Review: The Forgotten City

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By Josh Nichols on August 6th, 2021

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The Forgotten City is the antithesis of modern video games and one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. The structure and flow feel like something out of the early aughts or late nineties, but with all the insight and lessons the industry’s learned in the years since. It’s absolutely surreal. I love it.

Video games may have started as more arcade-like in nature, with classics like Pong and Rampage, but storytelling and immersion started to creep in as soon as technology allowed. Shigeru Miyamoto famously worked out Donkey Kong’s story before envisioning the iconic gameplay, and that trend steadily increased as technology improved.

A Most Efficient System For A Few

By the late ’90s and early aughts, story and navigating through convincing backdrops was a more common combo in game design, especially on PC. Everyone loves a good story and home computers were becoming more common. Mysterious adventures, isolated magic realms, and everything in between were all happening on PC. Immersive adventures with less combat, more story, and entire digital worlds waiting to be dredged up by anyone intestered in leaving this increasingly worse real world.

This genre never completely left but it certainly slowed down over the years, especially as shooters, multiplayer, and online services grew in popularity. It’s a genre that could be booming right now with how much better, easier, and more accessible game development and technology have become over the years. I absolutely loved Titanic: Adventure Out of Time when it was first released. The trip to another time and world was clearly a video game but with enough effort applied toward suspension of disbelief, it was magical. Many other games from the time and genre were the same way, Myst included. The Forgotten City‘s earliest version was made with assets and tech from 2011’s Skyrim and Pearce was determined to tell this story.

It’s easy to see how The Forgotten City became the first mod in history to win a National Writers’ Guild Award. The video above isn’t the newest stand alone version. That’s modding work done within Skyrim. I always wanted to play this but was never able to mess around with mods much during Skyrim’s earlier years. I eventually forgot about Pearce’s mod by the time I had the ability to run mods and keep my lights on because of the onslaught of game releases every month that never seems to slow down. I was thrilled when the standalone game was announced. Not only was I reminded of something I really wanted to play but missed but it looked like a definitive version was coming too.

The Forgotten City carries the traditions and intentions of older adventure games but without most of the genre’s common issues, thanks to better technology and very careful planning and design. Modern Storyteller is the four-person development studio that transformed the Skyrim mod into a standalone experience. Everything is still closely tied to Nick Peare’s original Skyrim mod too; he’s the managing director and founder of Modern Storyteller. And he’s been part of The Forgotten City since the very beginning.

There’s a choice interview on IGN where Pearce goes over details of the game’s nine-year journey from a mod to the standalone game now available on Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the game itself or just game development in general. There’s one thing in particular from the interview really shows the possibilities that Pearce saw so early on. The original mod may not look like an expensive game made by a massive studio but it’s impressive. While the rest of us stare in awe of what was possible for an ambitious mod, Pearce was looking at it much differently.

“I loved making the mod, but I’ve always considered it a rough draft of what it could have been.”

Go read that interview. It’s really good. Here’s the link again. It’s time to talk about my new favorite game that I simply cannot stop thinking about.

The Forgotten City doesn’t really have any combat. At least, not in the traditional sense. There are instances of violence but there’s not combat like most games. Instead, The Forgotten City is a time-travel adventure focused on exploring what it means to be human. The game explores what it means to exist and weighs out the consequences of actions while asking what it means to be good or evil. Most of the game is build around “fetch quests” but in the absolute best way.

You’re mostly talking with people and finding out what they need, who they are, and how they connect to everyone else. Characters in the city will forget conversations and actions if you travel through the arrival portal again, which you’ll need to do on occasion. The Forgotten City explores some of the same questions The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask asked so many years ago on the N64 too. Questions like, does anything matter if it eventually doesn’t happen? Is it okay to lie or steal if the victim won’t remember anyway? And a million other questions that absolutely boil to the surface with unlimited time, which is exactly what you’re given in The Forgotten City.

A spiral of Moral Quandries

I really don’t want to discuss the specifics of this story. It’s brilliant. There’s some energy and vibes from Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. The game can go in dozens of different directions while you navigate morals, ethics, and how far you’re willing to go to save yourself and a city doomed to oblivion unless you choose to intervene. This is a must-play for anyone that enjoys storytelling, immersion, or deep explorations on Twilight Zone-style questions. Multiple endings and possibilities are wrapped between what must be a limitless amount of conversations and actions. This world feels real and so do its people if you’re willing to let go and fall through its portal.

Actions and words feel meaningful. Moral choices don’t feel light or like they’re influencing some video game meter buried in a game’s code. The Forgotten City is an important exploration of what it means to live and breathe among others in a cruel and confusing world. There are four endings that I’m aware of and I can’t even imagine how many things I’ve yet to experience in this game. I do know I’ll eventually see everything there is to see in The Forgotten City. This is one of those games I’ll never really stop playing because of how much there is to see. The Forgotten City isn’t a game you finish or complete. It’s a game you can experience repeatedly and differently if you choose to, while still managing to be meaningful and special the entire time. That’s a rare feat that simply cannot be ignored or missed.

The Forgotten City is genuinely one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I’ll continue to explore this strange and surreal realm for years to come. No matter how many secrets I discover, I don’t think I’ll ever understand or uncover how four people made this game. Go play this as soon as you can. It’s available now on PC (Steam, Epic Games, and GOG), Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS4, and PS5. It is currently scheduled to release on Nintendo Switch in Q3 2021.

9
Great
The Forgotten City combines an unforgettable story built on meaningful player actions in a game different than most modern games.

Josh really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but they also like other stuff.

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