The Old City: Leviathan Review – Exploration and Introspection
The Old City: Leviathan is a game of exploration – not just of place, but of thought. Its sombre halls and subtle musical score create the perfect atmosphere for introspection, and the intelligent ideas and themes it presents gave me a lot to mull over. It’s a strange stye of game, one that leaves the player alone with their thoughts while at the same time telling a story of love, isolation, truth, and humanity. It doesn’t have any puzzles to complete or enemies to outwit or outfight, save for puzzles of self-reflection that will plague you far more than any sliding block puzzle or room filled with entrenched foes. Players willing to open their minds and receive the bizarre, dreamy tale may find themselves thinking on who they are and how they conduct themselves in their lives with others.
The story of the game will seem dense at first. There is a whole lot going on in the plot, involving odd places, factions in some sort of conflict, mediators, and other specific named individuals. Few of these things are given deeper explanations for some time, although even then, it’s rarely explicit. It is a lot to take in, and early on, my mind was quick to dismiss it as pretentious nonsense. It seemed too academic, as if it aspired to be confusing to give the illusion of depth. The writing is vague for the purpose of igniting curiosity, though, something I’d forgotten after years of being spoon-fed simple plots. If you give it time, the writing does become clear, but you have to be receptive to it. Be patient and open-minded as you play.
I might have put my mental walls up because there was a ton of reading involved while exploring the game’s halls. You’ll frequently find open books lying around or notes tacked to walls, and none of these are short. It seemed daunting given how infrequent I see that in games. Most exposition in games is delivered through dialogue or narration, but The Old City: Leviathan is fond of huge blocks of text. It’s a lot to read and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first, making it hard to enjoy in the beginning. The collectibles that also help clarify the game are practically short stories, and took a while to read as well. It can be daunting to come to a game and have to read as if you’d sat down with a book, but it becomes very interesting as the meaning becomes clear. If you’re finding it vague and a little overwhelming, just relax and keep going. Things do get better, especially once your curiosity is piqued.
You don’t technically need to read every little thing in the game. In all likelihood, you won’t get the chance to. Much of the hidden notes and books that talk about the game are down different halls and passages through the complex. It splits into multiple paths as you wander through it, opening up to huge routes that lead their own way. It’s hard to explore them all, as I found many paths went on for so long that I forgot the way back. In this way, you may only find certain portions of the story and be forced to fill in the gaps using your head. I managed to find a coherent story while I played just from looking at the notes I found, but you can slowly learn more of the game’s tale over different playthroughs.
The story is helped along by the narration of someone within your character, but who isn’t your character. It’s an odd distinction, but one that’s important for the game’s themes. This stowaway will monologue about his thoughts and perceptions of the game’s world and his place in it. No matter what, his narration will provide a good chunk of the game’s questions and background, or at least enough that you could come to a decent understanding of the themes just on his words alone. A lot of that will seem complex and incomprehensible at first, but combining his words with whatever notes you find along your way will help you comprehend all that you see.
What I’ve described makes the game sound dense and complex, but being receptive to the plot’s themes is more important than looking for a hard storyline. That sentence might not have helped clarify things any, but what you need to comprehend to understand the plot is something more vague than simply knowing the story. This is a game about factions that fight each other in some old city, but knowing that isn’t the most important part of getting the game’s themes. Theme is the most important aspect of this work, and so exploring its words, sounds, and locales with a mind open to wonder is what is key. The game’s narrative is purposely slippery to keep players wondering what’s going on – to keep them constantly asking questions.
I have my own theories on what the story was about, but sharing them may muddle your own or convince you that I have a better idea what I’m talking about. The game does have some hard themes, but it’s in discovering them that you find your gameplay for The Old City: Leviathan. As I said, there are no puzzles or enemies, but rather the single puzzle that is the game itself. What does it mean and what is it about? That is what your entire purpose is in playing the game, and that search for the game’s truth, or lack thereof, is what players will find themselves striving for. Are there any right answers about what you’re looking at? It’s up to you to decide for yourself.
I’d felt for a long time that exploration games needed to do away with puzzles, and was happy to find none in this game. Puzzles are fine and all, but in games where I’m just given a land to explore and story to be told, puzzles trip me up. They ask me to do some mental gymnastics just for a piece of plot. Without them, though, a game risks a lack of urgency. If there’s no puzzle, what are we overcoming? Is that urgency the only thing that can drive us forward while we play? The Old City: Leviathan‘s urgency comes from learning what the work has to say as a whole, though. Understanding is what drives it, something Postmod Softworks managed to infuse into every aspect of the game.
