It’s hard to know what’s real anymore. There are shifting boundaries between what’s true and what’s not, and video games aren’t helping. But the strange world between the real and the imagined has always been fertile ground for exploration. And it’s this mysterious place that The Old City: Leviathan chooses as its canvas.
Narrative-driven games, sometimes uncharitably referred to as “walking simulators”, are experiencing something of a renaissance. Titles such as The Stanley Parable have shown the indie gaming community what well-crafted storylines are capable of. Locating itself firmly in this vein, The Old City takes the player on a surreal and confusing journey through the mind – exactly whose is unclear – embodied by the changing streets of an aging metropolis.
Hat tipping to Myst, the granddaddy of narrative driven adventures, The Old City leads the player through a layered narrative experience. There is not much more to the title than this, in a formal sense. You walk your way through a series of rooms and environments, as an unnamed narrator mutters strange riddles at you through your sound card. There are no levers to pull, no enemies to annihilate, or ledges to climb. Aside from your feet, you are a spectator in a story.
In games like this there are two elements that must fit seamlessly together for the experience to work: purpose and place. The Old City does a decent job on both fronts, but like the changing environment it is leading you through things are not quite what they seem.
The Old City’s sense of place is well realised. Running on the Unreal Engine, the environments have a beautiful lustrous feel. This sits well with the wondrous, dreamlike design of the game – a design that shifts subtly between a contemporary city of bricks, pipes and sewer mains, and a bizarre fantasy world with ancient stone palazzos, giant sleeping birds, underwater crabs and floating colossuses in the sky.
These environments are melded well with the narrative structure of the game. For the discerning (and patient) gamer there is much in The Old City’s world for to see and pick up on. Clues to the tale of the old city are carved into the walls, riddles are littered throughout the environment and the mise-en-scène of certain areas hints at the fate that befell the people who perhaps once lived there. For those with an inquiring mind, the game is packed full of replay value.
The twist in The Old City’s environmental design is the way that it manages to subtly introduce the player to slowly intensifying levels of weirdness. The game starts off in a fairly bland way, in a sewer system under the old city, but quickly becomes more surreal as you push your way further through its streets. Several environments are recycled, but each time they have been slightly altered, giving you an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. It’s a clever technique and some design choices – such as “spawning” you inside the same child’s bedroom after finishing sections – create more questions than they answer.
However, even within the layout and design of the game there are annoyances that pull you out of the experience. First, the game takes some time to get going – even though it is relatively short (a quick run through lasts only two to three hours), the weirdness of The Old City takes a while to work up a head of steam. This is a frustrating problem, as it’s the oddness and strangeness of the game’s more dreamlike moments that offer the most entertaining experiences. Impatient gamers dipping their toes into the genre for the first time will not be accommodated well. Second, the designers have fallen victim to the same classic traps that plague most first-person titles – oil drums burn incongruously to provide convenient light sources and despite the Unreal Engine being able to render on the fly, there are still loading screens between sections.
Normally, narrative driven first-person titles can rely on their stories to buff over these niggling problems, and to a large extent The Old City does. But the purpose of the game requires examination, because it’s either the game’s biggest selling point, or its largest miss.
As soon as it begins, you are immediately narrated to by an unseen character. Speaking in riddles he (and it is a he) begins to describe what one can only assume is the story of the old city, muttering about “the guild” and the “the order” and a whole bunch of other, seemingly disconnected musings. To begin with it’s mysterious, but as the game’s environments change the style of voiceover doesn’t, which rapidly becomes impenetrable. The problem with this is not what the narrator is saying; mad mutterings are probably exactly what PostMod Softworks were going for. However, what this style of storytelling gains in mystery and intrigue it loses in accessibility. Simply put, The Old City makes it extremely hard for you to figure out what the hell is going on.
Although, maybe this is the point. The boundary between the real and the unreal is supposed to be porous and strange. The Old City is designed to play with your head, and a story without a plot certainly helps this along. However even with that in mind, as a medium PC gaming demands progression and achievement. Games aren’t postmodern novels, they are experiences that invariably must begin and end.
PostMod Softwork’s The Old City is a welcome addition to the first-person narrative driven genre. It’s a genre that is interesting, creative and worthy of support. However, it’s also a genre that is notoriously hit and miss. In its quest to explore the boundaries between what’s real and what’s imagined The Old City has attempted to put a clever spin on an age old theme. But perhaps therein lies the rub – The Old City is not quite as clever as it thinks it is.