The Witcher Series: A Case Study of Transmedia and Narrative in Video Games
The following essay was written for a graduate seminar in the Master of Publishing program (MPub) at Simon Fraser University.
PUB 802 | Spring 2016
First, there is a story—let’s say a novel—that gains critical acclaim and a strong fanbase. The author signs on to publish two sequels. A producer notices the fanbase and options it for a film. The publisher sells the translation rights overseas. When the film earns big at the box office, the publisher of the novels gets the author to adapt the content for a graphic novel. A game developer also licenses the story to make a role-playing game (RPG) within the fictional world. The film gets a sequel. The sequel film featured a secondary character who then gets a spin-off television series. Some would call it “the extended universe”, “media franchise” or even “multi-platform storytelling”, but in more scholarly circles, the term “transmedia storytelling” describes this phenomenon.
Coined by media scholar Henry Jenkins, “transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (22 Mar 2007). This scenario is common for many media franchises, and some are more intentional than others. The Marvel Universe is incredibly calculated, whereas the adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings began more organically. For The Witcher series, it has been a slow build from a Polish short story published in 1986 to three massive video games with worldwide success and a forthcoming feature film.
The Witcher (originally titled Wiedźmin in Polish) is a series of fantasy stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The eponymous short story was first published in 1986 in Fantastyka, a Polish sci-fi fantasy magazine. Subsequent stories were assembled into a collection in 1990, and several novels followed from Polish publisher superNOWA. One of the important aspects of defining transmedia entities is that “each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story” (Jenkins, 22 Mar 2007). Ideally, each instance builds the overall canon, as opposed to simply an authorized offshoot of the original intellectual property and not part of the official chronology (e.g. the various unconnected iterations of Batman). This is where The Witcher is a unique example—outside of Poland, The Witcher is best known as a RPG, within Poland, The Witcher is “part of a rich literary history that, for Poles, is as important as J.R.R. Tolkien” (Pitts, 16 July 2014).
A Transmedia Success Story
One of the observable differences with The Witcher, is that the game has generated new interest in the source material, spurring the English translations and a forthcoming feature film. In other franchises such as Lord of the Rings or The Matrix, where the books and movies came first and derivative media such as games were considered after. In The Content Machine (2013), Michael Bhaskar believes that the growth of new disciplines such as transmedia storytelling and digital humanities signals “how book content has started to break the confines of print” (pp. 52). Developed by CD Projekt RED, The Witcher games are “the most popular and successful video games made in Poland” (Pitts, 16 July 2014). The first Witcher game was released on October 26, 2007 in Europe and October 30, 2007 in the United States, on both Windows and Mac OS X, and received critical praise on both continents (GameFAQs, n.d.). CD Projekt was previously a little-known game-distribution company. The release of The Witcher, the company’s first original game, created a surge of interest in the source material, which were finally translated into English in 2007.
The fact that The Witcher had a wider release than just Europe is part of the key to transmedia—leveraging the global reach of the internet. According to Jenkins, “transmedia storytelling reflects the economics of media consolidation … A media conglomerate has an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible” (22 Mar 2007). Where a global media conglomerate would strategically plan this, it appears that extended licensing opportunities were not actively pursued outside of Europe until after the global success of The Witcher video game. This brand extension is certainly now observable, but it seems to be more as a result of positive public response as opposed to a deliberate growth strategy. We see a very different model employed by Marvel, who use multiple media platforms to tell independent yet connected stories. For Jenkins, this is a prime example of media convergence, a cultural shift where “consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content”, participating in culture and not just passively consuming it (Jenkins, 2006, pg. 6). Now, ten years after he wrote Convergence Culture, this concept seems exceedingly obvious—a sign that Jenkins was spot-on with his observations and interpretations.
These methods of dispersing media content across different formats extends a company’s brand and exploits existing intellectual property with new revenue streams. According to Jenkins (22 Mar 2007), “extensions may serve a variety of different functions”, from providing insight into character motivations, world-building, or retaining audience attention between major content releases. Extensions promotes brand loyalty and audience engagement for people who want to consume all the storylines, but also means that non-diehard fans are still able to consume the content. Jenkins also makes the distinction that different concepts of transmedia exist in different academic circles. “Transmedia storytelling describes one logic for thinking about the flow of content across media. We might also think about transmedia branding, transmedia performance, transmedia ritual, transmedia play, transmedia activism, and transmedia spectacle, as other logics” (Jenkins, 1 Aug 2011).
Although I would now describe The Witcher as a strong example of transmedia, because their growth was gradual, the games are considered non-canon. Unless you are a large media conglomerate, orchestrating a transmedia strategy is time-consuming, expensive, and no guarantee it will take off. Many transmedia examples are either expensive properties of large companies, or began small, struck a cord among fans, and grew slowly. The intent is to engage with fans and develop an online community. However, not all content lends themselves well to this sort of endeavour, and it takes a lot of energy to properly execute these tasks.
The Rise of Narrative Video Games
Geralt of Rivia is the story’s protagonist, a witcher by profession, and the main playable character in the games. The games pick up after the books end, (spoiler alert!) resurrecting Geralt who died at the conclusion of Sapkowski’s saga. These details fit with Jenkins’ testament that “there is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend” (Jenkins, 2007). The games extend the Witcher universe established in the book, extending the narrative and creating new complex story lines.
