The quest for medievalism in ‘The Witcher 3’.

I realize that not everyone finds Medievalism to be as fascinating as I do, but this is really, um, fascinating!

Introduction: In the fictive landscape of the Northern Kingdoms, the character Geralt of Rivia rides on his chestnut mare clad in chainmail armour whilst sporting two-handed swords comparable to a zweihander or longsword of the late 15th century. As I encounter my second village through the third-person view of my protagonist, a short observation leaves me with the impression of a plausible society taken from the Middle Ages. Such a historically detailed environment within a fantasy game of the 21st century should be no surprise to the avid gamer, however, it raised the question of the representation of history within computer games.


This study seeks to investigate the medieval thematic in computer gaming and pursue what historical elements that persist through this relatively new medium. More distinctly, the many missions and quests experienced in the ‘The Witcher 3’ is the main object of study as they work in concert, providing both enhanced purpose for the player as well as constricting the freedom given in the open world of the Northern Kingdoms. Quests – a task or mission given by non-playable characters (NPCs) or during certain interaction with objects in the game – present a variety of impressions through participatory segments that the player encounters in the game. It is the potent meaning of said quests that this study seek to delve into in order to find, not only the historical features, but also the fascination that seems to propagate itself in games.

You can read Christer Lidén’s full thesis here. (.pdf)



  1. says

    I just got through Witcher3. It’s a beautiful piece of work (it supports Nvidia’s Ansel interface so you can shoot multi-gigapixel still screenshots) -- there are a few things about it that are kind of odd. There’s a lot of renaissancy-looking armor and outfits (pretty cool!) and then there are some very stereotypical vikings. Well, OK, you gotta have vikings, right?

    The city maps are truly amazing; not quite as good as ‘Dishonored’ but very close. The other thing I more or less loved about the game is that some of the maps made sense. I.e.: the witchers’ castle at Caer Morhen actually was laid out like a castle that had evolved in layers, had some walls knocked down, and walls put up to shore up the defenses. There were none of the silliness you find in World of Warcraft, where there are huge walls and flying mounts (duh!) and huge walls with no stairs up them. Siege-works were clearly based on someone having spent a lot of time looking at how castles are built and how they fall down.

    The only (and this is saying something!) part that came across to me as horribly wrong was the horses. That’s not to say that riding was not infinitely better than in any other game with horses, but it was close enough that there were occasionally moments of “huh?!” Like, your faithful mount Roach (all Geralt’s mounts are called ‘Roach’) won’t ford across a teeny little stream, but will jump over a gap in a bridge. Real horses would a) stop and drink at the stream b) buck you off occasionally when you asked them to charge directly at Griffons c) not come when you whistle, or -- at least -- not always come when you whistle d) not run away from wolves but stand around placidly staring at the landscape while you dismount to fight a troll.

    There are some moments where the game amazed me with its perfection and timing. At one point, I slaughtered a few thugs that needed slaughtering, who attacked me on horseback. I used spells to dismount them then reduced them to components and looted the corpses, as one does. When I walked over to loot one of the alleged perpetrators, its horse neatly kicked me with a perfectly rendered “ta-TUM!” double back-leg kick. This was especially funny since I hadn’t healed back up, yet, so it killed me. I have screencaptures of it, I ought to post them. I’ve never been so happy to get my head kicked in in a game.

  2. says

    Thank you for that comprehensive and entertaining summary! As to the horses, well, y’know, I expect that’s one place people feel free to take liberties, but there’s a bit of medievalism in that. Belted knights spent a fortune on their (battle) horse, which would be extensively trained, not only to be calm in most terrifying situations, but also to fight back, a la biting faces of opponents, and kicking. Those horses used to be fitted with battle shoes which had very nasty spikes on, so getting kicked was often fatal. Even the wolves are answerable, as most knights wouldn’t necessarily take their cherished battle horse out hunting, (they often did), but hunting horses were also extensively trained. Every castle had a mareschal, who was in charge of all a castle’s horses, from rounceys to battle horses. Hunting horses had to be extremely calm in what would normally be a dire situation to a horse, hunting hounds, lots of noise, lots of blood all over the place, the dangerousness of whatever was being hunted (often wolves), and so on.

