Just Passing Through: ‘The Witcher 3’ and the Legacy of the Rōnin

Geralt of Rivia is never truly welcomed anywhere. A hero with few allies and no home, his actions are evocative of the manga 'Rurouni Kenshin.'

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Jun 5 2015, 1:00pm

Geralt of Rivia, the protagonist witcher of 'Wild Hunt.'

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Geralt of Rivia never quite seems welcome, no matter where in the Continent he goes. For me, playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and exploring its vast fields and innumerable villages has been an exercise in lukewarm receptions. I can see it in the way peasants chatter when Geralt rides into town, wondering what he's up to, asking him to stay off the lawn and, in some extreme cases, not to steal their children. I can see it in the way his enemies immediately move to fantastical slurs, cursing him as a mutant and a monster. I can see it in the way nobles and barons eye him, like he's a coiled viper.

Geralt is a witcher, a monster hunter born from magic and years of brutal training. He plies his trade as a contractor for hire, selling his silver sword and an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge to anyone who can pay for the service. In Wild Hunt, he's on a mission to find his adopted daughter, Ciri, but as he searches he must also scrape together the coin he needs to keep going. And you wander with him, taking on Geralt's liminal role in his world.

Geralt is my favorite part of Wild Hunt, and his characterization, with the mood and atmosphere that it brings to the experience, is a significant part of why the game appeals to me where other big fantasy romps don't. It helps that Geralt draws from one of my favorite character types. He's a wandering swordsman, a rōnin, on the fringes, an odd mix of empowered and powerless.

I first encountered the idea of a rōnin as a teenager obsessed with Rurouni Kenshin. Written and drawn by Nobuhiro Watsuki, it's a manga about a man named Himura Kenshin, a wandering swordsman in Japan during the Meiji era of Japanese history, where the feudal system was replaced with the more centralized and modern government that would define Japan from the late 19th century until now. Rurouni Kenshin isn't quite historical fiction, but it weaves real history into its shōnen; Kenshin is a samurai in a world where samurai are no longer needed and wanted, where the prowess of the sword-bearing warrior is being replaced with the might of a standard military.

When the story opens, Kenshin is simply floating from place to place, surviving. He was an assassin during a past war, we learn as the story goes on, a brutal killer. As a rōnin—in the most traditional sense of the word, a samurai with no master or allegiance—he refuses to kill, using a sword with a dull, reversed blade when he needs to fight. When he comes upon an injustice, he corrects it, going out of his way to help others, using his strength to defend instead of kill.

Himura Kenshin, via Comicvine.

Within a few chapters, Kenshin meets other characters and settles down, but it's those first few that stuck with me, that captured my imagination. He was kind and innocent, but behind that he hid ferocity and a world-weary sense of justice. He was at odds with the world around him; the local police frequently hassled him for carrying a sword, viewing him as a potential threat to the new order. There's just something romantic about the idea of the rōnin, that mixture of vulnerability and strength, a hero with few allies and no home. A wandering swordsman who hides kindness behind a sense of alienation, who tries to use what little power—usually just a skill at violence—to try to make the places he encounters a bit better than they were before.

The character type, of course, predates Rurouni Kenshin by a while. It exists in Kurosawa, codified in his film Yojimbo, and an American counterpart flourished in Westerns. And it's based on a decidedly less romantic historical reality: samurai sometimes lost their masters, and they would have to find work elsewhere as displaced soldiers for hire. They were more mercenary than hero.

Playing The Witcher 3, though, I can't get Kenshin out of my head. Geralt and Kenshin are different in a lot of ways; Geralt's cruder, rougher, more prone to killing. But his portrayal draws from that same fictional vein, and his role in his world mirrors the role Kenshin played in his post-feudal Japan. They're both power fantasy heroes without the ensuing ability to shape the world they occupy. And in a video game like The Witcher 3, that's a surprisingly refreshing distinction.

