A city can be said to exist as much in the minds of its residents as it does in any geographical reality. Too expansive and complex for any one person to comprehend in its entirety, such is true of virtually any metropolis in the world today.
The social psychology of cities is one of the themes explored in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories; three novels and various short stories all set in or around the titular city. Another such theme is the subversion of a trope of fantasy fiction: secondary world-building, what Harrison himself memorably referred to as “the clomping foot of nerdism”. That is, the desire to map and categorise a fictional place: to cram into an appendix banal detail on the cultural customs of a made-up nation in a made-up world, to invent the language of elves or klingons, or to calculate the number of personnel required to man an Imperial Star Destroyer. Such concerns are by a long way secondary to the construction of story, but have often been elevated to great prominence thanks to a nerdish desire to catalogue, define and contain. So the argument goes.
I mention all of this because my early hours with The Old City: Leviathan brought it flooding back. First: Viriconium, a fictional city I’ve always found fascinating because it is simultaneously a cipher, a source of reflexive fiction, and the context in which some wonderful stories have been told. To remind me of that is high praise in my book. Second: the ineffable qualities of cities, such as the eponymous Old City – so old and so central that it becomes the only city. Thirdly: that the clomping foot of nerdism is the enemy of magic and mystery. What wonder remains when everything is explained to you in dry, tedious detail? That certainly does not happen here.
Earlier this year Joel Goodwin suggested the term “secret box” as an alternative to the pejorative “walking simulator”; it is, he argues, “a much better analogy for a broad swathe of games that eschew challenge in favour of pursuit of a secret, the little magic a developer wants to share with you.” I feel that this is a good fit for The Old City: Leviathan, although if we’re going to talk along these lines it’s necessary to point out two key points of divergence:
(1) The Old City: Leviathan involves no mechanical or environmental puzzles, as seen in “secret boxes” like, say, Kairo or Gone Home.
(2) The Old City: Leviathan is not a (largely / wholly) experiential linear game in quite the same way as, say, Dear Esther or Heartwood, which you largely absorb passively.
A better reference point is probably The Stanley Parable, in that this game has a puzzle at its heart that is primarily rooted in its narrative and its thematic explorations, although unlike The Stanley Parable I don’t feel that The Old City is going to explode outwards into a fracture-pattern of narrative dead-ends and gags. This is more a linear experience with a lot of scope for wandering off the beaten track – and it is in wandering off said track that answers and more questions may be found, all serving to further explore the game’s ideas through its story and characters.
This will not be a game for you if you do not get along with ambiguity or unreliable narrators. A splash screen suggests, before play has even begun, that you not trust what you see or hear. In the first five minutes the game throws a fair amount at you – by video game standards – and expects you to keep up. Minotaurs, belly-dwelling parasites, eschaton, the Order, factions, bad water, the Old City itself, the scraps of a kingdom that may already be dead. The majority of what you read or hear you simply have to accept and file away for future elucidation – remembering that subjective information, or even what appears objective, should be regarded with doubt. In fact, in terms of its conceptual and philosophical ambition, another appropriate reference point might be Ice-Pick Lodge’s output (The Void, Pathologic, etc).
I have my reservations about The Old City. From what I’ve seen so far it does an excellent job of building an air of mystery and a powerful sense of place. Some of this is through the design of its environments, but largely it is the result of where its written and spoken elements clearly overlap with what the player experiences of the world. Small moments with big payoff. There is however the risk that its mysteries will resolve in a dissatisfying manner; always the risk with any narrative that seemingly relies on obfuscation. Is that obfuscation the natural product of a character nibbling at the fringes of a story much larger than they, or is it the result of an author deliberately holding back information that has no reason to be held back – the storytelling equivalent of TVtropes no-nos?
Similarly, the game tends to deliver elements of its story in enormous textual chunks – about 3,000 words per level in one large note. Again, this is not a game for you if the idea of reading what is essentially a short story (or lengthy LiveJournal post) in the middle of game play appals you. It… well, it arguably breaks gameplay flow, but if that gameplay is primarily exploring and absorbing, I don’t regard it as a detrimental digression to sit and read something for a while. The risk, however, lies in whether these lengthy notes are of immediate interest and larger relevance. Going by those I’ve read thus far, I’d say the answer is “sort of” and “probably”. That’s not very definitive, but by now you’ve probably grasped that that’s rather the point.
On a personal level I have to confess to finding first-person misanthropy in any storytelling immensely tedious, and the author of the notes I’ve read so far is guilty of such. Oh, it’s reasonably eloquent misanthropy, and this narrator holds themselves in as much contempt as anyone around them, but I’m still not convinced that the dime-story philosophy of misanthropic weirdos is necessarily going to contribute to the “philosophical themes oft neglected by the medium” that The Old City: Leviathan promises us.
Fortunately, there is plenty else to entice me and many questions yet to answer. Such as: what the hell is going on with this voice that claims it lives within my belly? What was (is?) the Counsel of Modernity and who (what?) are the premods? Is there any real significance to the preponderance of biblical first names? What happened here? What is the Old City? From whence came these flashbacks to childhood? These questions, and many others yet to be asked, are what offer encouragement to press on and explore further. I only hope that what waits to be discovered will interest and challenge, rather than disappoint or confound.
Developer: PostMod Softworks | Release date: December 1st (Leviathan will be the 1st of 3 parts, with the remainder to be released episodically)
[This preview was written based on the first four levels of The Old City. We didn’t want to know too much, and have to kill you.]