  3. says

    Well, Roach is kind of narcotized most of the time. :) But they got some of the movements really really well. Others, not so good.

    I should fire it up and record a clip of what happens when you gallop straight at a castle wall. (Roach stops, you stay on) I also did some impressive horse parkour one time -- the horse algorithm appears to calculate “nope slope” but if you dance around on the edge of a crazy slope sometimes it’ll fail and over you go -- like the Man From Snowy River except I went down a half mile slope into water. Roach, naturally, was totally cool with it.

  4. says

    One time I was hauling a bale of hay out to this morgan, Bernoulli, who was a bit skittish. I came around the edge of the barn, not realizing he was standing there and he must have seen a bale of hay attacking him, and kicked it. That was interesting. I was instantly teleported a ways away in a cloud of hay, and my lungs weren’t functioning.

    Eventually I will get around to posting some of Marbot’s stories about his hell-horse Lisette.

  5. says

    :laughing: Oh, you remind me of Roger, a character in Douglas Nicholas’s Medieval novels. Roger does not get along with any horse, any horse at all, and busies himself with pungent and vulgar cussing at his mount in one extended scene, with the other knights happily making fun. Naturally, every horse within earshot takes offense at Roger, particularly his mount, who does many of those devious little horse tricks to fuck him up, but good. :D

    I’ve never had a bad relationship with any of mine, although I once got a mount out at a riding stable in El Toro that no one warned me about -- gave me a bolter. That fucker bolted on me, which wouldn’t normally have been a problem, but I trusted someone else to saddle him up, and I’ll bet you can guess what they did wrong. The saddle slipped sideways, and I went down a fucking cliff. Fun!

  6. says

    I’ve heard how good the Witcher games are, but sadly I refuse to play any games now where my character has to be a white man. Once representation is more balanced, maybe I could come back and try these out.

  7. says

    Tabby Lavalamp@#6:
    You’re right; it’s really unfortunate.

    I tend to cut the game-makers some slack when they are producing a plot-driven game with voice-acting, since they have to produce more voice-packs or motion captures for the heroic characters. That’s not an excuse for a multimillion-selling AAA-rated title like Witcher, though. It ought to be part of the development strategy for internationalization and portability (the difference, in my opinion, between an AAA-rated title and everything else) After all “if they can do it in Mass Effect, they can do it for everything” applies.

    What I do is use my “no platform exclusives” rule on games that do a bad job of gender/race/appearance of main characters: I don’t buy them. I may still play them, but I make sure the manufacturer doesn’t get a sale from me. So, if some manufacturer makes a deal with Sony or Microsoft or whoever and has an “only on Xbox” game, I buy a used copy on ebay, thereby cannibalizing their existing sales. This is a problem, though, that’s going to get worse now that netflix and everyone else are going into the movie business: they’ll only offer their content on their platform. Yay, capitalism. Yay, lock-in.

    Denying them money is probably going to work better than sending them a strongly-worded letter but maybe I should do that, too.

  8. says

    I trusted someone else to saddle him up, and I’ll bet you can guess what they did wrong

    P-nut was an inflatable horse. Once I had him saddled up, he’d usually fart and get smaller until the saddle was loose, at which point he’d start his famous bouncywalk.

  9. says

    Awww fuck, I can’t help it, I like P-nut. All horses will pull that one if you let ’em. That’s one reason I’d ride bareback so much.

  10. says

    All horses will pull that one if you let ’em.

