Lessons from ‘The Witcher’ about Medieval Europe

The ‘Witcher’ series of books and games has become very popular recently, and so I thought I should check them out (purely for your information, of course). What I discovered was a fully formed universe, which, while very much a ‘high’ fantasy, still reflects a lot of truth about our world, both in the modern day, and in the historical era.

witcher thieves

The original books were written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The stories weave in European folklore as part of their narrative colour. The Brothers Grimm are heavily sampled. In fact, The Witcher is regarded as such a major cornerstone of modern Polish culture that a copy of one of the games was once given to Barrack Obama as a diplomatic gift.

The basic premise is pretty straightforward, the main character is called Geralt. He is one of a number of ‘witchers’. It’s their job to kill monsters. Bish; bash; bosh.

the-witcher-3_geralt-fights-a-werewolf

The slightly more complex premise is that this world is in an unnatural state. It got to this state when something called the ‘Conjunction of the Spheres’ happened. This is actually a riff on the old ‘many universes’ theory, which Phillip Pullman put to use in the ‘His Dark Materials’ series (currently being made into a TV series). This event wound up with Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and a wide array of colourful monsters all inhabiting the same place.

But here’s where it gets interesting. By the time of the latest additions to the series, the monsters are less of a threat. Sure, they are still present in the games, but not in numbers large enough to maintain a stable breeding population. This actually reflects a historical truth that is often overlooked. Europe, which is the basis for the world of The Witcher, did have megafauna of its own, even into the historical era. The last lion died in Greece in 100 BCE; the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627 CE.

Geralt Griffon

In the more recent additions to the series, monsters aren’t the problem, humans are. In fact, they are causing problems in more ways than one. Pogroms against the ‘non-humans’ (elves, dwarves, etc) are pretty common, reflecting the way that medieval Europe dealt with external cultures, such as the Jews.

War, disease and death are common themes. In fact, many of the most common ‘mob’ enemies, are a reflection of this; bandits, or undead ‘drowners’ and ghouls are all intent on killing pretty much anyone who comes across them. Even the religions can be pretty heavy-handed. Playing the games it becomes apparent that most of the general population distrusts your Geralt with his unusual appearance. However, while the Witch Hunters actively pursue magic-users and non-humans, you always get the feeling that witchers are next on their list.

stake doppler

The Witcher series does come from a historical background. The story is warped through the hands of many folk stories, and completely high-fantasy, but it reflects a degree of historical reality. And that is the excuse I’m sticking to.

Costumes in historical media: how much do they matter?

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

Does costume matter in historical media? Quite possibly, but you can get too hung up on the details. Last week the Telegraph made this very point when it queried the wardrobe of the BBC’s War and Peace six-parter.

War and Peace cast

Outfits are perhaps one of the most important parts of any historical drama. Certainly more important than the scenery, they ground the story by convincing you that the characters themselves accept the truth of the situation they are in.

Witcher Soldiers

No-one in their right minds would dress like this today. The fact that a character in the film/game/show/whatever is, and is acting like it’s totally normal, reinforces the historical setting.

We don’t even need to push it that far. Most people are a bit rusty when it comes to the history of clothing. They won’t know which exact dyes, fabrics and fashions were popular at each particular setting. And it’s likely that media studios count on this in order to cut corners.

On the other hand, could also push this idea to it’s logical conclusion, and argue that costume can convince us to accept a counter-factual story, when we know that the reality would be different.

300 Soldiers Outfits

I have previously blogged about how the Spartans of ‘300’ would, in reality, have worn much more armour. In Frank Miller’s original comic book, the boys in red were full-frontal naked – in reflection of the way Greeks depicted their heroes. The tiny brown thongs were likely introduced to get the film past modern movie censors.

One of the more pertinent points made by the Telegraph was that historical media often reflects the era it was produced, as much as the time it is set. This might be through production values, design, or fashion. I swear mullets have ruined several films for me…

robin-hood-prince-of-thieves-mullet

The experts are always going to be frustrated by costumes in historical media. This is because they will notice tiny details that are all wrong. And there will always be tiny details.

That said, if anyone else tries to dress Victorian ladies in purple KKK robes, I am going to be very upset.

History We’d Like to See: Rockstar Games’ Court of Henry VIII

Assassins Creed 2

Before you go and get all excited, this is not a thing. I’m just saying it should be. This week Henry VIII was voted ‘the worst monarch in history’ by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), in a vote that was controversial at best. Sure, he did fuck things up for a lot of people, but was he the Worst Ever? A lot of people with a lot of qualifications disagree.

But I’m not here to get involved in that. I’m here to tell you why the world needs Rockstar Games to do a Tudor era video game.

When it comes to historical computer games, few big-league studios are really investing in them to make them major hits. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption in the first-person category, and then a bunch of others like Total War and Civilization in the strategy corner.

And Assassin’s Creed feels like it’s earning diminishing returns.The free running ‘n’ murderin mechanic has been run into the ground, and now it’s time for something a bit different. With the main franchise ostensibly brought to an end, it remains to see whether Ubisoft will revitalize the series with a new offering. But it’ll be an uphill struggle for sure.

