As a kid, I loved digging through my parents' DVD collection. I saw the South Park movie, a regrettable choice, but also classics like Blackadder and The Matrix. It was a goldmine of a film library, but one day I stumbled on gold gold – the good stuff. They had all three Lord of the Rings films – the extended editions. I watched them all in a single day which was a nice break from scootering around the village, doing the YMCA dance in front of traffic – I was queer before I knew it. But it also shot my love for fantasy into the stratosphere, something that only one other series has managed since: The Witcher.
When I booted up the first game, I was like a drowner in headlights. The combat is janky and it has aged like milk in the hot sun, but I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, it was a sprawling fantasy epic with a rich world to explore filled with intriguing characters like nothing else I’d seen before. Shani or Triss? Tough, but Shani every time. Naive little James hadn’t even encountered Iorveth, the devilishly handsome rogue elf freedom fighter. For the first time in years, I was itching to find out as much as I could about this world, to unpack its every nook and cranny, to tear into all the little details and engross myself.
My first fantasy ‘love’ was Skyrim. I can already hear you sighing, clicking off, and cursing at how much of a basic bitch I am. I don’t blame you, frankly. It wasn’t a great opener. The main story boils down to an angry dragon coming back to kill everyone, but that isn’t what hooked me. I saw my cousin playing as a Vampire Lord, burning down Morthal and killing everyone in sight. I was sold right there and then.
Fitting then that another game, The Witcher, roped me back into fantasy. Its world is enthralling, taking mythological monsters and pitting them against a whole army of Van Helsings with Batman’s gruff edge. Of course I was hooked! But it really reminded me of what I love most about the genre.
I’m not a big fan of high fantasy, the happy go lucky worlds filled with optimism and heroes doing good and winning the day. It has a place, sure, but I find that far less interesting than dark fantasy, mixing in horror and bringing a gloomy atmosphere of dread into the mix. Sound familiar? It should. The Witcher’s titular characters blur the line of good and bad. So do the humans. So do the elves. So do the monsters.
It isn’t a cut and dry, black and white world of light and dark, fighting back tyranny or subduing evil to save the masses. It’s about mercenaries trying to make a buck and Geralt trying to be better but often struggling with his own past and what it means to be a good person in the midst of a world doomed by corruption.
It’s complex – there are so many conflicting motives at play, so many underlying prejudices, and stories defined by characters whose morality is never easy to pin down. It’s perfect for fantasy, which is a genre already packed with some of the best world-building in fiction, but it’s also reflective of how much I’ve grown over the years and how my taste in fictional worlds, places, and characters has developed.
I’m a bit more pessimistic, certainly less optimistic, and dark fantasy holds up a mirror to our own world in many ways. People might look good, but their hearts aren’t always in the right place and they don’t always do good. Fantasy can be an escape, but I love when it isn’t. The Witcher gave me that, an alternative that I could dig my teeth into. So after years of being tired of the genre, pushing it aside in favour of horror and sci-fi, The Witcher extended a decaying, slightly charred hand to pull me back in.
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