve it, make no mistake, they released a multitude of patches and free DLC, but it did not start off nearly as polished. There were also issues with the sub-par mod support, a far cry from what Witcher 1 and 2 received, and nothing like what we were promised before release.
CD Projekt Red’s achievement is monumental, but they are still human. The Witcher 3 is perhaps my second favourite game of all time and reading the books then later playing the games was a magical experience. Wait… actually there is one more!
Gwent and Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
Catapulting from the success of the Witcher 3, the team decided to make a complex, standalone game based on one of its more fun elements – Gwent. The aforementioned collectible card game. Of course, while a sweet minigame, it is not really ready to be a real, complex, standalone experience. This is where the team decided they needed to make core overhaul of Gwent and make a standalone experience for everyone to enjoy. It is free too. It is not as big as Hearthstone, not even close, but it has many fans and is a very fun title. I admit I am not as much into such titles, but the other game that came from this project is one hell of an underappreciated gem – The Witcher Tales.
In this title, the player takes control of one of the queens from the Witcher books on a wide variety of missions and quests. The amount of inventiveness on display here is impressive, we have stealth missions displayed as a card game even!
It is funny when you think about it. It seems games have a decent track record adapting books, all things considered, but TV and movie adaptations of the elder art form often falter… hard.
Thankfully, this did not happen here. Netflix released their version of The Witcher story, based on book 1 and 2 of the series, in late December, 2019. And it was met with a LOT of fan love.
The “Toss a coin for your Witcher” song alone is a masterpiece and the series itself is a solid adaptation all things considered. Henry Cavill was chosen to act Geralt. There were many naysayers, I was one of them too, but he proved us all wrong. The man played this role with all his heart and soul.
There are many changes and things I personally find questionable about the adaptation, but the majority of them are fixable if the team approaches Season 2 bytaking on board some of the well thought through fan feedback. Passion is plentiful in this series, and where there is passion, one can rest easy that the final product will make many fans happy… and introduce a whole new fanbase to the wonderful world of The Witcher.
This is not the end of the Witcher’s presence though. There are many mods, fan fictions, expanded universe tabletop games, some fans even make their movies or TV shows based on the series. This movie here is an achievement in itself
Being a fan of the Witcher has never been better! We cannot wait for what the fans create, Netflix’s upcoming season 2 or CD Projekt Red’s next entry into this world.