For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about my favourite virtual cities, inspired heavily by my love of Novigrad in The Witcher 3. Often cities in video games are reduced in size to make navigating them easier at the expense of believability. As I got lost looking for the barber’s, or somewhere to buy alchemy ingredients, I found myself marvelling at the size of Novigrad. It felt to me like a real city, not a digital approximation of one. And so I set out to create a visual essay on the city. However, I’ve ended up with too much to say (and show), and so I’m breaking my article down into districts of the Novigrad – of which there are several, each with its own distinct feel. Let’s begin in the slums of the city, The Bits.
The Bits is the slums of Novigrad, home to the poor. Later in the game it becomes a hiding place for magical outcasts (such as Triss Merigold), who have lost their previous wealth, homes and freedom due to political tensions in the city.
Much of the commerce and market stalls depicted sell mainly food stuffs – even the poor need to eat, drink and be merry. Signage for these shops are plain and descriptive.
The spine of the original settlement of Novigrad is still visible in some places, and the layering of architectural styles shows how the city has grown, and gives it a sense of history. The Bits features buildings that recall its name: mishmashes of various styles built on top each other, haphazardly expanded as needed. It’s easy to imagine large families squeezed into small or bizarrely shaped rooms, living in overcrowded accommodation.
Even the activities and clothing of the residents of the city varies district to district. We understand the social class of the people living here through these cues: clothes are frayed and dull in colour, labour is performed in the street, disabled beggars are left to fend for themselves. Even through the voices and accents of the various NPCs which populate these streets, we are shown, not told, that they are the poor, working underclass of the city.
At the point in the game at which I took these photos, the violence that later scars the city has only just begun. This pyre and the bloody stocks remaining as foreshadowing (or a reminder, for the returning player) of the darkness on the narrative horizon of Novigrad.
In the exercise of documenting Novigrad, I became aware of the differences in how the Shrines to the Eternal Fire were used, perhaps showing some insight into attitudes towards religion in each district. Here we see two poor, working women listening to a Priest and praying. Note the grandeur of the shrine compared with the surrounding buildings.
Heading further into The Bits the streets become narrower as the complicated mess of buildings looms up, blocking out the sun. It becomes easy to get lost in these parts of the district, and it’s no stretch to image these restricted alleys as providing plentiful opportunity for crime.
As a result of the tall buildings and narrow streets, a sense of claustrophobia is felt – fitting for a place of generational and inescapable poverty. The district conveys the sense of dark and dampness, a reminder to the player of the horrendous living conditions of the Medieval era poor.
Below is an example of what stands out to me as a bizarre piece of design planning from the devs. Geralt is standing on the edge of The Bits looking at neighbouring district Gildorf, the upper class district of the city. It seems like a poor thought out design that this neighbourhood would sit right next to one of the poorest areas. Of course, in many towns that expand over time, city planning does not always happen in a coordinated and logical way – sometimes settlements grow and expand organically, and a rich district ends up next to an impoverished one. However, considering the extreme wealth disparity in Medieval cities, and the inequality that exists in Novigrad, I find the proximity between the two districts unrealistic. Considering so much effort went into the world design of the rest of the city, it seems like a big oversight. I would have expected the elites of Novigrad to have at least built a wall between themselves and The Bits.