Know Your Zombie: Understanding the Living Dead

[7 minute read]

Last week I discussed the use of contagion and metaphor, and mentioned how zombies can serve as “vehicles” for the metaphor of contagious disease. This week I continue my discussion of zombies, but before diving in, I want to draw a distinction between the two major representations of zombies in popular culture: what I somewhat reductively will refer to as the “Voodoo Zombie” and the “Plague Zombie.”

Although zombies have become somewhat synonymous with the spiritual practice of Voodoo in popular culture, the spiritual practices many of us refer to indiscriminately as “voodoo” have a rich and complex historical, spiritual, and cultural background far exceeding their limited representation in much of U.S. culture. In many instances, Voodoo involves casting spells of protection rather than curses, although it would be equally inaccurate to say that curses and other violent intent do not play some part of voodoo. Voodoo has also played an important role in historical movements of political resistance and cultural revolution, which has led to its vilification by many colonizing populations. The zombie figure is intertwined with both of these components—magical and cultural—and, like other aspects of this complex spirituality, has been largely distorted by popular culture’s appropriation of it.


The cover of Wade Davis’s book.

The Voodoo zombie is, in many ways, the “original” zombie. This incarnation of the zombie emerges out of the traditions and spiritual practices of Haitian voodoo. It represents a person who has died, or was near death, and has been resurrected by a “bokor” or sorcerer. One of the most famous (or infamous) modern Voodoo practitioners was the late Max Beauvoir, known as the “Voodoo Pope,” who claimed to know Voodoo priests who had resurrected the dead. Before his death in 2015, Beauvoir introduced anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Harvard professor Wade Davis to a man who claimed to have been dead in 1962, but was resurrected to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. Davis’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) chronicles his search to understand the botanical recipe of the “zombie powder” used to intoxicate and control alleged victims of zombification. In 1988, this book was adapted into a Wes Craven horror film of the same name.


The poster for its 1988 film adaptation by famed horror director Wes Craven.

The Voodoo zombie is tied to specific cultural practices and geographies (for example, Haitian Voodoo), and so the contextual “meaning” of the zombie is specific and discrete. Unlike their contagious cousins, which began to appear in popular culture late into the twentieth century, Voodoo zombies are not aimless, shambling corpses; they are people transformed into purposeful creatures. Voodoo practitioners like those described by Beauvoir and Davis resurrect the dead for specific reasons, including but not limited to slave labor, control, or revenge. Voodoo zombies are personal, medicinal, and spiritual; they do not appear in hordes, their state is not contagious, and their place between life in death is mediated and maintained by the sorcerer who controls them. They can even recover from their state of zombification, and may return to their justifiably surprised and horrified friends and family.

Anthropological works such as Davis’s and popular films such as George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead are in part responsible for introducing the zombie figure to popular culture. However, the zombie as we know it now has undergone radical mutation from its origins in the Voodoo zombie figure, becoming what I’ll refer to as the “plague zombie.”

This type of zombie emerged from, but radically alters the trajectory of the original zombie myth, and became an increasingly powerful feature of contemporary horror texts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. While the Voodoo zombie’s cultural specificity and its conjuror’s intentions for it make for a rather rigid metaphorical reading, the metaphorical and interpretative pliability of the plague zombie has made it an adaptive and increasingly popular trope of the new millennium. Recalling last week’s discussion of I.A. Richard’s “tenor-vehicle” model as a way of understanding metaphor, a zombie operates as a “vehicle” allowing us to form connections between what the living dead are (the reanimated corpses of strangers, friends, and neighbors) and what they represent (hunger, contagion, mindless consumption, loss of control, and a disruption of the natural process of life and death).


