Exploring The Old City

Today marked my first completion of a game on my newly-built Steambox.

(Catch-up: Steam is a very successful online games marketplace/management tool which I’ve successfully used to enable a virtual hoarding proclivity while simultaneously ameliorating my physical collection, so win-win I suppose. Anyway, the company is in the process of creating PCs for the lounge-room – called Steamboxes – and I recently built one of my own which, miraculously, didn’t catch fire. It’s named after Stephenson’s Rocket.)

The game I completed was Leviathan: The Old City, which has copped a lot of stick for being nothing more than a walking simulator. That is, the gameplay consists largely of walking, looking and listening to narrative. Leviathan allows for climbing of ladders (at some points – you run into invisible walls of doom, mostly, which prevent your moving on if you’re not meant to go somewhere) and the opening of doors/collecting of boxes containing extra narrative – but it’s not really a game in the way we usually define them. Or indeed, in the way that you’d see it defined by someone like David Cage, director of Heavy Rain, and he’s someone who’s pushing for transforming the video game into something other than go here, kill this dude.

The game begins in the aftermath of some calamitous event, and from the outset you’re informed that what you’re about to hear is the discourse of an unreliable narrator. There’s a lot of doom and gloom and more information is gleaned by book and diary fragments than by the narrator’s voice, which is a shame as the guy is really giving his all in trying to sell the story – it’s just a shame that it’s pretty much a load of hand-wavy psychobabble which leads to an unsatisfying ending.

This is perhaps intentional, given the amount of reading in the diaries and fragments – we’re meant to compare the two and find them lacking. A large part of the game focuses on the safety of one’s dreams, and several sequences take place in what are obviously dream palaces (I mean, unless you live an an area of the world where giant minotaurs float above you) and they’re much more ably described in text than voice.

It felt to me that this focus on unreliable narration and dreams and some kind of epistemological tourism was a little bit of a cheat by the developers. I’m a Lynch fan, so obviously I like the creation of worlds which exist but kind of shouldn’t, or are that little bit off-kilter, enough to give me the creeps – but the world here seemed to paper over its logical cracks a little too readily. Yep, it’s an impressive game, visually – they are lovely levels, with the right amount of enormous industrial menace, kind of like The Road meets Philosophy 101. But I always felt something was missing – especially towards the end when the dreamlike, Alice In Wonderland -styled set pieces increased in importance and seemed to add a bunch of details which didn’t explain much but felt like too much.

I think the game likes to play the mystery-is-profundity card a bit too readily, and that’s a shame as the lurking horror of the setup is pretty good, and there’s a lot to like in the detail of the design. I wasn’t even too weirded out by the gameplay – though the floating-pair-of-eyes feeling to the field of view took a bit of getting used to – as it was a world that seemed so involving. It’s just a shame it didn’t involve me more. But then, there’s probably a bunch of fans who’ll be keen to say it’s because I just don’t get it, duh.

Pricewise, the game’s a bit much. I think I scored it on sale – Steam sales are the thing of legend – and so it only cost me a couple of bucks, an amount which I figured was okay for the six-odd hours of gameplay I got out of it. It’s worth a look but I’d hang out for a sale rather than pay the full price, as it is a pretty short game. If you can’t resist, you may buy it here, though. (Until April 9 2015 it’s available in a bundle with a bunch of other games for just under five bucks, which is a more reasonable price point.)

I couldn’t play the game without being reminded of Dear Esther. That was probably the first game of this nature I played, and to my mind it was more successful, though it involved the player even less than Leviathan.

Playable in about an hour, and consisting of a walk around a Hebridean island, Dear Esther was a similarly walk-and-discover-the-story game, though it also featured ghosts. I found its limitations to have been fine for the story the game was trying to tell – it didn’t go too big, and it left enough unexplained to allow the player to make up their mind without drawing attention to a devs’ unwillingness to create a convincing backstory.

Then again, maybe I just like the idea of island-hopping more than sewer-crawling.

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