The place itself hints at its themes, keeping the player feeling like they’re in a constantly shifting dream world. Halls will appear and disappear without you having seen them, leaving you wondering if they were ever there in the first place. The factory-like complex your character seems to live in cannot be trusted, or at least your perception of it. The reality of the game world is in flux, again a hint as to what the story is trying to say. Sometimes a path you took before is gone when you come back. Sometimes you will go from red brick halls to a villa on some lost island. It never stops changing.
Also, the game seems like it’s firmly entrenched in a reality like our own, but then even that can’t be trusted. Creatures will start entering the world, but only seen at a distance. They add a little company to what is otherwise a very lonely journey in the game. It gets kind of depressing after a while to be alone with the thoughts in your head, and you soon start to seek out any kind of other life. There are statues placed at points in the game that often tricked me into thinking I was getting close to someone I could interact with. I wasn’t, leaving me filled with more disappointment and loneliness. It’s strange to get those sensations from a game, but they’re another aspect of the game’s themes.
The creatures are as well, and are quite stunning to look at the few times you see them. They’re giant mythological beasts, unaware of your presence, but looking serene. The game’s scope can make the player feel quite small and insignificant in the game world, but in an awe-inspiring way. Some of the game’s more odd locations, like an underwater temple and a castle towering above the clouds, produce similar feelings. It’s all so grand and spectacular, but the player is almost completely alone in these places. You can really sense the loneliness of these locations, and it makes your own feel worse.
That’s whenever you’re not wandering around the twisted red brick halls of the main corridors. As I said, they split and twist so much you often lose your way back. Being lost in similar-looking halls gives the player time to think, and besides, there are many differences, overt and subtle, that make the new halls stand out. It’s a careful dance, making the halls different enough to tell apart and enjoy purely for the exploration, but also repetitive enough that you can let your mind wander while you explore. The game does look good and each area stands out while bearing similarities, but it’s just subtle enough that your mind can drift while walking around, brought back by the occasional hidden text or scratched writing on the wall.
The music is nice, carefully designed not to distract. I don’t listen to music when I read or work, as I find it distracting when I’m trying to concentrate. I want to focus on one and not the other, and given how hard I had to concentrate on The Old City: Leviathan, it did a good job of being enjoyable without being intrusive. The collectible Solomon notes that were pages and pages long would have been hard for me to read with music, but the subtle, sad tune that plays on the opening screen and while reading them seemed to help me focus. I was still humming it after I’d read the notes, finding it infectious without being so powerful to intrude on my thoughts. The soundtrack is very quiet most of the time, but always quite pleasant and somehow an aid to concentration when I normally need few distractions. Very nice stuff.
While I don’t really want to talk about the game’s themes for fear of ruining it for you, what I drew from it was something important to me right now. It was pertinent to the way I see many people conducting their lives now. It made me think of things outside the game world in a different way, easily leaping from the game to my own life. I was free to think about it as the game came to its own conclusions about what it all meant for my character. It encourages that, and while I still am not quite sure of the game’s plot, I don’t think the game’s story is what was most important. The game aspires to make sure you, personally, take something important away from it. This is your journey through these halls more than some fictional characters’.
The Old City: Leviathan seems pretty daunting at first, appearing to be vague for vagueness’ sake. Everything about its construction, from the way it presents its story to the locales to the music choice, is deliberate. It’s all meant to leave the player wondering – to leave them receptive to ideas that will come. I came away with only the vaguest sense of the game’s plot, but I did have a good idea of what it was about. Wrestling with its themes, of trying to know the why of the story and not just the plot bullet points, is what the game is about. It will force you to think as you play, and all in a beautiful, quiet world of loneliness. It’s a game you’ll want to discuss with others who’ve played it when you’re done, trying to figure out if you came to the same conclusions. While you may find yourself resistant to it at first, just relax and let your mind wander as you explore the intelligent design and themes that Postmod Softworks have masterfully crafted into every single aspect of their wonderful game.
The Old City: Leviathan is available for $14.99 (on sale for %25 off during its launch week!) on Steam. To learn more about the game and its developers, you can look at their site or follow them on IndieDB, Facebook, and Twitter.