Only a few months ago, the name Geralt of Rivia would be completely unknown to a lot of people, but it anyway stands for one of the best examples of convergence culture lately – so let’s explore this aspect… and talk about one of my favorite video games franchises ever: The Witcher.
As you may know, the concept of Convergence Culture is a key reference to understand a lot of nowadays cultural phenomena, and we wrote about it already here and here. Basically (forgive me for this, Henry Jenkins 😀 ) the idea is telling different sides and angles of a story through different media, also including the content the readers / users / fans will provide filling in the blanks with their own ideas, inventions, creations etc. on their own media too.
Obviously this is now way easier thanks to the internet, and this very idea of owning the story, and thus investing time, money and creative energy to study and expand it more and more, is what is more relevant in convergence culture, and what is able to explain many of the culture wars which are currently being fought in some more or less obscure corner of the net: if the story is mine, if I spent time (or money!) to make it richer, even if only endlessly discussing some aspect of it with my friends, then every time something will not look as I expected in the next “official” chapters being released, I could get really, really angry.
Meanwhile, mainstream media will always ignore what is not under their Eye of Mordor, and then suddenly come up with some of their next-big-thing narrative when the critical mass around some story and/or other cultural artifact has grown big enough. This is exactly what is happening now with The Witcher series being released by Netflix before Christmas.
Before being a Netflix series, The Witcher story has been told trough 3 videogames (so far), a string of novels and tales dating back to the early 90s, another tv series and a movie, plus an obscure catalogue of fan-made creations.
The story behind the Witcher
The original author, Andrzej Sapkowski, started to write about Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, on the Polish SF magazine Fantastyka (which he co-founded) in 1986, with Poland being still ruled by communist general Jaruselski, even if Solidarnosc movement demonstrations were starting to shake the regime hold on the Country.
This makes me think we all should dedicate some serious studies to the impact that fanzines and fan-made magazines had in spreading alternative cultures, as fantasy and science fiction literature, behind the Iron Curtain which divided Europe at the times – and by the way, this was convergence culture already, I think, in its beginning.
After the end of the communist regime, The Last Wish (Ostatnie życzenie) was the book collecting the original short stories about the Witcher, where the character was first introduced to the world. It was published in 1993, after the first full Witcher book (Sword of Destiny, 1992) but the stories happen before. In 1993 comic books about Geralt of Rivia also appeared.
In the same period, a Polish tv series and a movie were released, and a first boardgame set in The Witcher world was also issued in 2001.
Now what is interesting to me, it is not that Dark Horse / DC Comics acquired the comic books rights and went on publishing comics about the Witcher until 2018, but it is the fact that this happened with reference to the videogame, which was released meanwhile.
Videogames: the cultural glue in convergence culture
The Polish studio CD Projekt RED released their first game about The Witcher in 2007, after a few years of development in agreement with the author. It was a huge success, which eventually led to other two main releases and a number of smaller ones, plus Soulcalibur VI where Geralt was present as a guest – this being a honor tributed only the most beloved warrior characters in videogames.
By the way, a legal fight about copyright exploded between the author and CD Projekt RED, as often happens when convergence culture artifacts start to be licensed to big markets. Something more to be noted here: talking about convergence culture in videogames means also talking about the total inadequacy of nowadays rules about copyright and ownership of content creation, despite the world-wide lobbying role of Disney, still managing to keep everything locked so far. But this is another story, and will be a possible other post.
The videogame proved to be the perfect medium to tell this story, and to act as a cultural glue for all the previous appearances of the Witcher on different media: cosplayers of Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer and all characters started to appear in conventions and meetings, and websites with wiki, fan fictions etc were created everywhere. Once again mainstream media failed to recognize videogames as a (relevant) part of popular culture, and even when the Witcher 3 was awarded the Game Of the Year prize in 2015, reaching top sales in several continents, this only made the news maybe in Poland.
