Something is terribly wrong.
You’re awoken by the roar of an ocean tide, inhabiting a small room with a typewriter. Pages of a journal, blown up to cartoonish proportions, adorn the walls, along with a map marked with horned skulls. A voice booms in your head, having a conversation with an unseen third party (a conversation you clearly aren’t part of) about living inside its belly. It doesn’t take long before you acclimate to your surroundings; it appears to be a water treatment facility, worn from years of neglect. Even before you venture past your cozy nook, the unease is overwhelming. Something is, almost certainly, terribly wrong.
This opening impression of The Old City: Leviathan would be a perfect example of “Show, don’t tell,” if the game wasn’t adamant on telling you before showing. As soon as you hit New Game, a message informs you that “You are about to inhabit a broken mind. Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy.” Not only does it continue a recent, unfortunate tradition where games feel the need to ‘prime’ you for their story, but it’s also a statement made redundant by everything that follows; when it’s not downright otherworldly, the world around you often acts in ways that a world shouldn’t. Passages that weren’t present a minute ago suddenly *are,* graffiti scrawls morph into new messages, and if you’re thorough enough, you’ll find scenes of horror better left hidden. There are many adjectives that could apply to the visions you’re subjected to, but “trustworthy” isn’t one of them.
This seaside community may be fraught with foreboding, grisly secrets, but it’s an absolute treat to explore. The overcast skies and steady rush of water add life to a dead (or dying?) world, and some of the worn-down sections of its bowels speak loudly without uttering a word. It’s a crying shame that some of the textures aren’t up to snuff; you’ll come across packing crates and other boxes that are clearly printed in an unnatural way, yet the words are too blurry to make out the teasing, cryptic message.
As you might have guessed by now, The Old City is another game that focuses entirely on exploration without a trace of puzzle-solving or combat (Thanks to Colin, I now have a term for this: “exploration games.”). Discovering what went wrong in a ruined society isn’t exactly new territory, but despite the implications of the blunt opening message, it isn’t as forthcoming when it comes to providing answers. It’s altogether likely that you’ll finish the game before figuring out the purpose of the Minotaurs, if anyone survived, or even the truth behind the Old City itself.
Instead of feeling unfulfilling, the lack of clear answers primes you to think about the game long after you’ve reached the end. It respects your intelligence, refusing to connect the dots with confidence that you’ll be up late at night, parsing through your own impressions and reaching your own conclusions. In its finest moments, The Old City sparkles with the same obtuse determinism found in one of Borges’ short stories; the answers exist, but they require the player to dig them up for themselves.
Sadly, your best bet for finding the answers is bringing Solomon and his infernal notes for the ride. One glowing box is hidden in each level, containing two journal entries from a character named Solomon. These entries are integral to solving the mystery, and almost every one of them takes over twenty minutes to read through. While these entries create a better sense of what day-to-day life in this society was actually like, shoving it in the pause menu and presenting it as its own side story feels unpleasantly disruptive to the game itself. It also transforms your purpose in every level from “What disturbing glimpses into this society will I find today?” to “OK, I’ve got to find this box before I accidentally hit the door to the next chapter.” This process brings too much order to the chaos, and pausing for nearly half an hour to dive deeper into the story brings the adventure to a grinding halt.
These long pauses might be more tolerable if Solomon wasn’t so… Solomon. He clearly sees himself as the one person who “gets it” in a world of imbeciles, often descending into ugly tangents where he insults anyone and everyone. Even you, the reader, aren’t spared, as he quickly jumps from appreciation that you’ve made it this far to utter disgust for what you supposedly *did* to get access to his journal. The entries themselves are quite well-written, and you even gain a bit of sympathy for the man as he goes through quite a horrific experience, but that doesn’t change how crummy it feels to be pulled out of this gorgeous, enticing world to listen to this putrid human whine on paper for twenty-minute chunks.
Even if you have to drag Solomon along for the ride, The Old City’s outskirts are truly fulfilling to explore. It’s nice to be given a mystery in a game that actually wants you to employ critical thinking, without bluntly explaining things in the final act or dropping one too many “wink, wink” hints. And as much as people love to deride “walking simulators,” merely exploring ruins without worrying about bandits or zombies lurking around the corner is a pleasant, meditative experience that gives you necessary breathing room to work things out for yourself. If The Old City: Leviathan ends up calling you, you’d be remiss not to answer it.
The Old City: Leviathan is $15 on Steam. A press build of the game was provided by PostMod Softworks.