It’s been said that video games are a medium that have not yet attained the level of depth and intellectual exploration that other older storytelling art forms—film and literature, chiefly—have reached. It’s even been questioned if they ever will. It’s true that the vast majority of game narratives lean heavily on tropes to construct their plots, characters are often based on predictable archetypes, and the simplicity of the good vs. evil dichotomy is rarely strayed from. But is this the only way for games? Maybe. I would argue that much of the tendency to stick to simple narratives in games is driven by the particular attributes of the video game medium itself. Unlike film and literature where plot can be given full focus and weight if so desired, video games always have another obligation—that is, the game part. Not that a gaming element entirely stifles the enrichment of a story, but it brings along other side effects that change the way information is absorbed by those engaged with it.
Creators of a game do not control every detail and moment of a game’s playthrough. It wouldn’t be a game if they did. Games are dynamic—they’re different every time you play. The director of a movie decides exactly what happens at every second of the film, and has full control over the pacing and actions of the characters, as does an author with his novel. This isn’t true in a video game. For instance, you can interrupt the game by pausing, and may even be forced to; you can run around in a circle and be a weirdo and do things that could be interpreted as not consistent with your character’s personality; a piece of music plays for different amounts of time depending on how quickly you advance to the next scene; you can glitch the game; you might die and restart multiple times; you may experience frustration when stuck (when was the last time a movie truly frustrated you?). All these situations that are commonplace in gaming introduce a non-ideal climate for a fully immersive dramatic unfolding. Pretty much the only times games have full control of the scene is during cutscenes, which of course are just mini-films injected into the game with either no gaming mechanics, or worse, quick time events (yuck!)
Despite all this, games with deep or irregular plot lines are becoming more common. It may be just about time that a game came along and really shook things up. Are you thinking I’m going to say The Old City: Leviathan is that game? Like I would tell you this early in the article.
The Old City: Leviathan is what many people refer to as a “walking simulator”. The title is used disparagingly at times, and I don’t believe it is completely accurate, so I will instead use “first person explorer”. The main element these types of games share is a noticeable reduction in the amount of interactivity the character has with his surroundings compared to most games. In The Old City: Leviathan your character can walk (and quite leisurely, might I add), and he can open doors. That’s pretty much it. It does happen that he can jump, as well, but given that there isn’t a single use for jumping in the entire game, it seems that this was included if only the player needs a reminder that the character is still under their control.
But just because your character isn’t visibly interacting with his environment doesn’t mean the player isn’t being stimulated. The Old City: Leviathan features incredible set design. The game is gorgeous through and through, and its imagery captures suspense, dreamlike awe, and gnawing terror in a potent swirl from start to finish. There is always something interesting to look at, and the abandoned, surreal landscapes bring about a unique feeling of isolation and helplessness, but also a rush of utter freedom.
I’m going to lay it all out for you right here; this is what you are going to be doing for the length of your time with this game:
We have covered that you will walk around in utter astonishment at the dreamlike masterpiece around you. Yes, but you will also read, and you will listen. Your embodied character has a lot on his mind, and he will share it with you whenever you walk into an area that triggers his rambling brain. If you are familiar with the writing of modernist authors, his stream-of-conscious style will not seem foreign. Otherwise you might believe you are inside the mind of a madman. Which actually might be true either way, but picking apart the tangled themes of conformation, class control, isolation, dreams and the self, action vs. comfort, and oppression of thought is the meat of the experience. The game happens as much in your own mind as it does on the screen.
The other main source of information comes from notes found littered throughout the game. They are largely written in the same cryptic style, but often reveal more of the concrete events and history of the world you are inhabiting. You read the notes in a much more organic way than in most games, where instead of “clicking to read” and having a lightbox pull up the written material to fit nicely in your screen view, you simply walk up to them, and read. Sometimes you have to move around a bit to get the right angle or distance to get a readable view of the note, but this experience is satisfying in that it promotes suspension of believe in the player by not compartmentalizing the flow of events. Finally, you cannot expect to see everything there is in one playthrough. The corridors branch and weave in a way that you will most definitely lose track of where you are at times. And you should! This isn’t a game to have to worry about doing it “the right way”. It is a game that implores you to revisit it several times over and have a new experience each time.
So is this an example of high art in game form? Yes and no. The answer is yes when it comes to the game’s artistic achievements, as its thought-provoking narrative combined with its imaginative surroundings create a powerful impression. But these achievements possibly only had room to exist because of the shutting out of traditional game mechanics. So in the end it just serves as further evidence that the presence of the “game” is what creates the challenge to the art.
This is less of a review than it is a reflection, so I’m not going to rate the game, but instead I’ll offer a qualified recommendation. The Old City: Leviathan is beautiful and gives a rich experience to those who can appreciate it. But two things must be true for you to enjoy the game: you must like a subtle experience of looking, listening, reading, and not expecting to be able to do anything with your surroundings—even as simple as picking up a single object. And the other is that you must be satisfied with a narrative that is open-ended, completely lacks the rise and fall of a traditional dramatic structure, and does not arrive at any definite conclusions or concrete messages. Nothing gets resolved; no one gets saved; the world does not become a better place. You simply drift, and feel. So if you are the type of person that requires conventions of plot and form—if you need explosions, damsels, accomplishments, certainty—I cannot recommend the game. But for those who are seeking something different—something profound—The Old City: Leviathan should not be overlooked.
And as for the fate of true literature in video games: yes, I believe there are unique challenges to fully achieving it—but no, it is not impossible. There are fleeting moments of it in plenty of games. But the bottom line is, games are not meant to be the most ideal storytelling vessels, they are meant to be games. They can be more, but to a greater degree than any of the other mediums mentioned, (here’s the thing) they don’t need to be. Which when it comes down to it, is likely the biggest reason of all for a lack of anything besides a deep gaming experience. Though an engaging story complements certain games nicely, the true art in video games lies in the mechanics of the game itself. There possibly will never be a Ulysses or Citizen Kane of video games, and that’s fine—there will still be amazing games that achieve plenty of things that literature, film, or any other medium cannot.