Urban Fantasy: An analysis of Novigrad from the Withcher 3: Wild Hunt
It is safe to say that Fantasy, as a genre, doesn’t exist in abstraction. Despite its otherworldliness, the genre borrows from our world such that every fantasy universe represents, to some degree, a composite mirror of our own world. This fact often drives an effective fantasy, as the juxtaposition of mundane roots with unreal images and stories sharply illustrate the facets and foibles of our very own existence. Yet, this concept doesn’t exist absolutely. Fantasy’s relevance to our world relies on the extent to which different aspects of the universe in question resemble reality. The most important consideration in this regard is setting.
Last week, I discussed how the peculiar setting of Velen for the first chapter of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt allowed for both unique story and worldbuilding opportunities. This time, I would like to point the same idea toward Novigrad. While Velen was physically limited in its use of space and a prioritization of reductive landforms, Novigrad achieves a different, yet equally unique limitation, it is close to our world.
This claim seems counterintuitive, considering the plethora of dwarves, dopplers, and monsters that comprise its storylines and crowd its streets. However, Novigrad has one essential differentiator, it is a real city, both in terms of size and scope. It is a fully realized urban setting to a degree that is rare among the universes of fantasy. The uniqueness of this setting draws this section of Geralt’s world close to ours. The result is a narrative full of pointedly reimagined tropes and a worldspace populated by a different class of character. By creating a truly urban setting in an unreal world, Novigrad manages to infuse reality with fantasy and fantasy with reality resulting in something altogether different.
Novigrad, the fully realized city
Novigrad achieves this meaningful proximity through both the design of the city itself and the city’s relationship with the rest of the worldspace. The first important component of the city itself is sheer size. Novigrad, as a digitally rendered city, is large to to extent that it is a conceivable 1:1 correlation to a comparable early-medieval capital. This scale in and of itself brings Novigrad close to reality and also differentiates itself from the Witcher’s prior experience of isolated towns and decaying forts. The second component of the city is its physical composition, specifically the way it deals with the imposition of power. Even if one were to imagine a “typical” fantasy city, they would likely build it in an easily discernible hierarchy, constructed out from some massive monarchical structure. However, Novigrad’s composition allows a more nuanced understanding than that central-castle approach. In its sky line and street plan, different vestiges of power can be seen as monarchical structures, religious buildings, and grand manors can all be seen fighting for space as poor areas are subsumed or pushed to the periphery. From an aesthetic perspective, this amorphousness of power resembles the ambiguous power structures of our own world more than a typical castle-centric design. This composition also elevates the real factors of class and religion which will be touched on later.
However, it is also important to note that Novigrad as a region is more than its titular city. As I mentioned, the most unique facet of this area is its clustered urbanity, however, the way in which the cities (Novigrad, and, to a lesser extent, Oxenfurt) interact with the more typical forest and field setting is also essential to understanding Novigrad’s affective proximity to our own world. In short, Novigrad has suburbs. But more than that, it has degrees of suburbs, rural land, and country estates, that also correlate with an ambiguous power structure. In a sense, the reality of Novigrad seeps out into the surrounding area that grants nearly the entire region the same unique experience as the city itself. This factor both spreads and reinforces that same meaningful proximity.
Old Ideas, Reimagined
So, with the uniqueness of Novigrad’s urban fantasy established, it’s important to consider how it interacts with the narratives within. There are two prominent themes within Novigrad’s various quest lines that are specifically enabled by the unique setting. The first is the idea of organized criminality. A large portion of the Novigrad quest line sees you aiding or combatting various criminal factions led by a number of crime lords. In obvious homages to the Godfather and the Gangs of New York (the latter literally gets a shoutout due to the named quest: The Gangs of Novigrad), Geralt performs tasks for and against Count Reuben, Cleaver, Whoreson Junior, and any number of other criminal elements. These quests play heavily into ideas of class and crime in a way that is only possible through a dense, realistically stratified urban setting. For example, engaging in clandestine plots to usurp a kingdom is only given true meaning by a pointed physical manifestation of the consequences, such as the city of Novigrad. Put simply, the impacts of your criminal interactions would seem less important were they directed at a couple of scattered towns.
The second theme is religion. Religion, perhaps more than any power structure, is reflected in the contours of Novigrad itself, (the largest building in the entire city is the Temple of the Eternal Fire). This appearance of power is then realized by the constant examples of influence from the “church” itself. Mages and magical beings are executed and deported en mass with consent of the monarchy. Witch hunters roam the streets. In essence, religious enforcement seems omnipotent. However, these vestiges of sheer power which raise the stakes on many key narratives is only achievable through the urban setting. The full extent of public bigotry is sold through streets and streets of citizens cheering at the immolation of a mage. The wealth and influence of the Eternal Fire is unforgettable so long as its temple looms over the city itself. In the simplest sense, in order to convincingly portray the religious manipulation of the masses that is central to many Novigrad plots, one must have masses to manipulate. And, only by accessing that scope, can the profound parallels to our own world be properly appreciated.
A Closing Thought
The mark of a real city is its inability to be homogenized. Urban settings possess a size and density that lends then an unfathomably deep complexity. This is what’s often lost in fictional cities. Too often these creations are defined by one characteristic and every other aspect of theirs is simply a derivative. For this reason, Novigrad, as a setting, pushes an often untested boundary in fictional and especially fantasy worldbuilding. It tries to create a city that is actually a city, not a single-minded vessel to push a plot or prove a point. Novigrad possesses the scope, scale, and complexity to grow around the narratives within organically. It breathes with that special blend of indifference and compartmentalization towards a single character’s actions. What results is a deep and meaningful backdrop that props up profound, reality relevant, narratives without overtaking them.
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