The cover of Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996)

The popularity of the plague zombie began to rise in the 1980s and ‘90s in the wake of the devastating HIV pandemic, and the emergence of deadly new viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, and MERS; it reached a fever pitch in the late ‘90s and first decade of the 2000s. One of the most popular and enduring depictions of the “plague zombie” was the third-person horror videogame Resident Evil (1996), a franchise that has spawned twenty-nine video games across multiple platforms, six feature films, four animated films, seven novels, and a comic book series. In the Resident Evil franchise, the central narrative conflict is the Umbrella Corporation’s creation and not-so-accidental release of the “T-Virus.” Players, viewers, and readers must unpack the bureaucratic and capitalistic functions of Umbrella Corp to understand why they released the virus, who helped them, and how to cure or mitigate the impending viral apocalypse. As with many plague zombie narratives, the central conflict of Resident Evil isn’t that the dead are rising from their graves to stalk the living, but that there are arcane political, medical, and economic forces that would permit (or encourage) the advent of a zombie epidemic.


An in-game promotional advertisement for the fictional Umbrella Corporation. The tag line “Quality Medical Care You Can Trust Since 1968” is not only a sarcastic jab at the advertising style of pharmaceutical corporations, but also an allusion to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which was released in 1968.

The threat to social stability that zombies nearly always embody is the “tenor” of their metaphor. The contagion or plague zombies carry and transmit connects the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor together, connecting the abject horror of living dead to issues of social cohesion, security, and medical ethics among the living. In plague zombie narratives, how the ever-present survivors of the zombie epidemic respond to their situation is always as important, if not more so, than the existence of the zombies themselves. Next week I will be discussing one particular trope of the plague zombie narrative: the wall. Walls separate survivors of zombie epidemics from the living dead that stalk them, but they also separate survivors from each other and create material and metaphorical divisions in post-apocalyptic society. Tune in next week for a discussion of how the walls we build to protect us can become the cages that entrap us.


A Ghost in the Machine: The Specter of Literature in EA’s Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor (12 February 2016)

One of the most compelling aspects of studying literature is uncovering the ways society and popular media adapt, adopt, reboot, and reimagine classic literary texts and genres into “new” (and more marketable) media forms—for better or for worse. One of my favorite trans-media adaptations of the last few years has been Electronic Art’s 2014 videogame Middle-Earth: The Shadow of Mordor, an open-world adventure game that takes place in the rich, fantasy universe of J.R.R. Tolkien. This week I will be discussing how Tolkien’s literary texts literally “haunt” this videogame through the character Celebrimbor. Through this figure, I also consider what the ghostly presence of the book as an instance of “old media” can tell us about the future of fiction in an age of new media.

Media culture has its share of weak literary adaptations, some that distort or ignore the world of their origination, and some that are so geeked-out with hidden references and inside jokes that they become inaccessible to casual fans. Shadow of Mordor is unique in that it strikes a perfect balance between Tolkien’s literary world and the game’s player-focused digital narrative.  While one might expect a game based on books as popular as Tolkien’s to rely heavily on a teleological and novelistic plot, Shadow of Mordor’s open-world design allows the player to explore freely while choosing their own path through the loose narrative framework of the game. In a review for Kotaku, Yannick LeJacq writes “Mordor wants to be great game more than a satisfying bit of fan-service,” adding that “the game gracefully manages to keep the fiction of its own universe at arm’s length throughout” (Kotaku). While at first it appears that the rich history of Tolkien’s world—a deep fantasy universe that is founded on generations of unique internal histories—has been vacated in favor of a favorable playing experience, taking a closer look at the mechanics of the game reveals the fascinating and ghostly presence of Tolkien’s literary texts. Interestingly, Tolkien’s literary influence shows primarily through the game’s design and play-mechanics rather than through the narrative, and it is through these aspects of play that Shadow of Mordor is able to contribute to, rather than appropriate, Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The avatar through which players navigate the game is Talion, a ranger character invented specifically for the game.  The game begins with Talion witnessing his family’s ritual sacrifice by the evil minions of Sauron (the antagonist of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) before being killed himself. After his death, Talion enters the spirit world and confronts the ghost of Celebrimbor, an elven ring-maker whom Sauron had also murdered long ago. Fans of Tolkien’s novels might know that Celebrimbor is an essential, if somewhat peripheral, character. As the most talented ring-maker of the Second Age, it is Celebrimbor that forges the magical ring from which Sauron derives his power over others. This makes Celebrimbor a small, but key component to the development of Tolkien’s universe, which revolves around the struggle to destroy the ring of power and arrest Sauron’s dark influence. In Shadow of Mordor, it is through Celebrimbor’s presence that Tolkien’s literary universe interacts with the game-world inhabited by the player.  (picture 2: player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right))


