The Witcher 3’s depiction of city versus rural life

Like every video game urban centre worth its salt, the Free City of Novigrad, one of the true stars of The Witcher 3, successfully presents players with its class structure and stark inequalities. The poor are desperate, mostly malnourished, and often kind-hearted, whereas the rich are cruel and corrupt – as is the case in both games and reality. What really impressed me about Novigrad, though, was how its urban poor were juxtaposed with the poor of the countryside. Inspired by real geographies of the European Middle Ages, CD Projekt made sure the city’s destitute were obviously different from their rural counterparts. City dwellers knew more, had more rights, did the jobs of urbanites, spoke differently, and lived slightly better lives. 

Why do I mention this? To point out that in the vast majority of settings – including the real world – the collective and personal experiences of those living in cities are fundamentally different from those living in a village or tiny settlement. Most games tend to ignore this divide. 

City living

An urban society is markedly unlike a rural one, and not just in regards to its economy and size. There are more specialists and artists in a metropolis than in the countryside, and a village may predominantly focus only on farming. Daily life itself is more exciting in a city: a greater variety of things happen in greater frequency in the urban space. The daily pace is faster, time is condensed, people are more stressed, and measuring time is key. The personal clock is mandatory in any modern city, and the public one a staple of civic imagery. The complexities of daily life (such as catching a bus on time), and the need for societal co-ordination demand precise timing.

Constant interaction with strangers is another defining characteristic of the urban experience. In a village, an inhabitant probably knows the baker by name, and may be related to the postal worker. A reassuring yet often suffocating sense of intimacy prevails. In a city, on the other hand, nobody knows the name of the bank clerk, the bank clerk has no idea who their clients are, and yet everyone reasonably trusts each other to do their job. Keeping up with friends is also trickier in a city. People rarely drop by to check in on their friends, and even kids’ play dates have to be arranged as the complexities and sizes of urban centres grow.

Besides being packed with NPCs and varied architecture, The Witcher 3’s Novigrad is also overflowing with stuff to do

Density of experience goes hand in hand with the density of variety the city has to offer. Vastly dissimilar areas lie close to each other; ten minutes of walking in London can take you from a lush park, through a residential area, to the theatre district. Urbanites are used to such rapid spatial variations, and expect to find all sorts of places in the complex topologies of their surroundings. A kosher butcher, a tabletop game store, a specialised doctor, bars and restaurants, cinemas, a research centre, or an artisanal workshop of miniature flowers are more likely to be found in an urban centre than in a village; and all of them can coexist in close proximity. Emphasising this type of variety is one of the reasons Disco Elysium’s Revachol, despite its relatively small size, felt like part of a greater metropolis.

Besides size and complexity, other qualities also factor in the ways urban life is shaped, and vice versa. The density of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, for instance, fostered close relations between neighbours and forged mutual support networks, whereas the emphasis of ancient Athenian daily life on public matters shifted all attention and care from private to public buildings.

On politics

Politics and the city have historically been intertwined. The proliferation of socially and spatially defined groups, classes, and subcultures within large urban populations always led to political tensions and discourses. Radical, even illegal, ideas can also flourish in the anonymity a city provides. Often related to civic politics, artistic and philosophical movements also flourish, as do revolutions – an almost exclusively urban phenomenon. Paris is a prime example, with three major, world-changing revolutions, while Berlin had at least one that could have averted the Second World War. And to further showcase the city and countryside divide, Berlin insisted on voting for communists and social democrats as rural Germany increasingly supported the Nazis. Worth noting, too, are the innovations of urban life such as the 13th century Capitano del popolo in Italy or the democracy of ancient Athens. 

Anonymity has another function in a typical city: it allows the operation of secret societies, hidden groups, and, unsurprisingly, criminal organisations. Entire networks can exist unseen, and even a vampire could survive for centuries without drawing attention to itself. Were said vampire to lurk in the countryside, it would have to either outright dominate a village or prey on it from the outside. Not unlike vampires, urban power is faceless. Citizens of Rome never expected to run into the Pope, and meeting the mayor or the billionaire residing in your city would be highly improbable, to say the least. Power in cities is represented by landmarks, whereas in small communities, it’s more personal. 

Civic governance can take all sorts of forms, not unlike the political entity of a city itself. Any combination of governing system and level of autonomy can be found through history’s city states, free cities, imperial, national, or provincial capitals, autonomous urban regions, city alliance networks, and federalist towns.

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