Since the quality of graphic improvements has plateaued, there has been an increase of narrative-driven games with more sophisticated storytelling tactics. The release of Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One in late 2013 also brought in more and more games fitting these themes. As Roz Young observed in a round-up of new games for these platforms, “Video games have always required talented programmers but more and more, companies will need writers on staff to create compelling, interactive narratives” (10 Feb 2014). They have rich stories and world-building, complex characters and realistic dialogue, and cut scenes as refined as any CGI in big budget films. Even first-person shooter games aren’t just about fighting anymore: “modern video games are showing signs of morphing into other, still more subtle and complicated forms; among other things, they’re becoming an increasingly sophisticated vehicle for storytelling” (Bustillos, 19 Mar 2013). Jonathan Ostensen, an education instructor, argues that video game narratives push the boundaries for storytelling in the 21st century, while still relying on traditional elements of narrative. There are many similar elements when it comes to linear narrative-based games: they have a plot with beginning, middle, and end; there is a conflict to overcome; frequently there are moral decisions to be made; and characters engage and learn from others around them. These parallels to literary or cinematic elements, even in simple or non-linear games, make them recognizable as new forms of storytelling. “The games of today have come to rely more and more on the elements of fiction in their design, and they represent unexplored territory in studying the nature and impact of narrative” (Ostensen, 2013, 71).
The Witcher’s gameplay is role-play based and open world, meaning the player takes on the role of Geralt and can solve the main conflict in a non-prescriptive manner. The complex storylines in all three games coincide with these changes to game narratives. In the first game, Geralt is seeking to restore his lost memories (following his resurrection) when he is thrust into a larger political conflict concerning the minority race of elves. One of the more appealing aspects is that the choices presented to Geralt are rarely black or white—there is no moral protagonist championing over the malevolent antagonist, as in other epic sagas like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Although the extended universe of both these sagas is intricate, it is always clear who is good and who is evil.
The study of games has risen in popularity since the late 1990s, but there is still a disconnect among this academic study as the aims of different groups are distinctly different. “While at the ludological end of the spectrum the very notion of narrative in games was being questioned, in the narrativist current efforts were made to envision games as being a part of a wider transmedia context in which stories are told, re-told and expanded in a media multi-platform environment” (Picucci, 2014). Narratologists applies concepts, such as literary theory or film theory, whereas ludologists look at the game mechanics (Jenkins, 2004). The changes in game narratives begs to be analyzed and classified, from the story arc and the use of voice-over narration, to the function of temporality with how the in-game events unfold. “The majority of game titles [retain] the traditional action and puzzle-solving elements, the story element has become a core component in the design process in general, often affecting the way the game world is built and the type of gameplay actions and interactive options which will be available to the player” (Picucci, 2014). A detailed analysis of The Witcher games would require more in-depth study than currently possible, and is beyond the scope of my present examination. However, it is safe to say that the notion of narrative in games is sufficiently established; even games that do not have a linear storyline—such as shooters, simulations, or sports-based games—still use narrative techniques to establish and build the premise.
As for The Witcher, it seems that the success of its transmedia adventure is still growing. The first two games—The Witcher (2007) and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011)—had sold more than 8 million copies by September 2014. And The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had sold more than 6 million copies in pre-sales and the six weeks following its launch in August 2015 (Pieczyrak, 4 Sept 2014; Purchese, 26 Aug 2015). The two final novels in the series are set for English translation in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Although adapted into a poorly received Polish film in 2001 and television series in 2002, there is a feature film planned for release in 2017. The key aspect of transmedia is the ability for audiences to enter the story through any format without negative repercussions. You can play the games without reading Sapkowski’s books; you can read the graphic novel having not played any of the games; you can watch the forthcoming film without having heard of Geralt before (or even knowing how to pronounce his name).
Bhaskar, Michael (2013). The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network. London, UK: Anthem Press. Print.
Bustillos, Maria. (19 Mar 2013). On Video Games and Storytelling: An Interview with Tom Bissell. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/on-video-games-and-storytelling-an-interview-with-tom-bissell
GameFAQs. (n.d.). The Witcher Release Information for PC. GameFAQs. Retrieved from http://www.gamefaqs.com/pc/915112-the-witcher/data
Jenkins, Henry. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University Press. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. (March 22, 2007). Transmedia Storytelling 101. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html
Jenkins, Henry. (1 Aug 2011). Transmedia 202: Further Reflections. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html
Marnell, Blair (5 Nov 2015). “New THE WITCHER Movie Coming in 2017” The Nerdist. Retrieved from http://nerdist.com/new-the-witcher-movie-coming-in-2017/
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Picucci, Marcello Arnaldo (2014). When Video Games Tell Stories: A Model of Video Game Narrative Architectures. Caracteres, 3 (2), web. Retrieved from http://revistacaracteres.net/revista/vol3n2noviembre2014/model-video-game-narrative-architectures/
Pieczyrak, Paweł. (4 Sept 2014). “Raport finansowy firmy CD Projekt. Ile sprzedano kopii Wiedźmina?”. PurePC. [Accessed via GoogleTranslate]. Retrieved from http://www.purepc.pl/rozrywka/raport_finansowy_firmy_cd_projekt_ile_sprzedano_kopii_wiedzmina
Pitts, Russ (16 July 2014). How the team behind ‘The Witcher’ conquered Poland. Polygon. Retrieved from http://www.polygon.com/features/2014/7/16/5884227/cd-projekt-the-witcher-3
Purchese, Robert. (26 Aug 2015). “The Witcher 3 sells 6m copies in six weeks.” EuroGamer. Retrieved from http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-08-26-the-witcher-3-sells-6m-copies-in-six-weeks
Young, Roz. (10 Feb 2014). Interactive Narrative and the Rise of Video Games: An Exciting Time for Storytellers. Sequential Tart. Retrieved from http://www.sequentialtart.com/article.php?id=2548
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CD Projekt RED (2011). The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Łódź, Poland: CD Projekt RED.
CD Projekt RED (2015). The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Łódź, Poland: CD Projekt RED.