Skellige’s Costly Landscape

Landscapes often feel like an afterthought in open-world video games. While they should seem organic, many actually wind up feeling quite artificial. The reason for this most likely lies in the approach taken to level design. It’s quite possible to build an open world backwards.

There are two different ways to create an open world. The first is to establish various points of interest before shaping the landscape. The second is to shape the landscape before establishing various points of interest. While many apparently do the former, the people behind one of the most critically acclaimed video games of this decade, The Witcher 3, seemingly did the latter. Which of the two is backwards? Read on to find out.

Having specialized in the archaeology of landscape, the majority of my research touches on the various types of relationship which people develop to the world around them. Several different things can have a hand in forming these relationships, but one of the most universal is the cost of landscape traversal. Some types of terrain are simply costlier to cross in terms of time and energy than others. Elevation is often seen as the single greatest factor in this, but other landscape features also have a role to play in determining the cost of landscape traversal. Water and woodland for example influence how people move across the surface of the earth, too.

What connection does any of this have to The Witcher 3? Carefully examine the game’s level design and you’ll see that its developer, CD Projekt, has quite accurately modeled how people relate to the world around them. The Witcher 3’s open world feels entirely organic. The developer’s approach to Skellige’s largest island, Ard Skellig, provides a good example of this.

Skellige's landscape is highly realistic

Ard Skellig’s major cities are exclusively found along the coast. This may seem obvious due to the fact that Ard Skellig happens to be an island, but there’s actually a pretty good reason for why Kaer Muire and Kaer Trolde are so close to the sea. Assuming that you have access to a ship, the earth’s least costly surfaces to cross are in fact its lakes and oceans. This turned large bodies of water into significant avenues of transportation. Even though no ships may actually be involved, we still use the word “shipping” to describe the sending of goods today.

Ard Skellig’s major cities are close to the sea, but they also tower above their surrounding landscapes. Both Kaer Muire and Kaer Trolde are situated on elevated terrain. People throughout human history have preferred to live in well-connected areas, but they’ve almost always been concerned with defense, too. Given their low cost of traversal, expansive bodies of water such as lakes and oceans are pretty much perfect for connectivity. Mountains on the other hand are ideal points of defense for the exact opposite reason. Fighting a battle is a lot harder when you’re exhausted after an uphill hike.

Cities like Kaer Trolde are on elevated sites near the sea

Similar to its major cities, the cost of landscape traversal can be used to explain the location of Ard Skellig’s towns and villages. These are mostly found along the edges of costly surfaces like forests and mountain ranges. There’s a valid reason for this. Relying mostly on agriculture for their survival, people have always tried to maximize the amount of land which they can put under cultivation. This means ensuring that towns and villages don’t occupy large amounts of arable land. Wide open spaces have always been more valuable for agriculture than rough terrain, so these are usually found in the latter as opposed to the former types of landscape. Farming in a forest isn’t easy. The land underneath a town or village can’t be used for agriculture, so why not make sure that it’s mostly scrub?

Skellige's towns border forested areas

Ard Skellig is crisscrossed with a network of weaving, winding roads. The reason for this irregularity can also be explained in terms of the cost associated with landscape traversal. Since walking straight up a hill burns a lot more energy than gently zig-zagging, people throughout most of human history have preferred the latter means of traversing a landscape to the former. This came to produce the weaving, winding roads which are found throughout most parts of the world today. Paths were slowly worn into trails and these trails were eventually formalized as roads.

Elevation may be the single greatest factor behind the irregularity of most road networks, but other landscape features often play a part in things, too. Rivers for example are much easier to cross in some places than others. This means that roads often run parallel to rivers for a while before crossing over to the opposite side. Similar to rivers, dense woodland can also impact road networks. The most commonly observed adaptation to a forest is quite simply to go around it. Skirting along their outside edges, this can definitely be seen on Ard Skellig where the majority of roads remain outside of woodland areas. The grove in the island’s northeastern corner is an obvious exception, but this could easily be explained as an aspect of the local religion: druidism. Ard Skellig’s roads often parallel its rivers before coming to a bridge, too.

The island's roads weave and wind their way through the landscape

The Witcher 3’s landscapes feel organic for a good reason. Paying careful attention to the various relationships which people have to the world around them, CD Projekt managed to create surprisingly accurate representations of human-inhabited landscapes. Skellige is a good example of this, but the same could be said for White Orchard, Velen, or Toussaint. Many of these relationships can be understood in terms of the cost associated with landscape traversal. In other words, they can be understood from the unique perspective afforded by landscape archaeology.

Which of the two ways to build an open world is backwards? You’ve probably guessed by now that fitting points of interest into a landscape is more likely to produce an open world which feels organic than shaping a landscape around its points of interest. There’s a very simple reason for this: people adapt more to landscapes than landscapes adapt to people.