And that’s why Rockstar Games are a logical fit for the studio best placed to produce a Henry VIII game. The court of the Tudor megalomaniac would be a brilliant place to stage an environment-based game. A game like Grand Theft Auto, or Bully, or Red Dead Redemption. The games that Rockstar produce so well are the ones where you have repeated interactions with the same people. And each time, the tension grows.

The attention to detail is an absolute must for any studio that is looking to produce a historical game. But equally, it is important to strike a good balance. For example, Rockstar has shown that its games can be fun, in many cases they allow the gamer to dive head-first into a sandbox world and enjoy themselves in their own twisted way. And I like to think that’s something Henry VIII would’ve appreciated.

But equally, Rockstar games understand the narrative of rags-to-riches, often on the backs of others. This is another thing that fit well with the behaviour of the period. Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn came from relatively minor families and built themselves up. They were symptomatic of the times. Imagine a game where you slowly accrue power by bullying monks or seduce the king himself.

The mini-games are another important aspect, and drunken debauchery and mounted jousts make for excellent mini-games. The scions of nobility clearly had a lot of fun in this era if court gossip is to be believed, and it’s exactly this kind of behaviour that makes for fun gameplay.

It wouldn’t have to be black and white morality. As long as you accept the corrupt nature of the court, then Rockstar is great at satirizing a situation. With a wink to the gamers behind the controls, player characters could find themselves in outrageous situations.  Let’s be honest  here; sex, combat and comedy are three of the biggest drivers in the games industry. Here is a situation rife with all three.

So can you make it already?

Film Noir: a Genre Built on Stereotypes

Fallout New Vegas is Noir

In recent years, Film Noir has been a source of inspiration for a broad range of media. In the 40s and 50s, this was a skewed way of looking at culture at the time, which, in part, sprang from cliche-stuffed pulp fiction. These days, it’s a way of throwing a very stylised set of restrictions at a media, and possibly even retrojecting it into the era. Nevertheless, it remains very popular. For example, films like LA Confidential, Sin City and The Spirit all borrow heavily from the genre.

Sin City was one big homage to the genre

Hell, even The Incredibles takes cues from the genre. A lot of the early action happens at night. There are stake-outs, police radios, mysterious ‘dames’, over-the-hill government types, a lot of the action happens in alleyways, yada, yada, yada.

The Incredibles definitely had shades of noir

This may help with the whole Art Deco old-fashioned thing they have going on, but the reality is, the ‘modern’ Incredibles live in a relatively current world. Sure, one where tablets seem futuristic, but not so far into the past that the 40s and 50s would be a relevant time period for Elastigirl or Incrediboy.

In games as well, noir has seen a resurgence. Fair enough, ‘LA Noire’ was always going to be a straight homage to the genre, but even the Fallout series has characters like ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, any number of hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, and so on. The series was built on the premise that the Fallout universe had diverged from ours in the 50s, and the music (and that Art Deco style), among other things, never changed.

A still from the newly announced Fallout 4

Film Noir is absolutely still having a big impact on popular culture. Perhaps this is thanks to its simplicity. Yes, the tropes been been overused to the point they have been cliches. But now that is helpful. When we come across a character called ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, we know what to expect. So when those expectations are subverted, things get interesting.

Why Blackbeard Was Never the Big Bad

Blackbeard

Blackbeard is kind-of a big name in the world of piracy these days. He was the main villain of the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and he looks set to be the main villain of the upcoming Peter Pan flick; ‘Pan‘.

Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard in Starz’ TV series Black Sails

He’s a popular character in history, in part because of sheer theatricality. We all know how he wore six pistols (actually less fearsome if you realise they are one-shot weapons) and tucked six flaming tapers into his hat before battle. And yes, we know about the big black beard (although Warner Brothers seem to have missed the boat on that one).

But here’s the thing, Blackbeard wasn’t actually the most successful/dastardly pirate of his day. Not by a long way. The best contender for that title is a man whose name is now mainly used to sell rum.

Captain Morgan as he appears in the rum advert
Captain Morgan as he appears in the rum advert

Henry Morgan, by contrast, was much more successful; achieving a degree of legitimacy by working for the British. He was knighted for his efforts to rob the Spanish blind, and was promoted to Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. By the end of his career, Morgan was a sodding Admiral, which throws some serious shade at Jack Sparrow and his whole ‘Captain’ deal.

While Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach was busy taking on one or two ships, and promoted himself to the rank of commodore, Morgan was capturing entire cities. There’s not really any contest.

The other major contender for that title was another Welshman; Bart Roberts (you begin to see why Davy Jones was so popular; the Welsh were kings among pirates). Forbes puts him at #5 of their list of the richest pirates ever. Roberts is particularly famous for his code, which was significantly more progressive than the codes of chivalry.

While he crops up in many pirate video game series, he is yet to make a big impact in TV and Video. Nonetheless, it’s nice to note that, in the Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End video game, Black Bart was voiced by Cary Elwes, effectively reprising his role as the Dread Pirate Roberts from the Princess Bride 30 years previously! Have to respect the fan service.