    That was far from his best trick.
    His best trick was the time he found a youngish tree that had broken off at an angle but was still attached at the stump, marched up to it, hooked the saddle-horn under the trunk and took 3 steps forward, then dropped his shoulder so the trunk launched me out of the saddle. I saw the whole thing coming and was laughing too hard, “no, really, you don’t think you’re going to get away with thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”

  11. says


    His best trick was the time he found a youngish tree that had broken off at an angle but was still attached at the stump, marched up to it, hooked the saddle-horn under the trunk and took 3 steps forward, then dropped his shoulder so the trunk launched me out of the saddle. I saw the whole thing coming and was laughing too hard, “no, really, you don’t think you’re going to get away with thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”

    :falls over laughing: Oh man. That’s a horse with his own mind and wicked sense of humour.

  12. says

    I don’t know enough about medievalism or horses to really judge their treatment in video games. Although I will say that I was pleasantly surprised when Skyrim made a direct reference to the Eddas. At least the writers of that game know their pedigree.

    Anyway, you know me, all about the Persian stuff. I don’t think I’m an expert on any aspect of history, but if I were, it would be Persian. And I probably don’t need to tell this crowd how disappointing video games have been in that regard. (Dahaka is not an incarnation of fate. Dahaka is not an incarnation of fate. Dahaka is not a fucking incarnation of fucking fate!) I’m stuck between terrible representation of my people and heritage or none at all, which I know is a sadly familiar situation for many peoples today.

  13. says


    I’m stuck between terrible representation of my people and heritage or none at all, which I know is a sadly familiar situation for many peoples today.

    Unfortunately, yes. I’m often immersed in Medieval period Persian Illuminated Manuscripts, which are some of the most beautiful ever. Exquisite artwork. It’s hard to find them with translations, and I really wish I could read them. Unfortunately, Persian history is one people think they can mine and twist with impunity, just as they think they can do with any indigenous peoples, and they do. People won’t even get rid of the ‘redskins’ name. So yeah, I grok. I’m gonna go do some reading up on Dahaka.

  14. says

    I’d love to help, but I’m not fluent enough in Persian to understand even a modern-day children’s show. I’m working on it, though.

    But yeah, Dahaka’s just one of the things that the Prince of Persia franchise has gotten painfully wrong.

  15. says

    Yeah, there’s a smattering of issues around that. I’ve actually considered doing a brief video explaining it. But for now, I’ll just highlight a few points. Iranian and Persian are both ancient names that go back to the beginning of recorded history. For a long time, the situation was that the people living inside the country called it Iran while the rest of the world called it Persia. That didn’t change until the 20th century after Reza Pahlavi became the shah.

    Also, Iranian can refer to a wider range of ethnic groups that includes the Pashtun, Kurds, and Tajiks. I typically call myself Iranian rather than Persian, but I’ll often use Persian when talking about history or my more specific ethnic lineage.

  16. says

    @Tabby Lavalamp
    In this particular case, I think you are unfair. You are judging from the perspective of Anglophone imperialism a work of art that emreged from entirely different culture.

    This is polish game, about a fantasy book character that was extremely popular in Slavic nations in time when almost all fantasy was written by anglophones and for anglophones and contained almost exclusively references to anlophone folklore and history. Witcher, both the books and the game draw extensively from Slavic folklore (albeit with bits taken from everywhere else) and even history.

    After Witcher came out there was a lot of bemoaning about the lack of POC. I personally do not begrudge Poles for making game with characters that bear typical Polish facial features in a setting heavily resembling Polish medieval times. And at a time when Poles were wilivied in at least part of Anlgophone world (Brexit!)

    I think it is a part of American exceptionalism to require everyone everywhere to atone for US sins.

    As far as representation of women goes, it is admittedly not ideal but both the games and the books -- have two main characters. One of them is a woman. And she is no damsel in distress. Andrzej Sapkowski was a self-described feminist way before the internet was a thing. A flawed one, but everyone is flawed.

  17. says

    @Caine, here is a short synopsis of the history of both the books and the games from the top of my head. I try to make it spoiler-free in case you wish to read the books. Due to the popularity of the game they are being translated into English now and slowly published. I would recommend them, the are better than LOTR by miles.

