Despite Hype, Former Skyrim Mod The Forgotten City Is Kind Of A Mess

Despite Hype, Former Skyrim Mod The Forgotten City Is Kind Of A Mess
Screenshot: Modern Storytellers

There is a special joy to a B game. B games are weird and messy and overly ambitious. Their reach exceeds their grasp, and I mean that as a positive trait. They are the games which stick with you in half-remembered fragments, or inexplicably vivid portraits. The Forgotten City is nothing if not a B game.

Originating as a critically acclaimed Skyrim mod, The Forgotten City was built by a core team of three people. To build a 3D, first-person action RPG with a team that size is, in and of itself, impressive. What they’ve managed to do with that team makes it doubly so.

The game is built around a time loop, which, despite my love for them, are getting kind of old. It turns out living through the last gasps of a declining empire leads to a lot of artists feeling trapped in an inescapable cycle. Odd how that works.

You play as someone from the year 2021 cast back in time to an ancient Roman city, inhabited by 23 people, all of whom are trapped by “The Golden Rule.” If any one of those 23 people commits a sin, everyone in the city is turned to gold by a petulant god. When you arrive, you are informed that someone is going to commit a sin. And they inevitably do. So, in a last-ditch attempt to save the city, the magistrate sacrifices himself to cast you back in time so that you can identify the transgressor and stop them from dooming everyone to a golden death. To do so, you will action, adventure, and sleuth your way through the dying city — solving problems as you go.

Each loop is designed to feel like it’s happening in real time, but in actuality the game seems like it runs off of triggers more than anything else. When you walk near a person, their scene triggers and time starts ticking. You’ll have moments to intervene in various disasters each time, which frequently just involves showing an item to an NPC. However, once a given situation is solved, it’s solved permanently thanks to the game’s helpful errand boy and introductory NPC, Galerius.

At the beginning of each loop, as you’re spit out of the portal, Galerius will run up and introduce himself. You can, very rudely, interrupt him and start giving him urgent tasks, which he will immediately go do because you’re very assertive about it. This means you start each loop with a world state you determine. The Forgotten City becomes nothing if not predictable.

It’s that consistency that puts the game at the midpoint between other recent time loop narratives The Outer Wilds and Twelve Minutes, two games which could not be more different in tone, content, and the actual mechanics of their respective takes on time travel. Where The Outer Wilds focuses on puzzle solving, environmental storytelling, and execution, Twelve Minutes focuses on conversation trees, adventure gamery, and poorly handled themes. The Forgotten City does ask you to achieve a perfect loop to unlock its true ending, like the other games, but that perfect loop can be all but achieved by asking Galerius to go do all of it for you, while you worry about the game’s messier aspects.

I’ve previously mentioned that The Forgotten City was built on a Skyrim mod, and it shows. All of the game’s verbs, and much of its UI, feel pulled directly from a Bethesda RPG, all the way down to the eye-based stealth indicator. If you’ve played Skyrim, the idiosyncrasies of the game’s controls will be immediately familiar to you. Why is the left bumper the button to zoom in? Skyrim. Why is jump bound to the B button? Skyrim. Why does Y open the menu? Skyrim, baby.

Screenshot: Modern Storyteller Screenshot: Modern Storyteller

And the Skyrim-ness of the game extends to its combat which is…fine. It feels like shooting a bow in Skyrim, but a bit worse, and that is totally serviceable for the thing The Forgotten City is. You attain, through your exploits, a golden bow. You use that golden bow to turn statue/zombie hybrids with their skin half-peeled off (it’s a whole thing) back into full gold standees made of actual dead people, which you can then rudely kick over. The combat is never difficult, and often clunky. This is fine, it isn’t the star of the show. That honour goes to the game’s narrative which is, all things considered, pretty solidly constructed.

The game’s main and side plots are all fine. It’s actual writing is mediocre in its best moments, and dreadful at its worst. There is some genuine horror and tragedy hidden away in the game. I audibly went “Eughl” at least once during my time with it, after being confronted with a particularly grisly scene. However, audible reactions like that were not the norm during my stay in the gilded city. The payoff for each mystery was totally unsurprising, I had guessed basically everything after my first run. The journey, then, was proving all of my assumptions correct, which took about five loops or so. The overall journey, like the combat and so much of the game, is fine. The destination is…interesting, which is why I consider The Forgotten City in the category of odd B games I’ll think about for several years.

So, if you care about spoilers, stop here. The game is roughly five hours, a bit buggy, frequently predictable, but a passable ride overall.

The Forgotten City is a game about how history and culture happen. It seems to want to be about morality and philosophy, but that aspect of the game often falls short. You debate philosophy with both a socratic hermit philosopher and the literal God of the Underworld, and both conversations are a bit underwhelming. Its setting, however, is well constructed for the point the game seems to be making. Which is that modern liberalism fucking rules, actually.

On my third loop I delved into the catacombs beneath the city where I met Khabash, its only Egyptian resident. In those catacombs he held two plaques, both of which are necessary to unlock the game’s true ending. I talked him into giving me the first, appealing to his faith and respect for tradition, but he threw the second down a hole in the floor. That hole led to the Da’at, the Egyptian underworld.

