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One Good Thing: A time loop video game that works like a Rube Goldberg machine

The Forgotten City, which began life as a Skyrim mod, gives you plenty of room to mess up and do better next time.

A Roman centurion, a terrifying zombie, and a modern person contemplate a ruined structure in the video game The Forgotten City. Courtesy of Modern Storyteller
Alanna Okun is a senior editor at Vox, primarily working on Even Better. Before Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked and BuzzFeed.

It would be hard to overstate the degree to which I’ve become addicted to video games during the pandemic. I’d played them steadily since I was a kid, occasionally becoming obsessed with this franchise or that throughout my 20s, but it wasn’t until I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nobody to do it with that this lightly pulsating rhythm beneath my day-to-day existence became a full-blown roar.

I’ve mostly found it comforting to play gigantic games — JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) that can take hundreds of hours to complete — or open-world adventures where you can wander a fictional countryside and venture beyond the walls of your one-bedroom apartment for an hour or five.

Recently, though, thanks to a full-throated recommendation from my favorite video game podcast, I completely fell in love with a game that is the definition of small: barely 10 hours long, made by a team of only a handful of developers, and originally conceived as an add-on to a much, much larger game.

It’s called The Forgotten City, and if any of the following cultural products strongly appeal to you then you should stop reading this and just go play it without any additional context: The Legend of Zelda (Majora’s Mask, specifically), Lost, the immersive theatrical event Sleep No More, the sort of vague pre-teen conception of “mythology,” or gossip.

Here is about as spoiler-free a description of the game as I can manage: You as a modern-day protagonist find yourself thrown back in time to an almost-abandoned, seemingly ancient-Rome-adjacent city. In the process of figuring out how you got there and how to return to your own time, you get to explore the environs and talk to each of the few dozen residents you encounter, all of whom clearly have A Lot Going On. Almost right away, you learn that everyone in the city, including yourself, is bound by a single rule: If even one person commits a sin, everyone dies.

The game cleverly answers basically every question you might have right now, such as, “Wait, how do you define a sin?” and, “That seems like a raw deal, why don’t they all simply move?” Without giving too much else away, the gameplay functions as a loop, wherein you are able to replay the same day over and over again, attempting to unravel the various mysteries that stack up as you interview the city’s residents. It results in something like a Rube Goldberg machine of problems to solve and decisions to make; helping one person with one issue can reverberate across half a dozen seemingly unrelated plot points. Still, it never feels frustrating or repetitive, even when you make a mistake — it’s extremely possible to find yourself in the position of the sinner who ruins everything, but the game always gives you plenty of room to learn and do better next time.

The gameplay mechanic is tidy and legible, with an in-game checklist of tasks to accomplish — the ideal example of a to-do list you can play. It feels endlessly satisfying to reach these tiny milestones and to feel the tug of purpose alongside the sheer joy of exploring a beautifully rendered landscape and talking to extremely well-written characters. Mostly, though, it’s just fun, whether you’re solving puzzles, spreading rumors, or helping a kindly himbo run for political office. There’s a sense of urgency without stress, of propulsion at a manageable pace, and even moments that could be scary or unsettling or mechanically difficult can be approached from so many angles that it should feel accessible to folks who have never touched a video game before. (There’s a combat element, for example, that you can opt out of entirely without disrupting the game’s narrative, a feat of clever plot construction as much as it is just good sense.)

This is especially interesting given the game’s development history. It was originally conceived as a modification of Skyrim, the massive open-world game, back in 2016, and became a cult hit before a team of indie developers turned it into a standalone. I’ve honestly never been into Skyrim, finding it too big and overwhelming even for my often outsized sensibilities, but The Forgotten City is compelling enough that I sort of want to dust off my copy and experience the mod in its first iteration. Something else I’ve gotten into in quarantine is fanfiction (I think, at 31, that I’m probably the oldest first-time fic reader alive) and the question of how you take someone else’s characters and build worlds and turn them into something fresh is endlessly fascinating to me. The familiarity is comforting; the new context is exciting.

So, too, is replaying. I replay games that don’t have built-in time loop mechanics all the time (I’ve played Persona 5 Royal, a game that takes over 100 hours to complete, twice during lockdown already). The Forgotten City is designed to be revisited and re-experienced until you’ve encountered every possible ending. It provides a framework for going back that never feels stale or hopeless. In a time when those sensations are in abundance, when every IRL day feels the same, there’s a powerful fantasy in getting to live the same virtual day over and over on your own terms until you finally get it right.

The Forgotten City is available on Steam and major consoles. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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