Dread Pirate Roberts

Pirates are always going to have one foot firmly in the land of fantasy. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Princess Bride, Assassin’s Creed, Peter Pan and Monkey Island have all stretched reality in one way or another. With this in mind, it would make sense that one of the most theatrical of pirates would inspire (or simply be dragged into) these fantasy stories. Nevertheless, Blackbeard needs to move over and make room for the real lords of the sea.

Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Are we cool with portrayals of religion? It feels like we’re not

assassin's creed church

This article will be picking up where my blog about magic left off. Magic is, by its very nature, open ended, open to interpretation, and really kinda fun as a concept. In contrast, religion is just something we have to deal with if we’re going to portray history accurately. The trouble is, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Ben Hur

Back in the golden era of Hollywood, we couldn’t get enough of religion. It was a major feature of films like Ben Hur, or El Cid. Maybe studios weren’t conflicted about showing it. They loved them some piety, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Contrast that with modern films about religion, like Kingdom of Heaven. There’s that classic one-two:

Balian: “I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places; ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.”

Saladin: “I wonder if it would not be better if you did.”

Kingdom of Heaven

Films are not alone. In almost every TV series, religion has a minimal role. In the BBC’s Robin Hood, Friar Tuck rarely visited a church, and even less often to commune with God. in HBO’s Rome, religion was just another way for the series to go ‘look how weird everything was back then’. Day-to-day lives seem to be divorced from the spirituality that was almost certainly a much bigger deal.

Similarly, games really haven’t figured out a mechanic for religion. What’s the point of it? Is it just a tag that defines allegiances, like nationality? Or is there something more? Many games do have churches and religious buildings as part of their architecture, but you can’t actually go *into* them. Why would you want to do that?

assassin's creed

Somehow, we’ve really gone off religion. We’re now almost scared of it.

Studios are trying to redress the balance. They’re attempting to build historic worlds where religion plays a suitably active role. But they are taking their sweet time about it.

What’s the best angle for playing historic games?

This week I have mainly been playing Mount & Blade; a game series that attempts to straddle the gap between first-person combat, and broader third-person strategy. While it doesn’t completely nail either, it reaches further than almost any other. I’m feeling particularly generous due to the sheer weight of hours I have clocked since I bought it a little over a week ago. Mount and Blade The game itself is set in the low-fantasy realm of Calradia, but gets its inclusion on this blog by dint of the expanded content. These include games set in Northern Europe in the 9th century, Eastern Europe in the 17th Century, and Western Europe in the 19th century. The Fire and Sword series in particular has taught me a lot about Eastern European history that I really didn’t know. The depictions of Tartars and Cossacks, hussars and dragoons, and the burgeoning settlements are particularly vivid. Mount and Blade city So my question is this: What is the best perspective to take in history games? The Mount & Blade games try to work the large-scale army combat from a first-person perspective. However, they also throw in broader tactical views, as well as more RPG action in settlements. In many ways it mirrors Sid Meiers’ Pirates, which let you command fleet-to-fleet engagements, duel renowned pirates, and woo the governor’s daughter. Sid Meier's Pirates Other games dominate the ends of the spectrum, from Assassins’ Creed’s detailed urban environments to Total War’s dynastic grandeur. But none of them get every angle perfectly. In particular, I think that it is harder to get the broad-stroke strategic angle right. First-person shooters have been around long enough that single-player games know where to put themselves. Larger ‘ruling’ games still need to develop their platform. And that’s bad news as far as historical games are concerned, because ‘big history’ seriously overshadows the everyday kind. And I think I’d like more horse crap on the roads.

Poldark and Fable III: for the Love of Redcoats

This week I have mainly been playing Fable III. I am very into RPGs, and this one has the added bonus of being pretty funny. It is set in the mythical realm of Albion, which is currently undergoing its industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a complete fantasy. The bad guys include werewolves, goblins and the undead (though all go by different names). But in other ways, it is a good reflection of the impact that the industrial revolution had.

And there are redcoats!

Redcoat

It was only really this week that I realised I had a thing for the uniform. I probably should’ve seen this coming sooner, considering my outspoken love for Sharpe and Hornblower.

For a bit of context on the choice of colour, read this joke. Armies have been wearing red since the days of ancient Sparta, largely because it stops people worrying about bloodstains. What the British army did differently was to turn it into an item of formal wear. I mean, look at all those buttons! And the collar! And the shako! Should I worry about being obsessed with an item of clothing?

And then Ross Poldark rocked up, looking all dark and brooding.

Poldark Redcoat

I swear I’m only man-crushing a little here. Having never read the books, nor watched the original series, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the series. However, unlike other recent historical dramas, it’s pretty fast-paced, pretty fun, and there is enough bare-knuckle fist fighting to balance out the long gazes. The only downside? The red coat goes to the back of the family wardrobe far too quickly.

Both Fable and Poldark are about an individual building themselves up from practically nothing. But whereas Fable employs a high ratio of fart jokes and chicken costumes, Poldark is taking itself incredibly seriously. For the time being, I’m spending more time on the former. Though it probably has something to do with the fact your character can *wear* the red coat.