The Witcher III has an incredibly detailed open world. Plants, animals, birds—you name it. Those elements left the strongest impression on me when I saw the game at E3 this year, and I got to sit down and ask environment artist Jonas “the Swedish god” Mattson all about the biological world built for The Witcher III.
Could you introduce yourself for us?
My name is Jonas Mattson, I’m a senior environment artist for CD Projekt Red. We’re based in Warsaw, and we’ve been working on The Witcher III for four years, having done The Witcher II before that.
The world of The Witcher III is huge and the flora and fauna reflect that. What kind of landscapes can we expect to see in the game and where do you draw inspiration for them?
Oh, man, there are tons of different landscapes. Really, you know, we look at a lot of classical art and photography because, you know, some of them, when they were painted during the medieval times, they captured the landscape and the presence of the buildings perfectly.
When we looked at it, we said “We want that. THAT’S what we want to see in our game.” Going in with that attitude in an open world is tough, since open worlds mean the budget is a little bit trickier. You know, let’s say you have a little bit of a linear corridor game—you can put all the triangles and textures in one way. But with an open world you have to approach that much differently.
In terms of the inspiration we use to create environments… well, for instance, Novigrad, the game’s big city, can be called a “Dutch-Germanic city,” having walls drawn from classic German architecture and Dutch inspired homes in addition to rich homes modeled after French nobles.
We found some old hand-drawn sketches of French homes and said, “Yes, it has to be exactly like that”. You know, we’re not pulling these houses from out of nowhere. Like I said, paintings, drawings, sketches, photography of buildings that are still around today—what you see actually exists. When we do city planning, you know, you have to think of… Uh, well, sometimes you see a game and you think, “All right, city, straight streets”. And, well… have you ever been to Europe?
I’m afraid I haven’t.
Well, our roads are pretty… squiggly. They’re old roman roads and trade routes that were just paved over. It’s not very organized at all. They sort of go everywhere. Your roads in the states, they’re more like straight lines, right?
Well, come to Seattle, and you might change your mind, but yes. Our cities certainly look like grids from up in the air.
These villages and cities kind of pop up along those roads after hundreds and hundreds of years of building, and, well, the cities are then kind of messy—so the challenge for us is to make a city messy yet inviting.
So you go down this little alleyway and you notice that it’s not straight, nothing’s really aligned, and there’s no real distinct path. We look at maps straight out of medieval towns and say we should take this and look at that. Even something like Google Earth, we’ll look at for farmland to decide how we want to place vegetation.
We want it to look as real as possible and also be a fantasy game. I think this is why people can relate to it more. Don’t get me wrong—I love high-fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but people like seeing something close to reality because it’s close to relate to.
I noticed that there was a distinct difference in the kinds of vegetation around the vast fields around Novigrad and the swamps of No-Man’s Land.
This might be too much of a botany-oriented question, but, when you were looking at this vegetation, were you just looking at these paintings and photographs like you mentioned, or did you actually take a look at specific plants and say “Okay, these belong in this ecosystem,” and things like that?
Absolutely! Absolutely! We have a guy, an artist, who did the vegetation for The Witcher II, and he’s responsible for solely focusing on the vegetation in The Witcher III. He’s a guru when it comes to botany—I mean, the man’s amazing. He knows exactly what we need, how it’s planted, when and where it grows, what time of the year it grows, what eats it.
When we told him we wanted sunflowers, he’d tell us things like “Okay, then take that away, it wouldn’t grow there… these two things wouldn’t cross-breed.” He’d say, “Okay, this bush only grows in cold climates, so we’re going to put them on these coastal islands, ones with more of a Nordic influence [tall cliffs and snow].” There’s a specific kind of leaf that grows in areas with hard winds, so, we’d look for bushes…I can’t remember the name, but there’s a reddish-purple bush that grows low and by the coast.
Basically, we look at the conditions and ask [ourselves], what makes sense here?
Birches in the inland, pines on the cliffs. We also look at the materials in the area and ask, all right, what do these people have access to, what would they build their buildings out of? You know, we’ll give them regional accents, too, based on where they are geographically, to create unique identities. If there are fisherman that live by the coast, they’ll have a specific identity like whale hunters.
So we say, okay, they’re whale hunters! What would a village of whale hunters be like? Maybe there’s another village on the coast… well, they’re pearl divers, and so on and so forth. Every village has a purpose. This is how traditional cities started off—they had a mill, or a lake, or a river. It sounds weird to say that there’s a lot of logic to a fantasy game, but… do you understand what I mean?
We’ve talked a lot about stationary nature, but I noticed an incredible degree of variety in terms of animated nature as well. Bird calls, for example, were different in each of the areas. Did these get the same scrutiny that plants, resources, and culture did? How does this side of nature manifest itself in The Witcher III?
Have you seen our demo down in the Warner Bros. booth? The guy doing the presentation down there, Damon, his primary job is to structure ecosystems and decide on all the animals.
The flight path of birds are very true to life—you know, they have specific flight patterns alone and in groups and so forth. Deer and goats go to their favorite bushes to eat. Wolves will hunt in packs, with actual tactics. Geese are very aggressive. You can literally load up The Witcher III, sit back, and just watch the world go on without you. It’s not like you don’t matter, but you’re just a part of it—the world will go on without you.
This is something that’s really important to have in a game. Now, when you sit back, you can go ahead and watch all these birds, but there are also monsters. Monsters become a part of the ecosystem, too, you know? We don’t really have bosses, like, traditional end-of-the-level boss… we have monsters. With monster tracking, even—you can see where a monster has been, how it’s been getting around while you were gone.
There’s another layer, though. In the demo, you saw the bandits that got killed. Well, whenever something dies in the world of The Witcher, its carcass will attract beasts and monsters. So when you kill something, you might see some monsters that raise their head and go [sniff sniff]. You can sit and wait, even, and watch for the “bigger fish” to appear.
I also noticed that the children in Novigrad and the children in No-Man’s Land sang different nursery rhymes that were still incredibly grim. Can you share how CD Projekt Red came about writing these?
I think the nursery rhymes tie into a world that is gray. There is no right and there is no wrong. There are no knights in shining armor. People have their own agendas. A war has torn the world apart. A lot of these kids, their parents or dead or they abandoned them.
They’re there to reflect the people and the different conditions of the world. The No-Man’s Land has no masters or Gods, and people make their own there. Monsters and bandits run rampant and so you hear lot of stuff about death. That’s the sort of stuff we like to look at and implement into the game’s culture.