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"There are no schools currently training witchers." That's one of the informative titbits dropped into Wild Hunt's loading screens (when you actually see one). It's central, however, to how Geralt relates to the world around him. Witchers are relics of an older world, a less settled one, when humans and the myriad of terrifying monsters were first intermingling. As time has passed, public opinion has turned from ambivalent about the presence of witchers to largely negative, and due to their propensity for violence and their unnatural mutations, they are viewed with a degree of mistrust. Like Kenshin, Geralt is one of the last of a dying breed, a breed whose very existence poses a problem for those in power.

Geralt, as such, has very little influence over society, despite his relative power and wisdom compared to those around him. He's a superhuman master warrior, but he's only ever trusted as a problem solver, a hired sword to slay the most pernicious monsters and get whatever other dirty jobs done. There are moments during the game where you are able to weasel your way into nudging at larger systems, pushing politics this way or that, but these roles are always accidental and temporary; no matter what happens, the north and the south will fight one war and then another, and the machinations of the larger world will continue apace. Besides, Geralt's almost a century old, and is a bit of a cynical bastard. Even when he can change things, he knows it won't do much good. No, Geralt's influence is much smaller—help a tiny village with their noonwraith problem, share some food with some hungry kids, get in a fight with some bandits.

Wild Hunt has you living the quintessential rōnin life; just passing through, doing a little good, getting a little coin, then heading on your way. This is different to what most open-world games offer. In those, you tend to play characters of your own creation, placed at a critical place and time in the worlds they occupy, readymade heroes. You are, essentially, a salvific blank in these games—the Dovahkiin in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition. A placeholder character, customized to your liking, told the whole world depends on you. Why? Because, well, you're the player. Why else?

'The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt', official launch trailer.

Wild Hunt's greatest success is that it doesn't do that. Geralt has a specific role to play in his world, and it's a somewhat alienated one, that leans on the empowerment fantasy these video games offer without allowing the more simplistic fantasy of massive influence to follow. You remain an interloper in a world that sometimes needs you but never quite wants you, and the specificity and resonance of that position allowed me to connect and roleplay in a way other open-world games never did.

Geralt's role also more directly mirrors the experience of actually playing an open-world game. While it makes little sense for Dragon Age's Inquisitor to run around solving the problems of every member of her constituency, doing odd jobs is his job, and he needs the money. (This also serves to make the game feel oddly blue collar, but the jobification of open-world games is another essay for another time.) Geralt ties the play experience together, which, along with their excellent writing, is what lends even the most menial fetch quests in Wild Hunt a sense of purpose. For a witcher, even one of the last witchers, it's all in a day's work.

The 'Rurouni Kenshin' manga inspired a 2012 film, trailered here, which was followed by two sequels.

In one early mission, I encountered a dwarf blacksmith whose shop had been burned down. He had been forced by the local invading army to work on their armor and weapons, and the village around him didn't take too kindly to it. I offered to find the person responsible. It seemed only fair and just that the victim got to confront the guilty party. So, using my witcher senses, I hunted him down. He was stinking drunk. I dragged him back to the blacksmith by the ear.

After I did so, the blacksmith called the invading soldiers over and told them that he had the arsonist. Since the blacksmith was a military asset, the drunk's crime was treasonous against the new order. He was to be hanged immediately. I watch—Geralt watches—as they drag him away. There's nothing we could have done without calling down the wrath of the whole Nilfgaardian army on us. Instead, Geralt grimaces, says something about the punishment being a bit harsh, and gets back on his horse.

I'm reminded of Kenshin, doling out justice for the people around him but unable to carry his blunt sword without clashing with the police. The image is overly sentimental, sure, and certainly not a realistic portrait of people who carry weapons on their backs. But as Geralt rides out of town, I feel like I imagine he felt. The rōnin is a hero who does his best, knowing the world is bigger and crueler than he has the power to take on. And if I'm going to play as a hero, that's the type I'd like to play as.

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