Review: The Old City: Leviathan

Lately, I’ve gotten into exploration games, and one could even say it has become a favourite genre. It all started with Dear Esther, which was a bit of a mixed experience, but I got hooked on the concept, so I started looking for more. It’s not the most popular genre, but I found a couple, of which one was The Old City: Leviathan by PostMod Softworks. An important thing when you play this kind of game is to know what to expect: as a player you are mostly a passive spectator and won’t have any effect on the world around you. You do drive the story forwards by exploring, but that’s about it, so if the story fails to engage, and you’re not into exploration (or if the environments fail to deliver), there’s nothing else to fall back on. When it comes to gameplay, exploration is key: the more you (like to) explore, the more will you get out of the game. I personally love exploring in real life, but don’t get to do it that often, so when it’s on offer in a game, I’m all over it. Progression in this kind of game is about walking from point A to point B, so forget about that and just “be in the moment” while you take everything in. Don’t rush it: the challenge lies in how much patience you have, not in how fast you can get to the end.

On to the review: The Old City: Leviathan was such an incredible experience. I was, in fact, so taken by it that I had to force myself to take a well-needed break. Now, some have called it “pretentious fauxlosophical bullshit”, which it might still be, but, and this might sound equally pretentious (or make me as much of a “pretentious bullshit fauxlosopher” as the developers but I don’t mind), the unfolding stories of the people presented within speaks to me, the person I used to be — and still am on some level — as well as the person I’ve become, in ways I didn’t expect when I started. The game is really like “being left at the local library with ‘explore’ as the sole instruction” — and I’m not saying that just because that thought was featured and mused upon in the game, but because I had, on many occasions, the exact same experience as a child (except that I went there without being told).

The Old City: Leviathan offers both great writing and amazing environments to walk through (the medium isn’t used solely as an otherwise empty vessel for the story — a trap that might be easy to fall into — but as a complement). Even something as simple as opening a door made a big difference compared to Dear Esther, which had none of that. There’s something about a door waiting to be opened that tickles my curiosity more than an already opened one. It’s like when you are visiting that old, mysterious castle in the mountains, and your host, of unknown ancestry, shows you the one door that you should never ever open, but later you find the key or the door has been left slightly ajar, so of course you are going to open it and enter inside. It also reminds me of a Lovecraft(?) character who ends up sleeping in someone’s basement, as deep as it is vast, and who opens all doors, because “a closed door occupies his sleeping, but restless mind more than an open one”.

The only nitpick I could have was not being able to immediately go back after having transitioned to a new chapter, and that it wasn’t always clear which doors led to one, which made me miss fully exploring an area before moving on, but luckily I could return to a previous chapter from the main menu, so not much was lost in the end. I also realized later that some (or even all?) of these doors can be recognized if one has followed the story. The writing style is somewhat obscure, which might suggest that the thinking behind it shares the same property, but if you take your time with it, a lot of meaning can be drawn from it — and there are a multitude of ideas presented.

Ever since I finished this the first time I’ve had plans on playing it again to dive even deeper into the story and better understand its many layers, but the right opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet; playing this game is a bit of a commitment. There is a lot to read and the walking alone might not be enough to draw you in, so, for those who are not into reading a lot in a game, a proper book might be better — or another kind of game.

Apparently, the full story of The Old City was originally meant to be included, but had to be cut up, and this is only the first part out of three. The two remaining parts were meant to follow (and also offer more traditional gameplay), but the developers have unfortunately gone into hiding and there’s been no updates ever since, so there’s no way of telling if any of them will ever be released. I’ve also seen talk about other projects, but nothing substantial. From what I can tell, they are/were a sort of loose, creative collective with a lot on their mind, so maybe they are doing something completely other now.

Game’s website