Building Novigrad

Something about Novigrad makes it come alive. The city has a particular vibrancy which defies easy explanation, but at least part of its appeal comes from what may 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 places they inhabit. Since the process is fully automatic, it’s performed without even the slightest intent. The reasons for this are purely biological. Helping to ensure the success of our species, we evolved in such a way as to quickly and easily recognize patterns in the world around us. We use this ability for several different purposes, but one of the most important is probably navigation.

In a highly influential study by Kevin Lynch, mental maps of cities were found to consist of five distinct components: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. While some of these terms may seem strange, 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? Which buildings are most distinctive? In answering these few questions, you’ve just identified its respective paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks.

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

Let’s take a look at Novigrad’s urban planning.

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 their apparent irregularity fool you, though. They definitely have a hierarchy. While the city has more than its fair share of narrow lanes and cramped alleys, the roads which link together its nodes are broad enough to accommodate horses and high volumes of pedestrian traffic. These main arteries give the street system structure.

Novigrad has a number of main arteries

The city has many back alleys

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

The canal and adjacent wall create a sharp edge

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

The concept of a district is understood by almost everyone, but a definition is probably still in order. Districts are quite simply places with a shared characteristic. This tends to be cultural, but other types of characteristic fit our definition, too. It’s possible for example to identify a district based on its physical features. Ranging from wooden shacks to brick villas, Novigrad’s architecture certainly proves this. Places like Farcorners, Glory Lane, and the Bits are filled with improvised buildings made from a traditional material known as wattle and daub - soil, clay, and straw held in place by a wooden lattice. Filled with geometrical stone structures, places like Silverton, Temple Isle, and Gildorf provide a sharp contrast.

Gildorf is mostly stone

Districts like Farcorners are nothing but wattle and daub

Nodes exist in places like public squares and parks where people tend to gather. These are focal points of activity, so they’re normally found at varying intervals along a city’s main arteries. Novigrad’s are mostly marketplaces. Every district has at least one, but the city’s main marketplaces are located in Gildorf and Hierarch Square. Populated with shoppers and sightseers, these are packed with merchants, entertainers, and even a few town criers. Clearly catering to these crowds, they offer plenty of public seating and a few fountains, too.

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

Landmarks are easily identifiable structures which provide exact points of reference. While exceptions definitely exist, they’re almost always associated with nodes. Novigrad’s landmarks clearly adhere to this rule. With its ornate wooden staircase and elegant brick facade, the stately Passiflora for example is only a stone’s throw from the marketplace in Gildorf. The landmark lends importance to the node, but the node also gives meaning to the landmark.

The Passiflora is pretty unmistakable

In designing The Witcher 3, the game’s developer, CD Projekt, used these five components of a mental map to structure cities like Novigrad. This made them in equal parts legible and lifelike. Lending the place an air of authenticity, CD Projekt made use of paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks to make Novigrad feel like a living, breathing city. In other words, urban planning helped it become vibrant.