Video games have always attempted some form of narrative. Generally tacked on separate from gameplay, and usually quite bad, telling stories through this interactive medium has rarely deviated from traditional ideas of linear narrative. Only lately have we seen games that attempt to tell story through the unique capabilities inherent in games. The Old City, the upcoming game from Postmod Softworks, is one such project, aiming to integrate story into experiential interactivity and explore deeply philosophical concepts. We talked to Bob, Design Lead and writer, about the fundamentally different approach to the ‘game’ experience that is setting The Old City apart from its more traditional peers.
“I look at our game like a conversation.” Bob tells us. “You are observing two entities converse with one another, and you are making choices as you inhabit the mind of one of those entities. The first entity is the character who is also the player. The part of the character that you do not control is what he says, and the part you do control is where he goes. The other entity is the environment. Everything the character says throughout the game is really just a response to or a question for the environment, and the environment variously communicates back. Since you control what parts of the environment your character roams, you are indirectly controlling what he says. Thus, in a sort of strange way, you are conversing with an environment.”
“Think of it like a Lewis and Clark diary to epistemology.”
The Old City is putting narrative in the spotlight. Where most contemporary games act to exploit games’ interactivity as a study in gameplay systems and mechanical perfection, The Old City instead is using the unique capabilities of the medium to explore narrative and philosophy. As Bob tells us, “The Old City is an entirely narrative driven game that attempts to deal with issues of philosophy – specifically, epistemology – in an exploratory way.”
“It is exploratory in two senses: on the one hand, the player’s basic task is to discover as much as possible about the world and the story it creates, but it is also exploratory in the sense that we are experimenting with a relatively new form of storytelling altogether.”
Narrative, and indeed linear, expository narrative, have been the go-to crutch for game stories for quite a while. You know how it goes – man is given a gun, man’s friends are killed, man uses gun to travel to the main bad guy, man kills bad guy. The story is secondary to the world, to the gameplay, to the set pieces. It’s a movie that you move through, splattering the set with faceless mook blood as you go. But games are capable of fundamentally more than that, and Postmod understands the importance of embedding narrative within the world. It’s “not simply allegory, but allegory presented in an interactive environment that’s sole purpose is to communicate the story, rather than being about puzzles or anything else of that nature.”
The theme The Old City will explore is a fundamental philosophical one – the nature of human knowledge. Epistemology is a big field, and just how knowledge works is largely a mystery. “[W]e are approaching the issue of ‘how you know what you know’ starting with the autonomous self.” Bob explained. “This is important, because the alternative would be to present a third-person narrative, which is why we are presenting it from – literally – the first-person perspective, having you inhabit the shoes of the main and only living character in the game. A third-person – not simply in visual perspective – narrative would be much easier to do with anything other than an interactive game. This is also why we are tailoring the environment to where you choose to go.”
There is a traditional narrative thread in The Old City that facilitates deeper storytelling. It begins by placing you in the role of a “questionably sane sewer dweller”, on a journey to the Old City on the surface. For the first part of the game you are in the sewers, and then the surrounding areas of the city. These parts have linear progression from one area to another, although 75% of each area’s content is entirely optional. When you reach the Old City itself, the game branches off into three paths, each of which has subsequent smaller branches that depend on the way you approach philosophy.
“Think of each area as a sort of web. It will be quite easy to get from point A to point B, and we are not attempting to force you into flying any other way than the crow, so to speak. Most of the story related content is in the optional recesses of the areas, however, and if you want to get anything out of the game other than ‘a pretty little walk,’ then you will have to make the effort to actually find things.”
The main story, however, is not about why the Old City is in the state that it is, “but rather to explore the player’s own assumptions and philosophy.” The little things matter, since the world itself is “inherently allegorical”, meaning the more you explore, the more sense and information about the Old City’s mysteries you’ll absorb.
While narrative is the main focus, there are some concessions about interactive practicality that must be made. Postmod are doing their best to keep the ‘gamey’ elements to a bare minimum. “There will be absolutely no UI outside of a main menu, and I only recently became comfortable with the idea of even including that.” Bob told us. “There won’t even be a crosshair or a map. This is absolutely not about anything like that. In terms of interaction, the only interaction that exists is that which helps you progress – opening doors, climbing ladders, jumping, etc. – and helps you understand the story – moving important objects around that communicate bits of information.”
