Postmod Softworks' The Old City: Leviathan features something that's become increasingly hard to find these days: a mystery with no easy answers.
Like other environmental storytelling games (or "walking simulators") Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Dear Esther, The Old City drops you into an unexplained world and provides a motivation to explore, but its conclusion differs greatly from others of the genre. Instead of providing a satisfying twist to tie everything you've experienced into a neat, little package, The Old City closes its final curtain with the same ambiguity seen at the very beginning. Ostensibly, you're asked to do nothing more than find your way from one end of the game to the other, but the true objective can be found in putting the pieces together for a satisfying interpretation—one you're definitely not going to get with a single playthrough.
The Old City takes place during a post-apocalypse, but unlike most games' treatment of this setting, the world-ending events are rarely explained or touched upon—a journal you find even remarks on the sheer mundanity of society's downfall. You awake in a squalid, industrial storeroom littered with personal possessions, and a lilting voice in your head drives you onwards, commenting and philosophizing on past events and the nature of Man along the way. Based on notes scattered around your makeshift home, you learn your true mission: finding the surface, and hopefully, clean water. But is it really? Keep in mind The Old City opens with the text: "You are about to inhabit a broken mind. Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy." Given you'll never find a living human being who can help explain anything, knowing you can't trust your senses makes The Old City's central mystery all the more sticky.
Much like other games of the genre, how much you get out of The Old City depends on the lengths you're willing to go to figure things out. The exits to each of its eleven chapters don't take more than a few minutes to reach, but exploring the periphery can be worthwhile—especially because The Old City makes its environments feel authentic. Like real-world structures, there's more than one way to get from point A to point B, and you're rarely made to feel as if The Old City wants to guide you down an explicit path. And because of this, you're not going to see everything in one go: I played through the first four chapters in a press build over a month ago, and, upon returning to the game, I still managed to find my way to new places (and also missed things I saw the first time around).
Though they're not graced with the jaw-dropping photorealism of Ethan Carter, The Old City manages to create some convincing and atmospheric backdrops, and jumps between various types of settings from chapter-to-chapter for the sake of mixing things up. After exploring the dank remnants of an industrial building, reaching the surface feels like coming up for air—and even if you don't find anything of note, basking in these outdoor environments for just a few minutes helps temper the claustrophobia of urban exploration.
The design of The Old City's various areas does an effective job of communicating past events, which is why the micro-level details come off as far less thoughtful. As expected, you'll be combing over journal entries, notes, and other written texts left behind by this lost civilization, but for the most part, they're artlessly placed throughout the environments, which puts a few cracks in The Old City's normally effective sense of immersion. By the time you stumble across your 20th typewritten note affixed to the wall at eye level for no particular reason, you start to get the feeling they were put there for your benefit, and not necessarily due to the circumstances of everyday life.
By the end of The Old City, I had only some vague notions as to what exactly took place, though this didn't affect my enjoyment: What I learned this time around will hopefully shed more light on the game's world during further tours of the post-apocalypse. The Old City isn't too stingy with it secrets, though, as savvy explorers can find seven journals throughout which gradually unlock a novella-length story which provides much more context than the game itself—but still, no easy answers. With The Old City's 2-3 hour length (even less if you know where you're going), and the ability to start directly from a chapter once you've finished it, I get the feeling Postmod is actively encouraging multiple playthroughs to make the most of their slippery narrative. This take isn't necessarily for everyone, but if you have the patience to figure things out without the motivation of a tangible reward, untangling The Old City's mysteries can be extremely gratifying.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: For the most part, The Old City's visuals are simple-but-effective, and do a great job of communicating past events of the world around you.
- Sound: The Old City's sound design helps sell the loneliness of the setting, and packs each area with incidental noises that would normally be masked by the presence of other human beings.
- Interface: Seeing as you can only steer your character around and interact with doors, there's not a whole lot to screw up here.
- Lasting appeal: If you're hungry for answers to The Old City's mysteries, one playthrough definitely isn't going to satisfy you. Luckily, the game makes revisiting old areas completely painless.
The Old City offers a great story, and one that's at its most rewarding when approached with a literary mindset. If you're not offended by a game with an ending that raises more questions than answers, Postmod's creation delivers an experience with a noteworthy amount of restraint—and one that's begging to be revisited multiple times.
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