Misunderstanding Narrative: Another Response to Adrian Chmielarz

I swore to myself I wouldn't respond to Adrian Chmielarz after he publicly degraded me for daring to offer my readers a way to support my writing.

Yet here I am. Chmielarz put out yet another hit piece on somebody who said something about women. This time, it was Arthur Gies, a reviewer at Polygon, who dared to have the temerity to say that maybe Witcher 3 is a little too misogynistic in its story.

How Could There Be Non-White Ethnicities In Europe?

Unsurprisingly, the very first point Chmielarz brought up was that Gies found the lack of POC (people of color; non-white ethnicities such as Arabic or African) in a game based on Europe to be troubling.

The sometimes used argument is “This is a fantasy game, you have dragons, you can have non-white races” does not make much sense to me, as the fantasy core of The Witcher is the Slavic mythology, and while dragons fit, non-white races simply do not — the same way white people are not a part of Egyptian mythology.

Non-white races absolutely do fit into Slavic mythology and history, given that the etymology of the words "Slav" and "slave" are finely intertwined due to the massive slave trade in the region throughout history; a trade which often included people from non-white regions. On top of that, Slavic lands are close to Constantinople, aka Byzantium, which was the major trading route from Asia and Africa into Europe.

This doesn't even take into account the fact that Slavic mythology is constantly in flux because - unlike Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and countless other mythological frameworks - we don't have written or direct accounts of Slavic mythology before Christianization, which occured during the period of Byzantium's dominance in European affairs.

Furthermore, while The Witcher is based on Slavic mythology, it's also based on history. It's not hard to incorporate people of color into your mythological or historical works of fiction; Game of Thrones, a series Chmielarz references later in this very piece, has many people of color in a landmass based mostly on Europe. Dorne, for example, is based on North Africa and the Middle East.

Chmielarz's complaint is rooted in a very eurocentric and isolationist view of history; that is, people from different regions simply didn't interact with each other before the modern age. That is contrary to almost every historical record we have, including the earliest ones from Arabia, Persia, Greece, Egypt, and countless other areas located near the cradle of humanity.

Note that I am not sure that adding “strangers from the strange lands” to the game would solve anything for the chronically offended. Based on everything I learned about them in the last year, and I learned a lot, if you put a person or a few from any non-white race, they would be called “token characters”. It is the Token Minority trope after all — and, as we know thanks to the megaphoned dilettantes, tropes are bad, mmkay?

That's because token tropes are bad. They reduce cultures to single people, using one person - who is often depicted in an awful way - as representative of an entire subset of people. There's another word for token characters - stereotypes - and there's a reason people try to avoid racial stereotypes. They tend to be racist.

The only way to please the outrage factory would be to have every race, every gender, every minority imaginable represented equally. As long as the hero, Geralt, is not a straight white male. And whoever replaced him, they would certainly not be allowed to be nicknamed The White Wolf.

This paragraph is so ridiculous, so outlandish, so devoid of reason or thought, that it's almost unfathomable that this is what Chmielarz actually believes.

Worth adding that The Witcher books and games have a lot to say about races and racial conflicts and co-existence. These things are actually the backbone of the universe. The subject is just covered allegorically through Slavs, elves, dwarves, and other beings, and not exclusively and obviously through the human races. Allegories tend to work this way.

The allegories of fantasy races as real races is not a new concept, and anybody with a concept of what fantasy is as a genre understands that. The problem is that these allegories are often racist as hell, depicting fantasy races as uniform, monocultural, and often bad. Lord of the Rings is a prime example, especially given that it codified the way a lot of settings - including The Witcher - deal with fantasy races.

If you're going to go the allegorical route, you should probably make sure that the allegory isn't deeply and fundamentally bigoted.

Sex, Women, and Misunderstanding Narrative

After finishing up with history, it's on to sexism, misogyny, and sexuality.

The reviewer has the right to be a neo-puritan American who warns the like-minded people that if sexy offends them they should maybe neither play The Witcher 3 nor frequent Suicide Girls. It’s fine.

This is not what Gies was saying, and I'm pretty sure Chmielarz knows that, but disingenuousness knows no bounds.

