Since it was first revealed, The Old City: Leviathan has attracted many comparisons to other story-heavy games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home. This seems like an apt association. The indie adventure title is a narrative-driven experience that focusses solely on the plot. Everything else is secondary.
The developers at PostMod Softworks are very upfront about this fact, and their Steam storefront spells this out quite clearly. While certain members of the gaming community would disparagingly describe the game as a “walking simulator”, other people who are looking for a unique story experience may want to investigate further. During our playthrough, we were joined by lead designer Blaine Bowen, who shed some light on the development of the game, and the community’s reaction to it.
“Dear Esther was the main influence,” says Blaine, “which is pretty obvious once you’ve played the game, but what struck me about that game was how the story was told through an environment that was in conversation with the character. We really wanted to expand on that and have a character that literally conversed with the environment, so you would jump right into that conversation have to piece together what was going on.”
The idea that the character is conversing with the environment is quite literal in the game. Leviathan starts off with the rambling of an unreliable narrator who is questioning his surroundings, and the game comes across as quite obtuse at first. Slowly, you start to unravel your situation and the events around you. There is a lot of detective work involved in trying to figure out what the story is even about. Would Leviathan require multiple playthroughs to pick up the true story behind it?
“Honestly? Probably more than twice,” suggests Blaine. “From the people we’ve tested it with, they’ve had to play through it a few times, but then something just clicks and they have that ‘aha’ moment. The game is a mixing pot of metaphors and a lot of allegories are going on. The player has make that switch in their head to not care about the literal story so much and focus on the abstract story. Then it starts to make sense to people – but before that, the first half of the first playthrough, people tend to be very, very frustrated, and we kind of designed it to be that way. We wanted it to be as frustrating for you to understand the story as it is for the main character, and we wanted to mirror that frustration with the player.”
So surely the developers are banking on that initial frustration turning into genuine curiosity?
Blaine is keeping an open mind: “I think that’s going to depend a lot on the player. A lot of people are not going to be fans, but if you liked Dear Esther, then you’re probably going to like this. It’s a niche market, but it is a market. I’m not going to pretend that it is a game for everyone, but it should be great for those who are interested in narrative experiences and are willing to do the detective work.”
That investigative spirit is at the forefront of The Old City: Leviathan. Blaine estimates that around 95% of the game’s content is completely optional; so a large proportion of the title relies on the player’s willingness to explore. The Old City’s main character is a sewer-dwelling isolationist. Playing as him, you will proceed slowly through the bowels of the city and the only actions available to you are the ability to walk and open doors. There are no other direct puzzles or action to speak of in Leviathan. All you need to do is soak in the environment, explore, and read the various scattered documents that lend a little background information to the proceedings.
As you progress through the game, you will occasionally notice item boxes that hold further reading in the form of notes. These notes are entirely optional, but do help to inform your investigations and offer a slight collectable aspect to the title. This allows for further story exposition, but only if the player is willing to take the reins.
As with other games in this emerging genre, does it seem that there is an growing demand for stronger narratives in the industry?
“I wouldn’t say that this type of game is pushing narratives specifically, as in it’s not the only driving force,” Blaine says. “A lot of games have already done that. However, I think this kind of game will help to free people up from this almost religious fetishisation of gameplay as the most important aspect of games; which it doesn’t really have to be. There’s space for games where gameplay is a supporting structure to the rest of the game –and you don’t even have use the term ‘game’, it’s a connotative word now, it’s not denotative – so I think it’s going to help people expand the possibilities of what a game can be.”
Visually, the game is looking very nice despite its often drab location, which certainly suits its tone. Running on the Unreal engine, it presents a level of detail that begs the player to pay attention. While the derelict, urban environments are well realised, the dreariness can start to grate after a period of time. Luckily, Leviathan lightens up by the time you reach the city streets and finally escape the sewers. This dereliction hints at an apocalyptic event of some sort, but that event seems to take a back seat in the story.
“It’s important that everything before and after this time is just illusory for the character,” says Blaine. “Keeping that dream state is important, and including too much rigid material and backstory of the game means that reality starts to seep in, and that’s not something we wanted.”
Since The Old City was recently greenlit on Steam, how did PostMod Softworks find the Greenlight program?
“Very passive actually! We just put the game out and we expected to have to campaign hard for it, but the game was greenlit four days after we put it up.”
So, does this indicate a public desire for more narrative-driven games?
“I think it shows that there is a market of people who are looking for more narrative-driven games. Obviously, not everyone is, and we’ve received comments such as ‘you’re ruining games!’, but you have move past those people and focus on those that are interested. It’s not that those people aren’t necessarily interested, they just think that you’re ruining the rest of the games industry with this type of game, and that’s simply not true. You can have a diversity of games, that’s fine.”
Back in June, the developers took the decision to split the game into three parts; Leviathan being part one.
“There are multiple reasons for that,” Blaine explains. “The main reason being that the game was going to be too long, which is important for a game like this. A lot of complaints about games such as this is that they are too short, for example, Dear Esther is only an hour long. The problem is, with the way the narrative works, you wouldn’t want a ten to fifteen hour game, due to the slow pacing and ambience. That, and the story already had three distinct acts, so it seemed to make sense.”
According to Blaine, there aren’t any set plans as to when parts two and three will be released just yet: “We have two options in front of us; one is to release each part eight months apart, but we were also considering putting parts two and three together. I don’t want to spoil the end of this of this game by giving too many details, but you’ll probably understand why that would be necessary by the end of part one. If we did do that, then it could be a year or two away.”
While Leviathan is just part one of this story arc, it appears to be fairly large chunk in its own right. The way in which the story is conveyed through the architecture and surroundings certainly seems intriguing, and we’re looking to seeing what the full game has to offer upon release. The game will be available on December 1 via Steam.