The Forgotten City was chiselled from the lodestone of a Skyrim mod. Much like the ancient civilisations the game makes reference to, or in this case a much-loved mod, each passing era is a roughly hewn bedrock for the future. In its original form — a Dwemer ruin — the themes that are explored become examples of reality in the finished article; the way time melds these histories into a flexible chronology is amusing and interesting.
Where long gone civilisations (forgotten cities) overlap, there is a mildew of customs left behind. These fragments of the past we hang onto as though they were charms around our necks; they become part of our tapestry, subliminally.
Those customs have found their way to the future through the monuments; the artefacts; the carvings carved by our progenitors; and the structures that surround us. Alongside these are the unspeakables, those ways of doing that have travelled through generations in the form of actions.
In The Forgotten City, the player experiences both the material and philosophical aspects of the story’s central motifs. The governing of people in a society and the evolution of identity and mythology through another culture’s expression.
Journey to The Forgotten City
Initially, the player finds themselves washed up on the banks of the River Tiber. They are greeted by the woman who saved them, whose name happens to be Karen. She asks the player to search for her friend, who she believes has disappeared whilst investigating the ruins of a nearby city.
Here, the player is launched back in time to the Roman Empire, where the ruins can be seen for what they once were. The initial narrative in The Forgotten City is supplemental to the central themes of the game: It’s used as a means to propel the player into the correct scenario where the core ideas can be explored. Though it does, at times, seem tacked onto the setting, it’s interesting enough to warrant the role of the conveyancer.
This random occurrence — how the player arrives on the shores of the Tiber — is as close to a deus ex machina as it could be. The game doesn’t really require the use of time travel to tell its story but the time loop mechanic gives the player the agency they wouldn’t have in a linear experience.
The Trick of Time
Time travel and the exploitation of said phenomena has long been central to theories of the future. Traditionally, time travel was used by storytellers to shift their narrative into the past or the future for a multitude of effects. They are settings where we currently cannot go, and may never be able to go, that gives free rein to a fabulist’s imagination.
In recent times it appears there has been a revival in the function of time in video games. Outer Wilds repopularised the mechanics and paved the way for games such as: Twelve Minutes; Returnal; and Deathloop.
Seemingly original in a list of Triple-A titles, Outer Wilds propagates an evolution of mechanics that have their origins in existing games: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; Braid; and BioShock Infinite.
These new renditions of old ideas are subtle reinterpretations of how games used to be. Think back to the 16-bit 2D repetitive side-scrolling-space-shooters and Metroidvanias: Their gameplay relied on repetition. Whether that be repeating the initial levels due to death in a later level, or rewalking paths already trodden in order to access new areas.
In The Forgotten City the player not only travels back in time, the time loop is at their disposal. The player can initiate another reset or occasionally be reset by random occurrences, depending on how they interacted with people in the city.
The time loop mechanic can be used as a method by which to suspend the disbelief of the player, and make otherwise unbelievable stories more permissible, and thus immersive. Or even, make more interesting a hackneyed story that requires a little seasoning. It can also be utilised as a predominant aspect of gameplay: it’s fun to see a world change based on decisions made by the character, or to glean new information from a playthrough that can then be exploited on a subsequent run.
Mythology, Repetition and Origins
The mythology of civilisations has been copied incessantly throughout time; for every fresh example of a civil society, there is proof of paraphrasing of the highest order. The pantheon of gods that frequently appear in ancient civilisations are examples of the unity of mythology.
Repetition is a fundamental commonplace of life. Seasonal cycles are repeated year after year, so too are the routines of our lives. Repetition in The Forgotten City is multifaceted: whether it be the looping, the interactions with the population, the mythological base the story is situated in, or the philosophy the narrative pushes.
Story, myth and folklore have been adapted and readapted to fit the needs of the cultures that claim them. The Forgotten City builds upon the past by showcasing the layers of mythology present in the game: From the Sumerians to the current (in-game) Roman inhabitants of the city. These consecutive cultures are a rehashing of old ways; an updated variant on something that has already been before.
