Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

Is it ever justifiable to punish an entire community for the sins of a single member? This question is the core of The Forgotten City, a puzzle game that offers a thoughtful exploration of ethics and of the past year’s most compelling narrative design. You wake up on the banks of the present-day river Tiber with no idea how you got there. A mysterious woman offers to transport you back to civilization if you can find her friend, who went to explore some nearby ruins and never returned. Soon you are tumbling into a hole in a city built over a large, bright cave system.

Between the elegant aqueducts, the market stalls and the large temple located on a high bluff, residents are in gowns and centurion robes – you have not only fallen through space, but also backwards in time. A magistrate explains that everyone in this hermetic community is subject to a law known as the “Golden Rule”: if a single person sins, then every inhabitant, Midas-like, will be turned into gold. Now the gleaming golden statues littering the town can be understood as past victims of this curse, frozen in attitudes of fear, anger and pleading.

The magistrate knows that someone is going to sin today, and it’s your job to find out who’s too late. The 20 or so locals each have a compelling mystery to solve: why is the soldier struggling with his sexuality? Can the aristocrat with a shady past beat the magistrate in the upcoming election? What caused the midwife to lock herself away and do gruesome experiments on the golden statues?

As you begin to solve these questions, which you can approach in any order you wish, it becomes clear that each one is woven into a larger narrative tapestry, which ultimately reveals why you are here, who created the Golden Rule, and or there is any chance of escaping from this mysterious purgatory.

Someone will inevitably sin, causing the curse of the Golden Rule and taking you back to the beginning of that same day. As the locals plod through their routines again, you return armed with new knowledge and items and learn to utilize them time loop to make progress in your investigation.

The Forgotten City started life in 2015 as a mod for Skyrim which was downloaded 3 million times and became the first mud to win a Writer’s Guild Award. Over the next five years, a team of three people transformed the concept into an independent game. The limits of their resources mean that the game has some rough edges – the writing and storytelling are excellent, but face animations are wooden and the few battle sections feel clumsy. Yet it benefits from the purposeful passion that defines the best mods: it is the work of creators who have had the freedom to explore their idea, rather than water it down to appease corporate interests.

The team consulted with academics to ensure that the historical accuracy of their depiction of ancient Rome, and throughout the city you will find objects that provide interesting contextual information. Characters refer to the myths of Baucis and Philemon, King Midas and Sisyphus, whose endless quest to roll a rock up a hill echoes the player’s ever-recurring day and, as Camus suggested, the human condition itself. One of the game’s most interesting ideas is its exploration of how successive civilizations lay their culture and architecture directly on top of those of their predecessors, creating a palimpsest of human progress that is too often not observed.

The Curse of the Golden Rule hangs over ‘The Forgotten City’

The arrogance of the Golden Rule was inspired by the real Roman practice of “decimation”, a form of military discipline in which every 10th soldier was executed in a unit to punish large-scale crimes. Train in The Forgotten City, details surrounding the rule are deliberately unclear. What is defined as sin? Can an act be considered sinful in one context but not in another? The game’s dialog trees becomes a struggle of mind, culminating in sophisticated Socratic debates exploring the nature of absolute morality.

Although The Forgotten City is not afraid of its weighty themes, it stays light on its feet thanks to charming characters and healthy doses of humor. There are jokes about the pandemic and the slander of the name “Karen”, as well as anachronistic jokes like the Roman who rang my character’s modern torch and mumbled: “You carry the gift of Prometheus in your hand, remarkable!”

Each of his intellectual debates is anchored in human stories with real life-and-death consequences. This is the rare game that stays with you long after it has ended, not because of tense battles or beautiful footage, but because of a searching moral core that refuses to be completed.

Available on Windows, PS4 / 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S and Nintendo Switch (in some areas)

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