The problem with sex and agency in games is a complicated and nuanced one. It's generally not helped by adolescent boyhood fantasies of nipslips, gratuitous nudity, and sexual content in general. Arthur Gies feels that the developers of Witcher 3 - a game marketed toward and made for a mature audience - purposefully reduced some of their women to sex objects, centerpieces to be ogled and slavered over by young adults with no conception of the nuances of sexuality.

This is what Gies is calling out, and he is absolutely right to do so. We do not advance sexual liberation by turning women into literal objects, devoid of agency to resist the main character. In games, if you make the right choices, you can always get the girl; this is what Gies feels Witcher 3 teaches people, and this is directly contradictory to real life. Even if you make every correct choice, even if you are perfect, sometimes you just don't get the girl. That's because "the girl" has agency and makes her own decisions.

This is actually an incredibly complicated topic dealing with the devaluation of choice in games and the near-impossibility of creating believable, realistic people in a system that is designed to cater to one specific person.

The quote can be understood in two ways. One, the fictional world itself is misogynist. Two, the creators are misogynists. Most likely, considering the tone and phrases used in the review, both are true.

Generally, unless you are a skilled enough writer to separate your setting from yourself, writing a misogynistic setting results in a misogynistic narrative.

The problem with writing misogyny in literature is that it has to be communicated through the character's voice, not the author's voice. It has to be a component of the setting, not a component of the narrative. For example, the Homecoming series by Orson Scott Card often conflates character voice with authorial voice, and Card uses both to be both homophobic and misogynistic. A character literally describes himself as "broken" because he's gay; while it would be a tragic moment by a good author, it's just another awful homophobic statement from Card masked as a character's belief.

Writing bigotry is complicated, and requires real care and nuance. From Gies' review, he feels like Witcher 3 doesn't have that care and nuance sometimes, and that's a perfectly valid, non-toxic opinion to have.

As we can see, The Witcher 3 apparently simply mirrors the real world (as according to Feminist Frequency). So why is Gies saying in his critique that it was wrong for the developer to create such a mirror? Shouldn’t he compliment the developer instead?

The point of mirroring the real world in literature is not just to mirror the real world. It's to point out flaws, much in the same way that you would use a mirror to see if you have a blackhead on your nose or bags under your eyes. Anybody can create a piece of literature that represents all the horrible, grotesque monstrosities we commit against each other. That's not a measure of narrative skill. Skill comes from using that to convey a message.

So here I have to assume that Gies understands that when compared to the actual real world, the violence is exaggerated in The Witcher 3. That it’s basically an often grim, often cruel fantasy world.

I'm sure he understands that, given that he's a professional reviewer. What Chmielarz doesn't seem to understand is that grim cruelty, as mentioned above, needs to have direction, purpose. Cruelty for the sake of cruelty is not to be lauded; it should be criticized, which Gies rightly does.

And can I ask for some consistency as for which violent worlds full of sex are okay to enjoy and which are not?

This is in reference to Gies enjoying Game of Thrones. Simply by saying this, Chmielarz reveals that he doesn't understand how narrative and authorship intertwine.

In Game of Thrones (moreso in the books, the show has some real problems with women), the world is deeply misogynistic, but the narrative is not. There is a wide cast, almost half of which are women (as it should be), and those women display realistic, human traits as they move through their lives. Whether it's the descent of Caitlyn Stark, the depersonalization of Arya Stark, the strength and femininity of Sansa Stark, the knightly nobility of Brienne of Tarth, the boundless cruelty of Cersei Lannister, or the convoluted coming of age of Daenerys Targaryen, George R. R. Martin affords his female characters a measure of power over their lives - fake as it may be - that most authors do not. This is only a fraction of the women in the Song of Ice and Fire books to boot.

This is the difference between a misogynistic world and a misogynistic writer. Misogynistic worlds put realistic characters into misogynistic situations. Misogynistic writers use misogynistic situations to reinforce their views toward women.

But not understanding how role-playing and world simulation work still does not clearly explain Gies’ issue with the violence. And, oh the shocking surprise, Gies does not say a single word about the violence against men or their sexualization in the game. Somehow, I am pretty sure both exist.

