TA Playlist Wrap-Up: The Forgotten City

The TA Playlist Team - September 12th 2022

The Many Shall Suffer for the Sins of the One…
~The Golden Rule

Salve, friends, and welcome back to another month of TA Playlist. The theme for August was inspired by a post from MorseyBaby in the TA Playlist Game Suggestion Thread, suggesting that since the month was named after the Roman Emperor Augustus, we should highlight games with Roman (or Greek) theme.

We selected games from a variety of genres, including roguelite Hades, open-world action-RPG Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and strategy game Sid Meier's Civilization VI, but while the vote was pretty close, it was the time-looping adventure game The Forgotten City that emerged victorious.

The Forgotten City bases much of its lore on Roman and Greek history, but the game itself also has a pretty interesting story behind it, starting out as a mod for Skyrim back in 2015. The mod was written and developed by Nick Pearce as a hobby/diversion from his day job as a lawyer, but after the mod became one of the most successful downloads for Skyrim and garnered much critical acclaim, including winning an award from the Australian Writer's Guild, Pearce decided to quit his job and develop The Forgotten City as a full-fledged standalone game.

Pearce formed his own development studio, Modern Storyteller, along with programmer Alexander Goss and artist John Eyre, and this three-man team spent the next four years rebuilding the game from the ground up, using the Unreal Engine 4 instead of Skyrim's in-game engine, and changing the setting from an ancient Dwemer ruin to an underground Roman village in 65 CE. After four years of development, the game was published in 2021 by Dear Villagers

JayPsych47 said:

Having played the mod but long ago enough to only remember bits and pieces, this was definitely a good upgrade. I was worried how it would play given the small dev team without Skyrim as a base, but they did a good enough job there. Overall it definitely exceeds reasonable expectations of such a small team.
Be warned, there will be spoilers ahead, so if you haven't played the game yet, it might be a good idea to skip forward to the stats section below. If you know nothing else about The Forgotten City, you probably know that it's a game set in ancient Rome that features a time loop mechanic. Time-loop games have really hit it big the last few years, with the likes of Deathloop, Outer Wilds, and Twelve Minutes achieving various levels of critical and commercial success.

In such a crowd, it might not be surprising that this mod-turned-game from an unknown developer flew a bit under the radar. However, when the TA Playlist featured 12 Minutes back in January, several people chimed in on the forums to suggest that The Forgotten City was better.

Dresden N7 said:

The superior time loop title on Game Pass is The Forgotten City, hands down. [...] Highly recommended for those who like narrative games, Groundhog Day (1993), and ancient Roman history. After beating the story, I also recommend watching the noclip documentary about the game's journey to a standalone title.
"Superior" is a matter of taste, of course, but most seem to share that sentiment, and there are some distinct differences between The Forgotten City and 12 Minutes. The time loop is much longer, for one thing; if you don't interfere, the loop will eventually reset after a certain in-game event takes place, but there's so much time before that happens on its own that it's much more likely that the player will trigger a reset of the loop well before then. This means that the game moves at a more relaxed pace, giving the player more time to explore and learn about the world, which is much larger and more detailed than the single-bedroom apartment of 12 Minutes.

The cast of characters is much larger as well. Where 12 Minutes had just three main roles (voiced by well-known Hollywood actors), The Forgotten City includes nearly two dozen characters, and while none of the voice actors have the star power of James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, or Willem Dafoe, several of our commenters specifically praised the quality of the writing and acting in this game.
zeldafanjtl said:

I'm amazed how good the writing and voice acting are—better than a lot of AAA games, honestly. […] The characters felt so real, and I loved how they had believable relationships with each other that the game was somehow able to flesh out despite how short it is.
You start the game in the present day but with no memory of how you got to this small clearing in the woods. A woman named Karen says she saw you floating down the river and pulled you to shore, not even sure if you'd survive. Now that you're awake, though, Karen would like you to do her a favour and go look for a man named Al, who went to investigate some nearby ruins and hasn't returned. After a short walk through the forest, you come across what appears to be an ancient Roman shrine, with a note from Al fixed to the door, but as soon as you step inside, you find yourself falling through a trapdoor into a pool of water deep underground.

