Storytelling is not always at the forefront of people’s minds when playing games, but there are many gaming universes that are very rich and steeped in lore, even in games where it might not be the centre of attention.
Where to Start? will aim to give people a very broad introduction into some of these universes, looking at the basics of background lore and character introductions of some of the games I am most passionate about, as well as some that might not be well known. It’ll also give a list of resources to learn more about the universe; potential entry points into the storytelling so that people might discover it for themselves.
In the first edition of Where to Start? We’ll look at the universe of The Witcher, the universe behind the game that turned me into a content creator: Gwent.
A Brief History of The Witcher
In 1986, The Witcher began as a collection of short stories written by Andrzej Sapkowski and published for Fantastyka, a Polish sci-fi/fantasy magazine. Over the course of 13 years, Sapkowski continued to develop the universe through seven books (including two short story collections) and it grew to be a global cult classic.
It didn’t take on for others to latch onto the growing popularity of the series, with a Polish film and TV series called The Hexer (Wiedźmin) released to poor critical review in 2001 and 2002. In what probably turned out to be one of history’s most lucrative deals (considering money spent and money gained), Polish game studio CD Projekt Red bought the rights to make an action/role-playing game based in Sapkowski’s universe, with the first title released to critical acclaim in 2007. The game spawned a 2009 sequel, The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings and then in 2015 The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, seen as one of the greatest games of all time.
It was Wild Hunt that also spawned CD Projekt Red’s foray into esports as, following the success of Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone, the studio turned Wild Hunt’s mini-game Gwent into a fully realised Collectable Card Game that has seen 12 major tournaments played across Poland with at least 2 more planned for the foreseeable future. Gwent also generated the first Witcher Tales game, Thronebreaker – an adventure RPG set between the events of Sapkowski’s novels and CD Projekt Red’s original Witcher title.
Where to Start?
A thousand or so years before our story begins, an event known as The Conjunction of the Spheres brings humans to an unnamed Continent. They discover elves, dwarves and gnomes that already occupy the Continent, collectively calling them The Elder Races. The Conjunction also brings far more monstrous creatures are also brought to the Continent, which plague civilised society for centuries to come.
Peace between the Elder Races and humans is short-lived as humans discover how to use magic and begin using it to impose their will upon the Continent (or at least try to). As part of their magical experimentation, the renegade mages Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina create witchers; alchemically mutated human children who, if they survive their ordeal, go on in adulthood to hunt monsters, both those that appeared on The Continent with humans and those created in the experiments of mages such as Alzur.
Over time, witchers come to be distrusted and hated almost as much as the monsters they hunt, until even the mages who created them come to think it is better if they are destroyed. Many witchers are killed, but some survive to carry on their work as monster slayers for hire and take in others to carry on their legacy. When our story begins, Geralt of Rivia is a witcher of the Wolf School. He is trying to find work in a time of turmoil between different human kingdoms, with The Northern Realms and the Nilfgaardian Empire on the brink of a second war.
One day while searching for breakfast outside of the city of Rinde, Geralt and his travelling companion, a bard named Jaskier (or Dandelion in some of the book translations and the games) accidentally release a djinn; an air elemental of great power, that will grant three of its captor’s wishes. The djinn causes chaos in Rinde and Geralt and Jaskier find themselves in league with a sorceress called Yennefer of Vengeberg, working begrudgingly with her to stop the djinn while she works to recapture it for her own uses. This is the start of a long and tempestuous relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, who are mystically bound together for the rest of their lives by the adventure, even if, at times, they both hate that.
Some time later, Geralt is tasked with killing a monster by Queen Calanthé of Cintra, a Northern Realm close to the Nilfgaardian border. In a twist of fate, Geralt ends up saving the monster, really a man named Duny, transformed into a beast by a sorcerer some years before. As a reward, Geralt enacts the Law of Surprise, a tradition dictating that if you save someone’s life, you may ask them for a boon that is unknown to one or both parties. In most cases, this boon is the life of their first-born child. In this case, that child was Cirilla of Cintra, Duny’s daughter and Queen Calanthé’s granddaughter.
Geralt is given two opportunities to claim Cirilla, or Ciri, as his prize, but for a long while remains unsure of whether he actually wants to. Eventually, as fate continues to bring them together, he accepts her as his daughter, and for a while, she is raised as a witcher student. This brings us to the start Andrzej Sapkowski’s original pentalogy, which follows Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri’s story.
The games’ story picks up with Geralt some time after the pentalogy ends, his mind mysteriously wiped. Geralt is forced to relearn himself, his friends and his enemies, and forced to redefine his relationships with them all as he tries to navigate his way through the political turmoil of an ever-changing world around him.
If you’d like to learn more about the universe of The Witcher, and there is a lot more to learn, then there are a number of different places you can start.
First and foremost, I recommend the two short story collections that kick-started the franchise. The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny are both incredibly well-written collections that introduce the lore and, particularly, the main characters, fantastically. I glossed over as many of the details as I could as not to spoil anything, but these collections are where this story lies, and I highly, highly recommend you read them for yourself to get the full experience.
Next, you can also jump into Witcher III: Wild Hunt. As with any franchise where there are two ultimate sources of lore, there is some contention between fans of the books and fans of the games as to what counts and what doesn’t. I say… screw it, they aren’t actually mutually exclusive, and both can count quite equally. Wild Hunt is a great jumping in point to get to know the story’s main characters better and comes with an incredible amount of universe lore packed into its main plot and brilliantly written side-quests. As a bonus, it isn’t particularly tied, I think, to the games that came before it, but it does catch you up quite well on how all the characters got to where they are so that you don’t have to play much older, clunkier games if you don’t want to.
My final real recommendation to learn more about the universe is to watch Proper Bird’s extensive YouTube series on Witcher lore, where she goes into an incredible amount of detail on different characters, historical events, interesting creatures and much, much more in an ever expanding collection of videos. Proper Bird does not get enough credit for putting this together. She’s awesome, and deserve all the positive attention she can get.
It isn’t really a recommendation, yet, because it hasn’t been released, but I would also point you in the direction of the Netflix The Witcher series that’s expected to come out later this year. If you have access to Netflix and want to learn more about the universe before you commit to buying anything else, that might be the way to go. We haven’t seen much yet, but the show’s producers have spoken extensively about sticking to the books for their story-telling and what we have seen speaks volumes for a lot of deep-diving into characters and lore.
I started playing Gwent with absolutely no idea as to who any of the characters portrayed by the game’s card art were. Even three years later I’m still far from an expert, but from diving into the lore I have so much more appreciation for every character and every story being told through the pixels. Below is my favourite card in Gwent, Assire var Anahid, which I love for it’s mechanics, but even more because of what I’ve learned about her character.
Even in games that don’t focus on story-telling, it can make a huge impact on your enjoyment of the game if you delve into it. That’s what I hope you take from this article. We’ve only brushed the surface of a very complex universe and story, but now, I hope, you have a broad understanding of what it’s all about and an idea of where to go if you want to find out more. If you do, I hope you enjoy it! Games are fun, but they’re much more fun with some context!
See you on the path!