It's not every day that you see a video game and a national screenwriting award in the same sentence. In fact, it's never happened -- until last week, when the Australian Writers' Guild gave an AWGIE not just to Skyrim, but a Skyrim mod.
The mod is available today for the PC and Xbox One versions of Skyrim: Special Edition. But it wouldn't have been available if its Australian creator, Nick Pearce, hadn't been randomly punched in the face by a stranger.
This story originally appeared in October 2016.
"I got started writing when I got punched in the face by a complete stranger for no reason," Pearce told me over email, not longer after his AWGIE victory. "I was on my way to work one day, walking along the mean streets of Brighton, and BAM! I wrote my first short story about it, which got a lot of positive feedback."
That was the beginning of Pearce's writing adventures, and before he began exploring the world of Skyrim mods he maintained a strong attachment to the more traditional forms of literature: forming a book club, reading regularly, and having a crack at an attempted novel.
That was several years ago, well before Fallout 4, well before Skyrim. And Bethesda wouldn't be the ones responsible for the canvas that would later inspire one of the better modders in the Skyrim, and Australian scene: it was Obsidian Entertainment, who had been given the task of crafting Fallout: New Vegas.
It's not hard to see why. The original New Vegas Bounties might have been uploaded the same year New Vegas released, but it wasn't short of class. 436 lines of freshly-recorded voice were added. Bosses were added as an alternative to fetch quests or logic puzzles. There were balance fixes, too, and it was the first instalment of a series of high-quality mods that continued to be released over the next few years.
"It was a revelation to me that mods could be a vehicle for first class storytelling," Pearce continued. "So when Skyrim came out I started tinkering with the Creation Kit."
That begun a journey in 2012 that would span over 1700 hours on Pearce's part. Like most modders, The Forgotten City came together whenever Pearce had spare time from his day job as a technology lawyer. And that largesse carried over to the design documents as well, with the master sheet totalling 100 pages, along with two-page marketing plan. For a free mod.
"It evolved a lot over the 3 years," Pearce told me. "I also kept a document in my phone where I wrote random ideas that occurred to me, often in the middle of the night."
"That happened a lot, actually. I'd have an idea at 3:00 AM and get so excited about it I couldn't get back to sleep for hours. My lovely wife was very understanding. Then I'd regularly transpose those ideas into the master design document."
A lot of work went into the little touches as well. The Forgotten City begins with a note from Cassia, whose brother fell down the shaft representing the entrance to the Forgotten City.
You can simply go down the shaft and find him. Alternatively, you can "accidentally" push Cassia down the shaft. And then kill her when she gets pissed at you at the bottom.
But perhaps the most intriguing part of it all is the mod's non-linear structure. You're not given direct quests with obvious markers and directions. You're completely free to explore The Forgotten City's town and piece together what happened that caused this little utopia to collapse.
It's all built on Dwarves' Law, which effectively holds the city together by threatening to kill everyone if anyone commits a crime. And that's what ultimately drove the city to extinction: someone in the town broke the law, and it's your responsibility to find out who.
"The structure of the story is quite complex," Pearce explained. "It's a non-linear murder mystery investigation where the player is free to go about it in whatever order they please, and the player can use time travel to reset time while retaining knowledge and items they acquired in alternative timelines; this opens up new dialogue options and ways of solving problems."
The structure alone took a few hundred hours to build, he told me, and it was done without additional help. "I didn't know anyone into modding; I don't think anyone had attempted the sort of time travel gameplay mechanic I wanted; I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, and I knew that if I ever decided to use the project as a folio piece, it would be an advantage to be able to say that it was all my own work."
The success of the mod has resulted in a lot of attention for Pearce, at home and abroad. He's been approached by a mix of studios from the United States and Australia. "Designing and writing RPGs at a studio like Bethesda, BioWare, or Obsidian would my dream job, but it's a tough industry and Australia is a long way from the Triple A RPG action, so I'm not holding my breath.”
And it's not like major developers haven't hired modders before. The creator of the Falskaar mod, which added a new area one third of the size of Skyrim itself and has been downloaded more than 2 million times, was eventually hired by Bungie two years ago.
Pearce isn't walking that path just yet. For now, it's nice just to see a new fanbase enjoying his creation for the first time. The Forgotten City has already been downloaded more than 1000 times on Xbox One, sitting among the top 10 mods for most popular and most favourited on the platform. And that's not to mention the combined hundreds of thousands of downloads through ModDB, NexusMods and the Bethesda website.
And it might not be the last iteration of The Forgotten City. Shortly after the Nintendo Switch reveal, I asked Pearce if he'd be interested in putting in the hours to make his mod playable on the hybrid console. He was keen, but understandably cautious at the same time. "Skyrim on a Switch sounds awesome! It's hard to imagine Nintendo opening up their system to allow mods if even Sony struggles to embrace mods, but who knows?"
Until then, the future is wide open.