A No Bullshit Conversation With The Authors Behind The Witcher and Metro 2033
Witcher novelist Andrzej Sapkowski says he doesn't owe games anything, but Metro 2033 author Dmitry Glukhovsky thinks games made them both.
The Witcher and Metro series of (very different indeed) fantasy novels share the same Eastern European heritage, and the successful journey from paperback to our screens as TV shows, video games and, potentially, movies. But the writers behind them couldn't be more different.
On the day we meet up in London, Andrzej Sapkowski is scheduled to appear on a panel discussing how narrative gaming enhances storytelling. Why would the author behind The Witcher, who openly admits he doesn't play video games, take part in a conversation on their merits in telling stories?
"Coercion. I wouldn't necessarily take part in something like that out of my own free will," the Lodz-born writer tells me. "I know my duties. When you're invited to an event, you do what the organizers expect of you. Nobody cares if I like it or not."
And that's Andrzej Sapkowski in a nutshell. He will do his job and answer every question thrown his way, but he doesn't care if someone doesn't like the answer. Or gets offended by it. But be warned—reading about his opinionated views is different from hearing them in person.
Sapkowski is an entertaining, charismatic guy with the sort of disregard of the banal that a person can only develop with age. And he rarely stops talking. Pair that word avalanche with a strong opinion on most subjects and the controversy must and will follow. But I try to steer the conversation away from it. For a moment, at least.
I ask Sapkowski if he hopes to learn anything at the panel he has no choice but to attend.
"I highly doubt that," he says, and backs it up with a Rudyard Kipling quote. "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. Literature and video games are like East and West. There's nothing wrong with adapting books into a different medium, but you can't say that it's all in the same boat. That it all started with a comic book, then came the TV show, then a film and then a book. And that all of it fits together. Bullshit."
"Where's the room for depth or sophisticated language with which games could elevate culture? There's none." — Andrzej Sapkowski
But what if Sapkowski himself were to write all of it? What if he was to head up the adaptations of his original material, whatever the destination for them?
"If you claim you can do everything, you can't do anything," is his answer.
The principle of sticking to his strengths and the time constraints of working on the Witcher books contributed to Sapkowski's refusal to originally collaborate with CD Projekt RED, when they began work on what would become 2007's original game. But there's more to it—he simply doesn't consider video games to be a medium capable of good storytelling.
"A video game serves a different purpose," Sapkowski tells me. "It works differently. How much substance can there be in the lines of text when the hero walks through the woods and talks to a squirrel? Where's the literature in that? Where's the room for depth or sophisticated language with which games could elevate culture? There's none."
So CD Projekt RED had to manage without his involvement in the game. "The offer was they are going to base the game on my books and create their own story," Sapkowski remembers. To which he told them, "Fine, that's your problem now."
A fairly straightforward, beneficial deal for both parties, right? As Sapkowski himself puts it, "It's hard to say no to an adaptation offer that comes with a lot of money. Perhaps only an idiot would say no."
"CDPR bravely conceals the game's origins. It's written in fine print, you need a microscope to see it, that the game is 'based on' [my books]." — Andrzej Sapkowski
And yet his relationship with CD Projekt RED clearly degraded over the years. So what exactly went wrong along the way?
"I have nothing against the game itself. I think it's a high-level product. All the benefits CDPR received for it are absolutely well-earned. I have nothing against video games in general. I have nothing against the people who play them, even if I don't and never will," Sapkowski says. "The whole animosity started when the game began to spoil my market."
"I wrote the first Witcher story 30 years ago," he continues. "When I come to my author meetings, there's no one in the audience close to my age. I am 69. There's no one. Kids everywhere. How are some of them supposed to know—especially in Germany, Spain or the US—that my books are not game related? That I'm not writing books based on games? They may not know that, and CDPR bravely conceals the game's origins. It's written in fine print, you need a microscope to see it, that the game is 'based on' [my books]."
Related, on Waypoint: Saying Goodbye to Our Geralts at the End of 'The Witcher 3'
CDPR's faults don't end there, claims the author.
