Image courtesy of Modern Storyteller

How a team of three created a narrative masterpiece in The Forgotten City

Brian Crecente |
August 12, 2021

Nick Pearce is an award-winning writer and video game developer, and the founder of Modern Storyteller. Prior to developing games, Nick spent 10 years working as a lawyer, arbitrator, and strategy advisor in the corporate world.
The Forgotten City started life as a robust mod created by one person for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but the reaction—which included a national Writers’ Guild Award and more than three million downloads—led creator Nick Pearce to quit his job as a lawyer and dive completely into game development.

This standalone version doesn’t simply strip away the elements of Bethesda’s Skyrim—the original tied directly into the Dragonborn and an adventure in that game’s history—it also layers in minutely detailed research into ancient Rome and expands the plot, all while deftly exploring the morality and philosophies of its players.

We reached out to Pearce to find out how he made the decision to become a game developer, and how Unreal Engine helped him and his team of two others recreate the mod as a standalone game. Along the way, we also discuss the game’s examination of morality, his influences, and what advice he would give to others looking to break their mod away from its source material.
 

What inspired you to create the original Forgotten City mod for Skyrim and how long did it take you to get it to a state where you could share it?

Nick Pearce:
I've always loved telling stories, and I started out with more traditional writing, but about 10 years ago, I realized I cared more about video games than I did about novels. So I decided to make a big story-driven mod instead. I spent 1,700 hours working on the mod version of The Forgotten City, over a period of three years, and I had such a great time making it that I wouldn't have cared if anybody played it; I was just making the kind of game I wanted to play. But then it exploded; it drew media attention from IGN, PC Gamer, and Kotaku, racked up 3.7 million downloads and won a national Writers' Guild award. So I discovered a lot of other people wanted that kind of game too.

What drove your decision to turn the mod into a standalone game?

Pearce:
Back in 2016, Kotaku wrote an article saying the mod was "ambitious enough to be its own game." At the time I didn't think much of it, but I met with some devs from League of Geeks who encouraged me to consider it further. It prompted me to take a survey from fans of the mod, and 93% were excited about the idea of a stand-alone game, so I knew there was something there. I spent a while planning and then quit my job as a lawyer to leap into game dev. Given the extraordinary reception of the game so far, I'm happy to say it was the best decision I've ever made.

What made you decide to use Unreal Engine for the game?

Pearce:
One of the first decisions I had to make was which engine to use. I checked out all of the main options on the market and spent a day tinkering with each. Finally, I had a play with Unreal Engine, spent an afternoon making a gorgeous environment almost effortlessly, and thought, “This is the one.” I deleted the other engines and got to work.

How did your team grow and evolve as you transitioned from a modder to a game studio?

Pearce:
Once I'd made a decision to use Unreal, I knew I needed a UE4-specialist programmer, so I hired Alex Goss. He had just finished making a VR spacewalk sim in consultation with NASA, and who's been a key part of my team for four and a half years now. For a long time, we were reliant on savings and grants from Film Victoria, and a generous Unreal Dev Grant extended our runway long enough for us to find our publisher, Dear Villagers, who gave us enough funding and support to make the best possible version of the game. We've been extremely fortunate.

What did you draw inspiration from in creating The Forgotten City?

Pearce:
The Forgotten City draws inspiration from a bunch of sources: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate, HBO's TV series Rome, classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and various open-world RPGs. People who like any of those should enjoy the game.

The game leans heavily on an exploration of morality, what made you decide to tackle such a contentious and, at times, ambiguous topic?

Pearce:
I've always been fascinated with philosophy and theology, and I felt like games haven't really scratched the surface of those topics, so I decided to have a go. I was very happy to see The Escapist call it "a philosophical tour de force," and Tech Raptor writing "the entire game feels like a Socratic discussion with a philosopher." The game is ultimately entertainment, but I think internally grappling with complex issues can be unexpectedly entertaining, so I set out to inspire people to think and evaluate their own moral codes, and given the reaction so far, I think it's working. 
Image courtesy of Modern Storyteller
While there is combat in the game, it’s essentially unnecessary. Were you concerned that a game lacking this standard convention wouldn’t gain traction among players? 