Your first view of the city is a dark, desolate ruin, filled only with creepy golden statues that seem to turn their heads toward you when you're not looking. Examining the graffiti on the walls reveals the same phrase over and over: "The many shall suffer for the sins of the one." And finally, you turn a corner and find Al, now just a golden statue hanging from a tree with a noose around his neck. His suicide note warns you not to enter the glowing portal nearby, or you'll be trapped like he was… but there doesn't seem to be any other way out.

zeldafanjtl said:

I don't think I was quite prepared for the general feeling of unease you get hit with from the get-go. The intro section with Karen is ominous, the destroyed, modern version of the city is horrifying, and all the statues and whispers when you first get into the Roman-era version of the city are all a great preview of what's to come.
Stepping into the portal, you're whisked through a Stargate-style wormhole. You emerge on the other side in the same physical place, but now instead of a dark, gloomy night, it's a bright, sunny day; instead of broken columns and dilapidated ruins, you see gleaming white marble palaces; and instead of a city devoid of life, you're warmly greeted by your new best-friend-to-be, Galerius. “Salve, friend…”

Galerius leads you to the Magistrate, Sentius, who explains that the city has been cursed by the gods (or a god in particular, actually, although they don't know which one) to live under the Golden Rule – basically, if anyone in the city commits a sin, everyone will perish.

However, Sentius knows of a way to avert this fate: a ritual to Proserpina, Goddess of the cycle of life, death and renewal, which can open a portal to the past. Since you're here, Sentius realizes that someone must be about to break the rule and tasks you with figuring out who. To do this, you'll have to meet the residents of the city. Each of them has a story to tell about how they got there and what they think of the Golden Rule, and it seems like any number of situations could lead to the sin that will doom them all. Their stories intertwine in various ways, and over the course of the game, you really get to know the citizens of this small village.

FruitofPassion said:

Wow! What an amazing game! One of the few that brought me to tears from being such a well-done story. When I started, I was going to use the site's guide but got so interested I scrapped it. No offence to the writer, but this just is not a game worth using a guide for.
Side note, Galerius has got to be one of the most loveable characters ever put into a video game.
Eventually, either you or one of the other residents will do something that the city's God counts as a "sin." A booming voice echoes through the city, "THE MANY SHALL SUFFER FOR THE SINS OF THE ONE," and the golden statues that fill the city spring to life, firing arrows that turn living flesh to gold. Sentius takes off for the shrine of Proserpina to perform the ritual, and as long as you can make it there without getting killed by the statues, you can enter the portal and start the time loop anew, armed with everything you learned in the previous loop, and whatever items you picked up along the way.

Cylon 118 said:

The fact that this was originally a mod is incredible to me. I have really enjoyed playing through this getting more and more surprised by revelations and the new areas that I kept finding[…] The puzzles were simple but so fun, and using the loop by keeping your inventory was a nice way to solve things different to Twelve Minutes a few months back
I've seen time loop games described as "Metroidvania for the Mind;" rather than unlocking new skills for your character that allow you to go back to previously-explored areas and open up new paths, a good time loop game will give information directly to the player, which will allow them to take different actions and open up new options on subsequent loops. This is certainly true for The Forgotten City, but allowing your character to bring items through to the next loop adds more options to some of the puzzles and also makes for a nice shortcut, since good guy Galerius is ready and willing to do whatever you ask at the start of the next loop. At first, this seems like just a clever way to keep the player from having to do the same actions over and over, but it eventually also plays into the storyline in a pretty satisfying way.

The Forgotten City's time loop isn't just a gameplay mechanic, though – the idea of one individual reliving the same day over and over makes for an interesting parallel with the game's larger themes about the cycles of human civilization. Once again, beware, there are spoilers ahead.

As you delve deeper and peel back the layers of mystery, you learn that the Romans weren't the first inhabitants of this city. In fact, the Roman city was built over the ruins of a previous Greek village, and the city's Greek residents are quick to point out that the Romans have made something of a habit of appropriating Greek culture and re-working it to fit Roman sensibilities. However, it's not long before you learn that the Greek village was built on top of an even older Egyptian settlement, and you meet an Egyptian man who resents the Greeks for stealing and perverting elements of Egyptian culture and mythology. Of course, it doesn't stop there. As it turns out, the Egyptian city was built on top of an even older civilization of Sumerians. Cycles and layers, each building upon what came before, adding new embellishments, and eventually forgetting the details of the sources they were originally based on.

A final warning before we get into major end-game spoiler territory! There are two major twists that are revealed as you play. The first, which could come fairly early on if you've been speaking to everyone and followed certain story threads, is that you are actually in the Underworld, implying that you and all the residents of the city are dead. The woman Karen, who pulled you from the river in the beginning, is actually Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx, and that means that the mysterious God behind the Golden Rule must be Pluto, Lord of the Underworld.

The final twist occurs after you've learned about the true nature of the city and come to realize that the deity the Romans call Pluto is the same as the Greek Hades, the Egyptian Osiris, and the Sumerian Nergal – there are different names and variations in details for each civilization, but the same Underworld is the basis for all of those mythologies.

