Hands-On: The Old City Is An Ambitious Journey To Challenge Gaming
The uprising, or surge, of artistic indie games has been an ever-growing trend in modern gaming. It often splits audiences, as some appreciate the different expressions of an art form we all love, while others dismiss the games for their lack of gameplay and potential to be pretentious. Personally, I welcome all of these games because I simply dismiss the idea that gaming should be bounded by any restrictions, and like any other art form it is free to be anything or cater to anyone. As a result I believe that gaming, due to its unique interactivity that sets it apart from other forms of entertainment, and its relative infancy in comparison to other established media, is bounded only by limiters you put in place for it. In short, the more games that deviate from the norms, the more gaming will grow.
The next title in line to challenge gaming is from PostMod Softworks, an indie studio that is currently developing a first person adventure game, The Old City, that comes with a strong statement of intent. The statement in question is that this game focuses on story, and everything else is secondary. PostMod has stated that instead of simply looking for fun, it wants to “broaden gaming into other areas”, and in this case The Old City deals with philosophy. The developer has outright stated exactly what you should not expect from the game, explaining that “there are no weapons, no items, and no skill-trees. All that exists is you and the world.” I’m sure reading this you’ll know exactly whether a game like this appeals to you or not, but I’d advise against outright dismissal considering that our indie game of the year last year was a brilliant title similar in gameplay style, namely The Stanley Parable. But that’s where the comparisons end, because The Old City is an entirely different ball-game of intrigue.
I recently received a demo for the game which made the first fifteen minutes available for play. It’s extremely early stages, and I appreciate that PostMod was very open and honest about what is and isn’t featured in the demo, as well as outlining any issues I may encounter and the reasons for them. However, the demo gave me enough to make me put this game on my radar, and I’ll explore my experience with it after I give you more background as to what this game is about. Right off the bat though, and I’m sure the screenshots will back up what I’m saying, The Old City is an absolutely gorgeous game with stunning visuals and an excellent surreal atmosphere. Developed using the Unreal Development Kit, the talented artists behind The Old City have ensured that you can get lost in the world just due to the atmosphere, colours and design alone, and hopefully it persists into the full game.
The Old City is set in a decaying city from an ancient civilisation that has long seen the end of its days. The game puts players in the shoes of a sewer-dwelling isolationist, who is questionably sane at best. Interestingly enough, PostMod refers to the character as a “Minotaur”, and this person is accompanied in the game by an inner voice that narrates your sensory and physical experience. The game is primarily centered around exploration, and while in the beginning it is said to be linear, the story is essentially about choice and later on it will divide into various pathways that “all communicate something entirely different about the world and the story.” The result is that it’s up to you and your interest and exploration that determines how much or how little you discover.
The story is told through the inner musings of the protagonist, in relation to the paths you’ve chosen, the environment and what you discover. Pathways will be described in the game, and each will be independent of the other. The developer has said that the purpose of this is because in order to understand the game fully, you’ll need multiple playthroughs to explore other avenues. More eloquently put, the more you see the more you’ll potentially understand about the world and story.
It was further revealed by PostMod that you’ll encounter three distinct groups of people in The Old City who become central to the story, described as follows:
Along the way, you will encounter three distinct groups of people. The first of which is a monotheistic group who call themselves the “Guild of the Greater Eye.” Almost a cult, this faction has dominated the first portion of the island that the Old City rests upon. They are not without conflict, however, as another group, the “Order of the Cosmos,” is determined to extinguish their presence on the island. The last group, a sort of wild and uncoordinated conglomerate of individuals, are simply referred to as the “Unknowing.”
After witnessing the consequences of their conflict, the player will delve inland and into the city, where the same three factions will be represented. PostMod says that “here, the same three factions will again be represented. This time, though, they are not at war. In fact, they are now separate entities who coexist while remaining distinct. It is here that you will be given a choice. You will need to ask yourself what you believe and choose the related pathway.”
The abstract nature of the game makes it challenging to explain, as it’s one of those games like The Stanley Parable or Journey where it is best left experienced and interpreted by the individual.
In my short time with the demo I aimed to see everything. I’ll only be focusing on the experience itself, as this was an early build and not in any way indicative of the final product. You start out in what appears to be your character’s place of rest. There is no introductory sequence, tutorial or even an HUD of any kind. The game does exactly what it advertises, and that’s leave you in charge of experiencing the world for yourself. Sure enough the beginning of the game is rather linear, but for the half an hour to an hour that I played the game I was lost in the audio visual experience and the intrigue of the narrative. I’ll admit that at times I wish I had more context, but I understand that in a game like this a fifteen minute segment won’t encapsulate the core of the grand story. Still, I marveled at the art direction and the nature of what I was seeing, and there was one particular sequence (relating to the above picture) that completely detached me from the outside world because it was so interesting.
The demo shows how the world constantly shifts and shows you new things as you make headway. I quite like the voice work by Ryan Cooper, and what enhances the experience is the eerie backdrop music by composer Atrium Carceri. There is not much to explain without giving away spoilers or doing a disservice to the project, but to stress again The Old City is as much an experience as it is an interactive narrative. Some of the narrative dialogue dabbled a little into philosophical mumbo jumbo, but I refrain to criticise the short demo in which I know a lot of the context and extended narrative is missing, but it is something I will be wary of for the full game. Nevertheless I wanted to experience everything in The Old City and I was eager to engage with its content and get lost in its world. I just hope that interactivity and the idea of “things happening”, to put it bluntly, are addressed well in the game, and we get more moments like that standout one I referred to above.
I believe that interactivity is important, and developers who engage in this genre of game need to find the right balance. The developer has stated that gameplay would be kept to a minimum, as exploration is at the forefront of the experience. Interactivity will mainly be present to enhance the story or engage with the world. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out, but as a result The Old City is an audio visual and sensory experience. There it performed excellently based on my experience in the demo. Truth be told I quite like this style of game, and I remember its popularity first starting to grow with The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther, a game I enjoyed. While I don’t believe it quite worked with a horror game like Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, PostMod’s The Old City is absolutely a candidate to make the best of it and I’m feeling optimistic about it based on my time with the demo.
The Old City is definitely on my radar and I’ll be hoping to follow through my experience with the demo with an interview with PostMod in the coming days. However, if you’d like to find out more about the game you can check out its Kickstarter campaign, which provides a ton of detail and insight into development as it stands. The developers really seem like a genuine and intelligent group of people, and I hope their vision can come to fruition in this game. They are definitely getting a positive response from audiences so far, as is evident by The Old City successfully getting Greenlit on Steam.