Pearce:
I added combat to the game because I thought people who played the mod would expect it and might be disappointed if it wasn't there. But it also serves as a kind of intermission from the game. It has more talking and exploring and thinking than most people are used to, and while it's still gripping, having an intense action sequence in the middle helps to break things up a little.

Much attention seems to have been spent on historical accuracy and detail. How did you go about researching and implementing your findings into the story and the game itself?

Pearce:
I worked with a couple of extraordinary historical consultants. The first is Dr. Philiip Matyszak, who has a D.Phil from Oxford and teaches at Cambridge and has written 17 books on classical history. The second is Dr. Sophie Hay, who has 20 years experience excavating the ruins of Pompeii. Dr. Matyszak (who is also an avid gamer) and I exchanged over 300 emails over 20 months on topics ranging from Roman architecture, art, culture and customs, cuisine, clothing, and so on, which fed into our game world and script. And Dr. Hay used her extensive knowledge of Pompeii (which was frozen in a similar time period) to help us ensure that our art and architecture were as close as possible to real-world references. I hope history enthusiasts will enjoy exploring our city and finding lots of little historical and mythological tidbits; they might even be able to use their knowledge to unravel the game's central mystery a little faster than others.

You more than doubled the narrative length of The Forgotten City as it transitioned from mod to stand-alone title. What other changes come with this newer version of the game?

Pearce:
I wanted to make sure fans of the mod had good reason to return to The Forgotten City. So I completely rewrote the story, added new quests, twists, and endings. Of course, the setting is now an ancient Roman city in the first century, which meant the characters and their backstories had to change. I also added new gameplay mechanics (including a mythological golden bow that turns organic matter into solid gold), recorded all-new professional voice acting, and added a beautiful new orchestral score from Michael Allen. I think of it as the story I always wanted to tell.

What sort of issues did you run into as you worked to create an open world with branching narratives and how did you overcome them?

Pearce:
The Forgotten City is essentially an open-world murder mystery where players are investigating and exploring an ever-deepening mystery at their own pace, and in whatever order they like. So, while the dialogue trees and logic that underpins the game are breathtakingly complex, my goal was to make the inner-workings so polished that all the interwoven dialogue feels natural, intuitive, and consistent to players. I hope I've achieved that.
Image courtesy of Modern Storyteller
What was your experience like transitioning from modding in Skyrim to using Unreal Engine to create The Forgotten City? Were there any particular challenges and solutions that you can walk us through?

Pearce:
One of the many wonderful things about Unreal Engine is that its level streaming system is perfect for simulating time travel. Essentially, you can keep the player in the same place, but swap out one "layer" of the game for another quickly, and in our case, we were able to use this to give the impression of having traveled 2,000 years into the past, and back again. It's pretty neat.

What advice would you give to other modders who are considering turning their mod into a standalone title?

Pearce:
I have three main pieces of advice:
 
First, you'll need to make sure you can safely extricate your intellectual property from the game you were modding, and for that, you'll need legal advice.
 
Second, making a game will always cost more and take longer than you think, so you'll need to support yourself with seed funding and acquire grants long enough for you to secure a publishing deal.
 
Third, use Unreal Engine; the pricing structure is extremely reasonable, the tools are world-class, and it makes creating beautiful environments almost effortless.
Image courtesy of Modern Storyteller
The game launched at the same time for Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Did using Unreal Engine facilitate that process? 

Pearce:
Unreal Engine has fantastic tools for porting to all the major consoles, which made our job easier. 

What elements of Unreal Engine did you find most useful in bringing to life your vision for The Forgotten City?

Pearce:
One of the big challenges with making such a dialogue-heavy game is character dialogue animations. Historically, narrative-driven indie games have avoided having characters in them, probably because it's extremely difficult to do well. But The Forgotten City is a game about talking to people, and so we were committed to figuring it out from the outset. We were able to use Unreal's excellent animation systems to simulate a real person; the character you're talking to will stand or lean or sit, look at you, use appropriate facial expressions to convey their emotions, and move their mouth in sync with the lines. The Forgotten City's animations aren't AAA motion capture, but for a small core team of three people, it's a miracle our characters look as good as they do.

Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

Pearce:
One of my favorite gameplay elements is our mythological golden bow. Players can use it to turn organic matter into solid gold, and this opens up a range of fun gameplay opportunities: You can turn an oncoming enemy into a golden statue, then boot them into other oncoming enemies behind them, toppling them all over. This was only possible because of some awesome tools in Unreal, which allowed us to simulate a layer of gold creeping over the character until they're completely covered, and also dynamically switching their physics from a moveable skeletal mesh to a rigid statue. We were amazed to discover that just about anything we could imagine, we could do in Unreal.

What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Pearce:
We're definitely excited about the visual fidelity of UE5, and also the possibility of allowing multiple devs to edit levels at the same time, which will solve one of our biggest production bottlenecks!

Your studio’s name, Modern Storyteller, implies a focus on narrative-driven games. I know you are working to wrap up The Forgotten City for the Nintendo Switch, but does that mean your future titles will be just as focused on narratives?

Pearce:
Absolutely. I started this studio because I love telling stories, and I felt that video games have the potential to be the ultimate storytelling medium. Hearing Game Informer call The Forgotten City "a narrative masterpiece" is a dream come true for me.

How do you think video games differ as a vehicle for storytelling?

Pearce:
Video games can do anything novels, film, and television can, but they also have the additional element of interactivity, which means they can make you feel something other forms of media can't: Pride. I often get DMs on Twitter from people telling me how one of the endings of The Forgotten City made them cry with pride and joy, and when that happens, I know I'm doing my job right.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Modern Storyteller and The Forgotten City?

Pearce:
You can learn more about the game at https://forgottencitygame.com/ and more about us at https://modern-storyteller.com.

    Get Unreal Engine today!

    Get the world’s most open and advanced creation tool. 
    With every feature and full source code access included, Unreal Engine comes fully loaded out of the box.
    News
    August 19

    Unreal Engine 4.27 released!

    Creators across all industries have something to celebrate with this release: In‑camera VFX goes next-level with a slew of efficiency, quality, and ease-of-use improvements, while other highlights include path tracing for stunning final images, out-of-the-box access to Oodle and Bink, production-ready Pixel Streaming, and much more.
    News

    Unreal Engine 4.27 released!

    Creators across all industries have something to celebrate with this release: In‑camera VFX goes next-level with a slew of efficiency, quality, and ease-of-use improvements, while other highlights include path tracing for stunning final images, out-of-the-box access to Oodle and Bink, production-ready Pixel Streaming, and much more.
    Spotlight
    September 20

    Balenciaga blurs real with Unreal in Fortnite

    Fortnite players can now dress in stunning digital versions of Balenciaga silhouettes. Find out how the pioneering fashion house has created a mind-bending, world-blending transmedia experience, reusing those same Fortnite character models for real-world 3D billboards, traditional promo materials, and more.
    Spotlight

    Balenciaga blurs real with Unreal in Fortnite

    Fortnite players can now dress in stunning digital versions of Balenciaga silhouettes. Find out how the pioneering fashion house has created a mind-bending, world-blending transmedia experience, reusing those same Fortnite character models for real-world 3D billboards, traditional promo materials, and more.
    Spotlight
    September 7

    Mold3D Studio to share Slay animated content sample project with Unreal Engine community

    In a bid to inspire and educate artists, Mold3D Studio is sharing its decades of experience in the industry by creating a sample project for animated content. With a distinctive style that’s a hybrid of anime and realism, Slay is rendered entirely in Unreal Engine.
    Spotlight

    Mold3D Studio to share Slay animated content sample project with Unreal Engine community

    In a bid to inspire and educate artists, Mold3D Studio is sharing its decades of experience in the industry by creating a sample project for animated content. With a distinctive style that’s a hybrid of anime and realism, Slay is rendered entirely in Unreal Engine.