The Forgotten City suggests that it is not turtles all the way down, but cultures. You are, unsurprisingly, dead. Everyone in the city is. You’ve been trapped in the underworld by circumstance, so a petulant god can win a bet and prove Daddy wrong, and his wife correct. The underworld, however, is layered. Not like Hades or the Da’at are supposed to be. You aren’t being organised by social classes in accordance with how good or bad you were. Instead, the underworld is stratified by time period. Not by design, but by practice.

The first civilisation to meet the gods — which are, in brilliant History Channel fashion, ancient aliens — were the Sumerians. The original underworld was built to resemble their own culture’s architecture and social arrangements. Eventually, the Sumerians faded into memory, and the silver coins that ferried them to the underworld were passed on to the Egyptians. Upon arriving, the Egyptians looked at the Sumerian architecture, hated it, and built their own underworld on top of it. This process repeated itself with the Greeks, and then the Romans.

The Forgotten City argues, multiple times through the mouths of several characters including your own, that to treat culture as something that springs forth from a society, fully formed, is silly. Culture, of course, influences culture. Sumer influences Egypt, Egypt influences Greece, Greece influences Rome. This is in no way a novel idea, but the way the game constructs and deploys this narrative is impressive, especially given its central themes.

Screenshot: Modern Storyteller Screenshot: Modern Storyteller

Each loop builds upon the last, influenced by the mistakes of the previous run. You see a woman crushed by a building, and so you go back in time and send an assassin to that building in her place, killing him and allowing you to steal his bow. With each successive loop you get closer to the perfect run, to the utopia the game imagines. This idea of iteration is present in every single aspect of the game’s narrative, and its design. Even the way the endings are structured.

When you beat the game you’re shown where, on its list of routes, you ended up. If you kill the magistrate (the only one who can send you back in time) immediately, you cause a paradox, spitting you out of the loop. This is the game’s worst ending. With a bit more information you can get everyone but the sinner to escape the Underworld, again breaking the loop. This is a good ending, but not perfect. The true ending involves either convincing the God of the Underworld to leave through persuasion, or through killing his wife, stealing her crown, and then going back in time to prove you can kill her, which threatens him into leaving. So, yes, the game does have multiple endings, but those endings depend upon how much information you’ve gathered. The fewest possible number of loops required to beat the game is four.

History, then, is linear — a series of progressively better societies on a march toward utopia. Each society is better than the last, technologically and culturally. The game pays lip service to the idea that this progress is not linear, but its design undercuts this argument.

At one point, when debating with the God of the Underworld, you can bring up debt bondage. You argue that forcing people to work to pay off debt is obviously a sin that should be punished as such. He argues for the rule of law. You can then say that it would be totally unacceptable in the 21st century, at which point he asks how people raise their social standing. You tell him that people go into debt for life in order to get a shot at economic advancement. He then equates these two things. And he is right to do so. But he is also the villain, and framed as a hypocritical moralist and idealist who you can epically own with facts and logic. At times, it feels like the developers did what all good Twitter users do, and made up a guy in their heads to get mad at.

This applies to all of the game’s villains, and its theory of morality. It believes that the punishment for breaking the “Golden Rule” is unfair, but it also goes on to ironically punish its villains. Multiple people in the gilded city are sinning, but those sins are predicated on their material conditions. By alleviating their problems, you prevent them from sinning. Rufius is a gay man who becomes a homophobe because of his…rheumatism. He ends up dating the dude he’s harassing in the end. Ulpius and Iulia commit suicide, which the game has some strange feelings around, because of their debt bondage. Sentilla is going to kill her father, Sentius, because he’s tremendously evil. Claudia is terrible because of her controlling husband Malleolus.

Screenshot: Modern Storyteller Screenshot: Modern Storyteller

The game’s four genuinely shitty people, Malleolus, Sentius, Domitius, and Aurellia, all receive their punishments in the game’s incredibly awkward conclusion, which sees you thrown back into the modern era where you find all of the game’s (good) NPCs waiting for you. The game does a “Where are they now?” tour of every character you met, letting them talk about their excellent modern lives and how all of the bad people ended up being ironically punished.

Sentius wanted to live forever and was trapped as a gold statue. Malleolus, the rich douchebag, became poor and destitute upon arriving in the modern age. The violent Domitius had a failed career as a UFC fighter and died in an under-the-table fight. Aurellia the greedy and lecherous bartender was caught in a scam involving a Nigerian prince. It’s all incredibly on the nose, and undercuts the game’s previous assertions about the failures of moral absolutism. The game still believes in a cosmic order where good people are rewarded and villains are punished for their wrongdoings.

Each of the good NPCs thanks you for being so smart and fixing all of their problems for them. It culminates in you being led into a room where dozens of people clap for you, thanking you for freeing them from their golden shells. It is so self-aggrandizing that it borders on masturbatory. The game’s price-gouging, formerly slaveholding douchebag Desius, who allows a woman to die from a preventable disease because she can’t pay up, is included in the game’s good character wrap-up because he would expect someone to treat him the same if he were in that situation. He’s written to be somewhat charming and, at the very least, honest in his scumbaggery.

Which leaves The Forgotten City in an interesting place in my mind. It is a very well-designed video game, with mediocre writing and some tremendously boring conclusions about history and human morality. It emerges from an overwhelmingly liberal ideology that sees history as a mostly linear march toward utopia, believes good people are cosmically rewarded for their inherent goodness, and thinks that systemic change outside of incremental improvements isn’t really that necessary. All of it fails to move me in any way outside of my interest in its design.

Which makes it damn good at being a B game.

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