By affording people the ability to act sympathetic to a wife-beater who causes a miscarriage, you give wife-beaters a sense of validation. It says to them "your choice to beat your wife so bad that she miscarries is a valid one, as we included it as an option in our game."

You can't handwave that as just role-playing. The fact that it was included, voiced, mo-capped, and written means that there was a distinct intent to put it there. It was not an open choice that somebody then ruined, like a game of Dungeons and Dragons; CD Projekt specifically put that in their game. Whether it was intended to be validation (I'm sure it wasn't, CD Projekt Red is a very progressive, open company) is moot.

As for the sexualization and violence against men, that's yet another tedious, tepid, and long-refuted argument. There is a difference between sexual violence and non-sexual violence; beating your wife and fighting somebody with a sword are two different things. The sexualization of men, in contrast to the sexualization of women, usually reinforces their power, especially when they are the player character. The sexualization of women reduces them as objects to be owned and fawned over, especially when they are non-player characters. Once again, agency rears its ugly head.

More importantly, how can a world in which women play such an important role (e.g. sorceresses basically run this world), and one full of heroic men and women fighting against the hateful and the evil be called “misogynistic”?

Because there's a difference between narrative - that women are powerful in this setting - and authorship - that women are sex objects. This is why Game of Thrones is a misogynistic setting without being a misogynistic book.

Labor and the Gaming Medium

After finishing up his rambling on narrative, agency, and authorial intent, Chmielarz addresses labor, feminist theory, and critical divergence.

Then why the hell do you defecate on years of developer’s blood, sweat and tears by implying their work is sexist and misogynistic?

Calling somebody criticizing a work because he feels it is strongly deprecating towards women as "defecating" reveals that Chmielarz really doesn't understand anything about critique, and possibly even critical thought.

Just because somebody put a lot of work into something doesn't make it a good thing. There are plenty of people out there who put tons of work into oppressing others. That doesn't make critics of those actions wrong for pointing out that what they do is wrong.

This is the labor fallacy - that you should respect a piece of art simply because a lot of work went into it - and that's one of the basest things you learn to ignore when you become a critic. Just because you worked hard and put care into it doesn't make your art good. It means you worked hard. I worked hard on my last response to Chmielarz, but that didn't prevent him from going through my Twitter to try and discredit me based on tweets I made to clear my head during the writing process.

And while we’re at it, why are you hurting feminism by inserting “misogyny” and “sexism” everywhere, whether it makes sense or not, to the point when, disgraced, these words become as effective to the desensitized public as a certain boy’s cry?

Why is Chmielarz "hurting feminism" by insisting that women biologically want to play hidden object games?

I wonder: is the review a cynical click-bait or is it all just musings of a true social justice zealot? I honestly don’t know. But I know it doesn’t matter, the result is the same: poisoning the industry that is already sick.

Going full GamerGate, I see.

It's a sad state the industry is in where one person's informed opinion on a successful and popular videogame is deemed as either clickbait or toxic. This was codified almost two years ago by Tevis Thompson, and it remains true to this day: if you have an opinion on a piece of media that is contrary to the accepted norm, or you hold any sort of progressive opinions, you are labeled as a troll. Chmielarz tries to head this accusation of opinion-stifling earlier in the piece, but can't keep from showing his true colors.

As an aside, I'd love to see what Chmielarz thinks is the "sickness" in the industry. People being progressive? Having emotions? Wanting to appeal to women? Making games that appeal to minorities? Critiquing games with a voice beyond the same generic one we've seen in games for almost three decades? It's almost like not wanting these things makes you both a bad artist and a bigoted person.

Meanwhile, I hope that people also read and share reviews of the game from other places. Let’s show that we are interested in a talk about racial issues, violence or sex — all of which are present in The Witcher 3 — without the blinding clickbait fire of ideological fanaticism.

And finally, here, in the last paragraph, Chmielarz unironically talks about discussing reviews of Witcher 3 without "ideological fanaticism."

Chmielarz is the ideological fanatic here. Arthur Gies is sharing an informed, personal opinion on a game he played, a game he was assigned to review by a website that wanted him to review it. He is perfectly welcome to disagree with Gies' opinion, but attempting to throw him under a bus for it is cruelty based in ignorance and bigotry.

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