The Forgotten City in Second Life is a “light” steampunk sim, largely based on the romanticism evoked by automata. Its presentation says: “A once-great, clockpunk-ish city where the prosperous residents were served by the miraculous mechanical automatons. The people have long since disappeared, but the automatons remained – and still take care of the crumbling stone walls, abandoned halls, and rusty fences”. Such a description presents the narrative of Forgotten City, an old abandoned town, probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century, where the visitor will find machines – not amazingly intelligent computers that decide what to do and how to take care of things, but antique mechanical art works made by talented craftspeople to automatically accomplish certain routines.
Automata have been among us for ages. Although their “golden age” is identified as the late 19th century, the image people generally associate with automata has its roots in the marvelous of the 18th century, when Maillardet, for instance, built a human-like machine capable of delivering four drawings and writing three poems automatically. And this is how Forgotten City’s automata are – they may not write poems, but they derive from the same imagination that brought us the automata of the 18th century. The big difference: they are virtual.
Being virtual, the Forgotten City’s automata are moved not by old mechanisms, but by scripts that allowed Jenne Dibou (and her collaborators?) to create an entire urban unity maintained by those machines. And this illustrates what I consider to be especially interesting about Second Life: it is not that SL is a space of socialization for lonely or challenged people, as some (and even Philip Rosedale) imply now and then (nothing wrong about it, it’s good to have a place for socialization, right?), but that SL allows us to expand our experiences and bring to “life” some impossible or unlikely ideas. Has anyone seen an abandoned city kept by automatic machines in the 18th or 19th centuries? Or even now? For at least, one would have to set the machines in motion again and again from time to time, since perpetual motion was never achieved. In SL, nonetheless, such an epistemic impossibility can actually work!
So, let’s go back to an idea I mentioned at the beginning of this post: I called the Forgotten City, for being mainly an automaton-populated sim, a “light” steampunk place. Why is that? Well, because steampunk can get much more “punk” than that. Or because the retro-futuristic mechanisms can populate some steampunk sceneries in a greater extension. Nonetheless, the steampunk elements are there: not only are the automata overly-developed for a steam-based world, but also one can see some gear-based machines here and there in a place where design has references to the Victorian era and particularly to the Art Nouveau codes that one can find in steampunk fiction. Those visual elements help situate us exactly in a period of time in which the steam machines were at their highest development level, before they started being replaced by electric mechanisms. But this is not all: also, since the Forgotten City is an abandoned place, it recovers some of the spirit of the first steampunk novels, by creating some kind of counter-utopia (even if not exactly a dystopia, at least a place where people could not or did not want to live anymore).
The city has a museum, where one can see some automata (including an automaton that moves a tiny automata city, in a curious meta-reference), bars and ball rooms where automata dance perpetually, machines working at the streets, a windup cat-like boat and some games (hangman, for instance) and tours to entertain the visitors. Above, in the sky, sustained by zeppelins, there is a store. And further above, a winter park. The only level that seems not to match the theme – at least to me – is some kind of catch-the-alien game in a skybox, which, nonetheless, is separate enough not to conflict with anything and may be interesting to some.