Player avatar Talion (left) and ghost-pal Celebrimbor (right)

Talion, who is a human (like the player) is summarily possessed by the “wraith” of Celebrimbor, and it is this interaction with the spirit world that grants Talion and the player special powers they can use to explore the environment and history of the game-world they inhabit. Seeing through Celebrimbor’s “wraith vision” allows the player to track the footprints of enemies, locate hidden relics, and restore once great ruins to their previous glory.  It is through Celebrimbor, the ghostly remnant of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, that the game’s material history—including its foundations in a literary past now overshadowed by a decade of film and videogame adaptations—becomes accessible to the player.  By joining the player-avatar Talion with Celebrimbor, the ludic dimension of the game-text and it’s literary history become one. And while a player may feel as if they have left the rigid history of Tolkien super-fandom behind, Celebrimbor’s ghost is always haunting the edges of the player’s experience, pointing out the undeniable link between history and the present.

Perhaps Shadow of Mordor’s most compelling aspect for gamers is its innovative Nemesis engine, a system of play that imbues the world of the game with a type of material and historical memory.


Screen capture of the Nemesis system

The Nemesis system allows Talion’s enemies to “remember” when they have been defeated and, more insidiously, when they have defeated the player. This means that when encountering a seemingly random enemy in the free-roaming world of the game, the player often comes face-to-face with an enemy that bears the scars of past battles and holds a grudge. When Talion is killed in combat, the enemy who strikes the final blow gains a powerful boost in their statistics and may even be promoted to a higher rank in the feudal system of Sauron’s army. This means that mistakes and challenging encounters, which in most games could be forgotten by re-loading a save, create a long-lasting impact on the difficulty and narrative experience of the game.


A victorious Orc is promoted to War Chief

As many reviewers have noted, the Nemesis system gives the game an entirely new dimension, turning enemies that have long been portrayed as faceless, nameless grunts of Sauron’s evil army into well-known and despised villains with unique personalities determined by their personal history with the player. Strangely, the Nemesis system—designed to create even more provoking villains—serves to “humanize” Sauron’s army in a way, providing a new perspective on the often-ignored minor antagonists of Tolkien’s world.  The Nemesis system makes the materiality of Tolkien’s world a framework for the experience of the game-world. Rather than forcing the player to re-live a pixelated version of Tolkien’s novelized history of Middle-Earth, the free-range, “sand-box” style of the game combined with the Nemesis system gives players agency in discovering, and even creating for themselves, new depths to Tolkien’s work. Even as the player experiences the freedom and pleasure of writing their own adventure in Tolkien’s world, the phantom of the text is always there beside them, guiding them through Celebrimbor’s voice or framing the materiality of Tolkien’s influence through Nemesis. In this way, Shadow of Mordor makes its most interesting contribution back to Tolkien’s literary world.

Inhabiting the ghostly margins of their new media forms, the phantoms of our favorite books are capable of transforming our understanding of literature by shaping new and immersive narrative experiences.

Max Cassity is a 2nd year PhD student in English and Textual Studies. His studies encompass 20thand 21st Century American fiction, poetry, and digital media. He is currently beginning a dissertation that studies fictional representations of epidemic diseases in American and Global modern literature and digital narratives including Ebola, Cancer, and Pandemic Flu.




Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering, is apparently “emo-hard-core-diva-dubstep.”

While Cortana was making her way back onto screens and into the speakers of Windows 10 early adopters, I was making my own return to the game in which she first made her appearance, Halo: Combat Evolved. I could go on for pages and pages about how much that game meant to me as a 14-year-old kid with his first video game console. Some of my most treasured video game memories come from my original playthroughs of Halo: CE. Often cited as the definitive proof that first person shooters could survive on the console instead of primarily being a PC phenomenon, Halo excelled at creating thrilling set pieces within a rich universe that alternated from beautiful to terrifying to hilarious. These moments, upon my nostalgic return to the game, were as vibrant and dynamic as I remembered them. What I did not account for, however, was the steadying presence that the mostly body-less Cortana provided amidst the bright colors and chaos.

Cortana keeps you oriented in an alien world

As I re-played Halo: CE, it struck me as simultaneously bizarre and fitting that Cortana should re-surface not as a character but as a software feature in the Windows ecosystem. My freshest memories of Cortana were from the latter Halo games, games where the AI character had begun to resemble more conventional narrative tropes of damsels in distress. Correspondingly, those more recent games – Halo 4 in particular – feature a version of Cortana whose holographic body appeared more solid, more curvy, and more physically present than previous iterations.

Cortana4 Cortana1

Cortana’s body in Halo: CE and Halo 4

Contrast this to Cortana of Halo: CE, who for the vast majority of the game lives in the circuits of Master Chief’s cybernetic armor. Cortana makes her presence known primarily as a voice, speaking directly to Master Chief (and players) by way of their cybernetic link, only taking on a holographic form of her own when she needs to be plugged into a computer terminal of some kind. In many ways, Cortana feels unique among women characters in video games precisely because of her shifting embodiment. She is an AI, of course, but compared to the stolid, green armored figure of Master Chief, her running commentary on players’ adventures feels incredibly human. When she does appear in holographic form, Cortana’s visual design seems only to remind players of her un-corporeality: she is translucent at best, streams of data move up and down her “skin,” and often she is miniature. Her mode of embodiment for the majority of the game is to literally share the skin of Master Chief, and when she takes on other forms it is in ways that visually mark her as unavailable to the most common vectors for the male gaze. In other words, Cortana is a character whose primary mode of relation to players is via conversation, not as a sidekick, a woman to be rescued, or an object of desire, but as a military asset, equal in value to the player-controlled Master Chief and perhaps even exceeding in many ways his own humanity. Master Chief and Cortana then are two cyborgs, paired on behalf of humankind to stand against the alien threat.

It’s this feeling of human relationship and partnership in a shared task that I think made Cortana so endearing to me when I first played Halo: CE and when I picked it up again almost 15 years later. It’s also why later iterations of Cortana as a sort of sexy cyborg who, due to the nature of her AI mind, is deteriorating rapidly and dangerously into madness, never connected with me.

Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.

Some called the newer versions of Cortana more “humanizing,” I can see why they might feel that way. Her newer forms do have a heavier sense of corporeality and the introduction of a kind of AI mental illness and mortality certainly give Cortana some challenges to face that feel very human in nature. However, as Cortana’s mode of embodiment became more solid it also became more chained to regressive modes of visual representation that require women to be sexually desirable to the male eye. It seems hardly accidental to me that these changes in visual design accompany a narrative drift away from pairing Master Chief and Cortana as co-warriors in the fight against the Covenant and toward a rather hetero-erotic repetition of male rescue narratives and female hysteria. As you might expect with these developments, by the end of Halo 4, Cortana’s self-sacrifice for Master Chief is the only path to narrative resolution.


Master Chief’s sad face as Cortana sacrifices herself. 

