The forests of The Witcher 3 are some of the most lifelike and beautiful in video games. There’s a lot more to them than just looks, though: there’s history coursing through their veins, not to mention connections to Polish folklore.
This is an excerpt from the fourth issue of Heterotopias, an online magazine about the spaces and architecture of virtual worlds. Focusing on landscapes this time around, it includes essays about No Man’s Sky, Kentucky Route Zero and Stranger’s Wrath, but its main feature—written by Lewis Gordon—is about The Witcher 3. The magazine is $6, and you can get it here.
Deep in the Białowieża Forest a war is raging. Split between eastern Poland and the neighbouring Belarus, one of Europe’s most ancient woodlands is under threat by state-sanctioned logging. This is occuring in spite of intervention by the European Union’s court of justice, sustained campaigning by environmental groups, and the protection of the forest as a UNESCO world heritage site. The felled trees will eventually reach the international market, alienated from both their original form and the environment they were hewn from. Some will end up as paper, others furniture, but for now the chainsaw buzzing oscillates wildly, weaving its way through the close-knit trunks.
There is no easy analogue for this primeval forest in 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Designed by the Polish studio CD Projekt Red, itself adapting the series of novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, the game is a composite of not only Polish landscapes but those found in Scotland, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in northern Europe. The in-game islands of Skellige are home to many different types of conifer but its arboreal population is sparse. If you venture south in The Witcher 3 you will reach Velen, a borderland like the real-world Białowieża Forest, but one made up of large swathes of ravaged, rotting marsh. In spite of these differences, aspects of the dwindling modern forest creep through. Pockets of mixed-age deciduous and coniferous trees buttress Velen’s swamps and communities, while canopy openings allow for saplings and smaller, flowering shrubs to grow.
The Polish Romantic painter, Artur Grottger, made a series of lithographs between 1864 and 1866. Across six images, each given single-word titles such as “Forest” or “Fight,” he tells the story of his country’s wood-dwelling insurgents rallying against imperial Russian occupation. The participants of the 1863 January Uprising, made up of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, took to dense woodland in defiance, using its foliage to evade the eyes of the Tsarist empire as well as utilising it as a site for guerrilla warfare. In the first print, death—bearing an uncanny resemblance to the wraiths of The Witcher 3—drifts over the forest made up of the same broad-leaved and conifer trees of the game. In another print, Grottger depicts what he perceived to be a heroic last stand, the fighters engulfed by the blackness of the forest.
In The Witcher 3, Vernon Roche’s band of Temerian soldiers get closest to Grottger’s patriotic images of imperial rebellion. Their camp is hidden far into a forest, shrubbery obscuring the cave entrance where they reside. From there, they launch attacks on the occupying Nilfgaardian forces, attempting to restore power to the hands of Temerian monarchs. There is a muddiness, though, to the extent that Roche’s men might benefit the people of Velen, those who have borne the brunt of persistent occupation and warfare.
Elsewhere, arboreal resistance took place in England during the Reformation as members of the Catholic clergy took refuge in the pockets of still dense forest that punctuated its early-modern landscape. They used networks of holloways—old cart pathways reclaimed by rapsing shrubbery and trees—to move about undetected while persecuted by the royal government.
Even today, walking amongst woods in both the cities and countryside of Britain, the trees emit an almost magnetic pull on subversive, sometimes nefarious activities. Used condoms litter sites, their wrappers discarded in the mulchy, rotting leaves. Pornography magazines are trampled into mud while artefacts of illegal drug use frequently occur—syringes, teaspoons, and the soggy ends of roached joints. When people wish not to be seen—to go undetected—they slip into the quiet darkness of the forest. There, they might indulge whims centralised powers deem they shouldn’t, however banal those activities might be. It’s possible to trace a line between this use of modern woodland and the sad, tragic, and sometimes boring stories of people living amongst trees in The Witcher 3, a quiet resistance carved out away from oppressing forces.
Such resistive powers were effectively stamped out of the Białowieża Forest in the 14th and 15th centuries when it was subjected to the imposition of hunting rights, limited at first but later incorporating privileges for King Władysław II Jagiełło. These rights, extending to the nobility, prohibited the local population from protecting their crops, using timber from the woodland for housing or fencing, and hunting the game reserved for the royal retinue. Life was made difficult for those who lived on the lands legally designated as royal reserve and the opportunity to maintain customs was limited: a major dispossession had occurred. The forest still carries the mark of this shift in ownership, observable in the naming of its oldest oak trees. The Jagiełło Oak is named after the Polish king that first subjected it to hunting rights while the Tsar Oak signals the forest’s later changing of hands.
Adam Mickiewicz, one of Poland’s most celebrated Romantic authors, writes of another grand oak, the “Great Baublis,” in his epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, a lyrical, deeply nationalistic response to the Russian occupation of the 19th century. Mickiewicz venerates the Polish royal families that made the Białowieża Forest their hunting grounds—from Jagiełło to his dynastic descendant Sigismund II Augustus, before sweeping the reader through a series of idyllic woodland scenes. “Mendog’s grove beside the church” comes alive with abundant bloom before giving way to the linden tree’s “spreading shades” and bed of soft, dappled light.
Writing from Paris, Mickiewicz’s work agitates for the restoration of political power into traditional hands, albeit those of his fellow countrymen. The poem’s gaze on two feuding families is at odds with The Witcher 3’s focus on local custom and criticism of ruling authority, whomever it belongs to. Vernon Roche’s Temerian renegades may have been labelled as heroes in Mickiewicz’s poem but in The Witcher 3 the consequences of their actions are less clear.