The Forgotten City has a long and storied history. First created as a mod for Skyrim by Modern Storyteller’s founder Nick Pearce over a period of three years and 1,700 hours. Quickly becoming one of Skyrim’s most popular and most downloaded mods. In 2016, Pearce and The Forgotten City won the 2016 Australian Writer’s Guild award for best screenplay in the interactive media category. Following his win, Pearce left his 10-year legal career to become a full-time developer. With the assistance of a grant from Film Victoria, began the development of a standalone version of The Forgotten City in earnest.
Founding Modern Storyteller, Pearce recruited two developers to assist with the creation of his vision and today, the fruits of their labour are finally available. Modern Storyteller says the re-written script for the standalone game is more than twice the length of the original, weighing in at over 80,000 words.
The Forgotten City also boasts new story elements, endings, plot twists and more.
The Forgotten City has taken an interesting and unusual path to release but it’s one that’s heartening, especially for any fledgling developers out there. What’s more, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable adventure featuring top-notch writing and storytelling. Sadly, it’s over far too quickly though that’s a testament to just how entertaining The Forgotten City is.
The Forgotten City Review
Beginning with the tropiest of tropes, The Forgotten City sees you waking up with explosive amnesia on the banks of a river. Greeted by a stranger named Karen, she explains that she dragged you from the river after briefly making some delightful small talk about the stigma attached to her name. Karen sets you off on your adventure and in search of another “almost” drowning victim named Al. Al headed off in search of help, Karen says, but has been gone for hours. In looking for Al, you discover a golden statue, hanged from a tree with an inscribed tablet, purporting to be Al’s suicide note. Things get stranger still when you enter the ruins of an ancient city and fall through the crumbling floor, directly into an ancient Roman bathhouse.
On speaking with the citizens of this hidden and underground city, it soon becomes apparent that you’ve been transported back in time some 2,000 years. What’s more, this city has been cursed by an unnamed god with The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule means that if even one of the townsfolk sins, everyone will be transformed into golden statues. With the threat of permanent gilding hanging over your head and the confusion as to your trip back in time, The Forgotten City tasks you with unravelling the mystery of this city and preventing The Golden Rule from being broken.
Thankfully, and because this is a video game, if The Golden Rule is broken, you have a do-over. If and when The Golden Rule is broken, you’ll need to rush to a temple high on a hill overlooking the city and from here, enter a wormhole to take you back to the beginning of the day. It’s a Groundhog Day situation, only with less Bill Murray.
What makes The Forgotten City so excellent is its refusal to spell anything out for the player. During my first playthrough, while exploring the various villas and stores, I spied a chest containing 2,000 coins. Due to years of video game conditioning, I of course stole the coins without a thought. A moment later, all colour drained from the screen and a booming voice rang out, “The many shall suffer for the sins of the few.”
In a blind panic, I followed the mission prompt to “RUN!” and sped past golden statues coming to life and murdering townsfolk by turning them into even more statues with their golden bows.
Lesson one; stealing breaks The Golden Rule.
I’m loath to go into any details of The Forgotten City’s plot beyond this point. The central and branching mysteries ARE the game and to reveal anything about any of them would rob prospective players of the joy of discovery. That being said, there are multiple ways to approach many of the situations in The Forgotten City and players will do well to pay attention to everything, explore everywhere and don’t be afraid to engage in a bit of trial and error.
Built using the Unreal Engine, The Forgotten City can’t fully disguise its history as a Skyrim mod. Built on that skeleton originally, gameplay feels very much like something from The Elder Scrolls. However, it’s not an RPG or an action adventure. The Forgotten City is very much an interactive visual novel. There is some light combat, some minor puzzle solving and some platforming but these are all secondary to the plot and the mystery. And while I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Forgotten City, the weakest moments do come when the game deviates from storytelling and into more “gamey” sequences.
It can’t be overstated just how truly wonderful the writing in The Forgotten City is though. Conversations with characters sound and feel quite natural (in spite of the circumstances) and in a very short amount of time, I found myself really connecting with or despising the different people living in the city. What’s more, each new day gives you the chance to start fresh, try a different approach and see what new information you can glean. There are tonnes of secrets, hidden conversations and surprises in store for players who go digging, however, ultimately, The Forgotten City is over far too quickly.
Featuring three non-canonical endings and one ‘true’ ending, I reached one of the endings after a couple of hours of play. Granted, it was a bad ending, but an ending nonetheless. There was plenty more to uncover but even then, after maybe half a dozen hours I’d managed to get to the true ending and discovered everything there was to discover.
My advice for anyone diving into The Forgotten City is to take it slow. Play it for an hour or so at a time, then walk away and come back another day. You may be tempted to devour it all in one go, but if you do, you’ll be finished faster than you want. And, by the very nature of The Forgotten City’s design, once you’ve finished, there’s not really anything to bring you back in for another go. There are some classes you can select at the beginning of the game, though the changes they make are superfluous at best.
The Forgotten City is best thought of like a great novel. You can come back to it, but it’s going to take some time before you can give it another go. Fans of walking simulators like Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch?, Firwatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture will be right at home with The Forgotten City. It’s a masterclass in storytelling and a great first release for Modern Storyteller.
The Forgotten City was reviewed on PC using a pre-release Steam code provided by the developer.