By Pranavi Shekhar
Worldbuilding can be thought of as a form of storytelling that involves the development of an imaginary or alternate reality that is consistent and believable within its own logic and rules. Be it books, movies, shows or games, worldbuilding is crucial to create fictional universes that are compelling, immersive and able to resonate with readers. This is especially the case with stories set in fantastical universes, such as The Witcher, since these require a significant suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s end which is best achieved by an authentic backdrop, through meticulous and cohesive worldbuilding. With that premise, let’s examine The Witcher 3 and the show for the ‘world’ they’re set in and the differences and similarities that make them what they are. It’s best to note that on some fronts, the vastness of the TW3’s universe and the benefit of an interactive format provide it with an inherent advantage over the TV adaptation. None of the comparisons are an attempt to discredit the latter.
The Witcher universe is set in a medieval-inspired world called the Continent, and both the show and the game draw from East European folklore. This influence plays a vital role across all aspects of the world and the lore, especially in the games where the design of several monsters, such as the kikimora and the leshen, and the accompanying soundtrack, are heavily inspired by the region’s folklore. Several of the game’s memorable background scores such as “Silver for monsters…” and “…Steel for humans” were crafted by the Polish folk metal band, Percival Schuttenbach. Their usage of instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes and cimbalom, in addition to traditionally Slavic singing styles such as klapa and polyphony elevates the authenticity of the rustic ambience the game seeks to immerse the viewer in. This is further augmented by the various languages used across the story – particularly the dialects of the “Elder Speech”, which have roots in Welsh and Irish Gaelic. The show on the other hand embraces a grittier and darker theme, with elements of Slavic influence with regards to the creatures and monsters portrayed, and some architectural pieces across the landscape, but to a much lesser extent than the games. While not inherently negative, the lack of a consistent theme can cause the show to occasionally present a rather anachronistic feel, which can be a bit jarring.
Credit: CD Projekt Red
Attention to detail is an inherent aspect of world-building that makes any fantastical universe more believable and fleshed out, and this factor is central to what makes the games such an immersive experience. The depth and detail of the numerous side quests that dot every corner of the Continent’s landscape are a great example of this. These quests are skillfully constructed and come with characters that have compelling and relevant narratives, and issues that tie into their regional cultures and politics. A classic instance that comes to mind is a side-quest titled ‘Carnal Sins’ where the player is tasked with investigating a series of murders in the city of Novigrad, a thriving city with a seedy underbelly. The quest begins with Geralt being asked to investigate a series of murders, all of which seem to be linked to the same killer. In order to solve this mystery, the player must encounter and treat with a number of different characters – a prostitute, priest and corpse-dumper to name a few – each with their own motives and interests in the happenings. As the quest unfolds, the player will be given opportunities to explore various parts of Novigrad ranging from the aristocratic ‘Vegelbud’ estate, right down to the sewers. Such quests, together with the plethora of monster contracts, furnish players with opportunities to access diverse regions of the realms and acquaint themselves with the cultures and legends that dwell therein. This imbues the landscape with a sense of depth and realism that makes for an incredibly engaging experience warranting the suspension of disbelief it demands.
Credit: CD Projekt Red
Novigrad also serves as an example of another aspect of the game that underscores its meticulous attention to detail – visual design and architecture. The lore describes Novigrad as one of the largest cities in the North – a bustling metropolis with a rich history and culture, in addition to being a major port. Gothic-inspired buildings stand alongside more Romanesque and Baroque structures, with a smattering of more modern edifices which speaks to the diversity of its inhabitants. The streets are narrow and winding, creating a sense of commotion and claustrophobia, while the numerous canals, bridges and harbors point towards active trade and emphasize the city’s significance as a hub for business. There is a disparity in the economic and social status of the city’s inhabitants which is reflected in how the richer areas of the city feature grand palaces, cathedrals, and civic buildings, while the poorer areas are fitted with modest homes and workshops. The poorest areas, such as The Bits, are marked by a palpable sense of dilapidation and neglect which highlights the destitution faced by its denizens. These design elements come together and make the city feel like a living-breathing world akin to our own. They are consistent across all the regions and cities present in the game’s landscape and are a significant part of its world-building.
