From serious tales exploring what would happen if Skyrim’s Dragonborn were to become Emperor of Tamriel, or presenting the idea that Deacon from Fallout 4 is actually Fallout 3’s protagonist with an altered face, to humorous stories surrounding Geralt of Rivia’s gwent addiction and art illustrating the inevitable consequences of the deep sexual tension between Disco Elysium’s detectives, take a look into the community of any popular RPG and you’ll find fans adding their own flavour to their favourite franchises via the medium of fan-fiction.
Works of fan-fiction almost never become enveloped in mainstream news stories surrounding their respective franchises; they’re typically seen as the kind of thing that can make your own playthroughs more interesting, but make shaky grounds for basing theories on. This is what makes recent events surrounding The Witcher series and the School of the Lynx so interesting: it began life as a simple fan-fiction article on The Witcher wiki before suddenly being teleported into the limelight when CD Projekt Red announced its next game.
Though, for Witcher fan-fiction writer SMiki55, one of the two authors of the School of the Lynx fan-fiction along with Witcher190, the last few weeks haven’t been much more hectic than usual.
“I was initially worried that some people might mistake our fanfic for canon when they'd look for info about the new School, but fortunately many long-time Witcher fans were able to notice that the info was published on a fanon wiki, not the official one," says SMiki55. "A couple days after the announcement I edited the authors' template so that the banner visible in every article marks that the text is non-canon.”
This might come as a surprise to outside observers, with the expectation being that when an interesting (but obscure) fan-fiction article abruptly becomes intimately involved in one of the biggest gaming news stories of the year, prompting tidal waves of speculation from the gaming audience and media of all stripes, similar attention would be directed towards its authors.
The story behind the Lynx School fan-fiction certainly is interesting and a tad ironic, given that SMiki55 admits to having been sceptical about the merits of adding more schools to the franchise at the time of The Witcher 3’s release, explaining that with the arrival of the game “Witcher schools seemed to increase in number but the lore for many of them continued to remain very shallow”.
This is an issue that remains open in SMiki55’s opinion, too. “Truth be said, I do think we kinda went overboard with the dozens of new schools listed there (on the fanon wiki)”. Though they also credit these fan-fictions with addressing some of the lack of representation in the original Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski.
“If fans feel that they want to be represented by a school taking inspiration from Japan, India, or Mesoamerica, why take it from them?”
Regardless, how you might feel about your fan-fiction instantaneously becoming the subject of worldwide intrigue very much depends on your personality. For some, it’s the kind of thing they’d dream about, going from an anonymous online fan to someone at the forefront of breaking news surrounding one of your favourite gaming franchises, with both journalists and fans suddenly queuing up to hear your thoughts on something you’re very passionate about.
On the other hand, some people – who may be more introverted or simply enjoy writing fan-fiction for their own use in playthroughs – might find this unforeseen influx of attention on them to be intimidating or stressful. Having the critical eyes of the masses cast upon work you might have contributed to assuming that only a handful of fellow fans would see it is galling. This is why it’s a little alarming that CD Projekt didn’t reach out to the fan-fiction writers beforehand, as SMiki55 explains: “I got the confirmation the same way as anyone else: by reading the Eurogamer article that quoted Robert Malinowski.”
Given that they didn’t make a point to reach out to the writers behind the School of the Lynx fan-fiction, it’s also surprising that CD Projekt didn’t choose to distance its upcoming game from the fan-fiction in the statement it made not long after the announcement, confirming that the Witcher medallion included in it was designed to resemble a lynx – not a regular cat as many had surmised. We reached out to CD Projekt RED for comment on ahead of this article going live, but the developer has declined comment at this time.
Assuming that this statement was made, in part, to throw some water on the huge speculatory fire that had erupted surrounding the idea of Ciri being the game’s protagonist, would it not have made sense for CD Projekt to confirm that the School of the Lynx that’s set to feature in its game will be different to the one depicted in the fan-fiction? Especially since many, including SMiki55, already believe this will be the case.
If the Ciri theory was swiftly squashed due to the fear of disappointing fans when it proved not to be accurate, surely taking the same step with the School of the Lynx theories is equally as obvious and necessary? The fact that it wasn’t taken could be seen to lend credence to the idea that there will be at least some similarities between the two Schools of the Lynx (that is, the now-official one and the unofficial one). If this is the case, though, CD Projekt’s boat could be headed into murky waters.
On the surface, the idea of using existing fan-fiction as the basis for a new game in any franchise’s story seems somewhat benign: the fans get the satisfaction of contributing to the future of something they love, and CD Projekt get a new game based on ideas that they know their hardcore fans are interested in. But things get interesting when the idea of compensation comes into play.
Even though fan-fiction writers like SMiki55 can’t (and don’t) claim to own any of the trademarked material contained within their writings, surely if these are going to be used in the same manner that a traditional in-house game writer’s work would be, the fan-fiction writers should be in line for some kind of compensation for their contribution towards what will likely be a highly profitable game. Just look at what a mess Ubisoft got in with its whole Joseph Gordon-Levitt fronted plan to crowdsource content for Beyond Good and Evil 2.
To SMiki55, the idea of the new Witcher game incorporating a Lynx School that mirrors the fan-fiction isn’t an appealing one. “I'd be pretty disappointed honestly, because I'd expect CDPR to come up with a better story than our mediocre fanfic,” they explain. With regards to any potential payment or credit in the unlikely event that this was the case, SMiki55 adds “that's up to me and CDPR (and Witcher190). Wishful thinking in the public won't help in anything.”
Regardless of whether the fan-fiction writers involved would be compensated, utilising their work as the basis for a Witcher game would also likely have consequences for the idea of fan-fiction writing itself, a practice which has been shunned and belittled in mainstream circles for a long time. SMiki55 thinks that these consequences could be both positive and negative.
“It seems conceivable that many fans, especially younger ones, would start writing their own stories and ideas in order to see them in the future instalments of their favourite franchises. And it's nice! Creativity is one of the crucial skills of the modern era, one should caress and cultivate every spark of it. There are successful book authors that grew out of fanfiction writers.”
Though, they also cite a few examples of increased involvement from fans of big franchises going wrong, alluding to the war between Games Workshop and Warhammer fans over the use of IP in fan animations and the treatment of actors like Kelly Marie Tran by Star Wars fans. The latter example is of particular concern to SMiki55, as “This threat of ‘militant fandom’ looms amongst sections of Witcher fans as well, as seen by people review-bombing CDPR or harassing POC actors from The Witcher TV series. I do hope that those select few will not dominate the fandom of a franchise I love and care about.”
Perhaps, in the future, the career path from fan-fiction writer to game writer will become more of an accepted norm, with game companies seeking more help from individuals with an in-depth knowledge of both the lore of their RPGs and the desires of the fanbases they’re looking to cater to. Or, maybe this will develop into another controversial avenue of exploitation of passionate people without giving them adequate compensation in an industry already packed with union-busting executives and anti-consumer practices.
Whatever happens going forwards, at least for now we can revel in the fact that CD Projekt may well have opened the doors for us to dream of a Witcher game in which stories like Dandelion and his Witcher friend somewhat awkwardly sharing a bed, Geralt turning out to have had ginger hair before his mutations took effect, or the white wolf finally fulfilling his destiny of retiring from the Witcher profession to become the daytime TV host of ‘The Geralt Springer Show’ can be made a reality.
After all, as SMiki55 says: “Fanfiction is healthy, as long as it doesn't evolve into shipping wars.”