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Looking Back... The Witcher

Interview: Will Porter talks Polish fantasy, racism and soft porn with its chief designer Michal Madej

What have the Polish ever done for us? I mean apart from coming over here with a strong work ethic and doing plumbing, building, coffee-making, bartending and vegetable picking in the middle of winter? Well, what they're starting to do is develop some mighty fine games.

The most recent example of this is The Witcher, developed by CD Projekt. A development team comprised of a hardy bunch of individuals that cut their teeth by translating RPG heavyweights like Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate into Polish.

Somewhat controversial in that it allows the player to collect sexy ladies in rude stances, but nevertheless a fine outing in roleplaying, the thinking behind this mature-themed RPG adaptation ran deeper than the designers' overindulgence in female flesh suggests...


Madej: The initial idea was to create a fantasy RPG based on a known franchise. We started talking to Interplay about making a PC port of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and after some time and some problems, we started looking for something else.

We realised Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher saga would be great. First of all, he's our own Polish writer and because he has a new vision of fantasy his work was fantastic to turn into a game. It was inspiring, it was unique, it was fresh, and while we had to translate the IP to other territories and that would be a challenge, we knew it would be a success.

In Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic, people are crazy about his work. I believe he's as popular as Tolkien, or even more so. Everyone went crazy about the game when it was released. In these countries it's not just a game - it's more like a cultural event. We had mainstream newspapers writing about it, it was on TV, everywhere. He's the most popular Polish writer today - and not just in fantasy writing - he's just the best Polish writer.

Madej: Andrzej Sapkowski is quite an old guy - he's almost 70 - and because there was an incredibly bad movie in Poland based on his books he'd had bad experiences. He was really afraid that we'd make a bad game.

Initially he said 'I've sold you the license, I just want the money, I'm not interested,' but after one or two years, he realised that it looked good, and the story was interesting, and got more and more involved. He began to help us to create the map of the world, which was something he'd never done before.

He was really excited - by the end he said it was the sort of thing that he'd always wanted to create. Him saying that was almost as important as what gamers thought and the review scores we got. We had created something that even the original author found exciting.


Madej: Sapkowski's books are different from the usual fantasy books, as you don't have the eternal struggles between dark and light. You don't have good and evil in his books - just shades of grey, having to choose between lesser evils. So it was important to have choices in the game that were morally ambiguous. Each time you have to think to yourself 'Which one of these is right or wrong?'

Decisions have to have an effect not only on your own character's life, but also on other people's. In most RPGs, your decisions only affect you, but I feel it's more emotional if you see somebody else dying, rather than just seeing yourself change.

If you see the whole city dead because you made a key decision and those people were close to you, then that has a profound emotional effect. The core idea is that these important, emotional decisions make up the story that you're told.

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