Felicem Diem Marmota monaxi!
Salve, friend! Welcome to our beautiful city. You look a little lost… in more ways than one… so I’ll explain everything. It’s hard to accurately measure the passage of time in our isolated swathe of paradise, but we’re pretty sure it’s early March… 817 years after the founding of Rome. What? That means it’s actually 65 CE, and you’re actually from 2,000 years in the future? Did you hit your head, or are you suffering from amnesia? That’s okay, our city welcomes all kinds here. All we demand is that you follow our single law: The Golden Rule. Don’t commit any crimes, and we’ll all live to see another day under the sun. And, no, I’m not exaggerating — if you commit any crimes, we will all suffer eternal consequences. This is your only warning.
So begins The Forgotten City, a time-travelling mystery adventure game with a development story as scintillating as the title’s premise. Originally an award-winning Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim mod (the first ever mod to receive a screenwriting award) created by one person that received 3 million downloads in its lifetime, The Forgotten City was further developed as a standalone title by a core team of three people over the course of four years. Now, The Forgotten City stands proudly with its own identity, a gorgeous historical fiction that merely hints at its more fantastical roots if you know where to look.
The Forgotten City opens up on players mysteriously washing up on the shores of some ancient Roman ruins in the present day. A stranger informs them that, coincidentally, another person also mysteriously washed up on these shores not much earlier than you and pleads with players to rescue them, getting a gut feeling that something was terribly wrong. Not one to shy away from adventure, players must sally forth into the ruins, armed only with a flashlight and whatever perk you’ve chosen beforehand (I picked archaeologist’s insight). It’s here we learn of horrible fates, possibly alive golden statues, and the secret of time travel.
You see, these ruins house a portal to the past — 2,000 years into the past, to be precise. Once players step through the portal, their surroundings transform from the crumbled remains of an uncanny valley-ish civilization to a breathtakingly beautiful villa, constructed of the finest marble and bathed in natural light. You arrival confuses the 20 odd villagers, but not the city’s Magistrate, who not only knows you’re from the future, but has called you here specifically to solve the city’s biggest mystery: who among them has broken the Golden Rule and fated the inhabitants to a gilded death? With the power of time on your side, you must relive the same day over and over again to hopefully solve this mass murder mystery, lest you fail and become part of the decor yourself.
For those familiar with the highly popular Skyrim mod of the same name, you’ll quickly notice it follows its familiar path in more ways than one. Controls feel like Skyrim, interacting with NPCs feels like Oblivion (zoomed in but infinitely more human-looking) — even one of the most common playstyles in Skyrim, stealth archer, can be employed here. Of course, violence isn’t entirely necessary in The Forgotten City; in fact, conversation and curiosity is rewarded over combat, with quests issued based off initiating dialogue with others or by accidentally overhearing some tantalizing tête-à-tête. These quests not only serve to tell the story of this paradisiacal prison, but offer fascinating educational tidbits as well.
As someone who not only enjoys educational games but prefers immersing myself in a game’s culture instead of trying to dominate and destroy, I found The Forgotten City to be an incredible experience. I could spend hours wandering around the city, reading ancient graffiti and interacting with random objects to learn their functions. One area has a bottle of garum, which is an ancient fish sauce used as a condiment; another has a tub of urine, which the Romans apparently used to clean their clothing. Perhaps the most… lingering fact… was the shared xylospongium, or sponge on a stick, that I found in the Roman baths, which the city’s inhabitants collectively used to clean their derrières after using the toilet. In this case, sharing isn’t always caring.
When it came to the looping mechanic, I was reminded of the Zero Escape franchise, which asks players to relive the same day over and over again to make new choices and explore new dialogue options. In your first run, you might fail to prevent someone’s untimely death or not drum up enough support for a particular political candidate, but in the next loop, you may uncover new information that can change the outcomes completely. Like a modern Bill Murray to a Roman Groundhog Day, you’ll be reliving the same exact day until you discover who broke the Golden Rule; unlike the classic 90s movie, there are four different endings to experience. The choice is yours.
As I looped repeatedly, took on an endless amount of fascinating quests, and got to know the city’s inhabitants, I kept feeling floored by this dazzlingly beautiful experience. The NPCs’ eerie gazes stay fixated on you, their facial expressions belying their emotional state, when, suddenly, they might move their hands or wave their arms to get their point across, such as making a gesture completely in-line with the conversation. The town was filled with interesting people who owned comfortable homes, ran businesses, and worshipped at realistic-looking shrines. Coupled with how bright and airy the ancient city was with the heavy, invisible fog of an otherworldly presence whispering in my ear from time to time, I was inspired to spy on every last inhabitant. Privacy laws don’t exist in this town; O Frater Maior Natu, I am here.
Be sure to add The Forgotten City to your Steam wishlist today!