The Witcher 3 is a Folklore RPG, Not a Fantasy RPG

Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Smith explains why he considers The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a "folklore RPG", and while I have to admit the title of his editorial struck me as needlessly pedantic, I do appreciate the perspective within it. In short, Smith points out that one of the game's big successes is the way it offers a real window into the lives and belief systems of its minor NPCs, who might have just as easily be turned into footnotes to the adventures of the game's protagonists.

Here's an excerpt:

The Wild Hunt takes place in a world where the extraordinary is paradoxically commonplace, as is true in almost every fantasy setting, but it differentiates itself by constantly acknowledging the commonplace nature of the fantastic, and it does so by having the ordinary folk comment upon it. It’s a series of folktales rather than a fantasy epic, and that’s not just in the writing of the excellent bestiary entries or the many books you can find, or even in the composition of the contracts and quests. It’s in the lives of the people who make the world tick.

Given my love of NPC schedules, it’d be reasonable to expect my love of The Witcher 3’s folk to be tied into their mechanical behaviours, but that’s not the case at all. It’s their words that I love and the way in which CD Projekt Red have attempted to understand and reinterpret a version of the medieval mind.

You know that L P Hartley quote (and you most likely do know it even if you don’t know Hartley), “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”? The Witcher 3 may not be set in a specific time in our own world’s past but it draws on many aspects of European history and its writers and designers have effectively created a game with its own language. It is a foreign country and people do things differently, speak differently, and live differently. Even, and perhaps especially, the ordinary people.

This manifests itself in every facet of the game. Herbalism is understood by most but only practiced by a few, and more spectacular feats of ‘magic’, such as teleportation and transformation, are understood either as curses, blessings (elements of faith) or technological conceits of a sort. A mage leaves messages for those who seek him and they’re essentially Leia’s hologram playing on repeat, and acknowledged as such by one of the characters in the game, using a technology of her time, explaining the trick as something like “the mage’s version of a postbox”.