Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Forgotten City (2021) revisited

I've written previously about murder in Skyrim, epic Skyrim fan game Enderal, and a very bushy Skyrim mod called The Forgotten City. Since then, the mod makers have remade it into a UE4 standalone time loop first person RPG called... The Forgotten City (2021)

From a game dev perspective, it's been fascinating to play. They had to rebuild Skyrim systems in Unreal... but what to cut and what to recreate? In this post, I compare and contrast the original and this modern remake from a dev / design perspective.

DISCLAIMER: I played the original mod and remembered much of it, so a total newcomer's experience would probably be different. Or maybe it wouldn't? Who knows.

SPOILER WARNING: this post spoils much of what happens in The Forgotten City (2021).

PREMISE: There's a cursed ancient city where if a single person commits a crime, then everyone dies as a golden statue. Each time this happens, you must time-loop back and reset the city. Eventually you solve various quests / mysteries to free the city from its curse.

  • progress unlocks new dialogue options + shortcuts for future loops
  • not a true information game, you can't theoretically reach the best ending instantly on a first run; you still have to complete all the quests and unlock the gates
  • time loop implementation: relaxed / bespoke, you retain all items and progression, basically only NPC state gets reset
    • This results in one funny dynamic: stealing money triggers the failure state (stealing is a crime) so it seems like the game is discouraging theft right? But then you find out you get to keep the money in the next loop anyway. The punishment is fake; it's what makes stealing fun, like you're getting away with something.
    • The game plays with this a little: there's a treasure door that opens only during the fail state. (A hostile NPC statue wakes up, which means you can lure it away from the door.)

SHINY ART STYLE: The most obvious difference vs its Skyrim mod roots is the art style -- it went from 2011 pre-PBR Skyrim to 2020 UE4 Quixel 4k photoscans with subsurface scatter'd Character Creator NPCs. "It looks better than Skyrim" is a key selling point here, but everything is over-reflective and screaming. The individual assets seem nice, but together they sort of clash -- a random junk prop will have the 4k photogrammetry HDR treatment, overwhelming the nearby gameplay pickup that you're actually supposed to notice. So I'm not sure if it actually looks better (or reads better) than Skyrim in the end. Less would've been more here.

HISTORICAL SETTING: The underground city is not some random repurposed Skyrim precursor ruins anymore -- now it's a distinctly ancient Greco-Roman pseudo-Pompeii, grounded with many historical details and touches. This Kingdom Come Deliverance / Assassins Creed Origins approach to history ("look at all this detail") works well for the first hour as you marvel at all the random jars of fish oil and household shrines, but eventually, you have to wonder, what's the point of this detail? I suppose it elevates the game into something smarter, but it's also a very superficial treatment of history as a pile of random trivia. This is a shame, because there are times when the design engages with the history more substantially...

MODERN STORYTELLERS: ... like when you first meet a Vestal priestess NPC, she's confused why you're speaking to her directly instead of brokering a formal introduction through a rich patron like in ancient Roman times. And as the Vestal, she administers the local election, and in this ancient Roman city only the male NPC citizens are allowed to vote. So then you have to go talk to the male NPCs and solve their side quests to persuade them to vote for your candidate. Gender, class, and nationality clearly shape your choices.
  • another story critique: every NPC explains the structure of ancient Roman society too readily, when in reality, fish in water cannot describe wetness... but a more subtle approach would've failed against gamers, who have been trained in anti-subtext reading-for-gameplay strategies, so I forgive the writers for leaving nothing unsaid -- which extends to the philosopher NPC who exists just to quote Plato's Republic back at you
COMBAT CONCESSIONS: The game's biggest weakness is its slimmed down take on Skyrim combat. You have a bow and you must sneak past / or shoot dozens of zombies in dark tunnels. It's too simplistic for the hour it lasts. The Palace level, in particular, just drags on and on with the same modular tileset and room layouts. In a past era of game design, we complained when combat games had obligatory stealth sections -- now we have story games with obligatory combat sections.
  • Before you begin the zombie-filled Palace quest, the game UI helpfully advises, "if you're not a fan of action or horror gameplay, feel free to decline this quest." Interesting approachability / accessibility UX here.
you'll be doing a lot of this: standing on a ledge and taking pot shots at zombies

