So I’m halfway across the planet in a crowded hall, astride a unicorn with a young woman touching my face and repeating, “You look just like her!” Admittedly, I didn’t see this coming.
I’m a cosplayer, and I work for CD Projekt RED as the official Yennefer of Vengerberg for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It’s an experience that’s been often times thrilling, occasionally challenging and consistently surreal.
This is an experience that can be hard for people who don’t cosplay (let’s call you Muggles) to relate to, but I’ll try. I’ve been cosplaying in a professional capacity for several years now and as a hobbyist for years before that. As a result, I manage a sizeable online community built largely upon my cosplay efforts, though in no small part upon my love of pizza. Now, it is a typical experience for cosplayers to become very closely associated with characters they portray. That might be because they’re an excellent likeness, or can pull off a flawless impression, or maybe they’re just incredibly passionate about that character. This is something I’ve definitely experienced before with characters like Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite or Velma from Scooby Doo. People who are aware of your cosplay of that character start to immediately associate you and everything you do with the source material – even when you sometimes don’t want them to.
Imagine that one time you told people you’re super into otters. That’s totally understandable! Otters are adorable, and they hold hands when they sleep. There’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t love otters. But imagine now, every time an otter meme, gif, photo or video appears on the internet – and you’d be surprised at the frequency, the internet’s a big place – everyone you know sends it to you. Also, your birthday? Otter mugs. Otter t-shirts. Otter books. You’re not complaining, because you love otters, but you also have an identity independent of Otters and you have to work harder than you should to establish that in the minds of your loved ones.
So, having explained that thoroughly, you’ll understand the impact when I say that Yennefer and I have developed a whole new level of cosplayer-character symbiosis, and I’m not even mad. I guess there are worse things to be associated with than a passionate sex scene on a unicorn, and it sure does lead to some interesting conversations.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my relationship with Yen started in 2014 when I was emphatically posting to my social media about my cosplay plans from The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. I quickly received a very polite and informal email from a community manager at CD Projekt RED asking if I might want to be involved with promoting the new title upon release. I responded with the cool, casual interest of someone who was not at all running laps of the house singing about slaying monsters. My working relationship with the studio quickly escalated from a casual email to a community consultancy gig working on the Witcher Cosplay Contest. This search for the best Witcher cosplayers in the world saw a multitude of entries that were so good it almost makes you inexplicably angry, like when a puppy is so cute you just want to squish it. As part of this, I was asked if I’d be interested in cosplaying as Yennefer of Vengerberg.
It was early days when I first made my Yennefer costume from heavily NDA bound concept art that made me feel like I was in possession of the One Ring. I kept it secret and safe until CD Projekt RED finally revealed Yennefer in a trailer and posted my images. Since then, I’ve portrayed Yennefer at events all over the world – the highlights being megabeasts of shows like Gamescom and PAX Prime. I’ve experienced the overwhelming love and passion of building a new cosplay community surrounding the Witcher 3. I’ve received countless awkward texts about watching Conan O’Brien watch “me” have sex on a unicorn. I’ve experienced the absolute rush of the title finally being released and finally meeting Yennefer in-game. It’s the little things about how she looks – we have freckles in the same place! – that make this the ultimate fan, and ultimate cosplayer, experience.
It’s been an incredible ride (no unicorn pun intended) and it’s apparent that Yennefer and I share more than just a face. Having read one of the Andrzej Sapkowski novels the Witcher games are based on – The Last Wish – during my time working for the studio, I had become quite well acquainted with Yennefer’s personality and history. After the game was released seemingly everyone I knew started to regale me of their interactions with Yen and their opinion of her. It was only then that I truly realised how personally invested in her character I’d become and how protective I could be of a fictional being. Let’s just say that I may have found myself firmly committed to my stance in many a heated Team Triss Vs Team Yennefer debate and you really don’t want to come up against me on this one.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t be happier that my friends and followers, and the many Witcher fans I’ve had the privilege to engage with associate me with a character with wit, strength, vulnerability and complexity. I wouldn’t trade my time as Yennefer for all the otter mugs in the world.
Forest photo by Martin Wong