In fact, other signs that the Witcher had become something huge were there to be seen, maybe in places where lecturers and university scholars do not spend too much time (at least officially…); for instance, Polish Playboy n. 5 / 2011 had Triss Merigold on the cover page, and I do not think this happened before to any other videogame female character:
We should be really interested in what happens in videogames for other reasons, too; an interesting note on the wikipedia page of The Witcher quotes the study Past for the eyes: East European representations of communism in cinema and museums after 1989 (2008), stating that Geralt behavior in the Witcher stories is emblematic of Polish popular culture’s spirit of “neo-liberal anti-politics” in the 1990s. Here we go: from a tv series to a videogame, to a sociopolitical analysis of a Country addressing the roots of modern anti-politics sentiment. Personally, I do not trust these kinds of generalizations, but the very fact that this happened talking about a fictionary character promoted by videogames, should tell us something on where to pay attention to understand what is happening nowadays.
The Witcher on Netflix
The first 8 episodes of the series have been released on Netflix, and more have been announced for the future; a huge debate started online, involving all the people feeling ownership of this story, to discuss whether Netflix was faithful to the spirit, or to the letter of the Witcher world, or to none of the two.
I read any possible kind of critics, from the geography not being clearly explained (?) to some obscure reference to third rank characters not being fully respondent, to the fact that… Triss on Playboy is more redhead and less curly, compared to the one in the series 🙂
What I enjoyed anyway is the possibility to make comparisons, maybe not only focusing on Triss hair and going a bit deeper into the storytelling. For instance, the opening video cutscene from the first The Witcher videogame (see below) is quoted almost literally during episode 3 of the series. Not bad, for a production which was said not to have relied on the videogames at all in its making 😉
Another interesting feature of the Netflix production is the continuous shifting back and forth along the story timeline as established in the novels, comics and videogames. Being able to decode and recognize when everything happens, before getting (some) more hints from the next episodes, is the kind of prize that convergence culture gives to the most able users, bounding them even more to the story they have proved to know so well, and furthermore developing their sense of ownership.
Folklore, tradition and invention
Another very interesting remark is, what happens when the ownership of the story includes folklore, traditional tales and depictions of your country’s past times, mixed up with invention and artistic creation?
The witcher, either in novels, comic books and videogames, is quite openly based on slavic folklore and tradition. You can recognize the old glagolitic alphabet from the 9th Century Moravia on the Witcher’s sword during the opening video of The Witcher 3, and find names of slavic spirits and deities in the runes used to power up your gear in the same game.
My favorite one, the Chernobog rune, increasing the attack power intensity, is named after the obscure and evil slavic deity also depicted in American Gods 😉
The aforementioned battle opening The Witcher 1, and appearing in the episode 3 of the Netflix series, features Geralt against a striga (or, in Polish: strzyga) which is a traditional kind-of-vampire monster to be found in all slavic mythologies.
But then, mixing folklore and tradition and history, how long before someone will throw the old black-man- in-medieval-Europe argument, for instance? Videogames and race: it is something recurrent in discussing medieval videogames, and it already caused a huge debate about Kingdom Come: Deliverance a year ago or so.
Netflix series has a much more diverse presence in the cast, with people of Asian, African and Indian descent side-to-side to the white people which are the wide majority in the videogames. In fact the controversy already (re-)started, as you can easily see by yourself in Reddits like this one – and it also shows how relevant are videogames nowadays for their users.
It is very interesting to see so much effort in establishing with historical accuracy something which is at least questionable, for the huge presence of Arabs and Moors all over Europe in the same period: that black people should not be in any depiction of Poland during the middle ages. So black people should not be there for historical accuracy… and what about witchers with magical powers then, instead?!?
Ownership and historical accuracy can be used in a very political way, and this is the kind of cultural wars we should be paying attention to.
So what do you think? Are you watching the series on Netflix and being pleased of what you can recognize thanks to your previous knowledge coming from games, books and comics? Are you into this “historical accuracy” debate? Comments are open as usual!