When I was fifteen, I borrowed, on extended loan, my tenth grade English teacher’s copy of “Notes from Underground.”Dostoyevsky’s sardonic, unhinged narrator gave me one of my first philosophical shakeups. I’d never run into a critique of rationalism like this before: “But man is a frivolous and unseemly being, and perhaps similar to a chess player, likes only the process of achieving the goal, but not the goal itself.” I was swept up by the narrator’s contention that life should be lived as an open-ended proposition rather than as the product of fixed sums. His statement was an invitation to adventure, which appealed to me as a capricious teenager.
The narrator of PostMod Softworks’ “The Old City: Leviathan” also believes that it is better to concentrate on the journey rather than the endpoint. He is one of the Underground Man’s legion of descendants—cantankerous, unsteady men. Just as Dostoyevsky felt the need to append an explanatory note to the beginning of his short novel, “The Old City” opens with a disclaimer: “You are about to inhabit a broken mind. Not everything you see or hear is trustworthy.” Putting a literal accent on Dostoyevsky’s metaphorical underground, the man in question appears to be the last living member of a community of survivors who took refuge in an underground facility following a cataclysmic event known as the Global Incident.
In a small brick-lined room adorned with a dirty mattress in one corner and a desk with a typewriter in another, we meet our unseen protagonist, whose viewpoint we adopt for the length of the game. Considering the man’s one-sided chitchat directed toward something known as Leviathan, which is also addressed in signed, typewritten notes along the walls, one infers that Jonah is the name of the protagonist. Like his namesake in the Bible, he, too, is destined for the belly of a great fish. But the story teases us with other hypotheses that make it challenging to nail down his identity. Maybe he is suffering from schizophrenia or from self-induced hallucinations due to drinking contaminated water?
Oppressed by a sense of lethargy, Jonah decides to leave his familiar underground abode to discover what he can on the surface. As he begins to traverse the industrial-looking environment, his surroundings appear unremarkable. All the same, he talks aloud as though he were a supplicant, as if Leviathan were some all-enveloping entity inside which Jonah is a parasite.
Jonah’s journey to The Old City is as much an intellectual expedition as it is a voyage from place to place. The game is as concerned with epistemology — how we know what we know about reality — as it is with twisting its three-dimensional spaces in peculiar ways. From a player, the game asks only that you listen to its protagonist’s ruminations about life – his experiences, his perceptions, his speculations—and thread your way through progressively more fantastical environments, which include remixes of areas you have visited. Beyond taking in the game’s beautiful vistas, interaction with your surroundings is limited to listening to the narrator, opening doors, and finding things to read. (To fully appreciate the game, you’ll need to read about a novella’s worth of text.)
For some, a video game that is not built around mastering tricky gameplay mechanics or scenarios that involve winning or losing is not a game at all. On the website for “The Old City,” the developers call out this ideology. “A common phrase used in [the video game industry] is ‘gameplay first.’ The assumption is that anything other than the gameplay mechanics themselves is secondary and even unnecessary. ‘Dear Esther’ was one of the first to challenge that concept, opening the door for titles such as ‘The Stanley Parable’ and ‘Gone Home,’ and we intend to build upon that foundation.”
Each of the above mentioned games (the first two are particular favorites of mine) is notable for how it demonstrated that the simple act of navigating a three-dimensional, digital space could be intrinsically rewarding if one’s exploration was buttressed by a compelling narrative. “The Old City” certainly merits a place in that constellation of titles. Its story about one man’s quest to come to terms with and circumvent the major ideologies of his dilapidated world – which according to the texts he discovers flowed out of different sects’ theistic, atheistic, or agnostic beliefs – is as thoughtful a story as I have seen tackled in a video game thus far.
“The Old City” is a work imbued with an avant-garde sensibility. It pushes video games away from the cinematic structures that most three-dimensional games try to emulate toward something more literary requiring the exercise of one’s interpretive muscles more than one’s hand-eye coordination.
If you haven’t kept up with your metaphysical thinkers, you might need to play through “The Old City” more than once to master its storyline. Personally, I find it exciting to think that video games have evolved to a point where they can sustain that level of scrutiny.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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