The tale of developer Modern Storyteller and their upcoming time-looping mystery title, The Forgotten City, begins with one word: Skyrim. Don’t worry though, this isn’t a clever cover to disguise yet another Skyrim port. Instead, The Forgotten City is a rather creative original endeavor that sprang forth from the desire to mod the game itself.
Created by Nick James Pearce, The Forgotten City mod was the first mod in history to win a national Writers’ Guild Award when it did so in 2016. Downloaded over three million times by players, the success of the story Pearce wove was so undeniable that he quit his ten year legal career to found an Indie game studio in the hopes of evolving the narrative into an original game. It just goes to show, compelling stories can be created and experienced in just about any medium.
As someone that happens to be a sucker for both science fiction tales involving time travel and the history of the ancient world, I knew the moment I saw the premise of The Forgotten City that I wanted to explore what it had in store. While more contemporary releases such as Outer Wilds, Oxenfree, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games and Syberia have managed to keep the graphic adventure genre alive in the modern eye, there’s still a part of me that longs to return to the era of Myst when you could barely turn around in a computer store without knocking fifty similar titles off a shelf.
Thankfully, The Forgotten City has you covered.
The Mysterious Start
The opening of the game is as enigmatic as the crumbling ruins your protagonist will eventually find themselves in. Pulled out of the river by a woman wearing modern clothes, she claims that she saw you floating by and hauled you into her boat. A man named Al was similarly fished from the water not too long ago and ventured away from the shore. Supposedly, he made your helpful rescuer promise that she wouldn’t stray from the boat while he went to explore the surrounding area and has yet to return. She begs you to seek him out in her stead.
Immediately, players are given some degree of agency in crafting their own tale. It was a refreshing change of pace to be offered a choice of gender and skintone in a first person game, which mostly only affects the pronouns by which other characters address you and the occasional appearance of your hands on the screen. A selection of backstory options also provide your character some additional insights or boons in the world, which again, gives you a bit of agency in crafting the context of your own story. From my experience, the options didn’t drastically affect the variability of playthroughs, but do provide a few bonuses here or there (starting with a gun might be the great exception).
The Forgotten City
Drawn into a time portal, your protagonist is transported back to the ruins of an ancient city buried deep underground. Nearly everywhere you’ll explore in The Forgotten City is, you guessed it, within the Forgotten City itself. As such, the feel and environment of the locale are truly important to establishing the mystery of the game as well as the tension of the looming threat. In this particular area, the team behind the game has really excelled. Wandering the streets and hidden caves, I felt drawn into the haunted landscape I’d unwittingly become trapped in. I wanted to know more about the people that had lived there before me, the people who lived there currently, and the people that were yet to come.
There are many tidbits around the city to discover as you explore, including notes, objects, and graffiti (which is a fun nod to real-world historical Roman graffiti). I was pleased to find that my Archeologist backstory provided me insight on ancient scripts from the very start. But for every detail that will delight you, there are just as many that will unsettle. The statues you pass utter strange sounds and periodically swivel their heads to follow where you walk. A cistern within the city is rumored to have a murderous beast prowling in it. You know, just fun, welcoming stuff like that.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about The Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule
As you explore, you are quickly introduced to the core mechanic- and threat- you now face: The Golden Rule. In an attempt to prevent the city from succumbing to this force, one of its leaders performed a sacrifice to open a time portal and bring you into the current loop you now find yourself in.
The Golden Rule is a seemingly divine punishment etched into the very foundations of the city. These ancient words state that ‘the many shall suffer for the sins of the one.’ Amidst the gilded remains of inhabitants’ past, it seems very likely that if the Rule is broken, then such a retribution will indeed be dealt. Thus, the community lives in constant fear of a single citizen breaking these ambiguous moral commandments and causing the entire population to be mercilessly turned to gold.
This supernatural set-up immediately reminded me of the plot to an older young adult novel titled Prospero’s Children; wherein the protagonist is pulled into a time-loop involving the fall of Atlantis and must seek a perfect solution to save those they come to love. In a similar vein, it’s your job to witness (and at times cause) the downfall of the city time and time again until you’re able to provide solutions for the many problems facing the waning population of Roman citizens. Whatever their individual struggles may be, they all live in fear of the Rule and the destruction it threatens to unleash upon them should a sin be committed.
That’s rough, buddy.
Unfortunately, with no way to confirm what morality the god or gods responsible expect from their citizens, the population has been left to try and determine what exactly constitutes a sin. Murder and theft seem to be agreed by many of the citizens as no-go’s, but manipulation, lies, religious taboos, attempted escape, or other abuses remain within unknown territory. This leads to some truly intriguing discussion and themes within the game itself that revolve around the citizens’ struggles between the desire to pursue mutual survival versus individual freedom, which brings us to our next topic, the characters themselves.
The City’s Inhabitants
The citizens of The Forgotten City are both intriguing and baffling in equal measure. I’d like to preface my thoughts by saying that I genuinely did enjoy exploring and learning more about the diverse cast of unwilling inhabitants. However, there are some notable stumbling blocks with certain elements of character dialogue that I felt worthy of discussing. The best illustration of this might be the very first major interaction I had in the game.