Once made aware of ‘The Golden Rule’ and the underground labyrinths of the city have been explored, it becomes apparent that both mythology and ethics are inextricably linked through time. As civilisations grow, they adopt what they see as the most virtuous of stories and behaviours.
The repeated loops then are a correcting tool for the character. They allow the player to explore the rights and wrongs of a micro-society, as well as to decipher, who in the city is morally just or guilty and inept. As the player navigates the ethics of The Golden Rule, they must learn from previous loops to find answers; the player, therefore, is forever learning from their own past, even if the loop is reset and is therefore still the present.
The Golden Rule: Ethics and Philosophy
The player quickly learns that The Golden Rule is enforced Draconically, albeit in a rather slipshod, arbitrary fashion. Gods preside over the denizens of the city and implement their rule to prevent crime and any wrongdoing; it is a law to keep the people under control.
The Golden Rule in The Forgotten City echoes a maxim that can be found in all ethical traditions, dating back to ancient Egypt. It is still used today: ‘Treat others as you wish to be treated.’
The Golden Rule as commanded by the gods in The Forgotten City is, ‘the many shall suffer for the sins of the one.’ If anyone is to commit a crime it’s logical to assume that if they don’t want to be turned into a gold statue, they should perhaps reconsider what they’re about to do. Or at least, that’s what the lawgivers presumed.
Right vs Wrong
Decimation in ancient Rome was the practice of punishing mutinying or rogue units. Every tenth soldier was executed by members of their cohort; these were often friends of the unfortunate. The aim was to instil discipline in a large body of troops. The act of decimation has congruent implications with the traditional expression of The Golden Rule: if a unit of soldiers behaved, no one would suffer. If no one commits a sin that they wouldn’t want their fellow soldiers to commit, the random death of an individual is prevented.
What exactly constitutes right and wrong though? For each civilisation that has flowered and died, humans have adapted their way of living according to how their ancestors conducted themselves. The Golden Rule then is an example of the continuity of human ethics, almost an axiom of what it means to be an intelligent, upright mammal. It implies self-awareness; the ability to consider oneself in relation to others. It is a base instinct for self-preservation and behavioural regulation.
The Golden Rule: Part Two
Mysteriously, upon entering the ruins and being transported back in time, it’s apparent that The Golden Rule has previously been broken: Gold statues of former citizens adorn the city streets and line the alcoves of the plush Roman architecture. Even this Roman city has a history, and it becomes clear when talking to the inhabitants that its past goes back further than the veneer constructed by the Roman inhabitants.
Essentially, The Golden Rule encourages players to question the definition of right and wrong. The game explores the existential relationship between humanity and its laws. There are two basic theories summarising all law: Natural Law (the elementary rights and wrongs that are considered intrinsic to being human) and Positive Law (those rules that governments and society seek to implement). The player is asked to consider the implications of the blending of the two.
Initially, it’s unclear what triggers the The Golden Rule to be broken but the player learns by doing and by interacting with the game world. The residents of the city continually contradict themselves and it seems no one really knows, other than the obvious crimes of theft and murder, etc., what it is that will bring about the retribution of the gods.
The interpersonal relationships of the NPCs temporarily divert the player’s attention as they uncover the truths of the city. A lone whispering voice speaks through the gold statues as the player explores, further complicating the path to an answer. The characterisation of the NPCs is well done. Each of them represents a facet of ethics highlighted by the story and prompt additional pondering. I felt I was doing more than just playing a game.
A Different Perspective, Same Outcome
The Forgotten City is a miniature open world, one the player can explore at their leisure. It offers an interactive sandbox that can be reset and revisited with each loop. As the player interacts with people, quests are unlocked that relate to their motivations. Each NPC has their own tale to tell; they have desires that are made apparent and agendas they try to obscure from the player.
Their lives are interrelated, however facile those connections may be. This gives the world a believability and a truly lived-in feel. Considering the size of the city, the developers have done an admirable job of making what is a small location seem thoroughly populated by characters whose lives are a part of one another’s.
