The Forgotten City’s Nine-Year Journey from Skyrim Mod to Standalone Game

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Nick Pearce has spent the last four-and-a-half years working 80-hour weeks on The Forgotten City, so it’s not the strangest thing to hear that, at one point, he began hallucinating about being in a Mario game.

“When you start an indie game studio you’re constantly running out of runway,” Pearce said when asked if there was a moment during the game’s development that he felt like throwing in the towel.

“It feels like one of those subterranean levels in Super Mario Bros. where you’re running along a row of bricks, and they’re disintegrating under your feet, so you just keep running forward and jumping into the unknown, all the while knowing that you have exactly zero lives left, because if you fall, it’s over.”

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Pearce hasn’t fallen yet, though. And neither have his collaborators in the tiny three-person studio known as Modern Storyteller. Their first game, The Forgotten City is a time loop mystery set in ancient Rome based on Pearce’s incredibly successful Skyrim mod of the same name, and it’s all but finished for a launch later this month on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC. Reaching this point has been quite the journey, one that began around a decade ago when Pearce first started working on the mod in his spare time. He estimates he devoted about ten hours a week, every week for three years, to the mod. Transitioning to full-time development has enabled Pearce and the Modern Storyteller team to rebuild The Forgotten City from the ground up, using the Unreal Engine and overhauling every aspect of the original creation. As the project wraps, Pearce is quick to acknowledge it’s remarkable he hasn’t taken a tumble and lost that last life given the level of crunch he’s willingly put himself through.

“I’ve spent the last four-and-a-half years working 80 hour weeks with no real holiday, which I guess is about nine years worth of work,” he said, notably without giving the impression that he is boasting about it.

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“To be clear, that’s something I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do, because it’s not healthy or sustainable. And I certainly would never allow my staff to work hours like that. Honestly, I was surprised to discover it’s even physically possible, but it is.”

Crunch is an omnipresent labour issue in the games industry, [link to related stories here] and the developers that produce good games while crunching do so despite the time spent crunching, not because of it. In Pearce’s case, he’s not trying to celebrate all those late nights working but rather they seem borne of his attempt to make up for lost time.

Ten years ago, Nick Pearce worked a full-time job in Melbourne, Australia as a Regulatory Strategy Advisor at what he describes as a big tech company. He played games on and off all his life, and as a kid had even taught himself enough programming to make his own “virtually unplayable” games on a venerable IBM 8086 PC. By 2011, he found himself working as a lawyer lobbying the government for regulatory reform. It was boring.

Then he played Fallout New Vegas.

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“In 2011, I played a mod called New Vegas Bounties from a modder called someguy2000 and it was a revelation to me that a mod could be as good as an official DLC, or maybe even better – and a vehicle for world-class storytelling,” Pearce recalled.

“I decided to have a go at my own mod when the next big moddable game came along.”

The next big moddable game to come along was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. When Bethesda released the SDK for Skyrim in 2012, Pearce taught himself to mod, studying tutorials online to at first build a Dwarven hallway, which evolved into a large underground city. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had laid the first stone foundation of what would eventually become The Forgotten City.

“I remember looking at it and thinking it was just another big empty ruined place,” Pearce said. “That thought prompted the idea to allow the player to travel back in time to interact with the people who used to live there. The rest of it just sort of evolved from there.”

I Fought the Law

Over the next three years, The Forgotten City grew from a dull Dwarven hallway into a sprawling underground city that would play host to a time-travelling murder mystery told via a non-linear 35,000-word screenplay, full voice acting, and an original orchestral score. The mod has been downloaded over three million times and won Pearce a National Writers Guild Award in Australia in 2016.

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

“In 2016, Kotaku published an article saying The Forgotten City’s story was ‘ambitious enough to be its own game,’ and then some of the guys from League of Geeks (Melbourne-based developers of Armello) encouraged me to re-imagine the mod as a standalone game as well.

“So, I sent out a survey to 200 fans of the mod asking about their views, and 93% of them were excited about the idea of a standalone game. It made sense.”

Buoyed by the response, Pearce recruited a small team to turn his mod into its own game. He hired a programmer, Alex Goss, and an artist, John Eyre, while also collaborating with a selection of specialists — a composer, a community manager, a couple of animators from Bioware and Obsidian, voice actors, trailer makers, a couple of historical consultants — and securing a publishing deal. He also finally quit his boring day job.

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“I think it’s fair to say my job left me with some unused creative energy,” Pearce said, though he politely refuted my suggestion that he had been a frustrated writer the whole time.

“That sounds a bit sad! I’d say I was a legal professional who always enjoyed telling stories, and who was lucky enough to find an even better outlet for them.”

Pearce says the decision to re-develop The Forgotten City as its own game gave his team the opportunity to level up everything that could be levelled up. Moving from the Skyrim SDK to the Unreal Engine and hiring a full-time artist has resulted in a significant visual upgrade, while hiring a professional composer and voice actors provided a similar boost to the overall audio quality. But Pearce’s story also went through a major revision in the mod-to-game evolution.

The premise remains intact: You discover an ancient underground city where a couple of dozen people have died after one of them broke a mysterious law. You’ll travel back in time and try to change their fate, but in doing so you get caught in a time loop which you’ll need to cleverly exploit to find out what really happened. 

“I’ve held onto story beats the community told me they liked, and beloved characters, but broadly the characters have been re-imagined either wholly or in part. There are more endings than before, and they’re all new. The villains and their motivations are also different,” Pearce explained.

It’s also now set in a somewhat historically authentic Ancient Rome rather than a generic old city that may or may not have been built by dwarves.

“In The Forgotten City, if one person commits a crime, everyone dies,” Pearce explained. “That’s a form of collective punishment which was well known to the Romans; they had military customs like decimation, and myths like Baucis and Philemon, in which an entire town was wiped out by the Gods for failing a bizarre morality test.”

Harnessing his legal background, Pearce believes the new rewritten story has more to say about the role of law in shaping society, and the irrepressible nature of human beings.

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“People are incorrigible rule-breakers,” he said. “While this is true of some more than others, even reasonable people struggle to follow rules laid down by others, and even by themselves sometimes. We can’t help ourselves.”

A video game feels like a particularly useful space to explore the relationship people have with rules and the law. Games are heavily authored in the sense that the game designer is imposing rules on the player, and there’s always tension inherent in how those rules in turn allow for player agency. 

In The Forgotten City, players are trapped in an eternal cycle if they thoughtlessly follow the rules of the world. Pearce wants players to think for themselves and carefully evaluate the situation without being led by the hand.

“I hope players’ experience in the game will remind them of something that’s often forgotten by people doing their best to work within the rules, due to complacency, unearned respect for authority, or obliviousness to their own power or agency: Maybe the rules aren’t right, and if that’s the case, maybe you don’t have to accept them,” he said.

The Forgotten City releases on Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4 and PS5 on July 28, with a Switch version to follow later in the year.

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David Wildgoose is a freelance writer for IGN.

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