“a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time” – Patrick Geddes
You don’t arrive in Athkatla through a gate, but in an avalanche of crumbling stone, just in time to see Jon Irenicus bloodily gib several would-be assailants with colorful bursts of magical energy. Even within Shadow of Amn‘s limited physics and fidelity, the mage’s abilities are terrifying. This murderous, untethered display is a reminder that, however powerful you felt at the end of the last game, your party is back to square one.
If you look just beyond the mounds of grey rubble, beyond the concert of cascading body parts, you’ll start to see Waukeen’s Promenade. Just a magic missile’s throw away, baskets of colorful produce sit outside shopfronts. Woven reminders of mercantile normality so close to the violent chaos that heralds your entrance. This juxtaposition of the magical and mundane is a fitting scene to introduce you to Athkatla. A place where grand gilded architecture and humble shack dwellings distract from a dark and terrifying underbelly.
If you played Baldur’s Gate II like I played it, you won’t be leaving this city for a long, long time. This brief encounter is all the motivation to stay fixated on Irenicus you’re going to get for a while. He’s often considered an iconic RPG villain, and I think a lot of this is down to his voice actor, David Warner. Warner brought his Shakespearean training to the role – all malicious confidence punctuated by outbursts of tyrannical rage. Line for line though, Irenicus’s dialogue is still pretty hammy. It’s what he represents that makes him effective.
A confrontation with Irenicus is inevitable, you know this, and a part of you can’t help but wonder exactly what lies between now and that fateful showdown. Irenicus is a narrative foil. His abilities are laid bare immediately to give your party’s progress a sense of significance. The true mystery is the character of the city itself. Athkatla. Huge. Imposing. Glorious. More than a place in space, but a hundred dramas in time.
Just below the crumbling entrance to Irenicus’s lair is a white and orange two-tone tent. I often think of this tent as Athkatla in microcosm. It’s tiny portion of the map that you might skip over entirely, but one that reveals a winding, multi-layered quest if you take the time to lift the fabric and peer beyond the veil of normality. This quest, which begins with a child asking you to find their missing mother, leads you through confrontations with a demure elf disguised as an ogre, shadow werewolves, and eventually, the gnome illusionist who created this entire false reality – all without leaving the tent.
Cities are usually a breather in RPG’s this size. A place to recalibrate and rearrange equipment before delving back into the dungeons and forests that hold the truly bizarre encounters. It’s a testament to the dedication of the designers to fill this space with worthwhile stories. Even when no logical opportunities presented themselves they dreamed up an entire pocket reality stuffed inside a tent, just to throw the player off.
Following a fetch quest down an illusory rabbit hole within the first screen of the city instills the player with a sense of discovery and awe. A reminder that Athkatla’s towering walls represent anything but safety.
“The map of places passes.
The reality of paper tears.”
– Laura Riding, The Map of Places
“The map is not the territory” is a phrase coined by the scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski. It argues that the only truly accurate map of a place would be one that we continue to add detail to until it becomes as large as the place itself, by which point, of course, it’s absolutely useless as a map.
Korzybski intended it as a metaphor for the manner in which we abstract our understanding of the world. How the structures of thought and language we use to communicate our experiences of reality can easily be mistaken for reality itself, if relied on too heavily. It works taken literally too, though, I think, when we think about our relationships to imaginary spaces like Athkatla. Spaces ripped right out of a Dungeon Masters guide book and given fragile, fleeting verisimilitude, providing we’re prepared to meet them halfway.
Athkatla is divided into eight districts: Temple, Government, Docks, Waukeen’s Promenade, Slums, a Graveyard, the Bridge that connects the northern and southern parts of the city, and the City Gates themselves. Between them, the player is left to extrapolate the entire social structure and history of a metropolis. What were, for the time, highly detailed and beautifully rendered isometric maps go someway to filling in the blanks.
But Athkatla’s streets and inns are still ultimately a map. A city paved with suggestions and populated by facsimiles. We can look at the disparity between the slums and the government district. How, in the slums, we can bet on pit fights, or enlist the help of a shadowy thieves guild. Or how, by crossing the bridge to Athkatla’s wealthy Northern half, where the rundown buildings are replaced by opulent temples, we can enlist the help of noble Paladins. But we don’t need to, of course. It’s just as valid to take each of these story vignettes on their own terms. The city moves through us just as much as we move through it. Not literally, with it’s static NPCs, frozen in time. But in the way each new discovery we make builds on a sense of place.
Ed Greenwood, the creator of the Forgotten Realms D&D setting that contains Baldur’s Gate, has spoken about the importance of focusing on “immediate story needs” in the act of world building. Tolkien called the believable creation of constructed worlds an ‘elvish craft’. When a game grants us agency, it gives us the ability to rupture a designer’s carefully constructed chronology. In an open-world setting, we can take on these bespoke instances of storytelling in any order we choose. Each becomes a bubble; holistic, self-sustaining. There are only two connections between them. The first is us, and the ways we choose to let these disparate tales meld together, creating a complete journey from fractured experiences. The second is the city itself. In this case, Athkatla. Huge. Imposing. Glorious. More than a place in space, but a hundred dramas in time.