Gothic Bible: Religious Belief & The Gothic Village in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Part One)

The following post by Emily Marlow is part of an ongoing ‘Gothic Bible Blog Series’ and part of the Gothic Bible project, a collaborative project run by Sheffield Gothic and SIIBS at the University of Sheffield, and also the University of Auckland. You can find out more about the project here, and if you want to contribute to the blog series you can email us at Gothic or tweet us at @GothicBible. 

The Witcher was released in 2015 as the final instalment of a trilogy of games based around the character of Geralt of Rivia, also known as The White Wolf, also known as The Butcher of Blavikin.  Geralt is, like the title suggests, a Witcher. He has been trained since childhood to be a monster hunter for hire. Witchers operate by travelling the country, inquiring in villages as to whether there are bounties out for supernatural beasts (or people) whom the village requires help with, and by fulfilling the terms of the bounties for exchange of money, goods or shelter.

Unfortunately for Geralt, he is now one of the last of this breed of people as Witchers are no longer taught, and seemingly, no longer required. It turns out that the Witchers have been almost too efficient, and nearly all the monsters in the world are extinct. Geralt is old (over 100), chemically altered and almost supernatural himself – he has also SEEN THINGS – dealing with the many and varied types of supernatural beings is actually his day job. As such he has little to no problem with believing in the “unknown” forces of the world. Spirits, witches, warlocks, local gods, zombies, demons, werewolves, curses, harpies and griffons. Geralt has faced them all.
The Witcher plays out in what is called an “Open World” game. Open-world games are exactly what it says on the tin, games which take place in an “open”, virtual world. Unlike other games which may take place closed locations that have to be accessed through loading screens, separating the worlds into “Levels” or “Areas” – Open-world games are landscapes that the player can traverse from end to end freely. Open-world games are often the basis for RPG (Role Playing Game) genre stories, such as those found in DragonAge: Inquisition, or Skyrim. RPGS are described by Frans Mayra as a ‘hybrid form of leisure that combines features from strategy games and interactive storytelling.’ [i] Open-world games can often be set in Medieval style fantasy settings, yet there are also non-medieval game settings, with titles like the Fallout franchise, Grand Theft Auto, and even Minecraft.
Open-world games allow for a high level of player immersion within the game’s story. Immersion, the level to which the player believes in the authenticity of a game world, is highly sought after within video game design and play. High immersion requires a much more detailed player experience, so the more nuanced a video game experience is, the more believable it is, the more believable, the greater the opportunity for ‘full’ immersion.  Immersion also allows for a deeper level of empathy with the player character or avatar, as explained by Katherine Ibister in How Games Move Us:
…over the course of gameplay, players extend themselves further into the motivations and the visceral, cognitive, social and fantasy possibilities of the avatar, forging an identification grounded in observation as well as action and experience. [ii]
As Witcher 3 is an Open-world game, there is not just one haunted house, but entire haunted villages. There are multiple swamps, complete with ghouls and other monsters, and there is not one singular vampire, but communities of them. By creating this open environment that encourages full player immersion, the game works to free the player from reality and puts them into a position of full control. Unlike the loss of power or control suffered by many a gothic hero or heroine on entering the gothic space of the narrative, The Witcher gives players agency and a hero who is almost invincible to embody.
So, how does the Gothic Village come into this, and what exactly is it?

The Gothic Village is a proposed umbrella term that would include similar location based Gothic tropes, such as those of Ubervald – the Translyvanian countryside castle of Dracula and his kin, or ‘The Town With a Dark Secret’ – a place that author Stephen King refers to as ‘The Perculiar Little Town’. These locations often feature a small town, community or village where something is definitely wrong and no one wants to talk about it. King uses this in multiple books but the most famous is probably the fictional town of Derry, where Pennywise the clown lives. It’s also seen in King’s Salem’s Lot, or in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth.
The Gothic Village, as seen in The Witcher, has much in common with the genre of the Southern Gothic, or with Lovecraft Country. It exists as a medieval wasteland complete with every Gothic creature under the sun. In the Gothic Village there are the swamps of the Southern Gothic, the rotting corpses hanging from trees or wasting away in deserted battlefields, long abandoned. There are the supernatural nightscapes of Lovecraft country, the skin changing otherworldly beings beyond comprehension.  However, unlike Lovecraft Country, the evil and the corrupt are not actually the supernatural beings but instead their human antagonists.
Another repeated feature of these Gothic Villages is the often completely complicit, tight-knit community who are aware of their constantly dwindling numbers and who are participants in the osterisation of those they consider to be ‘Other.’ In The Witcher the complicity is evident but instead one of the most prominent features of this particular Gothic Village is the way in which this supernatural, unreal world appears to be very much ‘real,’ even mundane.
Villagers will tell you (as Geralt) of how they fell in love with the village werewolf, how they are upset by the lack of communication with a local God, how they are worried about the girl from the nearby village who has become a ghost – not because she scares them but because she is polluting the already low water supply – she’s haunting a well.

In the world of The Witcher, supernatural beings are commonplace, so much so that no-one seems to bat an eyelid at the Witches who live in a nearby swamp and take offerings from the community in the form of ears, and more problematically, children.
Instead of the inescapable dark closed locations of many pieces of Gothic literature, The Witcher’s gothic world, albeit described to the player as a desolate place, is actually quite picturesque, separating it from the stereotypical sinister and dark places of gothic horror.
Instead of being concerned about whether or not giving your children to the Crones is a good or bad idea, residents seem so down on their luck that they are more concerned with how the harvest will pan out. For the inhabitants of Velen there is never the question of ‘do you in believe this?’ because they have seen everything with their own eyes. They have paid for good harvests with their own ears.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post tomorrow.

Emily Marlow is a PhD researcher within SIIBS at the University of Sheffield, exploring religion and sexuality video games. She is currently researching Dragon Age romances, and is particularly fond of romances that involve the Iron Bull. Part of the Gothic Bible project, she is also the brains behind Gaming the Gothic which you can follow on twitter at @GamingTheGothic. 

[i]Frans Mayra, Introduction to Game Studies, p.78
[ii]Ibister, How Games Move Us, p. 13