Does Sci-fi Tell Ancient History? Well, The Forgotten City Does. By David Serrano Lozano

This text is as spoiler-free as possible. However, it will be much easier to understand for those who have played through The Forgotten City at least once.

It is a basic scientific principle that, to understand an object of study, it must be altered (modified, stressed, exposed, etc.). It is through its response to these stimuli that we can extract information about it.

One could say The Forgotten City (TFC from now on) applies this principle to a simulated 1st c. CE Roman community. As a sample of this historical context, it is put to stress under extreme science-fiction conditions: diverse individuals with different backgrounds, mindsets and interests, including sophists, early Christians, provincial emigrants, etc.; how would they react if they got locked in this massive underworld under the single rule (quite literally) of one ‘god’?

Certainly, the game by no means aims to accurately portray historical places, characters or facts. All these non-playable characters (NPCs) build up a setting, consistently and logically made up of elements belonging to their corresponding historical frameworks (technology, social structure, literature, beliefs).

Thus, it is precisely through the fictional premise that these factors get to interact more intensely and closely than they would in a more realistic recreation. The aspirations to historical recreation in video games tend to focus on certain aspects that work as ludo-narrative dominant features, such as war – “command the ancient world’s most incredible war machine” (Total War Rome II: Emperor Edition) – or a shallow touristic experience – “visit Sparta and witness Athens in its full glory” (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey).

Quite oppositely, TFC succeeds in leading player to interact with and look into classical myths, politics, society, art or framework culture. Players don’t usually find out that the key to completing a quest depends on understanding a quote of Ovid or on investigating the Roman local election system.

Fig. 1: Ovid’s Metamorphoses. You can spot it around several locations… and it is the key for the plot twist in The Forgotten City. Screenshot from the game.

This grade of proximity to complex historical aspects is generally privative of ‘educational games.’ However, TFC can by no means be considered as such. Here, I think, lies the genius of this game’s design: the developers found a way to portray antiquity more complexly than in any other regular recreational depiction in the ludo-narrative channels of science fiction.

I identify the key to this achievement in a different use of the past in the developing process. Quite frequently, the past in video games is just a setting, a background, an epidermal layer. Hence, the stress is often placed on aesthetics: and so, fun wins out over strict, dogmatic adherence to the history books. Though this is a fair approach, Modern Storyteller have succeeded in going beyond this perspective.

In several promotional interviews, the director of the project, Nick Pearce, acknowledged that they consciously decided to stay away from the “sword dynamic” and “the whole wardrobe combat”, so that the game could explore human themes that connect with grander topics of classical mythology and philosophy.

However, budget was another (and not insignificant) factor in the game’s development. John Eyre (art designer of TFC) answered a questionnaire I sent him about the development of the game. He mentioned that the first filter for the design of objects was securing free museum pictures or copyright design packs, which they later modified according to historic advisors’ guidance.

However, I interpret this approach as a matter of decisions rather than financial necessity. There are powerful examples of complex and successful games developed with very tight budgets (see Papers Please; Lucas Pope, 2013). What makes all the difference in TFC is the decision to place history first: not to simply reproduce it, but to use it as a source of ideas for game development.

This is something that the game exudes. Consider, for example, the way myths intertwine with daily living experiences of NPCs, and how it is crucial to understanding and finishing some missions (or the game itself). Mythology is not used as a ludo-dynamic interest. On the contrary, the inspiration on mythical contents can be perceived in the structure and content of several missions. Let’s consider the initial “Karen darkness” and how that mysterious beginning gains significance as the story unfolds; or those golden statues of mythical characters peppered across the game’s landscape (Sisyphus pushing the stone, Ixion tied to the wheel, Tantalus picking up the apples at the lake). Eyre told me these were easter eggs by Pearce for classic myths lovers. Nevertheless, they also bring ancient myths as much to characters’ experience as to our reality as gamers, as a suggestion of the human-scale phenomenon behind the myth.  

Fig. 2: Ixion (left), Sisyphus (centre), and Tantalus (right). Your friends and (golden) neighbours in The Forgotten City. Screenshots from the game.

