How the Novigrad of ‘The Witcher 3’ Measures Up to the Original Fiction
The game’s great city is a sight to behold—but it’s some way short of the wonder Dandelion describes in ‘Sword of Destiny’.
Geralt's stumbled across a good friend of his, the poet Dandelion, underdressed and under attack. He's just been kicked out by a one-night-only, now very-ex-paramour, and is in the street, dodging jars of preserves, flowerpots and tin cups, tossed his way by a blonde woman positively incandescent with fury. "You pig," she spits. "You trickster! You bastard! You son of the Devil!"
So begins "Eternal Flame", the third short story in Andrzej Sapkoswki's Sword of Destiny collection, the first book to be published, back in 1992, in the Polish author's Witcher series. As such, it's the first time readers were ever introduced not only to Geralt, the mutant, monster-hunting Witcher himself, and his lute-toting semi-regular companion, but also the city of Novigrad, where the above scene unfolds.
Geralt's not so fond of the place. He's in town just to pick up some supplies—a harness, some tackle, and a new jacket. Dandelion, however, is greatly enamored. "The capital of the world, the cradle of culture" is how he encapsulates the streets around them, before expanding on the description with a more detailed account of Novigrad's charms:
Almost 30,000 dwellers, Geralt, not counting travelers; just imagine! Brick houses, cobbled main streets, a seaport, stores, shops, four watermills, slaughterhouses, sawmills, a large manufactory making beautiful slippers, and every conceivable guild and trade. A mint, eight banks and nineteen pawnbrokers. A castle and a guardhouse to take the breath away. And diversions: a scaffold, a gallows with a drop, thirty-five taverns, a theatre, a menagerie, a market and a dozen whorehouses. And I can't remember how many temples, but plenty.
The pair retire to one of those 35 taverns, the Spear Blade, at which point the story takes a more traditionally supernatural turn, and we're introduced—again, for the first time—to a Doppler, a shape-shifting character by the name of Dudu. He's someone players of CD Projekt RED's excellent 2015 role-playing game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third game based on Sapkowski's fiction, should be familiar with, as he plays a role in a few of its central story quests.
Equally, anyone who's sunk their share of hours into Wild Hunt, and perhaps its two expansions, will have regularly pounded the mismatched cobbles and muddy puddles of Novigrad. It's here that Geralt will come to the assistance of sorceress Triss Merigold, and as missions pass, he'll come to realize the scale of the city's underworld. But were you really looking at the surroundings?
Turns out, the game's Novigrad isn't particularly close to the book's list of sights and sounds, at all. And I've really been looking.
You probably caught notifications telling you that Geralt was in The Bits or Gildorf, as the city's divided into several districts, or that you'd just stepped into Crippled Kate's or the Golden Sturgeon tavern. But did you look up all that often? At everything the game isn't explicitly telling you? I didn't, but after reading "Eternal Flame" and Dandelion's testimonial for the city, I wanted to see just how close CDPR's version of Novigrad was to the book—or, get a feeling for how much artistic license the poet might have been ladling on.
Turns out, the game's Novigrad isn't particularly close to the book's list of sights and sounds, at all. And I've really been looking—pressing up against doors, trying to knock down walls, climbing dozens of ladders to nowhere.
Starting at the western tip of the city, just past the docks, I circled its circumference before cutting up and down its main streets, darting in and out of alleys to peek into what might be there. Mostly, not much. It's certainly a busy place, although the repeated dialogue of passing NPCs sure as shit grates after a couple of hours, but what Geralt can actually do in Novigrad is a lot more limited than Dandelion implies.
Let's start with those taverns. I tried, and failed, to locate the Spear Blade. However, in my travels across the city, back and forth a good few times, I did enter a handful of (identical-on-the-inside) buildings that appeared to be more like inns than standard abodes, decked out as they were with a bar-cum-counter, table space enough for a fair few regulars, and a number of beds up the stairs. Perhaps these were simply shared houses, the rent split between several inhabitants, I don't know, as there's no signage on them whatsoever—but for the sake of this piece, let's say they're some of those 35 taverns.