"The belief, widely spread by CDPR, that the games made me popular outside of Poland is completely false. I made the games popular. All of my translations in the West—including the English one—were published before the first game."
And then there's the issue of decorating Sapkowski's books with graphics from the game.
"[The publishers] are aware that the people who started their Witcher journey with the games might buy the book. Might, because it's not that obvious that the gamers will read the book, or the readers will play the games. It happens, of course. I'm not denying that the game in some capacity might have boosted my sales." (Which we've an example of, here.)
But Sapkowski is on record as claiming that for every reader he gained thanks to the success of the games, he lost another. Does he still believe that?
"I think the result would be about equal, yes. If anything, there are more people who have played the games because they read the books. That's my count, but I'm not sure. I never did any studies."
"I think that he's totally wrong, and that he's an arrogant motherfucker," says Dmitry Glukhovsky from his Moscow flat, in response to Sapkowski's claim.
"Without the gaming franchise, the Witcher series would never get this crazy international readership that it has. And it's not just about the gamers but the gaming press and the buzz it creates, and just the feeling of something great and massive and impressive coming out. This got people hooked. He would remain a local Eastern European phenomenon without this, but he would never break into the West. And the same goes for my Metro books."
A Moscow native, Glukhovsky started writing his first novel, Metro 2033, at the age of 17. He published it online for free five years later. "And it happened so that the game developers were among the first readers," Glukhovsky recalls. "The creative lead of 4A Games, Andrei Proharov, was sent a link to the website by some of his friends, and he read it overnight and thought it was a perfect story for their next game."
"If you're working with talented people, just give them the freedom of creation to interpret your story." — Dmitry Glukhovsky
Glukhovsky—a fan of classic Fallout games and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., with which 4A Games leant a helping hand—didn't need much convincing to give the project his blessing. "I decided to use this opportunity to tell my own kind of story, and I was not at all judging video games as a danger to my precious property. Quite the contrary, I thought that it's a great opportunity to promote the entire IP. And that was exactly the way it worked."
Glukhovsky's approach to inviting the creative input of others shows outside of his partnership with 4A Games as well. Parallel to the Metro stories written by Glukhovsky, an official trilogy of them, runs a franchise of dozens of books set in his post-apocalyptic universe. All written by "readers who are welcome to become contributors," as Glukhovsky himself calls them.
"If you're working with talented people, just give them the freedom of creation to interpret your story," he says.
And so he did.
"They had this first book as an inspiration, and they more or less followed the lines of the first novel," Glukhovsky says, explaining 4A's process for adapting the book. "They did a great job," he continues. "I think Metro 2033 is the world's first lyrical, sentimental and philosophical 3D shooter."
"Now, for the second game ( Metro: Last Light), they didn't have any plot for it," he says. "They couldn't base the story of the game on the second book, because Metro 2034 was a spin-off not focused on the original protagonist, Artyom, but the side characters of the first novel. So I had to create a separate story. My approach here was, 'I'm offering my help, you guys are professionals, you made a lot of outstanding games. You know better what works and what doesn't'."
"I'm already part of the generation that has not judged video games as poor entertainment." — Dmitry Glukhovsky
"I make sure that every character you encounter has something that every human has: feelings," Glukhovsky stresses. "And feelings are what we relate to. And feelings are important for us to believe in a character. And this is a very important thing that gaming can learn from literature."
But the Russian scribe is far from dismissing games as a medium for telling stories. "I'm already part of the generation that has not judged video games as poor entertainment. It can easily be a piece of art, depending on who's creating it, what his talent is. It can be utter trash and it can also be a piece of art."
And while Sapkowski doesn't share Glukhovsky's sentiment, and despite his obvious dissatisfaction with his visibility in relation to CDPR's Witcher series, he's not one to regret having his life's work turned into a video game.
"If I don't sell the rights to an adaptation, I may not afford rent." The Pole takes a sip of his Staropramen. "Not to mention beer."