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Building Novigrad

by Justin Reeve on 07/23/18 11:59:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Something about Novigrad really makes it come alive. The city has a certain vibrancy to it that defies easy explanation, but at least part of its appeal comes from what might be a surprising source: urban planning. The developer behind The Witcher 3, CD Projekt, clearly knows a thing or two about structuring a city.

People put together mental maps of the spaces they inhabit. The process is fully automatic: we do it without even the slightest thought or intent. The reasons for this are biological. Helping to ensure the success of our species, we humans developed the ability to recognize highly complex patterns in the world around us. We use this ability for several different things, but one of the most important is probably navigation. Knowing where we need to go and how to get there has been a pretty big evolutionary advantage. How else could we have found our way to food, water, and shelter out there in the wild?

Mental maps of urban spaces consist of five distinct elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Each one helps us to assemble an overall picture of our surroundings. These terms may sound a bit arcane, but almost everyone is familiar with the spatial features which they represent.

Think about your home town. How many of the streets can you name? Does it have any rivers, railways, or viaducts? Where does everyone do their shopping? Are there any public squares or parks? What buildings are the most distinctive? You’ve just identified its respective paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

In developing The Witcher 3, CD Projekt carefully worked these five spatial elements into the design of cities like Novigrad. This made them in equal parts legible and lifelike.

Consisting of any channel which guides people through space, paths are mainly important because they provide connections between nodes. Facilitating movement throughout the city, Novigrad’s paths are its weaving, winding, and occasionally zigzagging streets. Don’t let the apparent irregularity fool you, though. They definitely have a hierarchy. While the city has more than its fair share of looping lanes and dead ends, the roads which link together its marketplaces are broad enough to accommodate horses and high volumes of pedestrian traffic. These main arteries are what gives the street system structure.

Novigrad has a number of major arteries

The city's back alleys can be confusing — and dangerous

Edges define zones of transition by establishing boundaries between districts. They come in several distinct varieties, but Novigrad’s are mostly supplied by various terrain features. The canal separating Farcorners and Glory Lane is a good example. Making the line between the city’s core and periphery especially clear, the natural barrier defined by this waterway is even reinforced by a man-made wall. Novigrad’s other canals have the same function, but its edges are certainly not limited to bodies of water. Broken only by a staircase leading into the Bits, the rising terrain to the northeast of Hierarch Square establishes an equally sharp edge by physically removing the lower parts of town from the elevated Gildorf.

The canal and adjacent wall create a sharp edge

Marabella's School for Tots is at the bottom of the stairs leading to Gildorf

The concept of a district is understood by just about everyone, but a definition is probably still in order. Simply put: districts consist of localities which exhibit a particular characteristic. This is often cultural, but other types of characteristic fit into our definition, too. It’s possible for example to identify a district based on its physical features alone. Ranging from log cabins to brick villas, Novigrad’s highly diverse architecture certainly proves this. Places like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits consist of improvised buildings made from a traditional material known as wattle and daub: soil, clay, and straw held in place by a wooden lattice. Silverton, Temple Isle, and Gildorf by contrast are typified by regularly shaped structures with lots of stone masonry.

Gildorf is mostly stone

Districts like Farcorners are nothing but wattle and daub

Nodes exist in spaces like parks and squares where people tend to gather. Since nodes are focal points of human activity, they’re often found at varying intervals along a city’s main arteries. This definitely holds true for Novigrad where they mostly double as marketplaces. Every district has at least one, but the city’s primary nodes are located in Gildorf and Hierarch Square. Highly frequented by shoppers and sightseers, the public spaces in these districts are packed with merchants, entertainers, and even some town criers. (They’re also heavily policed). Gildorf’s marketplace for example offers a couple of uncommon amenities like public seating that clearly cater to these crowds. There’s even a water well and a few fountains in the area, too.

The marketplace in Gildorf is one of the city's primary nodes

Landmarks are easily identifiable structures which provide exact points of reference. These are probably the single most important elements of a mental map in so far as they allow us to identify precisely where we are in space. There are some notable exceptions, but landmarks are almost always associated with nodes. Novigrad’s most highly distinctive buildings — its brothels — clearly adhere to this rule. With its ornate wooden staircase and elegant brick façade, the stately Passiflora for example is only a stone’s throw from Gildorf’s marketplace. The relationship between the two is mutually reinforcing: the landmark lends importance to the node, but the node also gives meaning to the landmark.

The Passiflora is pretty unmistakable

Since we humans evolved in such a way as to look for patterns in the world around us, the ways in which we shape space necessarily reflect our observations of the earth’s landscape. This means that cities are highly distilled versions of mother nature. (Video game cities are no exception). In designing the Northern Kingdoms, the developer behind The Witcher 3, CD Projekt, appealed to the ways in which we perceive space to build Novigrad’s elaborate urban environment. Lending the place an air of authenticity, CD Projekt made use of these five spatial elements — paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks — to make Novigrad feel like a living, breathing city.

This article was reproduced from "Building Novigrad," posted to SlowRun on April 14, 2018.

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