Title: The Old City: Leviathan
Release Date: Dec 1, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Postmod Softworks (Postmod Softworks)
ESRB Rating: N/A
“You and I have shared a grand nothingness.”
“When meaning is deconstructed, the only driving force for progress is the acceptance of uncertainty.”
Half walking simulator, half existential novel, The Old City Leviathan is a deliberate, sober examination of both the human mind and its ability to cope with the traumas and contradictions intrinsic to life. It confronts the intellectual roots of human suffering head-on, pouring through conflicting ideologies and the ultimate cynicism they finally engender, making a serious effort to develop a new state of mind that will free people from endless cycles of destructive thought. It’s a rigorous, unflinching examination some of the worst aspects of being human, and Postmod Softworks was incredibly brave to make it.
The Old City: Leviathan probes the bleakest corners of life in search of hope, embracing insanity, violence and despair in a genuine search for some way to live freely and meaningfully amidst the ruins. Despite all this, it is not a dark game. It contains elements of horror, madness, and death, but there is beauty in the fallen world it depicts, and the game never stops encouraging you to move forward, even if you don’t know where or why. The Old City: Leviathan features a character named Jonah, and like his biblical namesake Jonah’s story is one of isolation and struggle, yet he emerges from it renewed. It makes for a remarkably deep experience, despite only lasting about four hours.
After the Fall
Jonah inhabits an island that became a refuge after civilization collapsed—or at least it was, before the everyone split into different factions and began killing each other. Referred to as the Fall, the collapse of society is described as a gradual, unremarkable affair that was the inevitable result of the erosion of the ideals holding civilization together. Fleeing the Fall, people retreated to the island and revived old ideologies in different forms to serve as the foundations of their new society. Called Dwellers, the island’s inhabitants settled in the underground tunnels and buildings on the surface, all residing outside the walls of what they called the Old City. They only drank water that had been filtered on an industrial level, since Unclean Water exposed them to a state of mind called Void that causes hallucinations, severe migraines, and thoughts of suicide. Jonah admits to having ingested Unclean Water, but claims an entity called Leviathan saved him.
Without going into too much detail, the factions in the game are the Guild of the Greater Eye, the Unknown, the Order of the Cosmos, and the Minotaurs, representing spirituality, agnosticism, materialism, and nihilism, respectively. Inevitably, war broke out between the various schools of thought as each concluded that theirs was the one true belief, leading to the destruction of their home.
When the game begins the internecine wars are over, and Jonah is the last living soul on the island. Save for when Jonah speaks to Leviathan, the entirety of The Old City: Leviathan‘s story is told through the written word. Typed journals and letters are plastered on walls and left on desks. Graffiti is scrawled on the walls in forms that range from obscene puns to furious outbursts of despair to ornate graphs representing entire cosmologies of belief. Obscure maxims are carved in stone.
The game doesn’t have a save feature, rather you pick a level and you always start at the beginning. Each level was brief and self-contained enough that it never really became an issue for me. You can get through each of The Old City: Leviathan‘s 11 chapters in just a few minutes if you so desire, but if you want to understand how the island reached its present state and the ideas that led it to ruin, you’ll have to venture away from the direct route and explore. The messages you encounter both reveal the world Jonah occupies and obscure it, showing human beings in diverse states of conflict, faith, introspection, and despair as they desperately cling to their beliefs, then watch them slip away. It’s a mystery why Jonah has survived while everyone else perished, though the entity he calls Leviathan may have something to do with it. The war having burned itself out, we travel with him across the areas of the island surrounding the Old City, experiencing his reactions to the destruction around him, his philosophical ruminations, and his hallucinatory madness. It’s a meditative experience that encourages many conflicting interpretations, and I have no doubt that some people will find it utterly unbearable.
If you like first-person exploration games but existential philosophy makes you gag, you should skip The Old City: Leviathan. Even if the Unreal Engine Postmod Softworks used is starting to show it’s age andP.T. spoiled us all for looking closely at stuff in games, The Old City: Leviathan‘s graphics are good. However, all the game’s environments are reflections of inner conflicts, and if the player can’t invest in the interplay between the two, the game will have no impact. The Old City: Leviathan owes much toDear Esther in that way, as well as a great many other ways.
