The Forgotten City is a mystery adventure game set in an ancient Roman city that’s been ensnared by a curse. Its citizens are terrified of breaking the Golden Rule: if one person sins, everyone dies. Figuring out what’s going on involves interrogating strangers, solving puzzles and navigating a time loop.
Having originally received critical acclaim as a Skyrim mod in 2016, the game has been re-imagined with an ancient Roman setting. We spoke with creator Nick Pearce to learn more about how Roman art and archaeology inspires The Forgotten City.
History Hit: Why is The Forgotten City set in an ancient Roman city?
Nick Pearce: I’ve always fantasized about what it might be like to travel back in time and explore an ancient Roman city, and I suspect lots of other people have too. The story of The Forgotten City works even better in an ancient Roman setting than in its original setting for a few reasons.
It’s a story about a cursed city where if one person commits a crime, everyone dies – a rather extreme form of collective punishment. Collective punishment was known to the Romans. The Roman army practised decimation, where one in ten men in a cohort would be executed if members committed certain crimes.
An example from mythology is the story of Baucis and Philemon recounted by the Roman poet Ovid, in which a city was wiped off the map after its residents failed a secret morality test.
Setting the game in the 1st century AD also allowed us to draw from art, architecture, customs, history, philosophy and mythology – the work of hundreds of artists and thinkers and storytellers over hundreds of years.
This means the end result is far more fascinating and beautiful than any fiction I’d have been able to come up with on my own. There are other reasons for the ancient Roman setting too, but I can’t reveal those without spoiling some pretty epic plot twists. You’ll have to experience those for yourself!
What points of inspiration does the game draw from?
It’s difficult to liken The Forgotten City to anything else because it’s really quite unique. It’s an open-world non-linear mystery adventure where the player discovers an ancient underground city in a state of ruin, travels back in time, and meets its residents, knowing they are all about to die for mysterious reasons.
The player becomes trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. They must unravel the mystery of who or what destroyed the city by exploring, interrogating residents, and cleverly exploiting the time loop to solve puzzles.
If I had to liken it to anything, I’d agree with those people who have pointed out similarities to Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Inner Light, as well as Stephen King’s 11.22.63.
The combat elements are entirely optional because I’m convinced that a game doesn’t have to rely on violence to make a player’s heart race. You can do that and more with a gripping and well-told story, and that’s what I set out to do.
I also wanted to respect players’ intelligence by challenging them to unravel a complex mystery without holding their hand. I was just making the kind of game I always wanted to play.
Do you have any favourite bits of archaeology that were realized in the game?
We went to town filling our city with temples, niches, mosaics, bas reliefs, frescoes, columns, roads, a theatre, a bakery, a workshop, a tavern, villas, cisterns, baths, archways, graffiti, and so on. All of these are modelled as closely as possible on photographic references.
The part that consistently draws guffaws is our historically authentic ancient Roman public toilet. It has no partitions (for optional eye-contact with your neighbours), smutty graffiti, and a cleaning sponge-on-a-stick for communal use.
That, and the public pots which were there to collect urine as a source of ammonia for cleaning clothing. The Romans had wildly different ideas about bathroom etiquette than we do.
What are some elements in the game based on research that players might miss?
There are plenty of things that most players will definitely miss, but that’s OK. We put in details so that the one percent of our audience who love this stuff as much as we do will be delighted. Perhaps they’ll even piece together plot points before others!
We had fun researching some real Latin insults for our characters to hurl at the player and each other. Rather than translate them into English and risk a more restrictive classification rating, we deliberately left them in Latin. This way people who are interested can have fun translating them.
We also explore some really interesting aspects of ancient Roman culture. What did the Romans think about the Christians after they were allegedly blamed by Nero for starting the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD? How did Romans determine the difference between right and wrong? What happens when someone falls in love with a Vestal Virgin who is liable to be executed if she’s suspected of being unchaste?
How did you use consultants on the project?
Virtually all of the historical consulting work was done by Dr Philip Matyszak, who has published 17 books about the ancient world, and Dr Sophie Hay, who has 20 years experience excavating the ruins of Pompeii.
I consider myself a dabbler in ancient Roman history at best. While I’ve collected a small library of reference books and travelled around Italy, I know just enough to know how little I know, which is why I decided to bring in some big guns.
One of my favourite books on ancient Rome is called “Ancient Rome On Five Denarii A Day” which is a Lonely Planet-style to ancient Rome. This was helpful as I was trying to imagine my ancient Roman city and get the details right. It was written by Maty. When I reached out to him to ask if he was interested in helping, I was delighted to discover he’s an avid gamer.
For the next 20 months we exchanged well over 300 emails, shared video calls, and discussed obscure aspects of ancient Roman art, architecture, history, culture, language, costumes, cuisine, and so on. It was a wonderful, enlightening and frenetic experience. I hope the results of our efforts are evident in the game world players will be able to explore!
He also introduced me to Tom Holland, who introduced me to Dr. Hay, who was wonderfully helpful in reviewing our art and architecture and helping us make the game world more authentic. She helped us make sure the painted frescoes in our villas were appropriate, and our mosaics were in the right place, and our tavern was appropriately laid out, that kind of thing.
They were both really lovely and down to earth, and happy to share their knowledge. I’m very grateful to them both.
The Forgotten City releases on 28 July 2021.