Placing Beauclair

Stroll through the streets of Beauclair and you’ll notice that it feels a lot like a living, breathing city. The developer behind The Witcher 3, CD Projekt, clearly wanted to make this corner of the game world come alive. The company accomplished this by endowing it with a strong sense of place.

We rarely distinguish between the two terms in everyday speech, but ‘space’ and ‘place’ aren’t actually synonyms. What exactly is the difference? Places are quite simply spaces into which people have introduced meaning through various forms of modification, transformation, and change. While spaces can exist on their own, places only ever come into being through the intervention of people. Places have to be made.

Referred to as placemaking, the shaping of space involves a transfer of ideas and values into the world around us. Placemaking can occur at several different scales. People for example can personalize apartment buildings, but they can also modify entire landscapes. The shaping of a city falls in between these two extremes. Reflecting the dominant perspectives of the people who inhabit them, cities are sites of cultural hegemony onto which the worldview of a society is written. Similar to personalized apartment buildings and modified landscapes, this makes them a kind of window into the heart, soul, and mind of a given group of people.

Practicing a particular kind of placemaking, CD Projekt built Beauclair in such a way as to suggest that certain ideas and values were held by the city’s inhabitants. What exactly are these ideas and values? In terms of its architecture and urban planning, Beauclair communicates a popular preoccupation with rank, status, and hierarchy.

Beauclair was endowed with a strong sense of place

Beauclair’s architecture belies the existence of strictly defined social classes. You can see this in the varying quality of construction between districts. When it comes to building materials, districts like Hauteville and Gran’place are characterized by their brick, but others like Lassommoir and San Sebastian are mostly just wattle and daub. Consisting of little more than clay, sand, and straw held in place by a wooden lattice, waddle and daub is a rather perishable material, so it rarely stands the test of time. Brick on the other hand has a well-deserved reputation for durability. Showing clear signs of deterioration due to weathering, this makes the shabby structures in Lassommoir and San Sebastian stand in sharp contrast to the stately buildings in Hauteville and Gran’place. The differences between them in terms of ornamentation make the effect seem even stronger. While the houses, shops, and factories in Lassommoir and San Sebastian lack almost any kind of architectural flourish, the buildings in Hauteville and Gran’place feature colorful facades and elaborate masonry. They pale on this point in comparison to Beauclair Palace, though. With its flying buttresses and soaring spires, this ornate structure stands out from the surrounding city like a star in the night sky.

Beauclair Palace is highly ornate

You can observe this preoccupation with rank, status, and hierarchy in Beauclair’s urban planning, too. The differences between districts in terms of spatial organization are highly pronounced. While the buildings in Hauteville and Gran’place adhere to a strict grid system, the structures in most other parts of town are loosely arranged into a series of clusters. Lassommoir is at least relatively regular, but San Sebastian is really just a random hodgepodge of houses, shops, and factories. The ordered artificiality of a grid system gives Hauteville and Gran’place an air of authority which is almost completely absent in Lassommoir and San Sebastian. This atmosphere of power and prestige is reinforced by the city’s vertical asymmetry. Since it stands at the base of a mountain, the underlying terrain is of course uneven, so certain parts of Beauclair stand somewhat higher than others. While districts like Lassommoir and San Sebastian rest on the banks of the Sansretour River, others like Hauteville and Gran’place take pride of place atop a nearby hill. The entire city sits far below Beauclair Palace, though. Towering over San Sebastian, Lassommoir, Hauteville, and even Gran’place, this building absolutely dominates the surrounding area.

The city is characterized by its vertical asymmetry

Why does it matter that Beauclair was endowed with such a strong sense of place? The answer goes a bit beyond the boundaries of game design.

Suggesting a preoccupation with rank, status, and hierarchy on the part of its people, Beauclair is a reminder that cities have something to say about their inhabitants. They aren’t mute. Communicating a certain set of ideas and values, they represent a kind of window into the heart, soul, and mind of their builders. In other words, Beauclair challenges you to think about how the worldview of your own society is expressed in its urban environments. This part of the game world is a call to examine the process of placemaking in the world around you.