Dear Esther and The Old City: Leviathan both feature men exploring a bleak but attractive landscape devoid of human life. The protagonists in both games are probably insane, experiencing hallucinations and spending the game talking to someone who isn’t there. The men in both games are on a kind of pilgrimage for something intangible: in Dear Esther it’s the search for closure, in The Old City: Leviathanit’s the search for a replacement for certainty. The Old City: Leviathan even has you leap down into darkness to transition between levels like Dear Esther does. Both games consist entirely of wandering around in a first-person perspective and looking at stuff. The list goes on.
Despite all this, the similarities never bothered me, nor did I ever think it showed a lack of creativity on Postmod Softworks’ part. My opinion would probably be different if there were a dozen games coming out with the same formula, but as it stands now the medium is still novel enough to adapt different ideas without getting stale, and Dear Esther and The Old City: Leviathan are very different in this regard. Dear Esther is about one man’s grief. The Old City: Leviathan is about finding a way to live in a world that defies hope. Aside from an an affinity for caves and bending reality, the two games have little in common besides their formula.
The Old City: Leviathan is much more hallucinatory than Dear Esther, and much more violent. The consequences of the Fall are all around Jonah, the grim reminders of people killing each other in pursuit of a belief, or falling prey to Void and killing themselves. Jonah’s mental state causes hallucinations to appear in the real world, but he also leaves it completely in favor of what he calls Dreams. Entire levels are set in a strange fantasy world of Jonah’s creation, a world where palaces and sculpture gardens float on islands in a heavenly sky, and great bestial titans slumber peacefully like fantastic ideas yet to be realized. In this way Jonah is able to split his time between an exterior world of conflict and an interior world where ideas are free and don’t hurt anyone. The Old City: Leviathan is the story of the island’s destruction, but it’s also about the world inside Jonah, as well as a tragic, self-negating character named Solomon.
One man’s experience.
Throughout the game Jonah can find collectibles called Solomon’s Notes, each of which are first-person journals kept by a passionately miserable man who lived before The Old City: Leviathan begins. Totaling seven in all, Solomon’s Notes form a picture of a brilliant mind furiously torturing itself. Solomon can’t help deconstructing every thought, impulse, feeling, or action he encounters in himself or anyone else, a cycle of destructive over-reflection that’s led him to loathe people, the world, and himself. Solomon and Jonah are both mad, but while Jonah is steeped in fantasy, Solomon suffers from a debilitating excess of rationality. Solomon’s Notes resides in the rich tradition of existential novels narrated by angst-ridden characters such as Notes from the Underground, The Fall, and Steppenwolf. In short, if you were miserable in high school, Solomon’s Notes will be immediately familiar.
Solomon’s Notes aren’t “notes” anymore than the Underground Man’s fevered journals in Notes From The Underground are notes. Taken together, the seven entries are long enough to form a 30,000 word novella unto themselves. They’re far too long to read immediately after you find them without becoming completely removed from the game, which is entirely contrary to the spirit of a game that strives so hard to establish a sense of place. Though I know they don’t have the resources for it, I wish Postmod Softworks could’ve published the entirety Solomon’s Notes in a supplementary book. As it is, Solomon’s Notes are best accessed from the game’s main menu and read at your leisure. The first entry is too long and meandering, but they get shorter and more interesting as you go on. They ultimately prove tragic, horrific and moving—in other words, well worth your time.
There’s a chapter in Solomon’s Notes where he encounters Jonah, prompting an exchange where we learn more about Jonah and his beliefs than we do in the game itself. The Old City: Leviathan ends abruptly, leaving us to ponder the questions it’s posed and the character we’ve inhabited. Who is Jonah? Who was he before he went insane? What is the nature of the entity called Leviathan he spends the game talking to? Is it related to the biblical Leviathan, or the societal Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes’ book? Why did people shun the Old City? We don’t know. There is no resolution in The Old City: Leviathan, in fact, the ending will likely be greeted with a great, collective “That’s it?!” Like the characters in the game, we’re forced to draw our own conclusions.
A thoughtful experience.
The Old City: Leviathan doesn’t indulge in what is pejoratively referred to as “dorm room philosophizing”. It isn’t Heidegger, but it goes deep, and expects you to follow. Along the way are environments that range from the industrial to the abstract, accompanied by a fitting score of music that echoes, fades, soars, and rumbles, moving seamlessly between genres that range from ambient music to Gregorian chant. It’s not an easy journey or even a very pleasurable one, but I feel like it moved me. When the Leviathan finally spits us out we emerge optimistic, or at least determined to pioneer a world devoid of ideology or certainty.
Postmod Softworks says on their website that The Old City: Leviathan is the first part of a larger story. They’ve successfully drawn me in to the point where I dearly want to see what they do next.