Sometimes I feel like I have a personal vendetta against philosophy. As interesting as I may find it, there were many times during my studies when I would’ve killed to have a time machine for the sole purpose of going back & yelling at the person whose work I was reading to tell them, “Get to the point!”. Were they getting paid by the word? How hard was it to say, “Let people think you’re a good person but secretly do whatever you feel is necessary regardless of ethics”? There; I just summed up the entirety of Machiavelli’s The Prince in one sentence. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I was always the one who had to explain the books to my classmates because making high schooler’s read ancient classics is an exercise in futility.
The point is that while I enjoy studying philosophy in theory (dissect that), it’s far too easy to slip into pointless rumination & navel-gazing, until I just want to tell to suck it up & contribute something useful to society.
Why go on this little tangent? Because a recent indie game I finished, The Old City: Leviathan, at times teeters on the edge between insight & uselessness.
The Old City is the first title released by PostMod Softworks, & as the name implies, is set entirely in what is known as “The Old City” (to the point that’s how it’s listed on welcome signs). We find ourselves thrust into the shoes of Jonah, a mix of wanderer/scavenger/historian, who despite living in a fallen society has plenty of time to ponder the nature of the universe. Jonah’s goal, & by extension your own, is to reach the surface & hopefully uncover some insight into what’s been happening. But it’s not so easy, for as the game warns you in the opening screen, “You are about to inhabit a broken mind. Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy.”
At its core, The Old City is an exploration game — or as more commonly deemed, a walking simulator. There’s no fighting. No enemies. No inventory. You merely wander to your heart’s content, occasionally finding notes to read from those gone before you.
Narrative: At the end of the day, I find myself with very mixed feelings about The Old City’s story & how it’s portrayed. At times, I actually really enjoyed it. While it had a slow start as you spend time escaping a sewer while getting immersed into this strange dystopian world, when the game starts playing with your perceptions, it really gets interesting. There’s a strong sense of disconnect with the world around you. I started questioning if the monologuing was my own, or some alien “parasite” like it referred to itself. Was I Jonah? Was the voice Jonah? Was I Leviathan? Fortunately, these questions (at least) are answered if you take the time to immerse yourself in the game.
I also enjoyed how Leviathan was framed as, maybe not quite a split personality, but more a coping mechanism the player developed to protect their fragile human mind from the sheer depressiveness of this new world. I liked the whole mixing reality with the fantasy, & how at times entire levels will play out like dreams, making you question what exactly happened. The height of intrigue for me, however, was seeing what becomes of the world after this fantastical layer of reality disappears. Once the veil was torn & I really saw the world for what it is, I completely sympathized with the character & understood why he preferred his fantasy to reality. While not as drastic as something like Cry of Fear, where everything is basically a delusion, it’s very effective at making its point.
Despite most of the story pieced together through the voice in the player’s head & pieces of journals left lying around, The Old City also uses the environment to tell its story. I didn’t notice it at first, but there were lots of little hints in the environment. Some of my favorite examples were the soda cans labeled “NO ORDER” & a box in seemingly every room marked “MAKE THE LEAP,” which directly plays in to the ending. And while the reading can ramble, it’s realistic for what a crazy person who has too much free time would right. Not to mention several little sparks of insight.
That being said, I do feel that The Old City’s story & philosophical themes are a bit more than your average gamer can stomach. Most people probably won’t be able to hold their breath to get to the level the game’s monologuing wants. A quick way to tell how lost you’ll be is how familiar you are with the concepts such as Gnosticism, Relativism, & Nihilism. Not having working knowlege of these concepts won’t prevent you from understanding the overall story, but you probably won’t enjoy it either. On a purely subjective level, I grew annoyed with the excessive soliloquizing in the last few chapters as it veered from inquisitive speculation to full-blown navel-gazing. Personally, I neither like nor agree with any of the concepts I named a few sentences ago. But I do understand the thematic importance of having a character named Jonah diving into the belly of his Leviathan (ie. his delusions) before he can bridge the gap between his fantasies & reality.
In the end, while I fully expect this type of story won’t appeal to your average gamer, from my own personal opinion, I enjoyed The Old City’s story. While it got a bit rambling toward the end, & is deliberately set up as a prologue of sorts to a larger story (clearly spelled out on their homepage), I found it an intriguing, at times thought-provoking experience when it tied its philosophy into the actual game.
Mechanics: In comparison to the vastness of discussion the plot can produce, the gameplay is cut-and-dry. It’s an exploration game. You walk. A lot. I highly recommend utilizing the controller support, otherwise you’ll be like me & longing for a auto-walk. You can “run,” which is more like power walking. You can “interact”, which is relegated to opening doors & few instances of pushing buttons. You can zoom in, so either you’re sticking your face right up to something or you have extendo-eyeballs. But it’s useful for reading notes & exploring in general. And you can jump. Strangely, you can’t jump on or over anything. I honestly think this was added just so players wouldn’t get stuck on the iffy collision detection. I got stuck on railways & crates a lot.
And that’s it. If there’s anything else to say about the mechanics, it’s that the chapters tend to play out a similar way. You can either go straight toward the exit or explore around, typically entering some delusional state that reveals a bit of Jonah’s psyche before being plonked back near the exit to continue on. But this is only toward the beginning, really, so it didn’t feel tedious or repetitive.
Other than that, there’s not much to say. What little there is in terms of actual gameplay works to serve its purpose, & nothing more.
Aesthetics: I’m not sure what engine The Old City was built in, but it is a gorgeous game. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time getting the perfect angle to take a screenshot in a game. But it’s not just the graphical quality, although there is some spectacular lighting effects. No, I think the game’s strength is in the variety & scope of the environments. Each level has its own theme. While you start in a dark, damp sewer, you don’t stay there for long. You’ll travel through an office building, then reach the surface & traverse a water treatment plant. Then you’ll be in a dream world with floating islands, mythical creatures & giant statues. I oohed & aahed a lot during this game.
The sound direction is pretty good, as well. Whether it was ambient noises, such as pipes leaking or the waves crashing on the shore, or musical accompaniment, I found all the sounds to help set the mood of whatever scene or environment I was in. The single voiceactor in the game, while a bit prone to ramble, did an admirable job of portraying proper emotion during his ramblings.
Replay Value: Low. Although very time-efficient at 5 hours, I doubt there’s much reason to play a second time. There are only a handful of notes to collect, & you can always replay a specific chapter once you’ve cleared it. Think of it like going to a pretty but desolate location. Go through, take lots of screenshots, & be done.
Final Score: 3
Final Word: The Old City Leviathan is a beautiful, at times thought-provoking game set in an interesting world. However, despite this, I have a hard time recommending it to most gamers due to the heavy philosophical themes & lack of interactivity. At best, I’d say if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind going on a brief, nihilistic sightseeing tour or thought you could like Dear Esther if it had a interesting story, check it out.
Title: The Old City Leviathan
Rating: N/A (personal rating T)
Developer: PostMod Softworks
Publisher: PostMod Softworks Release Date: December 3, 2014