Regardless of the freedom of movement the player is afforded and the mock non-linearity the game pretends to have, there are obvious signs of the opposite. Apart from a brief foray into action, the predominant elements of the game revolve around the player talking to all the NPCs. This interaction results in you gathering knowledge and gaining an understanding of the city. The player even receives a list of the citizens they’ve spoken to. The list contains the names of the individuals along with a short description of their prominent characteristics.
The Forgotten City requires patience and attention to the dialogue. If you’re a player who skips story or plays for mechanics alone, there won’t be enough for you here. Though the exploration is fun while it lasts, there’s a lot of reading and running between NPCs and events as they occur. The main source of enjoyment comes from thinking and piecing together what has happened in the city; what is going to happen; and how the various scenarios the player partakes in are related.
How Does it End Again?
The Forgotten City has four endings, one of which is considered canon, or correct. The irony here is that by declaring one ending as ‘official,’ the developers are inadvertently implying there is a right, or correct ending, thus setting their own rules. Maybe it’s not the right ending for some.
During my first attempt at finding a solution, I was impressed by the quality of the pacing. By deducing from a series of well-planted clues, I played a game of mind palace guesswork to come to a conclusion that actually worked (for a change). It’s so difficult to insert those aha moments into stories, let alone video games; moments where the plot twists so dramatically, and not just for the sake of it, that it results in an outcome that grants satisfaction.
Upon ‘completing’ The Forgotten City, the player is presented with a screen that details what ending of the four they resolved. I’m sure this is the effect the developer wanted: it prompted me to ‘fetch’ the rest of them. Though I continued to enjoy the experience, I was playing the game for the sake of seeing all four endings. I was set on figuring them out by myself.
The Beginning of the Ends
The unique moment I experienced on my first run overshadowed the consecutive endings. In order to access ending one, the player must solve the mystery themselves. I suppose it could be accidentally achieved, though even then it would still be an interesting reveal. The rest of the endings however are merely earned by talking to all the NPCs. You must also grind to uncover and complete all of their quest lines.
Granted, the final ending is brilliant for its story alone. It combines everything learned in the city and gives the players the answers to the questions they’ve no doubt been asking themselves throughout. The use of multiple endings however is a sign of uncertainty. Despite the intrigue and enjoyment generated by the story; the time loop mechanic; the beauty of the world; and the copious amounts of energy invested in creating the game, The Forgotten City is frequently overwhelming, verging on abstract.
If the final ending is classed as canon, the developers should have used that as the sole ending. They could have pared down their game by removing the bloat. There’s more than one story in this game, and I suppose that’s true of life. By attempting to hit each story and theme, the focus of the game is marred until all that’s left is a series of ideas: Excellent thought-provoking ideas.
Somewhere, an Alarm Rings
The past was lived in by people who behaved as we do today. They discovered original technologies that made their lives easier. They utilised science and mathematics to harvest the raw materials of the Earth. This is all in order to build structures that benefitted burgeoning societies. Ultimately, they used their imagination for the purpose of rhetoric and the creative arts.
These people were inspired by their ancestors and their offspring were moved enough to continue their legacy of knowledge. There is a perpetual pattern of inspiration via civilisation. As new cities emerged and the loci of old power bases waned, the boundaries between warring countries ebbed like rugby players in a scrum. However, the transfer of information moved with them and adapted as if it were without judgement.
Our lives really are built on multiple foundations of learning and know-how. The state of the world we inhabit will also become another layer; it will be additional information to comprehend for future generations. Their future, though incomparable to our present, will have hallmarks of what we held dear. Even if currently, we don’t know what that is... All will be revealed to our closed eyes one day.
The Forgotten City explores the complexity of identity and how our cultures have become what they are today. It seeks to remind us of the ethics underpinning our societies and our responsibility to the legitimate practices of moral governments; it’s a veiled nudge for us to keep our wits about us in case there’s wrongdoing in our midst. After all, we wouldn’t want to misinterpret wrong for right.