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

The following post by Emily Marlow, concluding her exploration of religious belief and the Gothic village in The Witcher 3 (you can read Part One here) 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. 
Velen is tellingly referred to as ‘No Man’s Land.’ It is a vast swamp land that, as of the beginning of the game, has recently played the role of the battlefield for a war between the Empire of Nilfgaard, and the Northern Kingdoms. The two factions have attacked from the North and South of Velen, leaving nothing but bloody wastelands and devastation in their wake.

As Geralt you traverse these desolate landscapes and are constantly told by outsiders that Velen is a harsh, rotting mire of a place, not worthy of attention or care. Despite these proclamations and warnings, there is much raw, sublime beauty to be found in Velen. There are gloriously bright sunsets to watch, breathtakingly high peaks to climb with spectacular views on offer, there are magically moonlit woods to wander, sweet cottages with well-tended, rustic gardens to stay in. This is a place of surprising beauty, but of course, it is also home to many a monster.
The villagers who populate Velen may be extremely wary (if not downright racist) when you first approach them as Geralt. To these villagers Geralt, as a Witcher, and perhaps more pressingly, as a man with bright gold cat’s eyes, is a very distinct ‘Other.’ He is a being straight out of myth. This makes the supplications they offer him, in the form of bounties and sometimes, desperate roadside cries, all the more notable. In Velen, times are tough. There is little time for discussions on the merits of faith or devotion, or of whether one should or shouldn’t believe.

Ritual in Velen is distinctly pagan. Many rituals occur at night time, in the open air of forests, woods, by the rivers or in ramshackle abandoned castles. One such ritual is that of Forefather’s Eve, or in Polish, Dziady. The quest takes its name from a real world ritual that itself was the subject of an 1822 romantic era polish poetic drama by Adam Mickiewic.
In the quest Geralt is asked to protect a pellar and the participating villagers from Witch Hunters and other monsters (this time Hags) who attempt to break up the ritual. The choice presented to the player is one of either fighting the Witch Hunters (who claim that the ritual, in which the spirits of the dead are communicated with – is Necromancy) or standing by as they attack the pellar. Whilst the Pellar has already been portrayed as a strange character – an old man wearing a necklace made of chicken feet, living on the edge of a village who has a ‘special’ relationship with his goat Princess, the Witch Hunters are depicted as outright brutes that Geralt visibly dislikes. Perhaps coincidentally they all have thick, almost cockney English accents, as opposed to the slightly Irish/Welsh voices of the villagers. As we all know from films, the English are always evil.
It is repeatedly impressed upon the player that the people of Velen are participating in these rituals because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. This can be seen to form an interesting comment on class divides as in Velen, belief and ritual are uncomfortable necessities, performed by peasants standing knee deep in swamps or by the side of a road, whereas in Novigrad, religion is a distinctly oppressive force controlled by the rich and powerful, acted out in a temple located at the very summit of the city.
Novigrad  is portrayed as a vast, free city, covering an in-game area of around 72km²,  something just a bit smaller than the real world size of Milton Keynes. Despite its pretence as a free city, in Novigrad the Church of the Eternal Fire rules supreme from a vast, nearly entirely gold church. The Church’s religion is based around fire worship, with fire representing purity. This belief in fire’s purification properties is visualised in the way in which members use fire, mainly, to burn alive anyone they consider as a threat, especially ‘Other’ beings, such as supernatural creatures, and people who possess magical powers.

The Church has very little discernible doctrine outside of ‘magic users are bad’ and acts primarily as an antagonistic force used to demonstrate how ‘Other’ Geralt and his friends are.  This is often portrayed as a political, racially charged doctrine, speaking of optional exclusions, rather than the desperate necessitity or ‘natural order’ that is used to define Velen’s beliefs. Magic users and other supernatural beings are depicted as having complex, overlapping belief systems with extensive histories, rituals and lore.
Geralt can visit the Church’s grand temple but cannot enter into it. He cannot take part in any of the Church’s rituals. By shutting these locations and aspects to the player the game encourages the player to view the Church as something inaccessible to them, which in turn could suggest a feeling of unreality, if we are to follow the line that interactivity allows for immersion and therefore believability. By not allowing the player to interact with the religious space they are prevented from generating empathy towards the church. 
Geralt does have various interactions with members of the Church, however nearly all of these are negative. In one of the first dealings with a Church member, a wandering Priest, Geralt is hired to burn the bodies of dangerous Necrophages scattered across the country side. Geralt completes this ritual twice before finding out that some of the bodies he has been burning were actually humans who had been killed by the Priest, who has been buying drugs off bandits and attempted to kill them via the ghouls, hiring Geralt to actually cover his tracks.
In Novigrad, Geralt is continuously accosted by members of the Church’s Witch Hunter enforcement group, who often call him a Monster, make racist comments about his appearance or straight out start fights with him.  By creating a gigantic opulent church that the player cannot interact with, and by having religious characters react negatively to the player without any real reason, the feeling of ‘Otherness’ is increased, aligning the player even further with the supernatural and the members of the neglected villages.

The Witcher creates a gothic landscape by both including and subverting Gothic tropes. It takes the definitively gothic trope of the haunted, desolate swamp land and shows you a space where raw beauty is evident. It includes stereotypical creatures of the Gothic and gives them added depth, allowing the player to assess for themselves whether they are to be feared, trusted, or even pitied.

The Witcher encourages sympathy for the peoples of the Gothic Village of Velen by placing them in the same position of helplessness as that of the daemon in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the daemon, it is easy to see the people of Velen as ‘…a representation (of) the exploited or oppressed class in society…the English industrial working class.’[i] Whilst Geralt himself is not actually a part of these communities directly he too is demonised by the ruling class. Like the daemon he is called a monster, an abomination, and by showing this in parallel with the suffering of the people of Velen the game creates a kinship between the two parties.

By overwhelming the player with a landscape full of supernatural beings, and by creating a character for whom the supernatural is the norm, the game creates a world in which the supernatural IS natural, and the supposedly natural, or the aesthetically beautiful is actually found to be illusory, fake, false.  In The Witcher, the ‘real’ religion is portrayed as mere finger puppets for a racially motivated regime, whereas the ‘occult’ and the supernatural are given time, consideration, and space, and are shown to be made up of ‘real’ living people with mostly innocent and honest concerns. By extension, and again, like Frankenstein, The Witcheris a world where it is not the monsters but the humans who are monstrous.

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] Nicholas Marsh, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, p. 177