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Artikel door Ian Witte

Mooi! Is the permanent rubric that is published once for every theme. Each time, a different member from the editorial team writes about a landscape architecture or planning project that fascinates them. For this edition, Ian writes about the world of digital landscapes.

I was given the honour to write this first edition of Mooi!. It took me some time to think and decide what sort of project thoroughly inspired me that it would be worth to write this article about. For this edition, I have decided to take a different topic from what we are used to during the study programs. It is a topic that has only been mentioned by Paul Roncken during the very first lecture that I had in the first year of my bachelor. This topic is the emerging world of digital landscapes that set the stage for video games. I will talk specifically about the world that hosts the game Cyberpunk 2077 since it is interesting for both planners and architects. It also connects to the revival theme, because Cyberpunk was seen as the revival of what was once a phenomenon in the video game market where game developers valued quality and freedom over making profit.

An atmospheric impression from the world that Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in.

I am certain that the development process of Cyberpunk was so long and complicated that I can dedicate a whole research paper to its architecture alone. However, this is supposed to be a short article so I will have to keep it concise. For start, Cyberpunk 2077 is a futuristic, open-world science-fiction game. This means that the world that the game takes place in is entirely free for the player to explore. The size of Cyberpunk’s world is roughly 50 square kilometres. It is not the biggest game world in existence, but it is exceptionally large for the scale on which it is detailed.

The scope of the quality of present-day’s video game maps has grown considerably compared to a decade ago. If you look at a game like Grand Theft Auto V, the player can be fully immersed by its realism. There is, however, a big difference between GTAV and Cyberpunk. The former takes place in a downscaled version of present-day Los Angeles. This means that elements from the real world could be copied and adjusted to be suitable for the game world. That was not possible for Cyberpunk. In this case, the world of the future was yet to be defined from present-day events. To create a futuristic world that lives up to the contemporary quality of video games, knowledge from architects, landscape architects and urban planners was required.

First of all, the setting of the game was determined. It takes place in the year 2077, in the same location as Cyberpunk’s eponymous boardgame, which takes place in 2020. That is Morro Bay, which lies approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along California’s coast. In the world of Cyberpunk, an utopian megacity was developed from scratch to house prominent offices of the world’s biggest corporations. However, after many years with events that led to the decline of society, Night City, as it is called, became a dystopian city where the gap between the wealthy and the poor is undoubtedly unbridgeable.

Map of Night City by CaedoGenesis ( CC BY 2.0.

Because Night City was a planned city, it has an orderly layout. The city is divided into six districts, each with its own identity and subdistricts. For example, Westbrook can be characterized by cultural influences from Asia, whereas City Center is identified by the numerous skyscrapers that hold the offices of some of the most important corporations and stand like fortresses around the absolute heart of the city. The latter is a phenomenon that can be found in real-world planned cities like Brasilia, Washington DC or Canberra, where the biggest and most impressive buildings are located along a central axis in the absolute centre of the city. In these cities, these buildings most often belong to governmental institutions and display the power and capabilities of a country. In Night City, the biggest corporations are in control, whereas the public government has little influence. Landscapes of power are therefore often devoted to corporations, rather than the government.

A quaint park that is inconveniently placed underneath a massive highway junction.

Designing a place like Night City is a task that stands opposite of what we are used to work on as architects and planners. Through spatial interventions we find optimal solutions to make the world a better place. We can use the knowledge that we have gathered to design a futuristic city, but it is the events in this fictive universe that have shaped the world. These events led to the many imperfections that the city holds. The way that these imperfections were designed is something that I greatly respect. Each time I come across such an imperfection I wonder what could have happened to shape the place. These places can range from small things like an unfinished bridge that fell victim to vandals, to big places like Pacifica, which is a whole city district that became abandoned due to uncertainty among investors.

Pacifica; the abandoned district that was supposed to be a touristic paradise

Like Brasilia, Night City fell victim to an uncontrollable population growth. Its status as the city of dreams led to countless people migrating to the city to find new opportunities. Homeless people and overcrowded apartments are a common occurrence. Some parts of the city grew quicker than they could be planned. This led to some places, especially around the city limits, that have a quirky and often ugly appearance. Whether you like places like this or not, they greatly contribute to the identity of the city.

Uncontrolled growth of the industrial area in Watson district.

Imperfections like this can be found in the field of landscape architecture as well. Due to climate change and pollution, the vegetation in the surrounding region has mostly dried out. Mountains of electronic waste have formed outside the city limits. Vast solar field and wind parks characterize the environment, but these technologies started to rust away due to neglectance, which resulted in an unattractive and yet iconic landscape.

Rusty windmills outside the city.

Mountains of discarded electronics.

Within the city, the landscape architecture earned a more attentive approach. Carefully designed places are scarce, and often limited to properties of the rich or important public spaces. For example, Corpo Plaza is a circle-shaped open space that is surrounded by the offices of some of the most important corporations in the city. It is built over a highway junction where many roads converge. Arched walkways curve around the central junction, from where the user can watch down on the traffic flows through the glass ceiling while corporate offices paint the landscape around them. Holograms of Koi fish circle around over the plaza, referring to the Japanese origin of the most influential corporation in Night City.

Hologram of a Koi fish over Corpo Plaza, with the highway visible through the glass ceiling.

Private gardens often reflect the origin and wealth of their owners. The developers of Cyberpunk evidently took inspiration from oriental and tropical gardens that we see in the real world. These gardens were combined with the abstract, angular shapes that reflect the futuristic world that the game takes place in. As an example, there are two images displayed below this paragraph. The left image was taken in a garden that belongs to the most luxurious Japanese hotel in Night City. Although the garden elements are deprived of detailed ornaments that characterize Japanese gardens, it is still evident that the garden is Japanese. The right image was taken in the garden that is part of a millionaire’s mansion. Here, the flowing patterns on the ground can remind one of the playful patterns that are found on the boulevard alongside Rio de Janeiro’s Atlantic Avenue.

As much as there are perfections and imperfections in the digital world of Cyberpunk, the same goes for the game itself. It was criticized for being released before it was even finished. There were plans to incorporate a functional metro system in the game. Now that the game is released, it is not possible to ride the metro. A metro system was laid out around the city, but it only contributes to the ambience of the game. If you take your time to study the system, you will see that the routes that the tracks follow don’t even make sense. That counts for the road network as well. The density of roads is so high that they are sometimes running far above ground level. It is difficult to design such a complex road network and I think that the developers have succeeded in making it look realistic, but they have failed to make it function properly. I often had to take long and unnecessary detours when I used the roads in the game. Sometimes there wasn’t even a proper road from A to B, then I had to make a U-turn in the middle of a crowded highway to reach my destination.

Despite some of the flaws, the planners and architects that worked on the game have succeeded in making me immersed into the game world. I can recommend anyone who is interested to try Cyberpunk when it is available during a free weekend and go on a digital excursion to see how the world was shaped. This is only the tip of the iceberg; there are countless games on the market about which it is possible to write an article on the inspiring designed world that they take place in.

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