One of my biggest gripes with modern fantasy and Science Fiction games is how they almost never seem to be able to properly depict towns and cities with the same grandeur and scale the developers want players to believe they undoubtedly possess. We are told through NPCs and even codex entries how these locations are large bustling cities, or diverse trading ports or even massive fortified strongholds, yet what is actually represented in-game is far from that.
To provide some context lets take a look at two cities from the first two entries in the Dragon Age franchise, Denerim from Dragon Age: Origins and Kirkwall from Dragon Age II. We are led to believe that both of these cities are massive urban areas with populations that number in the tens of thousands, with architecture and massive structures that are representative of their unique culture and history.
What we actually got however were multiple disjointed locations that were linked together by lengthy loading screens in which most characters and areas were just there as elaborate set pieces to help progress the plot. You could not interact with them, they just existed in the background. And not only did a lot of them not feel like they were actual parts of a fictional world, in some cases they actually made the larger set they were supposed to be a part of feel fake and incomplete.
Now I don’t intend to bash these two games, I actually really adore them (Yes, even Dragon Age II). They were released many years ago and a lot of the issues I mentioned above could very easily be explained away due to a lack of the proper technology at the time. In fact, I actually genuinely believe that the deep lore of the games and attention to detail during the main quests and with the character writing helped the games shine despite the technical restrictions that were very clearly a hindrance in making the fully realized world that were originally envisioned.
But more often that not we see examples like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in which most areas were little more than a handful of simple homes, a few shops, a guild perhaps, a statue or two, a keep and that’s about it. A city like Markarth definitely stands out from the rest in terms of it’s layout and architecture, but except for perhaps Solitude, most other major cities seem to follow the same general layout. with their own little twists.
We can argue that perhaps this is the way that developer Bethesda actually intended to represent the province of Skyrim to begin with, but I honestly find it hard to believe that a city as small as Whiterun can afford to throw as many bodies at me as it does during each of my post-save magical rampages.
I think that these cities are meant to be much larger and denser than they are actually depicted, but Bethesda being Bethesda has to name each and every non-hostile and non-combatant NPC in the game and give them some degree of dialogue to interact with the player. Each of the buildings in the game also have properly designed interiors that don’t feel like they were added just for the heck of it, they feel like real homes or inns stocked with books, food, cutlery, and just generally feel like places where people might actually live or convene.
If we look at these locations from this angle, it actually kind of makes sense in not having more than a few dozen characters or buildings in a single city. After all, there’s only so many throwaway NPCs you can add before they start to come across as forced or unneeded. I actually think that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion did a much better job in depicting the epic scale of it’s cities, but also concede that those in Skyrim feel much more alive. Hopefully whenever The Elder Scrolls VI comes out, it will find a perfect balance between the two.
But this article isn’t here to rant about how bad cities in other games are, as you could probably tell from the title. It’s here to give you an example of a game that actually manages to depict it’s locations in a way that is both impressive in scale and stays true to what a bustling urban hub in a fantasy world could actually look like. And that game is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Almost every location is The Witcher 3, from the abandoned ruins of the village of Heatherton to the hilltop hold of Crow’s Perch, feels like a place that is alive. You cannot interact with them as much as you can in a game like Skyrim, but I never felt like any of them were just a bunch of assets cobbled together for the propose of a side quest or just to convey to players that the game world was populated with living beings. They actually feel like places where people did, or could have once lived. And perhaps the best example of this is the game’s biggest city Novigrad, a location many fans can agree is one of the greatest cities to every be depicted in a video game.
From the moment you first cross the bridge to enter it, you are overwhelmed by the sheer scope and intensity of the city. It is absolutely teeming with life and you can hardly ever see an NPC or character that feels out of place. As you wander around the city and through the back alleys, you notice so many little details that did not need to be there, but only act to enhance the feeling of being in a real world location.
The architecture is worn and the walls and gates are overgrown with vines. Chickens roaming the streets scatter away as your horse approaches, children run around and play hopscotch, carpenters saw wood and work on the city walls, beggars ask you for coin and armed swordsmen stare at you intimidatingly as you pass them by. In the city square a performer both juggles and balances fruit on his head and a fire breather spits flames for a crowd of giddy children. Some citizens congregate in groups to listen to a figure talk, while others bow humbly to pray for salvation from the priests of the Eternal Fire.
There are so many unique things to see in Novigrad that I turned off my mini-map during my second visit to the city and genuinely enjoyed getting lost in it’s streets. The game did not allow me to talk to every housewife or guard I saw, but I didn’t really need to either. One of the things I feel developers seem to forget during world-building is that not everything you see in a game needs to have a purpose to serve for the main character, they just need to exist within their own little bubble which coincidentally also happens to be a part of a bigger whole. Hardly a tenth of what you encounter in Novigrad actually serves a purpose other than just being elaborate set pieces, but CD PROJEKT RED understood the proper way to use them to make an area in the game, at the very least, not feel fake.
So how does Cyberpunk 2077 come into all of this? Well, considering that the game is being made by the same developers, it is my hope that the very same attention to detail, if not much more, is paid to the world of Cyberpunk2077. With The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. CD PROJEKT RED made one of the best Fantasy game worlds of all time, no question about it. So now I hope that they do the same for their next game, and raise the bar yet again.
I risk now turning this article into a wishlist for things I want to see in the game, but the studio itself has said previously that the game will be a huge open world RPG. And while I don’t doubt that the single player will be fantastic, it’s the world itself that I’m concerned with.
.@PrettyBadTweets Worry not. When thinking CP2077, think nothing less than TW3 — huge single player, open world, story-driven RPG. No hidden catch, you get what you pay for — no bullshit, just honest gaming like with Wild Hunt. We leave greed to others.
— CD PROJEKT RED (@CDPROJEKTRED) November 19, 2017
We haven’t really seen a lot of science fiction open worlds in games. The best I can think of are the recent Deus Ex games, and even they are more open areas connected by linear paths than they are actual open worlds. This might absolutely not be the case, but when I imagine Cyberpunk 2077’s world, my mind immediately envisions a Grand Theft Auto game set in the future. It has after all been previously hinted that the game world will feature a wide variety of operational vehicles.
What I imagine is a setting like the world of Netflix’s Altered Carbon. A dystopian nightmare of sorts where the poor live cramped on the ground tying desperately to survive while the wealthy live in spires that touch the sky where they don’t have to breathe the same air as those they deem lesser than them.
I imagine a multi-layered game world where I can pan the camera up and see buildings and skyscrapers crowded together to the point where no sunlight can reach you or those standing below. Where players can explore anything they see and interact with the world in ways that games have so far not been able to through very Cyberpunk-esque game mechanics. You know what I’m talking about: flying cars, futuristic weaponry, holograms, body modifications and so much more.
What I imagine is the world we saw in that original teaser trailer all those years ago.
Do I think that after all this time CD PROJEKT RED can deliver on Cyberpunk 2077? I do.
Do I also think that it could all go incredibly wrong? Yes, but given the studio’s track record I am more hopeful than I have ever been about a game in over a decade.
CD PROJEKT RED is confirmed to showcase an RPG at E3 2018 next month. We cannot confirm if this will indeed be Cyberpunk 2077, but fans like myself are hoping that it is.