    There is an old Slavic fairy tale about a cobbler who saves cursed princess by spending a night in her tomb. Andrzes Sapkowski took in 90s this fairy tale and thought about it from rational point of view -- how would an event like that play out in a medieval-like world where magic really exists? And he decided that in such a world curse-breaking and monster-slaying would not be performed by cobblers, third sons or other such nonsense, but by professionals. And he wrote his first short story about a professional monster-slayer, a “witcher” from this perspective.

    He entered a contest for Polish Sci-Fi magazine Fantastyka with that story and won, with the story becoming very popular in multiple Slavic countries, like Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Russia and Ukraine. Subsequently he wrote multiple short stories about this character spanning over three books.

    These short stories contained mostly male characters, but many strong secondary female characters were also introduced throughout them -- military leaders, warriors, witchers etc. There was even a story where the female character was in the lead. There were people of color (Zerrikanian female warriors) but to adress the theme of racism Sapkowski has mostly used dwarves and elves, who are second-class citizens in human dominated world, subjected to pogroms and discriminations. They are a metaphore for native people being conquered by colonizers as well as for all kinds of racial prejudice.

    I remember reading one interview between Andrzej Sapkowski and then prominent Czech feminist and writer Carola Biedermannová. The interwiew started something like “Hi, I am Carola Biedermanová, Czech feminist and writer” “Hi, I am Andrzej Sapkowski, Polish feminist and writer”. Some feminist issues with the books were adressed in that interwiew, like sex positivity and (I think) consent, but I forgot the details and I cannot dig now throug some 150 magazines to find it.

    Due to extreme popularity, Sapkowski in following years wrote a series of five novels. There female characters became more and more prominent, even though the titular character remained Geralt of Rivia. The main plot turns on its head the “damsel in distress” and “noble knight on his quest for his lady” tropes as the main female character, whom the witcher endeavors to save, evolves over the course of the books into the de-facto main character more important than the witcher himself, and also more powerful. The only “saving” that takes place is that of an adolescent being moraly educated by her more mature and experienced guardians (of both sexes), and even that is very subtle.

    The games followed a similar pattern. The first game was visibly a fan-fiction made by men and for men, although I know a woman who enjoyed playing it. It had a very good story, but apart from many technical issues, it was realy very sexist. There were important female characters that were not mere eye-candy or trophies to win, but most indeed were only eye-candy to win and to fuck. The authors got some well deserved flak for that and adjusted accordingly. Second game was a huge step forward, with secondary female character being more prominent and powerful (thus being more true to the books), and multiple possible play-throughs. But she was a damsel-in distress who had to be saved, although in some play throughs she was to be saved from other, even more powerful women. I do not know if authors got some flak for this too, but third game was a huge step forward again. Not only are there strong female characters, but none of them are intrinsically in need of saving. None of the female characters is portrayed as inferior to their male counterparts. Sexism is portrayed, according to what the authors probably perceived as middle-age like societal sexism, but it is not propagated in the form of weak women in need of saving, only portrayed in the form of gendered insults and prejudiced individuals -- and I perceived that sexism as being a flaw of given individual, not a boon (that might be my progressive bias). And again, the most powerful playable (albeit only for short segments) and for the plot essential character is a woman -- the same one that became the main protagonist in the novels.

    The game has multiple endings for multiple quests. There are options to play the game as a sexist condescending jerk, but those lead to “bad” ending, thus such behaviour is not encouraged but punished by the gameplay. But it could be done better.

    In conclusion, yes there are still issues to be had with third issue of the game -- as well as the books. But they are more progressive on all fronts than most contemporaries.

    P.S. to the gendered insults -- AFAIK in Slavic languages it is nigh impossible to make non-gendered insults. The languages have multiple grammatical genders (Czech has four) and when talking to/about a person you are forced to pick from binary. There is no way around that, the languages are build that way. It is not possible to write gender neutral story in them (definitively not in Czech), not even from first point of view.

  18. says

    Oooh, thanks for that, Charly! I definitely want to read the books. I’m not one who thinks the LOTR books are all that, so I don’t hold them up as a standard.

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