Second Opinion: The Witcher (Books, Games, and TV Show)
After quickly discussing "Tenet" and starting the Second Opinion series, I would like to dedicate the first real installment in this series to one of my most favorite universes - the one of The Witcher. As someone who had read all the books and played all the games, I definitely have a well-grounded opinion on the Netflix TV Show, which also features another big fan of the games - Henry Cavill aka the Superman himself. And I don't want to limit myself just to the show – my introduction to the world of the Witcher began in 2007 with the video game and then the books and then more games, so I think it's only logical to talk about all these items – there would be no show without them!
The Witcher (2007)
I have always been a big fan of single player role-playing games (RPG). I played titles like Might & Magic, System Shock, Gothic which were amazing and others and by 2007, the time the first game in the series, The Witcher, was released there was some sort of a void in this genre. The game definitely was released at the right time and it filled that void completely and forever in my case as the story and the visuals were stunningly beautiful. Ironically, the game was based on a rather outdated engine of Neverwinter Nights by BioWare, great Canadian company created by three medical doctors who decided that making videogames was much more interesting than being doctors. They are famous for the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series among many other titles. Nevertheless, a small Polish company CD Projekt Red took their engine and used it to put a great series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski into motion and they did it with such dedication and love to the lore of the book series that the game came out an absolute masterpiece! It's very atmospheric and immersive and it makes you make choices. Difficult choices that have some sort of a latency – you never know what happens as a result of your decisions and you may learn later in the game that your choices were "wrong". As a matter of fact none of these choices are right or wrong, they are choices between "the lesser evil" and "the greater evil" in the game universe and, like in real life, you have to make them to face the consequences. In my humble opinion that was the main reason that made this game so great. It's still playable by the way and if you'd like to play the series you should start with the first game.
The Novels by Andrzej Sapkowski
At certain point while playing the first Witcher, I realized that it's based on a series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and since I loved the game so much, I felt compelled to read them. And I did. And having read the novels made my experience with the game much more profound – it put so many things into the context of the universe, all in-game characters became so familiar and real... It was a blast! And since we are talking about the novels, I must say that Andrzej Sapkowski created an absolute masterpiece, a universe filled with amazing and interesting characters, great story line, and the very concept of choosing the lesser evil. It's quite interesting to me as a psychiatrist – the world's philosophy revolves around imperfection and acceptance, or lack thereof. The protagonist of the series, Geralt of Rivia, is a perfect human being in a sense as he was magically modified to be a monster slayer, but he is hated by everyone – they do not understand him, but still need him to do the dirty work they can't or are too scared to do themselves. And here he comes. They believe that he carries two swords – a silver sword for monsters and a steel one for humans, but it's not true – they both are for monsters. The irony is that throughout Geralt's encounters he learns that people are much more dangerous and much more monstrous that monsters they ask him to hunt down. And it makes the story particularly profound and beautiful and it is well reflected in the game series.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (2011)
In 2011 when the second installment in the game series, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kinds, was released, I was well-prepared – I replayed the very first game couple of times, made all my "right" choices, upgraded my PC, and I was ready to import my best save from Witcher 1 to Witcher 2.
And... I was somehow disappointed! Not even sure why, but the game was not as captivating as the first one. Maybe I was going through some stage of my life or my expectations were too high, but for some reason I just played the game and labelled it as an "ok" game at best at that time. But later on, when I was anticipating the Witcher 3, I actually returned to it and played it again. And again. And again. It turned out to be an absolutely glorious game – full of politics and magic. Some people were upset about the game's combat mechanics, but I loved it – it was much better than simple clicking in the Witcher and this game had much more to offer both in terms of combat and character development. It had this bifurcation in the middle of the game where you could either go with Roche (the main secret service guy) or with Iorveth (the leader of Elves) and depending on your choice you could end up having a very different gameplay. It was more of a politics and shenanigans if you pick Roche's path and much more magical and fantasy if you went with Iorveth. I played both and loved both. They also hint to the re-appearance of Yennefer in the game universe, so it was quite interesting.
On thing that I think is worth mentioning is the CD Projekt Red's customer care. I ordered a Collector's Edition of the game and it came with a plaster bust of Geralt, which was... well.. busted. I was somewhat upset, but the company very quickly announced that they will send a copy of the bust to everyone who has damaged one. Soon after I received another copy of it. And it was also busted, believe it or not. But, the company still has sent me another one, so now I have THREE Geralt busts. Unfortunately all of them are somehow damaged, so I wonder if it was a good idea to make them out of plaster to begin with, but the company's dedication to their fanbase is unprecedented. They have my love and my loyalty!
