Content Warning: sexual assault, domestic abuse/violence against women, miscarriage, substance abuse, racial prejudice, and unmarked Witcher 3 spoilers.
What is a monster? In most fantasy games, the answer is “something you are supposed to kill.” You go out into the overworld and plunge your sword into goblins, werewolves, zombies, dragons, demons, and everything else that drops gold and grants experience points. These creatures vary in their levels of sentience, with some appearing quite animalistic while others can form complete sentences and may have complex societies similar to those of the “civilized races.” You aren’t given a lot of room to question, though. Because no matter how much a monster may resemble a human being, by their very nature they exist for no reason except to be killed by humans. Perhaps the easiest way to boil down the concept of exactly what a monster is would be to call it the other. In the simplest possible terms, a monster is anything that is not human.
That of course brings us around to another philosophical question: what is humanity? What does it mean to be a human rather than a monster? The answer to this question gets complicated in a world where monsters can have families, children, religion. Where they can want nothing except to be left alone, or when they desire to do good in the world according to their vision of right and wrong. Should a fantasy hero second guess himself about plunging his sword into a creature that can speak and beg for mercy? Is that better or worse than killing something that simply wanted to eat so it could survive? If it’s okay to kill a monster for a reason that would cause one to balk if used to justify the death of a human, what is the reason for that? Why do humans get to be special?
Some video games never dare to grapple with these questions. They present monsters as an inherent evil and humans as an inherent good, charging you to slay monsters without thought for both fun and profit. The Witcher 3 goes a layer deeper than this and dares to explore the idea that perhaps monstrosity and humanity are not as straightforward as we think. Geralt himself, when hearing that his steel sword is for humans while his silver sword is for monsters, raises the complexity of the issue when he bluntly replies “they’re both for monsters.” In this article, I want to explore first examples in the game of humans who are seen as monstrosities, then discuss monsters who may be treated like humanity, before finally looking at whether or not the game does a good job of addressing these subjects with nuance.
Ever watched a zombie movie? It doesn’t take too many of these to recognize that the same philosophy drives nearly all zombie stories: humans are the real monsters. Yes, these undead creatures eat people and spread their horrific infection, but the true focus of the story is typically on the humans who take advantage of this situation to acquire power and to impose that power on the other members of their own species. What new lows will humanity stoop to when the only law of the land is who has the most fighters or the biggest weapons? When cruelty is more valued than compassion? The Witcher, too, focuses on the monstrosity of humanity as a theme, highlighting multiple characters throughout the game whose actions reveal them to be more monstrous than the monsters that Geralt is hired to slay. There are two specific examples I want to highlight here: Phillip Strenger and Cyprian Wiley, better known as the Bloody Baron and Whoreson Junior, respectively.
The Bloody Baron is portrayed in a way that could almost be seen as sympathetic. A war veteran, Strenger married shortly before being marched off to battle and returned to find that his wife had found comfort in the embrace of another man. His reaction was to kill that man and, as he had done to escape the horrors of war, lose himself in drink. While inebriated he would batter his wife, and that battering would eventually lead to the loss of an unborn child. When both his wife and his daughter fled his home, he hired Geralt to find them. As the player you can choose for Geralt to be understanding of or critical of Strenger’s actions, but at the end of the day the game clearly judges him as a monstrosity. This becomes most clear when you are forced to deal with the monster born of his violent actions: a zombified version of his miscarried daughter.
The idea of monstrous humans giving metaphorical birth to more monsters is a theme that carries strongly throughout The Witcher. Multiple times throughout the game you will face creatures called noonwraiths, women whose untimely death prevented them from seeing their wedding day. These terrifying ghosts are attached to the world of the living by their pain and regret, and they unleash that pain on any unwitting humans who pass them by. Yet they themselves are victims of human cruelty, monsters created by the monstrous actions of other people. Whether or not you feel sympathy for them doesn’t make a difference: killing them is the only way to “free” them from this eternal victimhood.
Women and monstrosity is its own topic within this discussion, because Witcher’s handling of the topic is a bit archaic to say the least. The very concept of the noonwraith – the idea that a wedding is such an important event in a woman’s life that the failure to have one would cause her to become a murderous ghost – is one that enforces unhealthy stereotypes about women when it comes to their ambitions in life. When women aren’t used as monsters, though, they are instead tools to highlight the monstrosity of human men. This brings us comfortably (or realistically, very uncomfortably) to the next monstrous human of this discussion, Whoreson Junior.
Whoreson is a crime lord in the city of Novigrad, a man who is an enemy to many of Geralt’s allies and who might know the whereabouts of Ciri (for whom Geralt is eternally searching). The game chooses to emphasize Whoreson’s villainy by highlighting his misogynistic treatment of women, particularly when it comes to sex workers. Whoreson has a reputation for constantly bringing new prostitutes to his hideout and no one ever sees them leave. When Geralt finally arrives at the hideout, he learns why – they’re dead. Whoreson murders these women for sport after they do their job, and you as the player get the “pleasure” of seeing them strung up and mutilated so that you know for sure that Cyprian Wiley is a bad man.
