Surreal storytelling in The Old City: Leviathan

297350 2014-10-28 00019

‘Walking simulator’ has become a lazy pejorative for games where the focus is on exploration and story. I love deep games with rich systems, but I’m not always in the mood for that. Sometimes I just want to be told a story or escape into an evocative world. This is what makes gaming such a great hobby: there’s one for every mood, whether you want to stealth your way through Deus Ex or go for a nice stroll in Proteus.

The Old City is a new first-person game in the 'walking simulator' mould by PostMod Softworks that takes its cues from the likes of Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable. The developers describe it as a ‘pure narrative experience’, which means there are no puzzles and no action sequences. All you do is explore, using the player character’s enigmatic narration, scattered documents, and environmental details to piece together a strange, surreal story.

Built with the Unreal engine, it’s a handsome game. The stylised, painterly textures and warm, natural lighting are reminiscent of Dishonored. It’s a vivid, detailed world that you have to pay close attention to in order to unravel the game’s mysteries. There are eerie staring eyes scribbled on walls, odd poetry etched into stones, and other clues to decipher as you wander the game’s increasingly bizarre environments.

297350 2014-10-28 00016

The game begins in a sewer system beneath the titular Old City. Your character narrates as you explore, but it’s all in riddles. You don’t know who he’s talking to, or why. You don’t know if he’s saying it out loud, narrating after the fact, or if it’s all in his head. At first the game felt a bit self-consciously esoteric—mysterious for the sake of being mysterious—but this faded as I was drawn in into its dreamlike atmosphere.

The world shifts and changes around you. You’ll repeat certain sections, but your surroundings will have been altered—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Where once there was an empty floor, there will suddenly be bloodied corpses littering it. This gives the game an uneasy, illusory feel, like you’re trapped in a fever dream.

I’ve played two hours of a preview build, and I still have no idea whether any of this is really happening, or if it’s some kind of hallucination. The important thing is, I want to know. But I get the feeling the ending won’t offer any concrete answers, and I’ll have to interpret the events of the game for myself. If you’re the kind of person who needs closure to be satisfied by a story, this might not be the game for you.

297350 2014-10-27 00012

After you leave the sewers, the environments steadily get more elaborate and fantastical. About an hour in, I emerge through a door from a fairly mundane warehouse into a scene from a fairytale. Through a hazy sunset I see castles perched on floating islands and an enormous stone Minotaur. Such a dramatic shift in visuals should be jarring, but it works here somehow. I still have no clue what’s going on, but it sure is pretty.

The Old City: Leviathan is a peculiar game that almost defies description, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve played so far. Admittedly, it’s the environment design that’s grabbed me more than the story, which I’ve found a little too obscure for its own good in places. Some will undoubtedly question whether it’s actually a game, and it’ll definitely be negatively labelled a walking simulator. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care. All I know is that it’s interesting, and that’s good enough for me.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.