After finding the keys to unlock the temple above the city, you open the door to a white hallway, and suddenly you find yourself in a gleaming, futuristic spaceship in orbit above the earth. In another Stargate-like turn, the God of the Underworld is actually a sufficiently-advanced alien from a race who arrived on earth thousands of years ago and helped teach the basics of civilization to the ancient Sumerians.

zeldafanjtl said:

The whole it's-the-underworld reveal was a twist that I feel like I should've seen from the beginning, and the whole Karen = Charon thing made me laugh, but hey, it worked. I'm not sure what I was expecting for the Pluto portrayal at the end of the game, but going full Assassin's Creed with it was an interesting choice that I actually kinda liked.
There are a few ways you can deal with Pluto, but true to this game's style, the most satisfying ending comes not through combat but through thoughtful discussion. You can hear Pluto's reason for imposing the Golden Rule and debate its merits, eventually convincing the God of the Underworld to abandon earth and return the city's inhabitants to the land of the living.

J2B9 said:

Speaking on the part about talking with the God […] A great part about it is I believe there were at least two ways to successfully talk through that conversation, so you didn't necessarily only need to say a specific set of the same exact lines, which speaks well to the writing of the game to actually get to that point and have a really interesting conversation as well as a character actually willing to listen from that conversation and be convinced.

All that in combination with all the questions from the whole mystery being answered, followed by successfully saving everyone and talking with them in the museum, truly made everything even more satisfying/rewarding. Overall great game and experience.

Getting to the fourth "true" ending rewards you with a hit-you-in-the-feels epilogue that I think could only be pulled off by a small indie developer. It's the sort of ending that fans usually love, but critics tend to pan for being too schmaltzy and saccharine, and I think the critical response would drive most AAA developers, or even larger indie studios, to try for something edgier. Still, everyone who spoke about the ending in our forums seemed to enjoy it.

TobyLinn said:

I Loved this game, especially the ending in the museum; I think I cried a bit, LOL. I liked how you could "save" everyone if you did everything in the right order, and that's why it was cool to see them in the museum at the end; such nice people (well, most of them, LOL).
The Noto said:
The wrap-up of the true canon ending is quite lovely. I know it's cliché at this point to use the "friends we made along the way" take, but the museum ending really hammers the truth in that. It feels somehow even more unreal a location as The Forgotten City itself, but getting to "catch up" with all of the people that you helped is refreshing for those people and actually quite pleasant in a way I haven't really felt in any other game that simply rolls credits.
I'm very thankful this was the Playlist this month. I don't know if I would have tried it out otherwise. And yet, I'm very happy to have completed this.
We had 927 tracked gamers play along with The Forgotten City this month, with 710 of them entering the city for the very first time. A total of 164 gamers completed the achievement list this month, which is three more than the total who played with last month's selection of Soma. In total, the TA community earned 340,590 Gamerscore from 13,539 achievements in The Forgotten City during the month of August, for a grand sum of 586,707 TrueAchievement score.

The most unlocked achievement during the month was Tourist, which simply requires you to open Photo Mode by pressing up on the D-pad, with 629 total unlocks during the month. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Allergic achievement, awarded just 191 times during the month. That achievement requires you to get stung to death by hornets, and it's not likely something that would happen to anyone in a normal playthrough, so it makes sense that it saw the fewest unlocks.

We have no shortage of Shout-Outs this month, with 120 tracked gamers playing the entire game and unlocking all 40 achievements in August. Shortietom turned in the fastest time, at just 2 hours and 54 minutes from first achievement to last, but in a game like this, fastest isn't necessarily best, as far as I'm concerned. Check out the full list here and see where you stacked up.

With the glowing praise for The Forbidden City, is there talk of a sequel? Some other game from the same studio? If so, Pearce and the Modern Storyteller team have set themselves a pretty high bar.

A1exRD said:

The dev studio still exists and says it's "working on exciting new ideas". It can't be easy to make an award-winning game based on some brilliant ideas and then be expected to do it again. Fingers crossed they can manage, though
Allgorhythm said:
I'm optimistic. The most elusive aspect of a game is coming up with an enticing fun factor. Modern Storyteller has done it with The Forgotten City. Since the developer has grasped the concept, they have a good chance of success in the next undertaking.
Sound off in the comments if you're excited for what this studio comes up with next, and don't forget to join in with September's TA Playlist game Saints Row: The Third, either by unlocking an achievement in any version of the game or by commenting in the Spoiler-Free and Spoiler Discussion Threads to give us your thoughts on all the wacky mayhem going down in Steelport. We'll see you there!
As always, a big thank you goes out to BetaSigX20 for writing the TA Playlist Wrap-Up!

Track My Progress in The Forgotten City