A month has past. I haven’t played a lot of any game lately; we are approaching exam season after all. Yet my designated gaming time has been mostly devoted to The Witcher. I’ve completed Chapter 1 and I’ve made (what I assume is) serious headway into Chapter 2. From a gamer’s perspective, I’m enjoying the quirky, if slightly clunky gameplay and intriguing story-telling. From an Historian’s perspective, I am quite enamoured – despite the fantastical overtones the game is letting its historic side shine.
Part 1 was more of an introduction than anything else. This time around, I’m still far from an overall view of the first Witcher game, but there are a few areas that I feel I know well enough to discuss. As with my ‘analysis’ of Skyrim, I will never assume that I am an absolute authority on The Witcher or History; that’s why I title these blogs with the question, “How historically accurate is…”.
I should also make it clear that I have not read the literature which inspires and informs the franchise. I do know that the author created these tales with an historical undertone. I really want to read the translated books (or listen to them, I’m really into audio books of late) but it has always been a deliberate intention to comment on the historic elements of videogames only. If I happen to touch upon elements that were based on History in the novels: that just goes to show that games and books are brilliant.
“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance”
I could scrutinise the historic inaccuracies of the combat in The Witcher. I could do that… but I don’t want to. In the end, The Witcher does a relatively decent job of grounding the swordplay in reality, especially when considering other games.
I could be annoyed that Geralt wears sword over his shoulder. I’m vaguely aware that this is a quality described in the novels, but it’s historically rare and dangerously impractical. If the sword is longer than your arm, it’s stuck there. Yet the extravagant way Geralt unsheathes his sword – flinging the blade off his back into the air and catching it without looking – is a delightfully delicious way of showing that a sword worn on the belt is so much more practical and accurate.
Criticism could also be laid on the fighting style itself. All those extravagant, tiring, arching sword swings are a long way from the efficient and powerful moves present in medieval fencing. Still, the combat has some historic merit. Geralt’s animations emphasise the importance of footwork and stance in swordplay. A duel in the middle ages could be won on the distance between fighters and the reach of their swords.
There are three sword fighting options in the game – Strong, Fast and Group. This coincides with the fact that there were many different schools of combat in the medieval world. Depending on the era and geographical region, a fighter would be trained in one of various fighting styles. In the 14th and 15th Century, the German style was a dominant form of fencing, which was usually fought with longswords. A lack of evidence prevents modern practitioners from truly replicating ancient styles, but the written records of fencing masters are a great help. One of the greatest influences was Johannes Liechtenauer.
Liechtenauer was a late-14th Century fencing master, who outlined the principles of the German style, which were developed and fostered by other masters over the next few centuries. In some areas, the fighting in The Witcher adheres to those principles:
- The importance of footwork and stance – it may look like Geralt is shuffling, but his placement is vital.
- The importance of speed and agility – he might be a show-off, but speed is his greatest weapon.
- The importance of always being on the offensive – the emphasis on forward momentum over blocking is an importance quality in the game. With each hit, he steps forwards.
However, there is one key principle that the combat animation fails at horribly:
- The importance of basic, straightforward, ‘hewing’ blows – even in ‘Strong mode’, Geralt is rarely aiming to put his opponents down with a single, killing strike to one of the “four openings” described by fencing masters.
It’s therefore the flamboyance of Geralt’s style that breaks with History. It’s worth noting here how parrying works in the game. Geralt will parry independently of your commands. In contrast medieval swordsmen would practice moves that allowed them to parry and attack at the same time. A skilled fighter could block their opponent’s blade with a killing blow of their own, or simply step out of harm’s way to strike their off-balanced foe. Having said that, the fact that Geralt’s ability to parry naturally (not requiring a button prompt) is a great way to approach a skill that should come naturally to swordsmen.
I also enjoy the way that Geralt uses the whole sword. My favourite ‘execution’ animation involves the Witcher seizing his sword by the blade and bashing his opponent with the broad end – a medieval technique used against armoured opponents.
That’s not a Barghest. THIS is a Barghest.
Every RPG needs a nice, soft enemy to start on. Giant rats are the usual punching bag for novices, so I was pleased to see The Witcher starting with Barghest. These demonic dogs are a tad more menacing, and have an historic lineage. Rather than use the wonderfully alliterative term of ‘Hellhound’ to label these ghostly fiends, the game instead adopts of term for a specific monster that often supposedly roamed Northern England. The rumoured beast in the Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is formed from the same idea.
The Barghest in The Witcher are actually tamer than the ‘real world’ monster. The huge, goblin dog with jet black hair that apparently killed pretty much everyone that it saw would make short work of the ghost pups Geralt confronts. Whilst the demon dogs in the game have the fiery eyes and nocturnal habits of their mythological counterparts, they lack the creepy jingling chains and shape-shifting abilities that Northern England’s monsters sometimes possessed (you know, when “demon dog attack” isn’t a scary enough story). This is one example of the ‘real’ monster being more dangerous than the in-game alternative… but then, the player needs to start somewhere.
In a Manor of speaking.
If you’ve played a Role-Playing Game, chances are you’ve seen a castle. You’ve no doubt traipsed through your fair share of peasant hovels and villages, the occasional farm and maybe even a walled city. No matter how much fantasy is in a fantasy game, Historic places provide the template. Yet few games provide such an accurate depiction of medieval civilization as a whole.
The entire map of Chapter One is a superb summary of a medieval Manor. No castle, walled town or capital city can live an isolated existence. Indeed, a castle or manor house is merely the central hub of an expanse of land that the local lords govern. Vizima is a very expansive city, but without the pastures and villages around it the city could neither survive nor truly serve its purpose. Whilst large stone walls might be built around a manor house, town or city, the supporting farmland and villages set beyond those walls are a crucial part of their existence.
Two images to prove the point. This image shows the basic layout of a medieval manor:
This is the map of the outskirts from Chapter One:
The same elements exist in each one. the swirling dirt roads; the village housing local villeins; the parish church; the large expanse of farmland; the forest and rivers providing natural resources, and so on. As I venture through Chapter Two, I’m beginning to see new elements expanding this historic landscape. The swamps on the other side of Vizima, I’ve met brickmakers in clay pits and lumberjacks hard at work. If I find a stone quarry later in the game, the picture of a medieval township will be complete (unless they import the stone, which is more than likely). Thus, the entirety of Chapter One is visually historic, because it so clearly illustrates the medieval man-made ecosystem.
As for the Historic access of the city itself, I will leave that for Part 3; I’ve only explored one quarter after all.
I’d be happily playing The Witcher even if I wasn’t focused on finding the History bits. The fact that I’ve chipped away a few nuggets of Historical accuracy only makes a good game more enjoyable. The fighting is a little bit too extravagant, the evil dogs are a little bit tame compared to mythology, but so far the game has got some serious History muscles. I’ve no doubt that that has a great deal to do with the literary work behind the book, but it’s also great to see that History has made the transition along with the fiction.
Part 3 will show up next month, providing I don’t spend too long in taverns betting on fistfights and dice poker. All this gambling is for research, I swear. Just one more game?
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