ON THE LEVEL: Room-to-room, wall-to-wall, the world is OK. The main level design issues are on a zoomed-out macro level, where the general pacing and organization felt suboptimal to me.
  • The underground city doesn't feel quite subterranean since there's so much sunlight. At the same time, the random rock forms above the skybox don't make it feel outdoor enough either. This is the type of video game liminality I usually shrug off (who doesn't love a good combination sewer-warehouse-shrine-Pizza Hut) but it clashes with the game's insistent historical aesthetic. It somehow feels very researched yet implausible, too sparse yet also constrained and cramped.
    • The strong sunlight serves 3 functions: (a) look like a pretty RPG place, (b) show off skin pores and subsurface scattering on characters, (c) contrast with dark dusty abandoned modern-day version of the map. 
    • These 3 features are clearly more important than the cave theming, so here I think the better move would've been to cut the cave stuff and set it in a generic lost valley or something. I mean, they certainly deserve credit for trying to make the sunlit cave paradox work, and maybe for most players it works. But personally I think it's not worth obstructing the horizon like this.
    • Later in the game, when you descend underneath the city, it actually does feel much darker and more subterranean. But it would've been too dreary to make the entire game this dim and dark.
old screenshot of The Forgotten City in 2018; note how much darker it all feels vs. 2021 sunlight pivot
  • When you first spawn into the time loop and begin the game properly, the nearest side area is a tavern cavern dorm zone. There I was, 5 minutes in, already digging into these random NPCs' bedrooms and uncovering clues about these people I knew nothing about. In level design there's an adage to "show the lock before the key" -- here I'd add "show the NPC before their bedroom."
    • The bartender also functions as a "rumors" hint system. This is yet another thing you'd want to pace for later in the playthrough, and not the second NPC you meet after you spawn.
    • This whole commoners zone would've worked much better if it were placed far away from the spawn, to discourage premature exploration. Instead the game is like "don't visit that tavern cavern first, wink wink"
    • The game does initially attempt to steer you away from the tavern with a confidant NPC who offers to give you a guided tour, and you have to reject his offer like 3 times before the game just lets you go freely. But my hunch is that 50% of players reject the guided tour.
  • There's no real public square, so this ancient Greco-Roman city doesn't feel particularly Mediterranean nor city-like. There's some sense of districts, like a market square of 4 shops, a cluster of 3 rich people villas, and a shamefully underutilized amphitheater space. Comparatively, the original Skyrim mod felt like more of a city with more buildings, more organization, more density.
    • Worldbuilding wise, it doesn't quite make sense. This community doesn't care about art or theater. Why would they build (and maintain) a big theater space that they never use? What use are shops (or money) when you're trapped in a city with 20 people? The game tries to lampshade this in the NPC dialogue, but the level design is louder.
    • A lot of the city feels empty and unused. Felt like they had to cut down 50% of their planned content, which is never easy.
this big interesting amphitheater space only get used for 1 minute in 1 quest; a pity

THE ENDING: is still the same as the mod, it's not great. After completing several quest arcs that culminate with several macguffins, you finally meet the god figure pulling all the strings. The final boss fight is a conversation, and the ultimate weapon is... philosophy and logic!! Take that, god! Unfortunately it didn't really work in the mod and it doesn't really work now either. Planescape Torment's final boss fight conversation works because the god stuff is a metaphor for the protagonist's personal arc -- the final boss isn't god! it's going to therapy! Final Fantasys end with god-killing because that's what changing your life requires! The Forgotten City features a near-total blank slate cypher protagonist with zero personal stakes, and not even the vague Skyrim arc of becoming a foretold messiah. Here, the god stuff symbolizes only god stuff. 
  • This 2021 version even adds a flat epilogue sequence where all the good people live good lives and all the mean people live bad lives, and then the game literally applauds you. This game seems to be about the complex uncertainty of the world / history, and now suddenly that uncertainty is supposed to be completely resolved thanks to you the hero. Weird.
CONTEXT-FREE: You can probably trace a lot of these problems to one underlying problem that was impossible to solve -- this is a standalone game that doesn't take place within the larger context of Skyrim as a huge gestalt RPG experience. So much of the original mod's charm relied on how it was a commentary on Skyrim's sense of crime and community. Crime in Skyrim has relatively few consequences, and this was a mod that suddenly raised the stakes in the middle of your Skyrim playthrough.

Still, overall this was a very impressive achievement for just 3 indie developers. Even AAA has given up on immersive sim RPGs, so any dev deserves praise just for attempting this genre I think. In this case, my praise is a hopefully thoughtful critique that comes from a position of respect and wanting more from it. It's worth playing and thinking about, and I definitely look forward to their next game.