The Forgotten City is a first-person mystery adventure game that began as a Skyrim mod before lead designer Nick Pearce left his job as an attorney to focus on it full time through his company Modern Storyteller, with partial funding by Film Victoria, an Australia-based statutory agency. The game has optional action and platforming elements, but draws from, builds upon, and synthesizes aspects of ancient history, archeology, sociology, philosophy, religion, and mythology for an engaging dialog-based adventure. In creating an engaging videogame with those components, The Forgotten City is a testament to the value of public funding for the arts.
The game’s early going transports the protagonist (a contemporary of the 21st century) to a city of Ancient Rome, tucked into a mountain. The city (a community of just 24 people) is guided by a single rule around which all other laws are centered, “The Golden Rule;” “The many shall suffer for the sins of the one.” From this point, the current Magistrate dictates everyone else’s behavior, such as outlawing weapons or locking away a resident that seems prone to stealing. With the vagueness of the rule and the protagonist’s attempt to escape the city as starting points, the story unfolds through a series of character interactions bringing the player into contact with moral quandaries and philosophical debates. The Forgotten City invites its players to examine their own moral preconceptions in the interest of exploring a world and solving a mystery centered around escaping a time loop—an increasingly frequent gameplay mechanic with the proliferation of roguelikes and roguelites throughout indie gaming, and the mainstream success and critical acclaim of games like Hades and The Outer Wilds.
Along the way, there are optional lessons in ancient history, anthropology, and philosophy. When you ask different people in the town where they’re from, you learn about different aspects of life throughout Rome and its provinces in the time of Nero. Interacting with the culturally diverse citizenry of The Forgotten City allows the player to learn about different aspects of Roman conquest and culture. Asking what they think about the golden rule, players learn of different interpretations of the same core tenants. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” “Do to the doer to make him do;” “Do not do what you would blame others for doing;” and others with different points of emphasis. Players learn that some people believe the rule is a contrivance put together so the magistrate can exercise tyranny, while others think everything will be fine if everyone leads with empathy. Moreover, there’s no dead weight; every character that walks by the player murmuring can be engaged in a conversation through which the plot can be advanced and through which knowledge can be gained.
The Forgotten City is a remarkable game, an artistic triumph that is simple enough in its gameplay and structures, but deceptively complex in its storytelling. The controller inputs are simple and are introduced over the course of the exposition. It isn’t a game with a ton of tools, but it blends linear and branching storytelling to create a variety of options to lead to one of four different endings; the canonical ending is the most difficult to achieve, whereas one of them takes maybe 10 minutes if you make the right choices at the game’s outset, but you might not realize that until you are, like me, eight hours into the game and nearing its finale.
The twists and reveals are the sort of properly executed mysteries that an attentive audience member can guess at—well-constructed set-ups and payoffs rather than surprises coming out of the blue. It directs its storytelling devices toward the end of educating players about how morality and society develop over time. Simultaneously, those lessons are not tedious and the most explicit are also avoidable. Most every conversation provides the opportunity to tell the characters you’re too busy to deal with them.
Choice is important in games, but the point of a narrative is to tell a good story. The Forgotten City might remind players of the Assassin’s Creed series for its interest in historical fiction, specifically Origins, which allowed a violence-free “discovery tour” educational mode as DLC. It also harkens to combat-minimalist roleplaying games that engage with morality and philosophy like Suzerain and Disco Elysium, or even—broadly—to the philosophical debates that arise in and are inspired by Fallout: New Vegas, a game where one faction harkens to the glories and heights of the Roman Empire.
As the culmination of a former attorney’s dream, The Forgotten City is also, in the end, about second chances. And investing in art generally, and videogames specifically, to alert and inform the masses about history and philosophy is a net good. It’s not often that those two subjects can be engaged so thoroughly without ever being tedious.
Public funding that is key. Suzerain was partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure and developer Torpor Games UG is part of the Game NGO of Germany; The Forgotten City is funded in part through Australian statutory agency Film Victoria. The success of these games should make it clear to audiences and governments that arts—including videogames—need public support. It is a worthwhile investment of public money to create artistic experiences that are novel, and which invite players to think deeply about the world they live in and the lives they lead.
Rome, in all its grandeur and the long shadow of its fall, maintains an outsized presence in the minds of citizens of the “Global North” and “Western World” (both of which Australia is part of despite its far southeastern placement on flat maps of the round globe). A game that places audience members in a recreation of the Roman world and teaches them about what Rome was like for commoners, gladiators, soldiers, farmers, and philosophers; for men and women; for Britons and Judeans and Greeks and Egyptians, is a net good for society. The only fault I can find with the depiction is that the buildings and sculptures should have had more color to them, but the flaw of white-washed busts and pillars is ubiquitous in reconstructions of the ancient world and is more than made up for through the colorful recreation of the culture.
The Forgotten City approximates bites of more than a dozen microhistories, informing without overgeneralizing. Rome remains one of the most successful empires the world has ever known, and one against which the British Empire and the United States have measured themselves. This game doesn’t give a blanket pardon or condone the actions of any state, instead inviting players to ask by what means and to what end the rules of a state and society are created. The Forgotten City implicitly and explicitly goes to bat for the value of education, and it provides a good time while it does it. We all like to think we know something of the world that came before us; seldom is it that a videogame spun out of an adventure in another fantasy game provides an opportunity to truly learn something.
The Forgotten City was developed by Modern Storyteller and published by Digital Visitors. Our review is based on the Xbox Series X version, played through Xbox Game Pass. It is also available for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Switch and PC.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.