I like a film or a novel that will challenge me. One that will make me re-examine what I have already read and ponder beyond the last words written on the page. More and more we are seeing attempts at narratives in gaming that do the same thing, and The Old City Leviathan is one of them.
Before we get to the story, we’ll examine the sights and sounds. The game has a graphical style that is probably best compared to the recent, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. While the latter game is focused on almost hyper-real settings and texture quality, Leviathan opts for a more stylized, fantastical world. It is filled with atmospheric lighting and particles, and the levels will sometimes shift around you as you discover things. The setting creates scenes that are at once recognizable, and yet not quite of this world, adding to a disconcerting tone felt from the very beginning.
Enhancing our unease is the game’s dynamic use of sounds and tonal music. Again, atmosphere is the operating word here. Sound effects are minimal: your own quiet footsteps, a squeak of metal, waves lapping at the shore. The musical plays along acting as part of the background; present but not overwhelming. Then suddenly they both will become hurried, almost desperate, and a feeling of dread starts to emerge. It’s never fully realized however; threatening, but never striking.
We are thrown into this world of strange contrasts and mania without explanation. This feels somewhat disorienting, as is intended. Our objective is to fill in the blanks, both from before this point in the time-line and moving forward. We move through this seemingly abandoned world, showing very few, if any, signs of life. But who are we exactly? And what is our purpose?
The notes found along the way, combined with the inner monologue heard aloud at various points, is complex enough, filled with enough insanity and psychological chaos, that by time the story ends it’s still hard to say with certainty who the main character is. He could be one of two people. This speaks towards the presentation of the plot, as there are less than 10 characters mentioned by name through the games many missives. These writings take the form of letters pinned to various walls, books waiting to be read, and perhaps most importantly to our understanding of what’s happening, journals written by a man named Solomon.
The journals and notes are extensive, and other than the game being pinned with the genre moniker that is the “walking simulator”, they may be the biggest barrier towards enjoying the game for some. While the books and notes are displayed in-game with ambient sounds and music all around, Solomon’s Journals are accessed from the menu. Once in the menu, there is no sound, and you are left to read in silence. All but one of these journals (there are six in total) are a long read. They are entirely essential to unraveling the mysteries of the game, and its replayability exists solely with finding the ones you have missed along the way.
To reveal what the documents say would ruin some of the impact of the game, and in fact, would also be solely my interpretation of the events that have occurred. But, here are some crucial bits of information the reveal that can help setup the story: At some point, a calamitous event lead to the “fall”. The world began to decay and it’s remaining inhabitants factioned themselves off. The water became unclean, and those with the means to purify it did so. While others drank the contaminated liquid leading to eventual madness and seeking of the Void, a sort of Cthulian presence, calling to them.
The main groups became the Guild, the Order and the Unknowing. The Order are atheists, the Unknowing agnostics, and the Guild believers. A fourth group of people who take themselves out of the processes of society and act as arbiters are known as the Minotaurs. The dwellers are the people left in the makeshift underground encampments. These factions actively work against each other. Espionage, murder and other acts of deceit are common. It is clear that madness impacts everyone to a degree.
We never see these factions interact, only the remnants of their battles. The blood, the empty shells, the occasional corpses. Is anyone left? Are we the last inhabitant of this world? It’s clear from the beginning that we are insane to at least some degree. All of these things: the settings, the graphical style, the sound and the music, create this unnerving experience that at times makes you believe the game will become a horror piece. The game itself discounts this notion in one of it’s journals with the following text:
“Do you know the difference between terror and horror? Horror is a response to realized dread, but terror is something else entirely. Terror is an unknown chasm between safety and danger that simultaneously causes us to hide away while driving curiosity.”
This is a good way to sum up the experience of playing this game. Everything is just bit off, and while moments of dread creep into our minds, ultimately our curiosity, the drive to understand, moves us forward. The Old City Leviathan is a thought-provoking tale that is open to interpretation. There are questions of philosophy and humanity throughout. It is easy to get lost in the various possible psychoses of the characters we learn of. Once we’ve come through to the other side, we are left to wonder if this was the only possible outcome, and if-so why did it have to be this way?
This game is not long. A few hours is all that will be needed to move through the environments. You will find a large amount of your play-through devoted to reading. The game touches on topics in philosophy, psychology and there are some religious references in there too. If critical thinking and a fair amount of text are not something you’re looking for in a single player gaming experience, this is not the game for you. However, if putting together clues through analyzation and careful thought, in a lonely, atmospheric, and unsettling world sounds interesting to you, give The Old City Leviathan a go.
Review copy provided by PostMod Softworks.