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ARTICLE

Witcherland - History of the White Wolf

Fresh off the back of the announcement of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, we take a look back at the history of the fantasy series, from its humble literary origins to its rise to prominence in the modern video gaming landscape.

  • Text: Jon Newcombe

It's unlikely that Polish born writer Andrzej Sapkowski ever anticipated the audience his work would reach when his first short story, simply entitled ‘The Witcher', was published in 1986. Twenty-six years later and the games based on that short story are household names amongst RPG players.

Set in a medieval fantasy world, affectionately known as 'Witcherland' by fans, The Witcher introduced readers to Geralt, a stoic and cynical monster hunter for hire.

Growing up wasn't easy for Geralt. Abandoned to The Witcher's stronghold as a baby, he was subjected to lethal potions and martial training from a very early age. As a star pupil Geralt was rewarded with even more dangerous experimental procedures. The results meant he suffered several mutations, not least complete infertility and most notably his white hair and pale skin.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3 looks like it'll be just as menacing as its predecessors.
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Geralt's training left him as far more than an infertile albino though. It also gifted him many unnatural powers perfect for monster hunting. He boasts superhuman stamina and durability, is able to cast hexes, brew potions, build traps, contract his pupils at will and is immune to most poisons.

Earning himself the nickname 'White Wolf', not only is Geralt unnaturally capable, he is also a dab hand at dual-wielding. Typical of Witchers Geralt carries two swords. A steel blade used for taking chunks out of humans and elves, and a shiny silver number perfect for laying waste to magical creatures when steel just won't cut it.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher introduced us to Geralt.

The written works feature plenty of monsters for Geralt to swing his swords at, including vampires, djin and cursed humans, but it's the human interactions that garner the most intrigue. Geralt has many enemies - and few friends - but amongst them he can count Dandelion, an energetic and enthusiastic bard who is loyal to Geralt in even the most dire situations, and Triss Merigold, a devilish, flame haired sorceress, and the mysterious love of his life Yennifer.

Despite his lack of popularity Geralt's doesn't let it hold him back. Friends are rarely necessary for a capable Witcher. Geralt's calm and collected character means he is rarely bested in battle.

Often he uses his wits as much as his might in conflict. When forced into one duel where he would face a slow and torturous death should his blade so much as touch his noble-born aggressor, he uses his opponent's momentum against him, causing the reckless adolescent to slash his own face and winning the bout by default.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Combat in the first game is hard as nails.

Largely because of his ironic sense of humour and the emphasis of grey areas in moral conundrums, Sapkowski's work received plenty of praise in his native Poland. It was earmarked for international success, but early attempts to reach a larger audience through a TV series and ill-conceived movie fell like a brick through custard.

The Hexer, as the 2001 adaptations were known, made that most fateful mistake of any adaptation: it was too different from the written stories to please fans and too insular to attract a new audience. The film was essentially the then-unreleased TV series chopped down to about 2 hours. A confusing and jumbled mess, it was deservedly panned by both fans and critics alike.

The TV series was marginally better received but still a real disappointment. Though it was less confusing and jarring than the film, it was still a hollow adaptation. The world and characters were dull without Sapkowski's wit. It lacked the magic of the source material or the budget to portray a convincing fantasy world.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings took the series mainstream.

Just when success for The Witcher in other media was looking fruitless an interesting proposal fell Sapkowski's way. A Polish game studio with little under their belts other than some slight fame for successfully translating established games into Polish had created a new studio. The new studio was to focus on original content and for their first foray into the competitive video game market they wanted The Witcher.

By no means a sure shot, the proposal presented something of a gamble. Sapkowski considers video games outside his areas of interest and to this day has never played one. Thankfully for RPG fans everywhere, it was a gamble he decided to take.

With permission secured, CD Projekt RED had its debut title in development. Their goal was to use Sapkowski's world and characters to make an RPG where choices weren't clearly good or evil; the young studio wanted an RPG game distinct from any that had come before.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
What's that coming over the hill?

Utilising Geralt's skillset from the book, players could employ magic, swordplay and alchemy to complete quests and slay enemies. Aware of the enormity of continuing an established storyline and no consent to anything they created being canon, CDPR chose to make Geralt a confused amnesia sufferer trying to figure out his identity. He meets many people from his past, as well as new acquaintances. A lot of intrigue came from deciding who was worthy of Geralt's assistance and who had his best interests at heart.

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