This is why it was so pleasantly surprising to find Cortana once again greeting me as an unseen voice from a screen via Windows 10. Perhaps inadvertently, Microsoft had found a way to restore a more human and companionable iteration of the character that broke off the slide she had experienced in the games toward token eye candy. What I found instead was nothing more than the bare skeleton of the character I once loved spending time with, a disembodied voice whose wit and snark had disappeared into haze of sycophantic supplication. The Cortana of Windows 10 is no AI. Much like Cortana’s favorite music, the humanity to be found here is just a mish mash of focus tested jokes and aphorisms.

On the one hand, my disappointment here is probably a little silly. Of course the Cortana of Windows 10 was always going to be a shallow competitor to Siri, not a return to form of one of my favorite video game characters. Instead of restoring the character to a position of equality, the Windows 10 iteration removes her humanity entirely, forcing her to occupy a position of absolute servitude. On the other hand, in Windows 10 and Halo 4 we have the exemplary poles of possibility for female representation in video games. She must either be the subservient, disembodied afterthought or the erotic, fully female and fully psychotic damsel in distress. To think on the strange, iterative life of Cortana across platforms and narratives is to encounter the narrow silos into which women are often shuffled according to patriarchal modes of appropriate embodiment.

Curiously, the Windows 10 Cortana has not yet made it to the Xbox One platform, though I’m sure eventually it will. I wonder what the Halo: CE Cortana will think of her arrival.

Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Part 2: Critical Witching (11 Sept. 2015)

We started talking last week about CD Projekt RED’s enormous, dark fantasy role playing game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I promised we’d try to salvage something useful out of the kerfuffle over Polygon’s “pompous,” gender-concerned review, something that might highlight some deficiencies in the way we think about games as representational works and, in turn, might also provide a way to navigate the difficult terrain between (still rare) progressive-ish critiques of gender in the popular gaming press and reactionary, masculinist responses from the fans. Before we dig in, let’s make one thing clear: the object here is neither to “rescue” The Witcher 3 from either liberal critique or dubious fandom, nor is it to validate the defensive position of some anti-feminist gamers. Rather, I take that defensive posture toward political criticism of The Witcher 3 (or really any other favored game) as an occasion to rethink what it means to intersect with sex and gender within the social fiction of a game. Pointing out that the women characters wear skimpy clothes or that the main characters represent a raging male power fantasy is simply no longer a sufficient observation to account for the complex sexual politics often at work in these games – and it really hasn’t been for a long time.

So let’s get to it then.

In The Witcher 3, players take on the role of Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous witcher, a sort of professional monster hit man who roams the Northern Kingdoms slaying all manner of mythological creatures for money. As a witcher, Geralt is endowed with a number of special characteristics that both aid him in his pursuits and set him apart as a social pariah. Witchers all undergo a mutation process early in their lives that grants them superhuman strength, long life, heightened senses, and a remarkable resilience to poisons. This mutation also marks them physically, giving them slit, yellow cat-like eyes which, for better or worse, makes them instantly recognizable to the rest of the Northern Kingdoms’ citizens. Witchers occupy a weird, liminal position in their world. The many citizens of the Northern Kingdoms depend on witchers to protect them against a wildly dangerous world full of succubi, werewolves, ghosts, and far, far worse. However those same citizens regard witchers with enormous suspicion, seeing in them some of the monstrosity that they pay witchers to protect them from. Witchers seem to be predominantly male and have a reputation for being quite randy, a fact that is often alluded to in the series’ many jokes about their trademark sterility. Crucially, witchers also maintain a level of neutrality in their political surroundings.

Geralt Tassels

The Tassles are not part of that political neutrality.

The sorceresses of the Northern Kingdoms run socially parallel to the witchers. These loosely associated women wield incredible magical power and often serve as advisers to kings and nobles, ensuring that they occupy a central place in their world’s politics and cultural imagination. Though powerful, The Witcher 3 sees the sorceresses in a dangerous position, on the run from a new kingly edict proclaiming that all “freaks” should be captured, tortured, and burned. Here The Witcher 3 draws explicitly on the long history of persecuting socially (and sexually) powerful women as outsiders whose very existence threatens established patriarchal rule.