In terms of obviously named inns, there's the Rosemary and Thyme—which Dandelion manages, eventually renaming it the Chameleon—that also serves as a storage point for Geralt's many collected treasures and junk. It's a pub exclusive to the video game, not (yet) appearing in any of Sapkowski's books. The Nowhere Inn can be found in The Bits, Novigrad's most run-down district. The Golden Sturgeon is beside the docks—or, to use Dandelion's words, the city's seaport—and The Kingfisher is a large tavern on the edge of the central(ish) Hierarch Square.
There's a Winery at St Gregory's Bridge, which I suppose we can count, at a push—likewise, some outlying properties to the south of the city but just about, if we're generous, falling under its jurisdiction. So that's The Seven Cats, and The Cunny of the Goose. The Passiflora is more one of those dozen whorehouses, but it's got a fully functioning inn within it, with the little frothy tankard symbol popping up over it on the map, so I'm allowing it. That still leaves us way shy of Dandelion's total of 35, however. But then, when you're "the most renowned poet in this land", I guess you can get yourself a drink in all manner of off-the-beaten-track establishments.
Of the 18 banks, only one is easily found in Wild Hunt's Novigrad—a branch of Vivaldi, where Geralt can convert any old currency for spendable crowns. The wider fiction accounts for five in total, so quite where Dandelion's getting so many from is a mystery—even in a city of 30,000 people, is there truly a need for quite so many banks? And while the Passiflora is definitely Novigrad's biggest brothel, a quite beautiful building on the way towards Temple Isle, it's not the only one in town—Crippled Kate's can be found just to the east of the port, and there are other areas where "strumpets" gather in numbers, maybe indicating the presence of further bordellos, not that they're marked in any explicit fashion.
I tried to locate the slipper factory, truly, but nothing—though there's a wealth of warehouses in Novigrad, and any one of them could be housing such a business. Of Dandelion's four watermills, I located just the one, between the eastern wall of the city and the small village of Arette.
One shop is identified in the game as a pawnbroker, although upon entering the information above the owner's head tells you he's more of a loan shark. Semantics, I suppose. He can be found in the east of the city, between the Southern and Oxenfurt gates. There are numerous merchants and small stores that will happily buy items from Geralt, though—as well as many more butchers, bakers and fishmongers that you can't meaningfully interact with. So, when Dandelion speaks of "19 pawnbrokers", he's in the right ballpark, roughly, and there's certainly a slaughterhouse or two within the city walls.
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Wandering the streets, there's more to be found than Dandelion describes. There's a hospital, and a morgue—both of which have a part to play in quests. A complex sewer system that I march around, sword unsheathed, only to finally, and totally accidentally, discover the sleeping "then fuck off" vampire from the gameplay trailer. There's no scaffold or gallows to be found, as such—but the stakes of Hierarch Square are a good enough substitute for any public execution.
I found no mint, or menagerie—which I'm assuming, in this context, to mean a small zoo. There is a travelling circus camped to the south of the city walls, though, close to the Portside gate. I mean, it'll keep the kids happy for a while, just as well. Assuming they haven't all died of dysentery, that is, given the absolute state of Novigrad's poorer quarters.
In conclusion, then, Wild Hunt's Novigrad—while a magnificent achievement of game design, and one of the medium's greatest virtual bricks-and-mortar (and mud and blood) creations—is very different to Sapkowski's initial vision for it. But then again, Dandelion's hardly the most trustworthy fellow, at the best of times; and he had a right thirst on while telling Geralt about the city, no doubt due to already being on the sauce for a good few hours previously. Which is to say: his exaggeration should take nothing away from what is a terrific place to spend several in-game hours. And also that I really, really wish I had the time to start The Witcher 3 from scratch, again. What a magnificent game it is.