Deep in the thicket of a cursed, gloomy marshland, bubbles rise to the surface of a fetid pool, while a fawn scavenges for something green amongst the dying undergrowth. Without warning, the silence is broken by two thrashing shapes emerging from the water. A Kikimore - a vicious, spider-like mutation - and a sword-twirling Witcher - human, or...almost. A desperate fight ensues, during which the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is almost impaled, gored, and drowned. Eventually, Geralt emerges victorious, if exhausted. A hard day’s work, by anyone’s standards.
Now, he just has to find someone to pay him for it.
Somebody probably should have warned Geralt about speculative - or ‘spec’ - work. That’s a prospective client asking creative workers to submit a test or sample of their work before giving any guarantee of a contract. It’s like asking fifteen bakers to bake you a wedding cake, for free, so you can decide which one is worth paying for. Or fifteen Witchers to risk their necks carving up Nekkers so you can get a feel for which one is handiest with their silver.
Spec work, as defined by awareness campaigners No!Spec, is a common pitfall for young and inexperienced artists, designers, and other creatives. Anyone who's tried to make a living from a creative field - or spent ten minutes browsing the excellent For Exposure on Twitter - will know that the arts, despite taking years of focus and dedication, are often seen as frivolous or otherwise less valuable than other skill sets.
There’s a quest called “The Warble of a Smitten Knight” in The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion. Geralt is hired to investigate a simpering knight’s prospective beau, but before he can start, he has to win an entire medieval tourney just to be granted an audience with her. Anyone remember Ubisoft’s partnerships with HitRecord to ‘crowdsource’ music and art for Beyond Good and Evil 2 and Watch Dogs: Legion? These ‘contests’ are one of the more insidious forms spec work can take. Even the artists who eventually get selected end up getting a paltry percentage of what they’d make if the company just contracted them outright. If their art is good enough for inclusion, it should stand to reason that it’s good enough to be compensated fairly for.
If you’ve seen the first episode of the Netflix The Witcher adaptation, or read Sapkowski’s short story “The Lesser Evil”, you’ll know Geralt’s quest to sell the Kikimore’s innards for booze money ends up a fair bit more complicated, eventually resulting in his freelance career taking a massive hit as angry Blaviken locals spam his yelp page with one-star reviews. But let’s say the Ealdorman was in the market for Kikimore kidneys, and the White Wolf got paid without much hassle. What’s next?
Well, back to the grind, presumably.
Over the past four years, The UK’s gig economy - the part of the labour market made up by short term contracts, freelance, and precarious self employment - has more than doubled, to include an estimated one in ten workers. In the US, that number rises to around a third. Platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, that appear to offer flexibility on the surface, can often be more rigid than fixed hours; without insurance, health care, sick days, or pensions, gig workers can easily find themselves unable to switch off for fear of losing out. In a report by mancunianmatters titled “We don't have protection and they don't care: Deliveroo riders protest against the gig economy”, an interviewed driver describes how, “If someone were to take a week off, they would lose their statistics and be unable to work on their return.”
On top of this, the traditional safety nets are absent. As workers are encouraged by tight delivery windows to ride at dangerous speeds and without concern for their own safety, muggings and accidents have become so common that charities like the London Courier Emergency Fund have been set up to provide financial support where none previously existed. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between these organisations and the 1.6 million food bank parcels given out by the Trussel Trust alone in 2018. As the rich dismantle public services, it’s working class people stepping up to help their own, out of their own pockets, sharing what little they have.
The Witcher reflects this reality, too. In the episode “Four Marks”, the Sylvan “Devil” Geralt is hired to hunt turns out to be scavenging food from the local village to help diasporic elves. The elves were the original inhabitants of the land, long ago colonised by humans and forced to live as second class citizens. The episode ends with Geralt - ostensibly a cold-hearted mercenary - giving away his payment to the elves. You’ve got more in common with your neighbour, it says, no matter what shape their ears are, than the feudal lords who hide greed behind benevolent smiles. You’ve got more in common with the migrant worker on the next shift than the gilet-vested techwanker taking time away from sucking soylent off the nipples of his Elon Musk body pillow to cheekily dismantle the economy in the name of productivity.
The Witcher 3 seems to know the score, as well. In the quest “The Taxman Cometh”, a shocked Geralt is accosted by a bespectacled pedant, demanding that the Witcher take time out from his leisurely stroll through Oxenfurt’s markets to answer some questions about his income. It’s partly a reference to some vanilla game exploits Geralt could use to get rich, but the intentionally byzantine language will immediately strike knowing terror in the heart of anyone who's had to fill out a tax form before. Honestly, fuck the Wild Hunt. You haven’t known true fear until you’ve had to deal with British Bureaucracy.
“Four Marks” is also the episode that spawned Jaskier’s “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” Online, alongside the approximately 8 billion acoustic covers, club mixes, chiptune versions - and for some reason, a version where all the words are about paintballing - you’ll also find a ton of memes about how the Geralt-ganda earworm is the definitive anthem for a generation of gig-economy workers and freelancers. According to the freelance workers I spoke to, they’re spot on.
“He's subject to the same petty miseries you are. He has to worry about where his next meal is coming from, who's willing to buy his services, and which authority he can safely stick two fingers up to,” says Richard Plant, a freelance web-developer and master’s student from Edinburgh.
“Geralt carries the scars of his life in subtle ways that should be familiar to anyone who didn't have anything to fall back on: suspicion, defensiveness, and the constant grinding necessity of making a living dominating your horizons.”
“After working in such a cutthroat and competitive industry you grow to appreciate, and even admire, Geralt's down to business attitude,” adds freelance writer Richard Flint. “A job’s a job to Geralt. Sometimes you have to suck it up, down your elixirs, and stay up until 3am churning out news.” freelance writer Richard Flint agrees.
“I’d like to believe I’m familiar with economic instability; personal or public, it impacts the livelihood of a Witcher - mainly due to the responsibilities a Witcher and even Freelance Workers have to remedy: survival, financial stability and the art of chasing gigs to ensure that those aforementioned problems won’t come to swallow you whole,” says Aleksandar, a freelance scriptwriter and content creator.
The term freelancer, as I’m sure many of you will already know, is 19th century parlance for mercenary, even if the modern moral connotations of ‘mercenary’ are far more applicable to the sort of companies that profit from creating an unstable work environment than many freelance workers themselves. We’ve recently seen a trend of private equity firms gutting new media sites. The fewer opportunities available, and the more desperate workers become, the more creative ambitions or moral stances have to be put aside just to survive. This might not be the goal of private equity, but it's a chilling side effect. After all, it’s hard to rid the world of monsters when you need them to pay rent.
“The novels often mention a ‘Time of Contempt’ which is meant to describe the atmosphere of xenophobia, racial hatred, and desperation that hangs over the entire Continent, and if that isn't damn relatable I don't know what is,” says Twitch Streamer Tempy.
“I feel like we're also living in a time of contempt, and that makes it even harder to make connections with others, and to remain hopeful for the future.”
For fantasy fiction to really resonate with an audience, we have to be able to see ourselves in it. In that case, it’s not all that surprising that most of us can relate to a perpetually agitated, potion swilling hustler who looks out for his pals more than say, the Tolkienian archetype of the prophesied god-king. Face it, Aragorn was probably a Tory anyway, while Geralt is the perfect hero for the soul-crushing instability of our crumbling hellworld’s gig economy.