The Forgotten City is ready to smack you right in the brain stem with its twisty mystery of time loops, sin, and secrets. In fact, you'll soon be so busy interrogating its citizens and investigating its world that you might just forget about its humble origins. The game started life as a popular Skyrim mod, but has now been released as a standalone game set in a cursed Roman City.
Transported there after agreeing to help a woman who tells you she's called Karen – typical – you end up trapped. Worse, the city is cursed in such a way that if any sin is committed by its residents, the whole place is doomed. The only advantage you have is access to a portal that allows you to transport back to the moment you arrived with your memory and inventory intact, giving you an edge over the citizens and potential sinners, and a chance to experiment with actions and consequences. It's intriguing, tense, and incredibly smart. We spoke to Nick James Pearce, the creator of the mod and standalone game, about turning a hobby into a career, how the game has evolved, and how on earth he kept track of The Forgotten City's nefarious narrative tricks.
Rome wasn't built in a day
"The difference between making a mod and making a game is like the difference between doing some home improvement projects and building a house from scratch," he explains.
Pearce's day job might have been corporate law, but he'd had a passion for programming since his early teens. With opportunities in game development few and far between in '90s Australia, he became a lawyer instead. "But the itch to create never went away, it was just on the back burner, and it came back with a vengeance when I discovered that mods could be a vehicle for world-class storytelling. I decided to have a go at making my own."
The original mod was released in 2015 and set in Dwarven ruins in Skyrim's The Reach. It has the same time loop mechanic, but uses Skyrim lore rather than Roman history, and is confined by the rules of the Elder Scrolls universe. Still, it went on to win a National Writers Guild Award in Australia in 2016, and had developers and fans asking about a standalone version.
"In late 2016, I did the riskiest thing I've ever done: I quit my job, founded a studio, hired a one-man-army Unreal engine engineer, and got to work," says Pearce. "It felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, and my plan was to learn to fly by the time I hit the ground."
The standalone version doesn't just strip out then Skyrim, it adds layers of Roman lore to the original game. "I'd always felt the mod was a rough draft of something much, much better," he says.
"Transplanting my story into a Roman setting was absolutely massive, but it has allowed us to add some really cool story beats and twists, and to explore some fascinating real-world aspects of history, philosophy, mythology, and art we couldn't have used otherwise."
To make sure The Forgotten City was as historically accurate as the fantastical story would allow, Pearce brought in two people he refers to as "the big guns," Dr. Philip Matyzak, who has a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford and teaches at Cambridge, and Dr. Sophie Hay, who has spent the last 20 years excavating the ruins of Pompeii.
"We've worked closely with them to create the experience of traveling back in time to an ancient Roman city, and so we've included lots of little details like temples, shrines, roads, niches, mosaics, reliefs, and frescoes based on real-world examples from the time period," he says. "Dr. Matyszak and I exchanged well over 300 emails over the span of 20 months, and did video link-ups, just so we could add lots of little details for history fans to enjoy."
That also meant more work, and Pearce adds that the script for the standalone is twice as long as the original. "Because the setting changed, the city changed, so the characters had to change, and their backstories had to change, and so on. I ended up leveling up just about everything."
The story of The Forgotten City is complex but is revealed in layers so somehow you're able to comprehend it without your brain leaking out of your ears. Think Doctor Who as written by Agatha Christie.
"Back when I started making the mod in 2012, I'd never heard of a game with a time loop mechanic, so at the time I thought I'd come up with it independently, and I was a little disappointed when I discovered later that Majora's Mask had done something similar back in 2000," admits Pearce.
"I like time loops mainly because they're fun for players to exploit," he continues and points to an example in the game. As a newcomer to the town, trying to figure out how to save it, you come across a woman who has died because the antidote that would have saved her is outrageously expensive. Thanks to your time loop skills, you can steal the medicine – committing a sin and dooming everyone in the city – but then jump through the time portal, start the day fresh, and deliver the antidote and become her new BFF.
"Once you get the hang of exploiting the time loop like that, it feels satisfyingly clever, and you're free to explore and experiment and have fun in all sorts of ways, like rigging elections and foiling assassination attempts, and grifting people out of their ill-gotten gains, and so on."
How Pearce managed to write the story, track it, and plot all the different ways players can use the time mechanic feels like some sort of logic-based nightmare, but Pearce has a simple way of describing it through the language of the internet. "I made some very complex flow charts. I'm not sure if you're allowed to publish memes, but putting it all together and making it work felt a bit like this:"
"But one of the things I like about the story is that eventually, when you come to understand everything you've done and hear about it from a bird's eye view perspective, all that intricacy and complexity falls away, and everything makes sense."
You can play The Forgotten City for yourself on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X and S, Xbox One and PC from July 28. A Nintendo Switch version is planned for later this year.