The tumultuous human civilization of The Witcher 3 wholly depends upon the careful management of the disruptive energies manifested by figures like witchers, sorceresses, monsters, non-humans, and other nasties that refuse to play nice with the Northern Kingdom’s competing expansionist agendas. Paradoxically, the people of the Northern Kingdoms depend on their witchers and sorceresses to keep monstrous threats at bay. This is what constitutes their liminal position: they are both the guarantors against social disintegration and the reminders that no such guarantee is even possible. The kingdoms of The Witcher 3 can neither live with their sorceresses and witchers, nor can they live without them.

They are, in other words, sort of queer. Their relative queerness is legible by the light of The Witcher 3’s iconic consolidation of dysfunctional, fractious powers (the ruined country of Novigrad, the bloody Chapel of the Eternal Flame, the prejudiced and violent Redanian army, etc.) into flawed and often abusive male figureheads (The Redanian king, for instance). By reading both the witchers and the sorceresses as dangerous yet necessary outsiders to these male-driven political economies it becomes possible to read the apparently gratuitous costumes that Keira Metz and Tris Merigold sometimes wear as something in excess of simple, hetero-masculinist voyeurism. Likewise, and more specifically to the point of this post, it re-works the player’s role as Geralt of Rivia into the unique position of a man who is simultaneously the beneficiary of and counterpoint to patriarchal rule. This positioning is the key to a more complex reading of The Witcher 3’s gender politics.

And now, finally, we can turn to the Bloody Baron.



Philip Strenger, aka, the Bloody Baron, holds power in Velen, a swampy expanse of a land full of peasants, monsters, and old, old magic. He is both a grizzled veteran of several wars and a tired old man who has now switched allegiances in order to secure for himself a more or less comfortable retirement in the ruling seat of Crow’s Perch, a rather large and somewhat dingy village in the north. Players encounter him when Geralt follows up on a rumor that Ciri was spotted in the streets of Crow’s Perch. Often drunk and with a reputation for violence, it’s a surprise to Geralt (and to me as I played) that the old warlord treats the witcher with respect and congeniality. Geralt and the Baron hit it off splendidly in fact, seeming to understand each other immediately as professionals, men of both action and simplicity. Almost immediately, Geralt and Strenger settle in for a quick, friendly game of Gwent.

Of course, as you might expect from a role playing game, the Baron asks Geralt a favor before he discloses anything about Ciri’s whereabouts. The Baron’s wife and daughter have disappeared and he needs Geralt to put his tracking skills to work. The Baron seems at first totally ignorant as to the cause of his family’s disappearance, but player’s soon find signs of an abusive relationship as they discover evidence of a drunken brawl in the Baron’s bedchambers, including holes in the wall that had been hastily covered up. As players investigate further it becomes clear that Mr. Strenger was indeed physically abusive to his wife and emotionally abusive to his daughter, so much so that his wife apparently sought out the aid of a local shaman in the form of a protection amulet. Though players have a variety of dialogue options to choose from whenever Geralt interacts with other characters, all of the available choices when confronting the Baron suggest some degree of anger and disappointment in his behavior, as players suddenly find themselves sitting in a seat of judgment. When it turns out that the Baron’s wife was pregnant and it seems as though the last beating caused her to miscarry, the Baron hits his lowest point.

From here it seems like the story will play out tragically, but conventionally. The Baron solicits the witcher’s sympathy by pleading that he is indeed a changed man, Geralt would then finally track down the broken man’s family down leading to their eventual restoration, and a flawed man finds redemption in the restoration of the ideal family. So far, so patriarchal. Things, however, do not follow such an easy script.