Rape and torture are regularly referenced as tools to establish that someone is bad. Witch hunters referring to their greatest pleasure coming from sorceress “interrogations,” looters at a mansion loudly declaring their cruel intentions for the nobleman’s daughter – the ease and frequency with which the game references sexual violence is honestly unsettling to me as someone who has worked with victims in my professional life. What makes it frustrating is that invoking this specific traumatic experience is clearly done to position Geralt as being more heroic. “Rapist” is an easy shorthand for “monster” that immediately justifies violence and hatred, putting Geralt – and by extension the player – in a position of moral superiority. It’s a frustrating and unnecessary attempt at creating an obvious black-and-white when the game is at its best when it forces you to operate in complicated greys. Nowhere is that clearer than when dealing with monsters who are treated more like humans.
I use “humanoid” here not to mean human-shaped but rather monsters who are human in quality. These are the other that the game still treats like people, giving you the opportunity to treat them with mercy and respect. Granted, the game also gives you the opportunity to kill them as a witcher is often hired to do. If you choose, you can portray Geralt as a fierce and unrelenting monster hunter who kills any creature that appears even vaguely nonhuman. But Witcher 3 doesn’t particularly want you to be this person, and so far in my experience no quest makes that clearer than the one involving a godling by the name of Sarah.
While searching for Ciri in Novigrad, Geralt has to search for a woman named Corinne Tilly who may be able to use her powers to lead him to Ciri. Tilly is a type of magician who divines information through dreams, but when Geralt finds her, she is firmly trapped in a nightmare state from which she cannot wake. This turns out to be the prank of a godling named Sarah who does not want her home to be taken from her. After Corinne is freed, Geralt is hired by the man who owns the house to try and drive Sarah out. By choosing to lie to the man and forgo a reward, Sarah gets to stay at her home, and she even develops a friendship Corinne that leads to the two of them happily living together inside the house. When the cutscene plays outlining the choices Geralt made to reach this point, it is clear that you’ve found the happy ending for these characters and essentially gone down the correct path.
Sparing monsters is something I’ve done liberally throughout my playthrough. Most of the monsters are just as justified if not more justified in their actions than the humans described earlier in the article. At worst, most monsters are simply acting on those instincts which drive every living creature: food and shelter. Does a monster deserve to die for killing humans when those humans flagrantly entered its territory or took action to antagonize it? Or what about the monsters who literally are not bothering anybody? At one point I met a rock troll who claimed to be a soldier of the Temerian army. All he wanted was some paint so he could draw a Temerian flag on a nearby fortification. He was just minding his business out in the middle of nowhere – why kill such a creature? Unless you subscribe to the belief that “monster equals bad,” there truly is no reason.
This whole topic gets muddied even further when you consider that the game features nonhuman creatures that are still considered close enough to human to live with them, and they are handled more like separate races rather than an entirely different species of creature. Elves, dwarves, and halflings are all examples of creatures who are essentially given the human treatment in the sense that they don’t have bounties on their heads to be hunted by witchers the same way that monsters do. Instead, they are victims of racial prejudice, regularly harassed on the street or given other forms of prejudicial treatment like refusal of services or being suspected of criminal behavior simply for existing.
It is not uncommon for nonhuman, sentient creatures in fantasy fiction to be treated as monsters, and Witcher falls into this trap the same as any other game. What meaningful difference other than physical characteristics is there between an elf, a succubus, and a human? Yet the human gets preferential treatment, the succubus is worthy of murder simply for existing, and the elf falls into some middle where they are tolerated but still mistreated. The ethics of fantasy worlds like this are deeply complicated, and Wild Hunt tries to maintain a sort of neutrality while letting you as the player sort out what you think the right answer is.
The whole matter of race is further complicated by Geralt’s own status as an other of sorts. Due to being exposed to mutagens in order to enhance their senses, strength, and speed, witchers are essentially nonhumans themselves. They look human enough, but mutated as they are there are many qualities about them which prevent them from being recognized as entirely human by humanity. For this they are ostracized – that is, until they can prove themselves useful by bringing their swords to bear against the creatures that humanity considers to be even more other than the witchers themselves. Where Geralt’s allegiance falls on the scale is ultimately up to the player; you decide for yourself whether it is better to be a “human” or a “monster,” whatever those terms may mean to you.
Exploring humanity and monstrosity in fantasy is an important task to undertake. If employed properly, it can help us to understand how we view the concept of an other and to understand that morality is informed by perspective. Consequences are not always black and white, and the measuring rod used to evaluate goodness or badness often varies from person to person based on their culture and worldview. The Witcher attempts to be a neutral party in the expedition to explore these difficult questions, but sometimes fails to address social issues with the same nuance that it applies to decisions like whether or not you should release an ancient druid from her creepy heart prison.
I’m enjoying the hard questions that The Witcher asks me most of the time. I’m all about questioning the humanity of humans and lifting up those who are assumed to be monsters. That said, I wish the game had used a bit more subtlety when it comes to issues of gender specifically – in an effort to portray a “gritty, realistic” world, the game sacrifices the complexity that makes its best moments truly shine. And although it makes an effort to lift women up through characters like Triss, Ciri, and Yennifer, any woman who doesn’t have plot armor is simply a tool to demonstrate male cruelty or male heroism.
What is a monster? I asked this question at the beginning of the article. Wild Hunt too asks this question, and gives you a protagonist who falls close enough to the middle to allow you to explore that question in depth. The answer you come away with will vary based on the choices you make when playing the game, but what makes the Witcher compelling is that most of the time, it asks the question in an interesting enough way to make you pause for a moment to really consider the implications of your answer. What does it mean to be human? Each time you choose, the answer becomes more complicated. Eventually, you may come to recognize that you don’t really know the answer at all.