Also, the second installment was, in my opinion, a big turn in company's success history – they went from a local video game manufacturers to internationally acclaimed company and with the design of the game they actually made some nods to their competitors – they have an easter egg with dead assassin from Assassin's creed and the whole set up of the game somehow correlates with the Bioware's Dragon Age: Inquisition. Both games start in a prison cell with an interrogation and if we remember that the first Witcher was made on Bioware's engine it becomes clear that they are saying to the world – here is our game, it's made on our own engine and it's better than everything else! This game was more than just a game, it was a statement!
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Speaking of statements... The Witcher 3 turned out to be a true masterpiece – a large open world, with a long and interesting story line, believable characters, plethora of unique, non-trivial quests and choices, that eventually resulted in one of the 36 endings... This game was stunningly beautiful and immersive. It looks great even now, in 2020, let alone 5 years ago. I have upgraded my PC just to play it on maximal settings and I have likely spent at least 200 hours playing it altogether. The story was deep and concluded the post-novel cycle of events. Within the first year CD Projekt Red added 16 free DLCs and later on – two major expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine, both of which could be considered separate games by other publishers as they introduced two amazing stories and at least 15-20 hours of gameplay each. No wonder that The Witcher 3 received over 200 awards, including the Game of the Year and ultimately, the fan base of this game expanded to tens of millions of players.
In my opinion, this game was the one that introduced the world of the Witcher to millions of people worldwide, made the novels so popular and ultimately led to Netflix' decision to create a TV show based on Andrzej Sapkowski novels.
The TV Show (2020...)
When I heard that Netflix is going to create a TV adaptation of the books, I had mixed feelings. On one hand I was excited as this is my favorite universe and my heart is with it, but on the other – I didn't know what to expect and I was afraid that they would ruin it. It's actually very difficult to put a good novel on screen as people who read novels tend to create the imagery of the characters in their mind and it almost never matches their screen counterparts. The problem is much worse in the case of the Witcher as there are tens of millions of people who had not only read the novels, but also have already seen the characters in the games and lived through the story with them. So I expected lots of issues with character casting (and they did occur).
I actually loved the choice of actor for Geralt – Henry Cavill is awesome! He read the books, played the games... and he builds PCs! He definitely has the physique and the enthusiasm to play the main character... But, to be honest there was something odd about the way his Geralt acts – the vibe is very wrong and I find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly is wrong. My general feeling is that his Geralt's behaviour belongs to a different epoch – he doesn't act like a medieval hunter / tradesman in a fantasy world. And the same applies to almost every single character in the show – most of the mages for example feel more like 21st century characters and the vibe of the whole story is not in line with the novels.
Calanthe (Ciri's grandmother) portrayal was flat and absolutely out of sync with the books, where she was a strong female leader. A wise leader, and in the show she seems to be acting on her whims and makes emotional decisions that lead to a complete disdain of her kingdom. The book character is much more logical and believable.
In addition to that, there are lots of little details that either didn't make sense or were untrue to the original, such as for example the age of Ciri when she meets Geralt – she appears to be a teenager in the show, but she was a little girl when she met him in the books. Then the fight with kikimora – it was completely wrong and it was the very first scene in the show! In the books Geralt taught Ciri how to fight with large monsters and he specifically told her not to try to wrestle with them and he spoke about kikimora specifically. And in the show he did the exact opposite of that! The fight with striga, I mean princess Adda, was decent, but we all know how striga was meant to look like from the intro to the very first game.
On a good side – the fight with Renfri and her cutthroats was just awesome! It was unbelievably great – well-choregraphed, gruesome and brutal. Exactly the way it was meant to be – you can see why Geralt was called the Butcher of Blaviken after that fight.
I must say several words about diversity... A lot of people spoke about "forced diversity" in the show and my honest opinion is that the show LACKS diversity. They simply cast some actors that didn't look the way they were portrayed in the game and I don't think any fan would have appreciated that, but the main issue of the show is that it IGNORED the huge racial conflict between humans and non-humans like elves and dwarves in the game and in the books. I think that it was a huge missed opportunity to address diversity and racism artistically, in a form of metaphors and similes.
So, my verdict is – it is an "ok" TV show, but it's far from being a masterpiece it could have become if they followed the spirit of the books and the games, if they listened the fans instead of following some internal agenda. Did I like it? Kind of – I did enjoy some things and there were lots of things that I disliked and that have left an odd aftertaste. Will I watch the next season. Hell yeah! It's my favorite universe after all! Would I recommend it? – likely not, unlike the books and the games. Speaking of which, would I recommend playing the games before watching the show? I would actually recommend doing it INSTEAD of watching it as videogames give you much higher entertainment value, they let you BE Geralt, not just watch Henry Cavill on TV screen.
I know that it might sound harsh a bit, but at the same time, I believe that my points are valid, and I would like to encourage you to subscribe to this website, and to my YouTube channel as there is much more to read and to see. You are also always welcome to communicate with me by making comments, suggestions, and asking questions, either here, or on social media platforms.
Stay safe, strong, and healthy!