Thursday, 16 November 2017

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 Witcher is 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

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

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

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Gothic Bible: In the beginning there was ‘A Gothic Story’

In the beginning, there was ‘A Gothic Story,’ and it was…entertaining, to say the least. Or, to quote a recent review of this Eighteenth Century Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, its ‘not “good,” exactly […] If you’re not engrossed, you may be, at least, instructively perplexed.’[i] 

(Original cover page for The Castle of Otranto (left) and cover page of the third edition (right) with the added subtitle of 'A Gothic Story)
First published in 1764, this novel typically leaves its readers baffled, and many critics will briefly cite it as the origin of the Gothic genre, before swiftly moving on to focus on the more celebrated Gothic novels that followed it, such as the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. For example, David Punter writes that:

To put it simply […] the works of Radcliffe and Lewis are dark books, heavy books, where Otranto is light and airy, a fairy-tale rather than a nightmare, even when it strives for the horrific. What is vital about Otranto, though, is the fact that it was the earliest and most important manifestation of the late eighteenth-century revival of romance.[ii]

However odd and baffling, and light and airy The Castle of Otranto is, this Gothic manifestation is a beginning nonetheless. Walpole’s Gothic story sparked a mass of intrigue and curiosity when in was published and which continues to this day, due in part to the novel’s deceptive publication history. This strange novel was actually written by the MP Horace Walpole, son of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, but he did not declare his authorship until the second edition. The first edition actually purported to be a genuine translation of a 16th Century Italian monk, Onuphrio Muralto, which had been recently discovered in the library of ‘an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’ and translated for the British public to devour.[iii]

(Strawberry Hill and contemporary art sculpture by Laura Ford, 2015)
Confessing his deception in the second edition, Walpole also attaches the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’ to his work, and thus coins the name of the genre. Through his narrative, Walpole also laid out many of the foundations of the Gothic that have since proved integral parts of the genre. Creating the castle of Otranto, and influenced by his own Gothic villa in Twickenham ‘Strawberry Hill,’ Walpole ensured his fictional castle was foundationally linked to a church as he writes:

Lift up the door, said the princess. The stranger obeyed; and beneath appeared some stone steps descending into a vault totally dark. We must go down here, said Isabella: follow me; dark and dismal as it is, we cannot miss our way; it leads directly to the church of saint Nicholas.[iv]

Thus, in its very foundations, Walpole links the Gothic genre with religion. The secret passageway that connects his fictional castle to the church of saint Nicholas functions as a foundational connection that links the Gothic and religion. The fictional deceit originally employed to first publish the novel locates the narrative in both the library of a religious family, but more importantly identifies it as a genuine narrative written by an Italian monk. And, it is perhaps a coincidence that the oldest Roman Catholic University in England, St Mary’s, now adjoins Strawberry Hill, although this connection nonetheless reaffirms the foundational link between the Gothic and religion. 

This Special Gothic Bible blog series will be devoted to exploring the foundational links and ties between religion, the Bible, and theologies and the Gothic. Although the secret passageways may appear ‘dark and dismal,’ they are definitely worth exploring; following Isabella through this secret passageway, you never know what you might uncover, or even who might be lurking here.

Stay tuned for our next instalment in the Gothic Bible blog series, where we will start to explore some of these secret passageways. If you would like to contribute to this series, or would like to get involved with the Gothic Bible project, please email us at:

Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield exploring depictions of Judaism and Jewish characters in late-eighteenth and early- nineteenth century literature, and co-director of the Gothic Bible Project. She is interested in depictions of religion within Gothic literature of all periods, with a particular soft spot for vampires. Mary is also Sheffield Gothic's current Vampire Slayer and spends her free time fighting evil. 

[i] <>
[ii] David Punter, The Literature of Terror, (Essex: Pearson Education Ltd, 1996), p. 44
[iii] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 5.
[iv] Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 30.