On a similar note, the show also emulates this in aspects such as the architecture of the various realms and practical effects used to render the various monsters that prowl the Continent. Several of the monsters (save for perhaps the truly awful golden dragon in the first season) were rendered to look simultaneously fantastical and grounded. Some notable ones include the “kikimora”, with long, spindly legs and a spider-like body rendered in a chitinous exoskeleton not very different from armor, the “striga” which is portrayed as a horrific hybrid of a woman and a monster, with long claws, sharp teeth and pale, mottled skin and the “bruxa” which is a vampire-esque creature with extremely sharp teeth and claws, possessing the ability to disguise itself seamlessly. These creatures fit into the universe they are a part of by embodying a sense of unpredictability and danger, both in their animalistic movements and grotesque appearance, thereby contributing to the gritty and covertly hostile atmosphere the show attempts to build.
However, where the show significantly breaks a viewer’s immersion with poor world-building is in its inability to showcase the differences that separate the various realms and the nuances in culture that set them apart. This could be something as simple as dialect or clothing – anything that enables viewers to make a natural distinction between various kingdoms and factions of people, and infuses the script with a sense of realism. For instance, Nilfgaard and Cintra are two very different realms, with significant differences in speech and ethnicities. Neither of these are highlighted or showcased in any manner in the show which gives the viewer no notion of “place” and what it means to belong to either of those groups.
Another significant aspect of constructing a fictional world, especially in fantastical universes such as The Witcher, is the effective portrayal of the political dynamic that pervades the realm and how meaningfully its ramifications are captured. Both the game and the show capitalize on this to varying degrees. In addition to a straightforward and engaging main storyline, set in the backdrop of a continent-wide war, there are several interactions throughout the game that discuss the leadership of local rulers, the impact of the war on the common folk and the relations between the many kingdoms. These interactions come as a part of the numerous side quests and create a setting that a player genuinely cares about.
Credit: CD Projekt Red
The ‘Bloody Baron’ questline, for instance, focuses on the abuse of power by a local overlord and delves into the morally complex actions of a military leader who has committed atrocities in the name of protecting his people. The undercurrent of racial hostility in Novigrad is depicted through quests and contracts such as ‘The Elusive Thief’ and ‘Racists of Novigrad’, which demonstrate the racial oppression under Radovid’s rule and the severe persecution of non-humans by a fanatical religious group called ‘The Church Of The Eternal Fire’. ‘The Great Escape’ is another notable side-quest based out of Skellige, where the player is tasked with helping a group of Nilfgaardian prisoners who are being held captive by the Jarl of Clan Tuirseach. This provides a chance for the player to learn about the prevailing tensions between Skellige and Nilfgaard, and the reasons for such abject hostility. These quests also give the player a peek into the everyday life of the common-folk in a region, which is disarmingly human and simultaneously relatable. It exudes a sense of community that is undeniably one of the game’s strongest suits.
The show also follows a similar theme in that it gives the viewer a sense of the rising political tensions in the realm, taking viewers on a journey alongside the protagonists as they navigate the Continent. Most of these political intricacies are seen through the eyes of the three main character arcs (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri) and their interactions with the world around them. While not as detailed as the games (which is also not completely possible given that television is a different format), the show definitely manages to capture the constant power imbalances across kingdoms and races alike, lending credibility to the fictitious world. Episodes such as ‘Much More’ and ‘Before a Fall’ in the first season depict the onset of war between Nilfgaard and the northern kingdoms, while also focusing on the internal conflict amongst the mages, with each faction pushing its own agenda and seeking to advance its own interests.
The best stories are those with the ability to cause the viewer to invest in the storyline and feel like they are, to some extent, a part of the universe that is being portrayed. The Witcher 3 is undoubtedly a masterclass in world-building (one worth an entire other article), with a captivating landscape that is backed by a richly woven narrative and a world that feels authentically lived-in. The show on the other hand has several instances of world-building done right, but also moments where the immersion is not as complete or coherent as it could have been.