Witcher 3: The New (Old) Rhetorics of GrimDark

Hi, Everyone,

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Sorry that I haven’t posted in a while, but my WiFi for the past month or so has been out nearly 90% of the time.  I’ve been quite frustrated with it, but things seems to be better (fingers crossed).  In an update to the current OS, Apple has replaced discoveryd with MDSNResponder and I’ve replaced my new router with my old router.  Over the weekend (when I normally publish blog posts) WiFi was down, but as of Monday, WiFi has been up pretty much consistently for the past 3 days.  There was a small blip of about 2 hours, but everything came right back up.  As I write this entry on Wednesday afternoon, I’m WiFi enabled and it FEELS good!

I’ve been playing a lot the Witcher 3 and I’ve (mostly) been enjoying my time with it.  I have noticed that it seems to be part of that “GrimDark” genre that has taken hold in the Fantasy genre lately.  The idea that life is horrible and that everyone needs to die in order for fantasy to be “realistic.”  Game of Thrones didn’t start this movement (see Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Mordandt’s Need books for the early mid-80s take of GRRM’s series), but it has popularized it.

The rhetoric of postmodern fantasy is that there cannot be “good vs. evil” because that’s too simplistic.  You must have gray in everyone and everything.  Everyone (heroes included) must have some evil in them (and you must show it) and everyone (villains included) must have some good in them (and you must show it).  Otherwise, they say“your story is too simplistic and doesn’t mimic real life.”  It is too much of a fairy tale and real life doesn’t happen that way–we don’t have good vs evil, we just have everyday folks in a world of magic.

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This was brought home to me as I played a Quest in the Witcher 3 storyline.  Since i can’t spoiler tag anything reliably on my blog, I’ll be as non-spoilery as I can.  There is a decision that must be made and it is presented as do you kill x thing or do you free it?  I’d already been lied to by a “ghost” in another quest line and doing the “right thing” there ended up costing a life, so I was unsure how to proceed on this new storyline.  So, I spoiled it for myself and read the various outcomes via Wikis for Witcher 3.  Well, imagine my shock when I discovered it doesn’t really matter per se which outcome you choose.  Outcome 1: Some people die.  Outcome 2: Some other (different) people die.  The only choice you’re making is which set of people die.  The game doesn’t tell you that–it pretends that the choice is between “right vs wrong.”  One side says that something evil is killing things and then when you get to the evil thing, it says that it was imprisoned and that the other side is evil.  Neither choice actually saves anyone, however.  There are going to be deaths, the choice is actually whose deaths are you choosing, which the game intentionally misrepresents under the cloak of “right vs wrong” (This thing is evil and killing people, go kill it vs. I was imprisoned by those things–who are, by the way, going to eat some people, so set me free if you don’t want that to happen.)

Again and again, I can’t help but shake my head and wonder why have we decided that shades of gray somehow means a more complex and rewarding narrative vs a “good vs evil” hero’s quest yarn.  It doesn’t.  It’s just the “train wreck” phenomenon. Humans like stories and the tragedy is a genre of story where the protagonist fails and we watch that for the purient interest of watching a “wreck” unfolding in front of us.  It doesn’t make it a better or more complex tale than the “hero’s quest” or “good confronting evil.”

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Fantasy as genre, can (& should) do better than just the tired old “GrimDark” philosophy of the world is a crappy place that you live in and then die in (in as gruesome of a manner as possible) that seems to latch onto the genre like a leech every few years or so.  Fantasy should be about world-building, unique magic systems, awesome characters, and larger-than-life spectacle that push (but not break) a reader’s (or gamer’s) credulity.

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4 thoughts on “Witcher 3: The New (Old) Rhetorics of GrimDark

    • Thanks for the comment–back in the 80s, my library wasn’t buying much in the way of Fantasy, so even though it really wasn’t my type of series, I had to read it because there wasn’t much else in the building. Thankfully, that’s changed–now popular reading is the majority of what my library buys these days.

      • I have fond memories of reading Thomas Covenant. I was pressured into reading it by friends, and for me initially, it was such a chore. I was painfully working my way through, not happy with it at all, and then sometime when the questing group was in the plains of Ra, like I had been hit by a lightning bolt, the story suddenly became one of the best things ever. I immediately went back and re-read from the beginning, with some kind of sense of wonder. I can’t even explain it.

      • It is so awesome when you find an author that you like and resonates with you. I just finished my yearly rereading of David Eddings books and just bought the 1st bk in David Drake’s Lt. Leary series (which I somehow missed)–hoping to recreate the same magic you had with the Thomas Covenant books.

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