How video games like The Witcher are saving Slavic folklore
Folktales from the Slavic countries (primarily Central and Eastern Europe) form one of the richest and most diverse mythologies in the world. Traditional Western European fairy tales may have become watered down and sanitised over countless retellings and interpretations, but Slavic mythology still retains its bite.
If you caught the recent TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you’ll have some idea of how sharp this bite can be. The show, like the novel it’s based on, prominently features the Slavic god of darkness, Czernobog, who lives with the Zorya sisters (representing the evening star, the morning star and the midnight star). The character is violent, funny and morally ambiguous; a long way from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
But such appearances of Slavic folklore in popular media are rare. Unlike the Western fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, which have become subsumed into our consciousness through animation and film, you’re unlikely to see Slavic spirits and monsters in a cartoon musical. The lack of written source material means there’s also a distinct possibility we could lose this rich and diverse mythology.
But this rich folklore is finding a suitable home in the nascent medium of video games, an interactive artform that chimes with the ambiguous shades of Slavic storytelling.
Slavic stories are different to tales from other cultures. Unlike typical Western European stories, commonly based on wars of competing ideologies, Slavic folklore – and other Eastern European stories – are more often about individual human traits, rather than good versus evil. It’s for this reason that Russian films such as Night Watch and Stalker (the latter based on the Russian novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) are vastly different in tone to typical Hollywood films.
Slavic mythology features prominently in Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher novels, as well as the associated video games and the soon-to-be-filmed series for Netflix. These are new stories that were populated with creatures and monsters from Slavic folklore, and told with a distinctly Slavic flavour. For example, it could be argued that the immortal crones of Crookback Bog in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are representative of the Baba Yaga myth. Baba Yaga is one of the most iconic characters from Slavic folklore: a capricious crone (or, as she is presented in some myths, one of a trio of sisters) dwelling in a hut that stands on chicken legs.
The Witcher games are also full of spirits that are bound to specific locations in the game, with tragic backstories that can be unravelled as part of protagonist Geralt’s investigations into the monsters he hunts. “The most fascinating aspect of Slavic lore are the ‘unclean spirits’ attached to specific locations, such as the home or the barn,” says Nicole Schmidt of the Mythos Podcast. “There is the Bannik, the spirit of the bathhouse, and the Poludnica, a malevolent female spirit of the harvest field.”
(Above: A ghost in The Witcher 3)
The Rise of the Tomb Raider expansion Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch combined the Soviet legacy of Gulags with the Baba Yaga myth. The Thea games by MuHa Games, meanwhile, have also used Slavic mythology to tell original stories. Like The Witcher games, which used Slavic creatures and demons as a basis for its fantasy world, Thea: The Awakening delved into the pantheon of Slavic mythology as a source. Due to the oral nature of these stories, MuHa Games used the works of the 19th-century scholar and philologist Aleksander Brückner as core texts when researching the different folktales.
Unlike other mythologies, such as Nordic and Greek, the pre-Christian Slavic folklore is primarily an oral-based tradition with very few written examples of the original tales. “To my knowledge, there was no written language of the early Slavs,” says Mila Irek, writer and lead quest designer for MuHa Games. “Most knowledge and myths were passed down via oral tradition.” Some early Christian priests attempted to record Slavic myth, but it was inevitably changed in the process, made to fit more closely to Christian ideals.
“[Slavic tales] have a distinct ideological difference to Western science fiction and fantasy”
These tales have since become scattered and passed on through oral traditions, usually in the form of storytelling, fables and local traditions. Even today in Poland there are small villages that have retained customs and traditions from that time, which have kept the stories alive. “It’s a huge task to decipher that into a coherent mythology,” admits Irek.
Dr David Waldron is a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University, with a special interest in folklore. He explains: “[Slavic tales] have a distinct ideological difference to Western science fiction and fantasy. Battles between good and evil, and opposing ideologies in general, are seen as inherently destructive. You find the ultimate values being placed on the immediate kindness, integrity and compassion to those around you. Ideologies tend to suppress that for the ‘greater good’.”
(Above: Character cards from Thea: The Awakening)
“I find something quite laudable in the Slavic approach to ethics,” he adds, “and think it could be argued Eastern European stories led to the ambiguity we now see in modern fiction like Game of Thrones or even in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where toxic masculinity is the villain.”
The ambiguous morality of Slavic folklore, and the focus on the individual rather than the greater good, translates well into the player-focused decision-making of video games. Video games are also greatly focused on spaces, which gives a lot of scope for stories of “unclean spirits” to be woven into the detailed environments of worlds like The Witcher 3’s – often as enemies to be fought.
“There’s always a danger that we could lose Slavic mythology, but that is the way of life”
Ultimately, however, fitting a piece of folklore into a video game means squeezing it into a shape that accommodates player actions. “Even though the materials I read are correct, I usually end up having to twist them and change them to match our gameplay,” says Irek.
The branching storytelling structure of video games means we’re unlikely to have completely faithful retellings of these classic folklore tales, but we will nonetheless be able to preserve these iconic characters for future generations to enjoy. “There’s always a danger that we could lose Slavic mythology, but that is the way of life,” says Irek. “The thing with mythology and the way it stays alive is that it is retold by new generations or it fizzles out.”
(Lead image: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Credit: CD Projekt)