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Building The Forgotten City: Interview with Nick James Pearce

Sitting down with The Forgotten City, a story-driven mod for Skyrim, was one of the most immersive experiences in recent memory. It has left such an impression and heightened expectations when it comes to story and atmosphere. Luckily, I’ve gotten to know Nick Pierce through email and asked if he would mind answering some questions for Giga.

He humbly obliged.

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Why mod Skyrim? How does that particular game fit the goals of the project?
So many reasons. First of all, modding Skyrim is awesome fun! Though I probably don’t use the same definition of “fun” as most other people. For me, it’s a creative outlet. I get to activate parts of my brain that I don’t get to use in my day-to-day. I suppose the alternative to modding Skyrim would have been to make my own indie game, but it wouldn’t have been anything like The Forgotten City. Modding Skyrim is like standing on the shoulder of a giant (the giant being Bethesda Game Studios); it allows you to do things you couldn’t dream of doing alone.
I started modding Skyrim because I was inspired by a lot of modders from Oblivion and Fallout and wanted to try my hand at it.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from my favorite side-quests in Bethesda’s games. For example, I remember stumbling across the Dark Brotherhood by accident in Oblivion, and being blown away by how much work had gone into something I might never have discovered; that made it feel personal, something unique to my adventure. I remember stumbling across Vault 11 in Fallout: New Vegas (technically made by Obsidian, published by Bethesda) and its chilling social experiments which exposed some dark truths about society. I remember “Waking Nightmare” in Skyrim; entering a dream state to travel to the past, if only in a superficial way. I remember discovering the ancient Dwarven underground city of Blackreach, and wishing I could have explored it more. The Forgotten City takes loose threads from all of these quests, and weaves them into something I hope is even greater. It’s an homage to Bethesda.
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What sort of challenges did you have to  overcome with this mod?
Well this mod took me 1700 hours to make, and I think more than half of that was spent fixing bugs. Some of them were pretty funny. I had this one ridiculous bug for a long time where Brandas, on his deathbed, covered in horrific burns and speaking his last words, was supposed to fade away into death. Unfortunately, just before he died, he would stand up out of bed, face the player, then comically ragdoll into the floor. In the end it was caused by something that just seemed totally unexpected.
Generally though the key challenges were acquiring the skills I just didn’t have. When I started I had no idea how to use the Creation Kit, write scripts in Papyrus, cast voice actors, master sound files. The whole time I was learning on the fly. Every time I hit a big hurdle I had this feeling of dread as I realized: “If I can’t sort this out, this project is dead in the water, and everything I’ve done so far is for nothing.” (I’m an optimist, you see.) But three years on, I never encountered a hurdle I couldn’t overcome—that’s pretty satisfying, looking back.
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“Modding Skyrim is like standing on the shoulder of a giant (the giant being Bethesda Game Studios); it allows you to do things you couldn’t dream of doing alone.”
What are the perks of modding, as opposed to full game design?

The main one is creative control. I wasn’t pandering to a demographic, and I didn’t try to simplify anything to make it more accessible to the general population. I made a game for intelligent gamers, because that’s what I wanted to play. It turns out a lot of other people wanted to play that too.

Another perk of modding is that you get to work on all aspects of the project, not just one aspect. One of my favorite parts were working with the 18 voice actors I cast: getting to know them, listening to their performances, hearing the lines I’d written come to life, sounding better than I had ever imagined. And now I chat with most of them online pretty regularly. I’d like to think of them as friends. That’s been a lot of fun. Also, working with Trent Moriarty (the composer) has been really fascinating and thrilling as well. I don’t know how, but he managed to take a few ideas and emotions and transform them into these achingly beautiful musical compositions. I feel privileged to have witnessed him working his magic.

Another perk is not having to worry about how many people play it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty stoked that 50,000 people have downloaded it within 2 weeks of launch (from Nexus, Steam Workshop and ModDB combined), and I wanted to make sure Trent and the voice actors got as much exposure as possible, but I would have been happy enough if the number was a fraction of that.

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What is your history with Game Design? Were there other projects before The Forgotten City?
I don’t have a history in game design: this is my first project. If you don’t count the terrible games I made in QBasic when I was 13, which I don’t, because they were terrible.
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 How does it feel to have The Forgotten City receive such praise?
It’s been a big relief to get such positive feedback. I tried to pitch the game at intelligent gamers, and I wasn’t sure how well that would be received; TFC gives players a bit more credit for being intelligent than the vanilla quests. . . The reaction has shown there are a lot of intelligent gamers out there, and they seem to appreciate games that treat them as such.
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Gorgeous concept art from Fallout 4.

 Are there any other projects in the works?
At the moment I’m weighing my options, but one possibility I’m excited about is a Fallout 4 expansion. I’ve had a lot of requests for that, and I’m looking forward to playing Fallout 4 and dreaming up some ideas for sci-fi social experiments in Vaults.
The Forgotten City has seen praise by many outlets, including Giga, and can be downloaded via the Skyrim Nexus or through the Steam Workshop.