During my initial foray into the city, I followed the helpful guide to the first character he introduced me to- the saucy but snide owner of the local tavern. Stopping to speak with her after his introduction, I promptly turned around to find myself without my chaperone anywhere in sight. I believe the man just powered on without me, but it left me a bit clueless as I wandered around the streets hoping he wasn’t badmouthing me to everybody he met along the way for getting distracted within the first thirty seconds of his tour.
I wandered through a path toward the city square and came across a young woman cowering in the shade of a statue. Upon questioning her, I was told that an assassin had made his way into the baths and was threatening the lives of those within. She begged me to help, then assured me she would wait for me in a nearby building, to which a ghostly voice told me something along the lines of: ‘that building’s bad news’. I’ll be honest, if a ghostly voice starts whispering to me in a supernatural mystery title, I’m likely going to just roll with it, so I spoke the spirit’s warning and the woman dashed into the building anyway…
…which promptly collapsed and crushed her to death.
Unfortunately, the animation also set her head spinning like a pinwheel on a stick, and while I was still processing the absolute absurdity of the situation a man came running up, yelling in grief over how Fabia had been like a daughter to him.
For the full effect, just imagine that her head is spinning here.
I felt truly awful. Barely ten minutes in and I’d already ditched the kind man that offered to show me around, made a flirtatious barkeep hate me because of my lack of social skills and let a woman get crushed to death so severely that it set her head spinning. Hoping to learn more and offer my condolences, I started speaking to the bereft man and asked him about his story, only to have him go from overwhelming sorrow to jovial introductions in a single line.
Now I was the one experiencing whiplash.
This is perhaps one of my only major critiques of the game itself and popped up in lesser ways throughout my playthroughs. Characters will at times not quite seem to follow the emotional beats you would assume they might. Questions that I believed would have a logical progression to include some new item, piece of information, or avenue I had uncovered would mysteriously fail to reflect any of the inquiries I naturally felt I’d want to ask in the course of my investigation. Historical details are absolutely present, but aren’t always fleshed out in a way that feels true to the ancient world. Instead, they’re closer to a veneer of modern mindset and language applied over historical fact.
This brings me to the character of Vergil, who I felt needed his own moment of contemplation. Vergil is a former architect and helps maintain the crumbling structures around the city (good job on that ruin that crushed Fabia, Vergil). You first encounter him scrubbing hateful graffiti off the wall of his shop. When inquiring with him about why others might be persecuting him, he reveals that he’s attracted to men. He claims his people, the Batavi, killed those with his own preferences and caused him to flee south to Rome, where male/male relations are more accepted.
While I know little about the Batavi’s historical viewpoint on the subject, it is true that ancient Rome had a very different understanding of male/male relations and was generally accepting of them in certain contexts. Vergil goes on to state that amidst the Roman citizens residing within the lost city, there are hidden cultists that worship ‘the one god’ who consider his preference a sin that could bring down the divine retribution of the Golden Rule. This turns out to be a reference to the influence of early Christianity in the Roman Empire.
This created a bit of historical dissonance for me. Paired with other dialogue context clues referencing the Great Fire of Rome, the citizens you encounter likely came from the 1st century, but based on my own research, it wouldn’t be until the 6th century (roughly 450 years later) that homosexuality would be outlawed in Rome due to Christianity’s influence. It would have rung more true to criticize Vergil for playing a ‘passive’ instead of ‘active’ role in his pairings than it did to judge him for his choice of same-sex partner in an environment in which general acceptance would have been the cultural norm.
Being an LGBTQIA+ gamer myself, this particular conversation stood out. For a game in which a great deal of your focus and playtime is spent speaking to the characters, I would have loved to have gotten a more in-depth discussion of the issue within the context of early Roman culture. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at some of the details they did work in regarding ancient Christianity’s influence and I’ll leave you all to browse history books (or more likely Wikipedia) on the subject if you’re curious to learn more.
The Overall Experience
Overall, The Forgotten City captivated and delighted me. For a brief moment, I was transported back to that magical era where Myst boxes were sitting on every shelf in the PC store and I stood clutching one in my hands contemplating all the puzzles to come. My own love for the graphic adventure genre certainly helps in regards to my impressions of The Forgotten City, but I can’t recall the last time I sat down and found myself doggedly pursuing every option in a single-player title without being tempted to swap to my comfort games.
While The Forgotten City certainly has some rough spots that could have been polished further with a larger team and additional resources, what it’s able to achieve is impressive nonetheless. That this all began with a mod for a wildly popular game only further serves to remind me how our passion for gaming can give rise to entirely new worlds. I, for one, am grateful that the team at Modern Storyteller took the risk and created The Forgotten City. I can only hope that when others play it, they too will feel that same unique magic that comes from players loving games enough to want to create their own thought-provoking stories for others to enjoy.
The Forgotten City releases on July 28, 2021 and is coming to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and PC, with a Nintendo Switch version landing in Q3. Players will be able to purchase it for 24.99€/24.99USD/19.49GBP. The game can currently be wishlisted on Steam and was recently showcased by publisher Dear Villagers this past weekend at E3.
Preview copy provided by Dear Villagers for PC. All screenshots taken by reviewer.