Many video games subject players to the tyranny of waypoints and cleverly masked pathways guiding them from one objective to the next. Time-travel murder mystery The Forgotten City is not so heavy-handed.
“I don’t want to tell people what to think,” said game creator and Modern Storyteller founder Nick Pearce. “What I want to do is to encourage and challenge people to think for themselves and reward them for thinking for themselves.”
That being said, Pearce isn’t dismissive of game design that meticulously guides the player. “That’s fine!” he said. “There are plenty of games that cater to that, but that’s not what we’re doing.”
The sprawling time-loop mystery of The Forgotten City is set in Ancient Rome, but its story began long before its current incarnation. Back in 2015, before Pearce and his tiny team of collaborators began work on the game, he released a Skyrim mod of the same name. Over the years, that mod has racked up more than three million downloads and won an Australian Writers’ Guild Award back in 2016.
The mod took three years to develop – some 1700 hours of dedication – and it paid off in its popularity and accolades, but Pearce knew he could take it further: “There are things about the mod that I don’t especially like. To me, the mod seems like a rough draft. … I’m sure anyone who’s ever created anything knows that their first attempt to do something is a bit rough, so I knew I could do it better.”
After some initial reluctance, a comment published at Kotaku and conversations with other developers ultimately gave Pearce the push he needed to remake the game. But when he finally did make the jump from hobbyist to professional game developer, the transition wasn’t easy. It wasn’t just about overcoming the structural barriers of time, funding, and experience; Pearce also had to overcome his social conditioning.
“Obviously, I think women bear the brunt of most of the problems of gender roles, but one of the problems that men have is that, as a man, you feel a very strong, ingrained sense that you have to bring home the bacon,” he said. “So, it’s incredibly difficult to say to your partner, ‘Hey, I want to walk away from my established legal career, which is pretty lucrative, and just do something and I may not make any money. It may be a complete flop and we might actually lose money on this project.’ Fortunately for me, I have a wonderfully supportive wife who was totally cool with it, but I still had to ask her about 20 times before I finally believed her that I had her consent to do it.”
Eventually, Pearce quit his job, created a prototype that attracted Film Victoria funding, and hired two experienced game developers – programmer Alex Goss as technical lead, then fresh off a VR spacewalk simulator created alongside NASA, and John Eyre from Defiant Development as senior environmental artist.
The game development process hasn’t always been smooth. Pearce compared the difference between modding and professional development to “the difference between renovating a home and building a home from scratch.” Nonetheless, the studio has remained a core team of just three members, supported by rare outsourcing.
“When you’re making your first project, you’ve got to be sensible with how much you’re spending and keeping in mind what the expected outcome is,” Pearce explained. “We definitely had to keep small for those reasons. … When you’re an indie studio, you need to wear a lot of hats. I think that can work well because … it’s much easier to keep your team having a unified vision if that team is small and the less can go wrong with miscommunication.”
Communication is something that Pearce seems passionate about, whether it’s with his team, his partner, or his fans. When his decision to remake The Forgotten City crystalized, he read back over all of the Nexus Mods comments to better understand why it resonated with people and how that feedback could dovetail with his own ideas.
Sometimes, that meant dismissing feedback that wasn’t attuned with the principles of the game and focusing on a clear target audience. In the case of The Forgotten City, that audience is “people who enjoy figuring things out for themselves, so for intelligent, mature gamers who like the challenge of solving and unraveling a great mystery and exploring, investigating, interrogating.”
The process of concepting the standalone game also meant cutting away any references to The Elder Scrolls lore and replacing it with something else. Rather than a new fantasy setting, Pearce settled on Ancient Rome, in part because the era’s social mores tally with the game’s story. The city is cursed that if any resident sins, everyone dies. This kind of collective punishment is immortalized in the annals of Roman military and mythology.
Aesthetics were another deciding factor, as the game features exceptionally eye-catching architecture and fashion. And a third reason is that a pseudo-historical setting provides an opportunity to clearly “explore some real-world aspects of philosophy and history and mythology that are fascinating.”
In particular, Pearce spoke to a point that feels especially pertinent in our politically riven world: “I think there’s something important there, which I haven’t seen (in other games), and that is genuinely encouraging people to think for themselves and to reject directions and to be suspicious of authority. Or just to not necessarily just go along with what you’re told, and that sometimes, if the rules are unjust or unfair – and sometimes they are – then maybe you can change those rules. You don’t have to just comply with them.”
Embedding those themes, alongside a comprehensive redesign of the game world, a significant rewrite of the mod’s script, and the addition of entirely new gameplay mechanics, emphasizes that The Forgotten City is more than a cash-grab intended to capitalize on past success. The team has sought to improve where possible and taken risks to expand on the existing framework in key ways.
It’s clear from talking to Pearce that this project, from its inception as a mod almost a decade ago to its imminent release as a standalone game, has always been a labor of love. In the early days, it was energizing. Through his home city of Melbourne’s extensive COVID lockdowns, it’s been something to focus on. And now, it’s almost ready for the rest of the world to see in its final form.
The Forgotten City launches on PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Xbox One and Series X | S on July 28. A Nintendo Switch version will release at an unspecified date a little later in the year.