On The Witcher 3, Race, and Fantasy Homages

Is The Witcher III too white? What about our fantasy RPG and adventure games in general?

Let's talk about The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and race. This is a topic I briefly covered on Twitter earlier this week, after reading numerous articles, but I felt it deserved my full attention. Some have stated that The Witcher III is indicative of a larger problem in the industry: a lack of minority and female characters in many of our games. I can see raising that criticism. Others have said that CD Projekt Red were simply adapting the books and presenting their culture to a wider audience. I can see that as well.

The Witcher III takes place in red. Zerrikania is over in blue.

The lack of minorities in The Witcher III is not something I mentioned in my review two weeks ago. That's not because I didn't notice - I did - but because I decided in this specific situation that it didn't bother me. Most of the Witcher III takes place in Redania near the southern front of that country's war with the Nilfgaard Empire, or on the islands of Skellige. In both regions, based on the books and previous game titles, it's rare to see people of color. Redania is largely white. The free city of Novigrad might have featured traders from other races, but there's a witch hunt going on. Skellige is a clear homage to Norse culture, so the rarity is justified there too.

Can you find room within the text and game for the occasional minority character? Yeah. Nilfgaard is based on the Roman Empire and like that empire, operates by conscripting those it conquers into its highly-trained army. There probably should be a few darker-skinned soldiers in its ranks, coming from the south of the Continent. In the far southeast, there's an entire race based on Witcher author Andrzej Sapkowski's mashup of African and Indian culture called the Zerrikanians. They're generally off on their own, though they're the origin of the tech behind bombs, which have played a big part in the Witcher's gameplay. Zerrikanian warriors Tea and Vea were featured in the Sword of Destiny collection and CD Projekt Red featured another, Azar Javed, in the first game.

The Hexer TV show and movies also fed into their perceptions.

So yeah, they had opportunity. It would've been cool. Despite that, I understand if the combination of Polish author and Polish developer meant their heads were down working on the game and it didn't come up. Even American studios can miss opportunities for diversity, so devs from a country that's 97 percent Polish (read: almost all white)? I understand that. They made what reflected their thoughts on The Witcher book, movies, and TV shows. It's a choice the developer made, but in this case, I don't fault them for missing the depth of their options.

I don't chastise them, instead stating that they probably should think about it and do better for their upcoming game, Cyberpunk 2077. A title taking place in a futuristic city, a melting pot for different cultures. A title based on the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG series created by Michael Pondsmith, an African-American author. Everything I've read about the game tells me that CD Projekt Red is on the right track when it comes to that game. I'm hopeful.

This commentary is partially based on the fact that The Witcher III doesn't exist alone. There is a larger context in games (and entertainment) that can't be ignored. Are you tired of open world games with conquerable towers and towns that open up the world map with collectible item icons as far as the eye can see? (The Ubisoft method.) Perhaps free-to-play games and monetization is your issue. Downloadable content? Jingoistic first-person shooters? I'm sure some major part of our industry annoys you. I'm sure you have commentary on that and you've potentially aired it on Twitter, Facebook, a forum post, or a blog. This is no different, as these mechanics and design choices are as much a creative decision as the narrative and the characters. A game is taken as a work of art on its own, but it's also measured within a larger context.

Fantasy doesn't have to mean the same tropes over and over.

What others are getting at is developers frequently make a choice to ignore or play up certain aspects of a game or narrative. Especially in fantasy works, developers tend to completely forget the idea of minority characters, even when they're creating the world internally. I've written about this topic before. It's largely because developers are shamlessly stealing from or calling back to the same sources when they create fantasy: the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons.

What I wrote then is still applicable here:

"Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were works of a Eurocentric bias, because that's the life he lived," I wrote previously. "(He was actually rather progressive on topics of race.) Outside of background characters like the Haradrim from the south of Middle-Earth (roughly analogous with Africa) and the Easterlings from the east (roughly analogous with East Asia), Tolkien's fantasy is pretty white. And that extended to fictional worlds based on his work."

"This means, if you happen to be a minority reader or viewer of fantasy, you're generally not represented, whether as a main character or just background color. Sure, there's the occasional hint of Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, Native American, or First Nation tales in our fantasy, but it's certainly not the norm."

"If you play fantasy games, you play games painted in that European ideal. Any people of a different complexion, a different look, or different gender are rare. And when they do appear, they have to be categorized and explained, as if to answer the question "why are you here?" That ranger can't just be a woman with Korean features (people tend to forget that minority doesn't just mean "black"), there has to be a backstory, a whole series of important events to get that person to a point where she can be in the supporting cast or background shooting arrows at dragons. As if gamers can understand the short people with horns, but those with facial features and bodies closer to the real world are simply aberrant."

Look around a bit and you might find something new, like Golem Arcana.

This additional diversity is not a moral obligation, but a creative one. Expand your horizons and tell new stories. More importantly, steal and homage other works and mythologies. Doing so will only help you stand out in a sea of elves, not-elves, orcs, not-orcs, dwarves, and non-dwarves. George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones pulled heavily from the Wars of the Roses, a royal conflict over the throne of England. I did an interview with Harebrained Schemes earlier this year, who based their fantasy tabletop game Golem Arcana on Middle Eastern/Babylonian art. Jade Empire remains one of Bioware's classics, because it's an East Asian fantasy setting, which remains horribly rare to this day.

Developers, I'm asking you to excite and surprise me. I'm asking you to dig deeper. I'm asking you to look towards periods of history we may not know about, books your audience may not have read, movies and television shows we have not seen. If you want to homage, dig deeper; the benefit is you'll look original in a crowd that keeps going back to the same wells.

No, I would not levy the complaint of overwhelming whiteness at The Witcher III and CD Projekt Red though it's true in abstract. But when you expand outwards, to much of the fantasy RPG and adventure space, you see a problem. Not one from a moral standpoint in my mind, but one from a standpoint of sheer boredom. You can take your Orc homage, give it huge fangs and call it a Grahlok, but hey, we both know it's just an Orc. Do better. Dig deeper. Be more original. Stand out from your peers.

I believe in you and your creativity.

Tagged with CD Projekt Red, Opinions, Serious Business.

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