Modders and fanfiction authors always make the best creatives. They’re the folks who can take a toaster apart and turn it into a dancing robot, or something that pulls apart the truth of society. So it’s no wonder that Modern Storyteller, the Melbourne team behind 2015’s hugely popular Skyrim mod, managed to make one of the most compelling RPGs I’ve seen in a long time.
The Forgotten City starts as all good games do, with you waking up with amnesia next to a body of water and then being sent on a mission by a nameless stranger. Although I’m not a Skyrim player, the full game (which takes around 8-10 hours to complete) follows roughly the same plot as the original mod on which it’s based. But, instead of having to rely on the lore and set-pieces of Skyrim, it’s now set in a Roman City with problems of biblical proportions.
See, the issue here is that this city has a golden rule: don’t sin, or everyone in town will be turned into a gold statue. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from COVID restrictions, the needs of the many aren’t always a priority in the minds of a few, even if their selfish actions will hurt them too.
While this kind of plot device could be used in a simplistic “don’t do bad things” way, the masterful writing presents you with times where you must sin for the greater good, or have to prevent someone from sinning, even though their sin would help or save another person. While there is definitely some good and some evil, there are no absolutes here, just characters trying to live their lives as best they can despite a constant cloud of doom hanging over them.
The main device of the game is a time loop – if you or someone else breaks the golden rule, you have to run back to the starting point to start the day again. The good news is that you get to keep anything in your inventory, and you have an impressionable young friend willing to redo your already completed quests for you.
Understandably, because of the golden rule, there is very little violence in The Forgotten City. This isn’t a game you punch and shoot your way out of, but instead one where you must explore, discover and converse, with dialogue choices holding huge weight.
While the city has unimaginable problems, it feels like a real place that real people have lived in. In some games the NPCs seem like they exist only to say their meagre lines, but here you feel like your interaction is just a small part of this other character’s story, which is a surprisingly challenging feeling to convey.
Part of this is because the characters don’t all fall into the traditional character archetype of “young man who loves violence”, “attractive young maiden looking for love” and “old person with time-consuming fetch quest”. There’s diversity and depth. It’s no wonder the developers won a Writers’ Guild award.
That said, The Forgotten City isn’t perfect. I wish there had been a little more guidance in the early game – getting a map early on would have been wonderful. While the art and graphics are beyond spectacular, there are moments (like going down stairs) that you can tell it was made by a small team. But in many ways, those flaws contribute to the game’s charm and message that life is complicated and the most we can do is our best. Expecting perfection is a curse.
Despite not being much of a fan of RPGs, I’ve found The Forgotten City to be extremely engaging. It’s a world to be savoured, not rushed, with so much to discover. It’s not a warm blanket game, there’s certainly something creepy and unsettling going on. But it’s frankly a must play for those who want an RPG with a defined beginning, middle and end which respects your time and other commitments.