The Old City: Leviathan is a first-person game about exploration and storytelling. Set within, beneath and around an abandoned metropolis, it doesn’t contain any puzzles or combat, concentrating instead on the musings of its narrator, and the discovery of histories, personal and otherwise. I’ve spent some time investigating the belly of the beast in a preview build and I’m not quite sure whether to recommend a visit or send out a call for urban renewal.
Perhaps the whale is to blame. The first image of The Old City that I saw pictured a gasping whale – and since then, the game has been linked with Dishonored in my mind.
It’s not entirely the whale’s fault. Dishonored’s Dunwall belongs to the select few creations which cast a long, sharp shadow across a genre. Like the City of Thief: The Dark Project before it, Dunwall is as distinctive, evocative and memorable an environment as I’ve ever seen in a game. The grime and weird glamour of its whalepunk industrial/magical realism might not infiltrate the medium quiet as thoroughly as Bladerunner’s future noir, but the influence will be felt for a long time to come.
The Old City’s developers don’t mention Dishonored in their list of inspirations but I suspect they’d acknowledge the usefulness of the comparison. For the record, the three games mentioned are Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. Like that trio, The Old City is a game in which walking, looking and listening are just about the only available actions (there are doors to open the occasional button to push), and everything rests on the quality of the storytelling and environment.
Happily, there’s a great deal to admire. Intentionally ambigious though it may be, there are several hooks in the narrative, not least of which is the desire to travel upward and out. The game (or at least the preview build) begins in an underground water treatment facility that made me long for a skybox and a horizon. It’s a dingy place, and it risks becoming dull as its corridors become tunnels and the same painted eye stares out from almost every wall.
But there are bright corners in the belly of the beast. Signs point toward the exit but linger for a while and explore the depths. There’s a dining hall that seems to be plucked from another time and place entirely. The only two people present aren’t people at all – they’re statues, frozen in place as you might believe the entire world were if not for the flicker of candles in the gloom.
The narrator makes cryptic comments as you wander from room to room, but in that place he becomes a little panicked, the sneer of discontent and slight superiority cracking for a moment. It’s a necessary emotional pinprick of a moment – necessary because so many of the words spoken are half-formed philosophical musings and memories of the various factions that once populated the city.
For much of the time I’ve been playing, I feel that the game has been holding me at arm’s length to maintain its air of mystery. I hope that’s an aspect of the player character rather than a deliberate vagueness. I’m all for games that tell a story without the punctuation of puzzles or pugilism, but The Old City takes a while to build any momentum. In fairness, I should add that I mistook the main character’s voice – speaking of exploring ‘your belly’ in a monologue directed at the city – as the voice of a tapeworm living inside him. Not for the first time, I have too much Filth in my mind.
The Old City is more interested in tickling the mind than tugging the heartstrings, but it hasn’t caused a stirring to trickle up my stem as of yet. It’s intriguing but there’s no warmth to huddle around and the threads of mystery are loose, although there are pleasing moments when something seems to pull at them as an idea is revealed.
But those memories of Dunwall stick. If The Old City is, in some way, Dishonored without the stealth and the stabbing, it is also Dishonored without the strong sense of place. The inconsistencies of The Old City’s locations support the sense of exploring memory and myth, but they deny the joy of understanding a larger structure in an architectural sense. It’s impossible to judge the whole having had a taste, as so much will depend on how the world and character are developed, but I’m not fully convinced by what I’ve seen.
Going back to those inspirations, The Old City doesn’t have the wit and metafictional flare of The Stanley Parable, or the heart and credible environment of Gone Home. I’m not sure exactly how it compares to Dear Esther because I didn’t manage to stick that one out (although I did go on to become possibly the world’s greatest admirer of Machine For Pigs – go figure).
Despite being slightly unenthusiastic about what I’ve seen so far, I’ll definitely return to The Old City when it’s open for business. There’s enough here to suggest the visit will be worthwhile, even if I haven’t experienced the Eureka moment just yet.