We’ve gone some places together, you and I, haven’t we? From humble beginnings in the swamp, we’ve traveled the road, the waste land, and the dark ways between.
But I hear some of you in the back (don’t think I didn’t hear, dears, I have the ears of a fox – or at least one of them, I think the other slipped out a hole in my pocket, actually) complaining that I never take you anywhere nice. I must protest that I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I will admit that the places we’ve gone since we set out have been a bit lonely.
So, with that in mind, I invite you to break out the nice clothes from your traveling pack, for tonight, we’re going to hit the city.
A couple of ground rules before we set out: first, we’re not going to any city, whether it exists or not, in our world – we could spend a very long time prowling those streets alone, and our tour is by necessity, going to have to be brief. Perhaps we’ll come to those places at a later date, but for now, we’ll stick to what Professor Tolkien termed secondary worlds. And yes, he, as always takes his toll. If this were black metal, the professor would be… quite unhappy where this metaphor is going, so we’ll stop here.
The other ground rule is we’re not going to Carcosa. Lake Hali is kind of a tourist trap.
We build cities into fantsyscapes to be where the people are. Cities are full of movement and life, they hint at stories moving behind the stories the authors tell us.
Let’s start with sinister old Lankhmar where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser prowl. Get acquainted with the town and its cadaverous gods and its capricious robed figures and it’s pretty clear that Lieber’s duo are just two of thousands who have adventures there (possibly the luckiest two, but still).
Mieville’s New Crobuzon is home to millions, dozens of races, an embassy to hell, tube stations, terrifying parasites and godlike spider-aesthetes.
Ankh-Morpork is, well, Ankh-Morpork, and it could keep me busy for more columns than I am sure Black Gate wants to publish, so I’ll just have to leave it there. But seriously, if you haven’t already, get on that.
At its best, a city should be a living thing, and like all fantasyscapes, a character.
Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork are the grand sinister city and its mad cousin, New Crobuzon their illegitimate descendant with an aquatic sister in Armada and her many ridings, mad lovers and vampires.
There are some cities you visit wondering what they will do as much as you wonder at the actions of their occupants. Peake’s Gormenghast, though smaller than the other cities I’ve mentioned (it just barely counts by my reckoning), has one of the strongest characters of any habitation; dusty, pitiless, implacable, mired in its own history. Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist is staid and stoic in the face of its fairy neighbors. Well, at least it tries very hard to be.
And now, we’re officially traveling into the musical, for Hadestown is an underworld reflection of its terrible king, shut off, secretive, and wealthy off the suffering of its dieselpunk citizens.
It’s not mandatory for a city to have character (though, sometimes I wish it was), but in order to be a good fantasyscape, a city must be distinctive. The Earth Kingdom cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se from Avatar the Last Airbender are both massive fortresses of rock and stone, but you cannot mistake working class early-industrial Omashu with its system of mining sleds and chutes for imperial Ba Sing Se with its tram system, gardens and prowling secret police (also excellent tea shops). The Emerald City of Oz wears its distinction in its name and on every available surface.
Here’s a good place to talk about Tolkien’s cities, Minas Tirith and its evil twin Minas Morgul, not places you are going to mistake for anywhere else, and certainly not for one another.
As games improve, I hope to see more distinctive locations within them. Sigil of Planescape: Torment sits in the middle of the Gygaxian outer planes, patrolled by its imposing sovereign, choked in places with razorvine and teeming with psychic rats is a good one. Its pedigree as a tabletop game setting makes it a little less characterized than Lankhmar or Ankh-Morpork (unless the characterization is “Yes, it does live here”), but the tabletop setting benefitted greatly from the artistic talents of Tony Diterlizzi and to a… somewhat lesser extent from their sometimes suspect inclusion of Cockney rhyming slang. And though it took some deserved heat for being repetitive, I enjoyed the aesthetic of Dragon Age 2’s Kirkwall.
Sometimes, though, you can get away with making a city, if not a character or especially distinct, just making it grand. Asimov’s Trantor, or its cinematic successor Coruscant; covering-the-whole-planet grand; this is what I mean. Holy Terra grand, in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium and all where there is only grimdark-grimdark-grimdark. Calling back to Ba Sing Se, it does cover a pretty impressive chunk of the Earth Kingdom. Then there is Marvel Comics’ take on Asgard. Perhaps it’s a little loony, but it’s definitely grand.
Last, there are the bad cities.
Whether their badness is worn in the open with pride like Howard’s Shadizar the Wicked or hidden like Le Guin’s Omelas. Whether it stems from humanity, like Moorcock’s Nadsokor, Aspirin’s Sanctuary, or the Zaraki region of the Soul Society in Kubo Tite’s Bleach or from an extra-human source, like Carcosa (which we’re still not visiting) or Za’ha’dum (okay, that one might be a wasteland).
I’ve heard many places that cities are hard to write, and hard to write well, and this might be the case, but it seems to me we’ve gone to some pretty nice (Lankhmar? New Crobuzon?) places on this trip and (Hadestown? Kirkwall, with all those chains?) this time out and I hope (Sanctuary? Minas Morgul?)…
Well, next time I’ll take you someplace nice.