This approach strikes me as refreshing and daring, at least, for two reasons.

First, TFC doesn’t employ the mosaic (no pun intended) of pop-culture nods to which the industry has grown so accustomed. Actually, the only references to modern (re)visions of antiquity I have been able to spot don’t come from my gaming experience but from the developers: Eyre mentioned that they “used some film references for setting the tone/lighting in certain areas” (a fair point considering that the alternative was to reinvent the scenes and settings from scratch). Apart from these influences, Eyre made clear that they tried to stick to archaeological references when it came to visual designs, preferring to use their own interpretations instead of, for example, those of HBO’s Rome (2005-2007).

Second, the relation of the developers with their historical advisors is quite revealing about their approach to the depiction of history. Here, I am privileged to have two extraordinary sources: Dr Philip Matyszak (you may realise you already know his books) replied most comprehensively to my questionnaire, and Dr Sophie Hay (whose works are a must for everyone passionate about Pompeii) was kind enough to have a one-hour talk with me about her experience as advisor for the project.

Both coincide to state that developers reached them when they already counted on a thorough background on written and material sources. In other words, the game’s developers didn’t look for historians to teach them how to recreate ancient Rome, but to provide historical consistency to their own story (especially in terms of “architecture, social behaviour and dress”, according to Matyszak).

Fig. 3: “Historical significance” matters, and developers made it clear from promotional posts.

I interpret this stage (getting in touch and looking for feedback from specialists) as one in which developers had made final decisions as storytellers, but they seem to have been willing to let historical advice (re)shape their plot and its appearance to the greatest degree possible. This would reflect in an eager and quick incorporation of advisors’ proposals, especially (though not exclusively) in aesthetic terms. The latrines of the city, for instance, came after Matyszak mentioned the team of the social importance of this space in ancient cities: Pearce saw it as an interesting way to depict a more human Roman world. Hay, on her part, told me that, to her surprise, her architectural guidelines became actual game designs in 48 hours. Her suggestions included giving a dirty and worn-out appearance to various buildings, as a way to make a difference from the timeless ‘white marble’ aesthetic, or the archetype of perennial ruins.

These kinds of development decisions suggest more than a simple easy-going relation with advisors. One could point to authenticity or credibility as outweighing historicity, but I particularly identify the developers’ concern for historical consistency. The consistency that understands how this simulated community wouldn’t be able to repair and maintain their facilities with the same means as they would in an open “historical” setting, with the same consistency made manifest by their construction of a micro-society after their own cultural coordinates (elections, public toilets, slavery, graffiti, etc.).

Fig. 4: Worn-out architecture. It’s hard to keep your place when you are trapped in a cave. Screenshot from the game.

This prevents TFC from being yet another recreational proposal with “realistic” aspirations. You don’t open your story with time-travel wormholes if historical accuracy is your aim. Even so, the “academic” history (excerpted from textbooks and excavations) is still present in the game. It’s the container and the displaying structure in TFC’s design that is unusual, because it’s not an attempt to bring back and understand the past from the past, as history or its recreations often aim to. In contrast, TFC is a clash between historical dramatis personae and a sci-fi premise, and the result (and genius) of this proposal is that the exploration of historical facets (including the conflict between ancient and contemporary mindsets) comes into light much more vividly than in the majority of games.

So, can you sci-fi (space, time travel, golden killing creatures sci-fi) and yet get the gamer to think about stoicism, ancient poetry or cultural overlaps? TFC answers this question with a resounding ‘yes’. Even more, I think that this winning idea of Modern Storyteller here poses an interesting reflection about the possibilities of depiction of History in video games. Maybe historical games are too interactive to entice the players with “here’s the past as it was: play it”, and they might work better with “what if this happened this many years ago? What would you do/play then?”

David Serrano Lozano is a PhD candidate at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain. His research interests include Latin Epigraphy and Classical Reception in contemporary popular culture. David’s publications on both areas include analyses on provincial constructions and Roman epigraphy in north-western Spain, as well as classical reception in cinema and video games. He also belongs to the project ANIHO for classical reception in contemporary culture.

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