Philosophy(?) in The Old City: Leviathan

I’ve been writing here for about six months, and I think this is the first time that my queue of theology posts has overtaken the video game queue. It’s all because of Dark Souls and my inability to play anything else. Thanks, Dark Souls, you dick. Anyway, I finally dragged myself back to the pile of games I’m supposed to be playing. Today I went through The Old City: Leviathan, and it was honestly pretty cool. There’s a growing list of games with little in the way of gameplay and lots in the way of philosophy. The Old City: Leviathan is one of those games.

There seems to be a trend where, whenever a video game starts playing around with philosophical themes, the community jumps on the ‘Oh we’re too cultured and intelligent for this superficial faux-philosophy’ train. It’s initially a bit jarring coming from a culture that spends most of its time drooling over violence, dealing out death threats, and demonizing any woman who mentions the word ‘equality’, but perhaps it’s just another expression of the general cult of superiority that seems to make up gamer society. To be honest, I’m not totally sure whether Leviathan has anything interesting to say, philosophically speaking, because I haven’t spent the proper amount of time studying it. That said, it’s clearly got philosophical leanings, and I think that in and of itself is a) worth applauding and b) worth thinking about.

I’ll try and summarise the plot based on my first playthrough – but I imagine I’ve got a lot wrong. Society has broken down, and there’s three main sects that are divided based on their theories of knowledge. The Guild believe that God exists and religious tolerance is great, the Order are staunch atheists who believe that it’s all nonsense time-wasting, and the Unknowing are pro-subjectivity ‘nothing can be known’-type people. They all end up killing each other over their differences, because that’s what people do. Besides these three cults, there’s a fourth group: Minotaurs. Minotaurs basically refuse to take sides, and are therefore nominated as peacekeepers, mediators and negotiators. Apparently the Minotaurs aren’t very good at it, because the three groups end up being violent, but there you go. Let me be totally clear: that is a fucking awesome setting with heaps of interesting potential.

Now, the Minotaurs are (mostly) named after Biblical characters – so you’ve got Solomon, Abraham, Moses, and Jonah (and Belle, but don’t worry about her right now). I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Jonah is the protagonist – we’ll proceed with that assumption, anyway. The Biblical Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God, but he refused and took off in the opposite direction, to Tarshish. God sends a storm to stop him, and the sailors toss Jonah overboard to save themselves. Jonah is swallowed by a whale, and three days later he’s chucked up on the shores of Nineveh, where he proceeds to do the thing he was supposed to do in the first place. Again, this is really cool – the protagonist spends all his time banging on about Leviathan, which in Modern Hebrew translates to ‘whale’. This is why I say he’s Jonah – because he thinks he’s in the Leviathan.

There’s a bunch of other stuff going on, in terms of imagery and symbolism etc, but we won’t go into too much of it. For example, the idea of the whale/Leviathan ties into Jonah’s alternate theory of knowledge, for reasons that I half-understand and don’t want to explore right now. I think the main point is that there’s a pretty complex cluster of ideas and symbolism running around in this game, and that’s really cool. Again, I haven’t dug through it for long enough to figure out whether there’s anything worth listening to there, but there’s definitely some pretty cool ideas in the story.

Probably the weakness of the game, to my mind, is the way that story is delivered. A significant chunk of the narrative is told through pages scattered around the environment. Some of these are stuck on the wall, and some of them are pick-ups that you tab into through a menu. For our purposes they’re more or less identical methods though. I’m not sure that text is the best way to communicate story – it seems a little bit like going to a play where somebody just sits on the stage and reads the story to you. The devs decided to throw out gameplay etc, which is fine, but I’d argue text is not the way to replace it. There’s heaps of potential to tell the story in more visual or environmental ways – the game sometimes utilises this potential, but perhaps not as much as it could have.

Let’s take an example. The clearest explanation of the three cults is found – yep – on three separate sheets of paper in a particular area. They basically just say “The Order believes this this and this”, and that’s it. I’ve just dug up the Unknowing description:

“The Unknowing are one of the three ideological groups that spawned from the formation of the Council. Their ideology consists of a loose form of agnosticism. Finding a general [blah blah blah]…

The Unknowing seek to rid any potential new society of the concept of objective truth. And, in doing so, they aim to eliminate oppression entirely, leaving truth to individuals. Their goal is to create a society that adopts subjective truth.”

And that’s just one sheet of paper in the game. Surely there must be more interesting ways to communicate this information! Images are quick and neat – and they suit the medium of video games.

Picture2So here’s a really shitty concept I knocked up in five minutes on PowerPoint. There’s a star surrounded by the five senses, with jail bars in the middle and the word ‘Isolation’ across the middle. In about two seconds we’ve started communicating the Unknowing philosophy: our senses are a prison, and we have no access to objective truth. We’d have to do a little more to draw the idea out fully, but this is not impossible stuff. For the Order (the religious guys) we might have a light descending from God and illuminating the believers – there’s really heaps of potential to communicate visually. It’s quicker, it’s neater, and it doesn’t break up the flow of the game as much. When I was reading through the notes in the tab-menu, I might be pausing for four or five minutes to read through those monsters – they’re huge unwieldy chunks of text.

So anyway: I like what Leviathan is doing, in the sense that I like the direction it’s heading in. It’s great that video games are playing with philosophy – that’s good for the intellectual health of the medium. At the same time, this is one of those ‘stepping stone’ games – it doesn’t display mastery of the medium. In fifty years time we’ll look back at this game as a quaint early step in the right direction.


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