[An excerpt from the forthcoming Virtual Cities atlas of video game cities by game urbanist Konstantinos Dimopoulos, and artist Maria Kallikaki.]
You haven’t died until you’ve visited Rubacava. The liveliest, most vibrant place throughout the Mesoamerican Hades. The town that never died. An extravagant, cheerful yet forlorn city where heartbroken lovers await their soulmates, and the ancient dead dance wildly through countless nights. Rubacava: a city of long shadows, papier-mâché skeletons, bright lights and unexpected fogs, where the biggest of the bone bands play the finest bebop tunes, and where jazz and mariachi get married to andean melodies. This is the great post mortem melting pot. The town where lost souls are bound to be found, and hardened criminals can watch the occasional saint embark the Nada Mañana cruises towards a restful afterlife.
This high-life port town of the Land of the Dead is located on the coast of the Sea of Lament, and thus serves as a crucial waystation on the four year journey to the Ninth Underworld and eternal rest. Reaching it means braving the Petrified Forest, and then, upon arrival, buying passage across the ocean as quickly as possible; yet somehow this almost transient place keeps on growing. Souls tend to linger here in waiting, after losing hope in a better hereafter, or by being swept away by this breathtaking urbanistic embodiment of Mayan, Aztec, Toltec and Mexican metaphysical beliefs.
Rubacava, not being a theologically detailed location, didn’t always exist, but is far older than anyone remembers. Its turbulent history has a palpable weight to it as the dead refusing to leave the afterlife behind are always the more intriguing ones, and their city, teetering between a full on mob-town and a revolutionary hub, could never be anything but fascinating. The moon of Rubacava has definitely seen much as the tiny transit town by the sea grew to become today’s metropolis, and geographers have long argued whether nostalgia or allure is the main centrifugal force boosting its population.
Sense of loss aside though, this is an undeniably stunning, intoxicating city. The sea laps mesmerizingly against lofty bridges, sublime bas-relief decorations can be discovered in the most unexpected of places, the shadows of emphatic buildings hold countless secrets and drinking holes, and sudden explosions of scale and spectacle regularly impress. Add in the blimps’ sky-traffic, the gargantuan cat racing track, an unrivaled nightlife, eye catching sky-signs, the lively masses of the dead and a thousand promises, and the city’s gravitational pull makes absolute sense. The sights are countless, the colours dizzying, the music perfect, the scope awe inspiring, and the aesthetic experience of getting lost worth dying for. One path might lead to an abandoned lighthouse, another to a forgotten pier, and a third to a cliff-carved elevator towards a new section of town complete with massive casino.
Rubacavan life isn’t confined to savouring spatial delights, holding a job, or playing the kitties. Things often get exciting, dangerous, and even hopeless in this city of the poor masquerading as the cosmopolitan town of the rich. Demonic bouncers abound, skeletal birds mock, and betrayal, passion, and passionate betrayal are as common as tensions and stark divisions. Shattered illusions, shady schemes, the occasional miracle, an unashamedly corrupt police force, and the popular desire for post mortem justice make for an explosive mix that only temporarily abates during the Day of the Dead. The single day of the year when shows, clubs, and slot machines stand abandoned, and when the overworked masses are allowed a moment of respite.
Walking the streets on any other day reveals a staggering menagerie of characters. Posh lawyers, hip club owners, exhausted or defiant workers, gangsters, agents of the Department of Death, artists, sailors and gamblers roam the shadows of emblematic skyscrapers, and gather around stepped pyramids and vast plazas. Rarely, the occasional former florists researching the forensic side of botany can also be glimpsed. Second death by sprouting is a notoriously flowery and complex affair apparently; one only florists can analyze, and only mob bosses can turn into macabre gardens.
It is in the harbour district though, in the oldest part of town, where the vibrancy of unlife truly explodes. The gigantic Feline Meadows race track effortlessly dominates the area and sets the tone, even if locals know that the old town can offer more than bets and transit. Hidden in an old Scrimshaw tank, for example, lies the infamous Toto’s tattoo parlour where liquid nitrogen and drills are used to create stunning tattoos on bare bone, whereas up on the magnificent bridge connecting the two harbour clifftops, under the statue of Justice, hides a morgue. A steep climb down to sea level reveals the beautiful, golden and blue, Art Nouveau Blue Casket club owned by Olivia Ofrenda; the very heart of beatnik Rubacava, and the spot to discuss revolution, drink coffin shooters, and recite poetry in a building nurturing defiance, and standing out in an Art Deco modernist city of gleaming towers.
It’s not just architecture that alludes to 20th century modernism. As the city grew past its initial waterfront core it was almost certainly influenced by functionalist ideals, possibly even by Le Corbusier’s Radiant City plans, and adapted a predominantly gridiron structure with regularly spaced diagonal avenues to its needs. Wide boulevards now allow unreasonably powerful demon-driven cars to achieve ludicrous speeds, and connect pastoral suburbs with a bustling downtown that’s developed both vertically and horizontally. Activities have been modestly organized, though, admittedly, the sheer fluidity of death’s reality had to lead to haphazard implementations, unfinished avenues, labyrinthine alleys and clashing functions. Adding to the confusion, Rubacava’s recent civic explosion has been driven more by speculation and money laundering than planning forethought, allowing for odd configurations and even unnaturally big crocodiles in badly maintained sewers.
With the exception of the few newer industrial areas, the labyrinthine harbour and its surrounding leisure district remain the city’s core economic hub. Gambling and entertainment are soaking up the cash produced by the hardy Sea Bees working on ships suspended in thin air, while gazing at the well kept docks where opulent ocean liners await their lucky passengers.
Just as the harbour is divided between extravagant pleasures and hard toil, so is the rest of the city. Death wasn’t the great leveler after all, class lines are being drawn, and tensions rise as the rich keep on exploiting the poor. Even the pious seem capable of suffering in this cynical economy when the Chief of Police is a notorious, bribable gambler, and upstanding crime lords like Hector LeMans can seemingly do as they please. The police are only interested in running protection schemes and arresting striking union members, inadvertently fuelling the flames of the fledgling resistance. And as the Sea Bees, the workers’ vanguard, come closer to the incendiary ideas of the beatniks, and the name of almost mythical revolutionary leader Salvador Limones keeps on inspiring defiance, it is evident that a revolution is brewing; just as the mob moves on to take over the town.