Thursday, February 1, 2018

Article: "How video games like 'The Witcher' are saving Slavic folklore" & Introducing a New Eastern European Fairy Tale Based Family Game 'Forest of Sleep'

Folktales from the Slavic countries (primarily Central and Eastern Europe) form one of the richest and most diverse mythologies in the world. Traditional Western European fairy tales may have become watered down and sanitised over countless retellings and interpretations, but Slavic mythology still retains its bite. (
This topic has been much in discussion in the fairy tale newsroom these past few weeks, so when this article popped onto our radar we had to share it.

The Witcher is officially based on Polish folklore as it's main source, but it clearly' borrows' from other Slavic (and Northern European) neighbors as well.

Here are some excerpts, complete with a historian/anthropologist with a special interest in folklore chiming in:
Slavic stories are different to tales from other cultures. Unlike typical Western European stories, commonly based on wars of competing ideologies, Slavic folklore – and other Eastern European stories – are more often about individual human traits, rather than good versus evil. 
..Slavic mythology features prominently in Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher novels, as well as the associated video games and the soon-to-be-filmed series for Netflix. These are new stories that were populated with creatures and monsters from Slavic folklore, and told with a distinctly Slavic flavour. For example, it could be argued that the immortal crones of Crookback Bog in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are representative of the Baba Yaga myth... 

...The Witcher games are also full of spirits that are bound to specific locations in the game, with tragic backstories that can be unravelled as part of protagonist Geralt’s investigations into the monsters he hunts. “The most fascinating aspect of Slavic lore are the ‘unclean spirits’ attached to specific locations, such as the home or the barn,” says Nicole Schmidt of the Mythos Podcast. “There is the Bannik, the spirit of the bathhouse, and the Poludnica, a malevolent female spirit of the harvest field.” 
...Dr David Waldron is a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University, with a special interest in folklore. He explains: “[Slavic tales] have a distinct ideological difference to Western science fiction and fantasy. Battles between good and evil, and opposing ideologies in general, are seen as inherently destructive. You find the ultimate values being placed on the immediate kindness, integrity and compassion to those around you. Ideologies tend to suppress that for the ‘greater good’. I find something quite laudable in the Slavic approach to ethics,” he adds, “and think it could be argued Eastern European stories led to the ambiguity we now see in modern fiction like Game of Thrones or even 
in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where toxic masculinity is the villain.” 
The ambiguous morality of Slavic folklore, and the focus on the individual rather than the greater good, translates well into the player-focused decision-making of video games. Video games are also greatly focused on spaces, which gives a lot of scope for stories of “unclean spirits” to be woven into the detailed environments of worlds like The Witcher 3’s – often as enemies to be fought.
You can read the whole of the article HERE.

There is an older article, titled The Myth Behind The Monsters of The Witcher 3, citing the specific folkloric inspiration (and differences) for the game too. You can find that HERE, and we've included some excerpts below as well. The monsters listed are:
  • Alps  - vampiric-like elves, that seek out female dreamers and twist their dreams into nightmares
  • Leshen (Leshy) - "gnarled, root-like monstrosities can be found in dense, ancient forests and are fiercely territorial. Their attacks manipulate nature itself, using roots and branches to assail their opponents", though The Witcher has added an element of Wendigo to them, making them more malicious than mischievous as per Slavic folklore
  • Noonwraiths - again The Witcher has amped the horrific aspects, but in folklore, they are the personification of heatstroke, with Summer field workers being vulnerable to their attacks
  • Botchlins or Mylings - basically tragic infant zombies that cannot rest due to "being discarded or aborted without burial or a given name". They hunt for expectant mothers to drain the life source of them and their fetuses... eesh.
  • Succubi - The Witcher versions share aspects with the scarier versions of sirens/harpies.
  • Plague Maidens - we'll just quote their explanation: "Plague Maidens are derived from “Pesta” of Scandinavian folklore. An elderly woman, robed in black, is the embodiment of the pestilence and disease that ravaged Europe when the Black Death rolled into town. From 1346 to 1353, the bubonic plague devastated entire populations and communities. Denmark lost a third of its population, with Norway losing almost half. The legend of Pesta states that she would travel from farm to farm, bringing with her the ill omen of the plague. If she was seen carrying a rake, people believed that only a few of the populace would die, but if she was seen carrying a broom, the settlement would not survive the disease."
  • The Wild Hunt - "...are a spectral horde of elves from another dimension. Atop their ghastly steeds, this throng of hunters rides across the night sky, harbingers of war and death. They are heavily armored soldiers that pursue their foes by teleporting between dimensions, striking without warning, and wherever they go a crippling frost precedes them."
Oh and Jacob Grimm gets a nice credit here in this article too, particularly for his volume “Deutsche Mythologie”.
Please note: In case it's not clear by this point, The Witcher video game is very adult. There is a TON of violence, horror monsters, as well as alcohol and explicit sex. Nevertheless, the game has amazing artwork, innovative use of story and a huge and popular following. (See some amazing, folkloric, and quite horrific cosplay of The Crones - a specifically strongly folkloric aspect at one point of the adventure - HERE.) Even their trailers are intriguing for non-violent RPG video gamers (this one embedded here is PG, possibly PG-13, which might actually be considered misleading, regarding its usual content):

There's also another article on a family-friendly, Slavic folktale-based video game we never got to blog about (the beginnings of a post are still sitting in our drafts folder!), called Forest of Sleep, that should interest folks as well. It is "an experimental, generative storytelling adventure based on Eastern European fairy tales" and the art style and aspects we've seen are delightful. The article/interview is titled: “Weird stuff can happen in folk tales”: Ed Key talks meaning, morals and evil bears in Forest of Sleep", and, just like the interviewer, you can't help but be drawn in by the image of a bear holding a balalaika...
 Here's an excerpt from the interview:
TM: So how are you going about structuring these generative folk tales? Are you looking at folklore through a structuralist lens – taking the approach that they’re built up of common movements and characters?EK: Yes, but there's also the link to modern storytelling here, like episodic cartoons, which all follow this fairly limited set of dramatic structures. Because of the incidents within them, they feel different and surprising, and they have a measure of anticipation.I should really say that thinking in terms of these structures is quite new to me. Nicolai and Hannah [Nicolai Troshinsky and Hannah Nicklin, who are also working on Forest of Sleep] both come from much more of a story-making background. Between us we're getting into this structural idea of narratives. Vladimir Propp is the big figure when you talk about folk tales and structuralism....Where Forest came from originally was, halfway through making Proteus I took a break and started making a game about an expedition – going up a mountain and coming back down again, and how you plan your food and so on. That morphed into a more fixed folk tale story about being in the forest when your parent falls ill, and your group needs to go into the next valley and find medicine. Then I started talking to Nicholai about generative narratives, and he suggested making a game about folk tales. His reason for this was based on the sense that weird stuff can happen in folk tales, and you don't question it so much.Also, there's a thing fairly specific to Russian folk tales, in that you have characters that recur across several stories, like Prince Ivan or Baba Yaga, who are kind of archetypes. The way these characters recur felt like it lent itself to a generative system.
You can find that article HERE.
Forest of Sleep is still in development, with the projected release sometime during 2018. (Possibly, or a little later.)

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