The Forgotten City is a quietly horrible story about sin and surveillance

Forgotten City

A couple of hundred years ago, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham dreamt up an enormously unpleasant method of using architecture to stamp out anti-social behaviour. Bentham called for prison cells to be built around shielded watchtowers, or “panopticons”, from which guards could monitor prisoners unobserved. He argued that the pressure of living under steady scrutiny, rather than punishments in themselves, would slowly mould each prisoner into a model citizen. Best of all, Bentham suggested, there doesn’t have to actually be a guard in the panopticon for the panopticon to ‘work’. After all, the suspicion of being spied on is often more daunting than the certainty.

There’s a panopticon of sorts in The Forgotten City, Dear Villagers’ swish Roman reimagining of the award-winning Skyrim mod from 2017—a clifftop temple at the far end of the map, its huge doors tightly sealed, its patron god an enigma, its portico offering hazy views of terracotta villas, market squares and streets lined with anguished golden statues. The temple is the apparent source of “the Golden Rule”, a city-wide holy mandate whereby if one person sins, everybody will perish by ghastly magical means.

The trouble is, nobody in The Forgotten City—which is functionally a prison in that nobody’s discovered the exit—can agree on the definition of sin. The baseline seems to be murder, but what about telling a lie that gets somebody killed? Is charging a ridiculous price for a vital remedy a sin, and by extension, is theft OK if it’s to save somebody’s life? How about worshipping the ‘wrong’ god, or having the ‘wrong’ sexual orientation? Everybody you meet in the game—from closet Christians to household slaves—is preoccupied with these questions, and awash with anxiety about the actions of other characters with different beliefs or value systems. And looming above it all, that temple, a suffocating sentinel that, far from nurturing a spirit of goodwill, has everybody teetering on the brink of civil war.

(Image credit: Dear Villagers)

The Forgotten City feels, at times, like a playable rebuttal of Bentham and of systematic snooping in general, shaded by a more recent study of the psychological and social impact of perpetual surveillance. But it’s primarily a whodunnit, or rather a whogonnadoit. You play a bewildered tourist from the present day, sent in to the city’s ruins by a strange woman after waking by the river Tiber. Having tumbled through a wormhole to Roman times, you’re brought before the local magistrate and asked to track down somebody he suspects is planning to breach the peace. Fortunately, you’re insulated against disaster by a time-loop ritual that’s cast whenever everything goes to hell, returning you to the start of the day. This grants you leeway to test the Golden Rule’s limits and divine its purpose while chasing down and cross-examining the City’s 20-odd residents.

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