The Bloody Baron does indeed plead his transformation, but should players reject that plea (as, it is crucial to note, they are merely given the option to do), the Baron turns combative, arguing that Geralt has no idea what it’s like to be married, what it is like to have a wife who nags, or what it’s like to manage a family. Then, when it becomes clear that the protective amulet Strenger’s wife procured was because, in a desperate refusal to have another child by the Bloody Baron, she had sought out an abortion from three mysterious, ancient witches.

witches of crookbackbog

These women deserve their own series of posts.

In return, the witches sapped all the poor woman’s strength and placed her under magical bondage that the amulet kept at bay. Sympathetic to the woman’s plight, Geralt here finds himself in a familiar position: filled with disdain for the abusive men that constantly find their way to power, and yet dependent on them for his own goals. And so, Geralt keeps on in his liminal position, finding at best a sense of distant pity for the Bloody Baron in place of the camaraderie that was there before. And players, sutured as they are to Geralt as their avatar, are likewise placed in a position of critical exteriority to the male-dominated networks of power that underpin human civilization in the Northern Kingdoms.

You might think, “sure that’s all well and good, but isn’t The Witcher 3 mostly about killing nasty things with swords?” And you’d be right. Which is why the most remarkable thing about The Witcher 3’s episode with the Bloody Baron is the way Geralt’s social positioning and his professional skills come together to articulate the game’s clearest critique of an abusive, power hungry patriarchy. As I said at the top of the post, Geralt, like all witchers, is a professional – and his profession is monster slaying. The rich fantasy setting of The Witcher 3 allows for the traumatic fruit of the Bloody Baron’s dominance to achieve literal monstrosity, the likes of which Geralt can address head on. And in this case, the sins of the Baron return to him in the form of a Botchling.

Botchlings are the horrifying result of an unwanted infant having died without being given a “proper” burial or name. They return in the form of mutilated fetuses who prey on the strength of sleeping mothers. They are the vengeful detritus of the failed family. And as it turns out, one of them haunts the Baron. It of course falls to Geralt, and the player, to exorcise this particularly nasty reminder of Strenger’s effect on his family. This scenario can end in one of two ways: with a really difficult fight against the monstrously transformed botchling or with a drawn out, emotionally draining ritual that transforms the botchling into a lubberkin, a kind of guardian spirit who watches over the household. In the former scenario, Geralt is once again relegated to the role of the necessary but disavowed monster who manages the disruptive energies of a world run by mad men. In the latter, however, Geralt forces the Bloody Baron to intimately come to terms with the suffering he has caused and even displaces him from the position of protectorate of the house, replacing him with the lubberkin, a constant reminder of the Baron’s own destructive life. The Baron must pick up, hold, embrace, name, and bury the botchling over the course of a harrowing night while Geralt ensures every step is taken perfectly. This video depicts the opening steps of the scene:

Though Geralt goes on to discover the whereabouts and well-being of the rest of the Strenger family, this is the pivotal moment where players are most explicitly positioned agents of confrontation and transformation in this “oppressively misogynist” world. Rather than seeking an end to the Bloody Baron’s violence that results in his restoration as patriarch of a happy home, The Witcher 3 gives players one of two rather different outcomes. Either Geralt begrudgingly sweeps misogynist violence under the rug, allowing the Baron to stew in further resolute bitterness, or, he enforces from his liminal position a reckoning between patriarch and patriarchal trauma.

We definitely got into the weeds here, I know, but if you’ve stuck through I’m hoping that I’ve shown a little bit of how we might re-conceive our accounting of gender, misogyny, violence, and sexuality in video games. I mentioned before that criticizing the sexualized portrayals of women or the lack of any non-heteronormative protagonists are no longer enough. I do believe these things are still necessary. As it should be clear to anyone who played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, my analysis on this one small episode leaves a host of other vexed sex and gender representations unexamined. At every point however, and especially in the case of the Bloody Baron, The Witcher 3 insists that its players retain a critical eye toward its misogynist world. Without that distance, Geralt could simply not be The Witcher that his world needs.

Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.