“Your only goal: to understand,” says the official page for PostMod Softworks’ The Old City: Leviathan – an indie first-person narrative that draws influence from the likes of The Chinese Room’s well received Dear Esther. In that respect, The Old City is another title in the slightly increasing list of games that are less “game-y” and more like interactive novellas. Different paths reveal different parts of the story until you (hopefully) piece it all together at the end.
Dropped into the underground of the Old City, you are left to wander the empty corridors, rooms and external setting of the now-empty metropolis. As you wander, pieces of the narrative are revealed in short monologues; Shakespearean, almost, in their form and delivery. It’s not certain who you are, what role you play or what significance you have to impart on this binary novella. All you can really say is that you are definitely alone in this world.
Here is where the reviewer gives a succinct recap of the game’s main plot line. But in this instance, it’s not something that can be summed up in an 800 word essay. The story is not obvious and one suspects that it’s not supposed to be. When you play a game such as The Old City, you are given a narrative objective that is not clear from the start. In that respect, you are the meta player of this enigmatic story.
As you walk through the once-living depths of the city, you happen upon certain narrative triggers whereby more story is revealed. You are treated to the soothing voice of – what one would assume is – the protagonist of this tale. Alongside vocal musings, you encounter diary entries and encyclopaedic pages that bleed into the already mysterious story you are tasked with solving.
Here is where I break every rule in the Reviewer’s Handbook (hint: that is not a real book) by telling you that this is probably the hardest game I’ve ever had to review. When you want to dissect the nuances in a particular title, you will get the meat and bones of your review from the gameplay itself. With The Old City: Leviathan, there is no such thing as gameplay.
So what do you review? In this instance, it’s everything else. The focus is clearly on the story. With an unfurling narrative arc that follows you through the brick tunnels and dilapidated walls of the old habitat, you can do nothing but pay attention to the story that’s being told to you and you alone; like a personal retelling of some past endeavours.
What accompanies this fictitious history is the game’s visual representation of it. In terms of graphical prowess, it seems to serve only one purpose: to soothe. Despite the ordinarily geometric scenes that surround you, there is a softness to the whole look. Its sepia haze not so much wows the player as it does placate them. With a soft hue and gentle soundtrack to accompany it all, The Old City has an almost velvety quality to it.
You are invited to spend time exploring the landscape and city innards. However, it’s not advisable. You see, as you rush through the game, you are more inclined to miss certain details. But what do the details mean? That’s what the game wants you to find out. This is a serene and lonely experience and you have very little choice but to discover some hidden meaning within its walls.
You don’t skip ahead in a game like this in the same way that you don’t flip over several pages of text in a book you’re intrigued by. Because that’s what this is: an interactive book. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s a point that needs hammering home.
So how do you sum up a game like The Old City? Answer: you can’t. There may be a correct way to interpret the story, but I truly feel that the best experience comes from choosing your own theories.
You will encounter nothing but allusions and you must glue the fabric of the ideas in your own way. From the trichotomy of the city’s factions, to the religious undertones of its denizens, it’s entirely possible that you will form your own theories. I admit I had to play the game twice over to fathom any form of conclusion. Furthermore, it admittedly took me five or six beers to come up with my own theories, though I think the heart of the game was the very idea of speculation (mixed with a hint of bleak existentialism).
If I had one bad thing to say about The Old City: Leviathan, it’s that it’s part of a genre that’s not quite sure about itself yet. Okay, that’s not the game’s fault as such. But I felt there were times where I wasn’t sure about my character’s journey. I couldn’t say for certain whether or not I was taking the correct paths and revealing the accurate parts of the story. I was asking meta questions about what I was doing in-game.
There was also the issue of not being able to invert the mouse. This may sound like a minor setback, but for a game that relies entirely on the player’s explorative nature and curious fortitude, it seemed odd for the developers to not include an option to choose to invert the mouse controls.
There is a very melancholic feel to The Old City: Leviathan that brings peace to any willing gamer that plays it. It has this juxtaposing visual that combines ocular beauty, ordinary settings and fantastical fantasy realms that play with the character’s emotions without saying a word. The saddest part about it is that mainstream gaming is not ready for such a beautifully convoluted narrative. This is by no means a perfect medium, but it’s a strong contender in the rising genre of literary video games.
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Take the core of a literary tale and put it into a beautifully constructive game, and you'll have The Old City: Leviathan.