As a furtherance, there is no interaction with other characters at all, no combat, and no dying. While there are other people alive in the world, and their group dynamics and inter-group conflicts and interactions are important, the player never directly interacts with other people. Postmod’s approach to narrative, and the inherent abstractness of The Old City’s philosophies, leave little room for combat – and that’s fine. “The implication in the question ‘why did you decide to exclude combat’ is that combat is some sort of base component of games.” Bob told us. “This is absurd, and we all just accept it anyway. Do not misunderstand me, though, as I have no problem with violence in media. Violence happens and it can be a part of any drama, or an effective functional representation of competitive spirit, but to assume that it is essential to what games are is absolutely ridiculous.”
“This problem is important, because it leaves everyone who does not necessarily need combat or violence in their media with a reductionist view of their own work. That is to say, everyone ends up thinking that it is somehow an experiment in minimalism to not have combat, as if the creators made a conscious decision to exclude combat. What if we simply did not make the conscious decision to include combat? Dear Esther is not less of a work in general than Pacman because Pacman has you fighting ghosts. We did not include combat because there is literally no reason for it to be present. It would not make sense in our story framework and it would not make sense in the allegorical world. More importantly, it simply has nothing to do with what we are trying to achieve here. Exploring an environment to understand an allegory that speaks to the relationship between various philosophies has nothing to do with combat, and I won’t stoop so low as to include it to appease a bunch of people who would not necessarily care for what we are actually trying to do, jeopardizing both the cohesion and impact of our story.”
“On that note, I want to make it infinitely clear that this game is not for everyone. It is not even for most people. We are targeting a very specific audience because we are interested in this subject and we are interested in how we are presenting it. I do not mean that in a pretentious way, as if to claim that this is a game for “smart” people. No, I don’t think intelligence has anything to do with it. This is a game for people who are interested in the subject matter – philosophy – and interested in the way we are presenting it – in an interactive world. If you are not interested in either of those things, then, frankly, you shouldn’t play our game.”
The length of the experience is dependent on the player’s inclinations when it comes to exploration. “[A] massive portion of the game is just optional content that you would never necessarily see if you were ‘speedrunning’ the game – a concept that makes me weep internally.” Bob revealed. “If you were such an unfortunate person, you could probably get through the game in less than 2 or so hours, but if you actually take the time to explore everything, it could be anywhere from 5-6 hours.” Bob did emphasise that the game is still in development, so naturally these estimates are subject to change as development progresses. While it could be much longer in the end, the team are adamant that The Old City is “not an RPG or something like that”, and that “wasting time with filler nonsense” is not something the team are interested in doing.
There is a clear goal in mind for each playthrough, too. “A huge goal – pretty much the biggest goal, if I’m honest – is to have the player’s first playthrough reflect his or her own actual philosophy.” Each subsequent playthrough is more of a perspective shift, contrasting different approaches to the philosophies explored. “Now, I’m not suggesting that we have somehow encapsulated literally every possible bed of thought.” Bob clarified. “There are quite a few billion people on the planet, so that would be fairly difficult, and we’re just not that smart! But, we are using fairly common categories that roughly fit quite a few different peoples.” There are three main philosophical tangents, which means at least three playthroughs if a player wants to experience the main ideas, but each of these approaches further divides, meaning “you could end up playing quite a bit, which is why it is important that we keep each playthrough relatively short and include no filler.”
Bob and the team drew heavily from other narrative focused games – most notably from thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. “I, personally, thought it was brilliant.” Bob revealed. “The writing was fantastic and the storytelling was neatly kept while appearing messy at first glance. I’ve played through it more times than I care to admit.” Other sources of inspiration for The Old City came from literary works, specifically from Hebrew mythology and other ancient near-Eastern literature. “While you don’t particularly have to be aware of it to understand what is happening,” Bob explained, “it gives the experience quite a bit more depth.”
With this clear inspiration, just how does The Old City differentiate itself from both Dear Esther, as well as other games depicting a post-apocalyptic setting? The Old City is not strictly post-apocalyptic in the traditional sense. While the Old City is abandoned, it isn’t due to an apocalypse – “at least, it is not a destructive apocalypse.” For the most part, structures are intact, suffering from natural decay “much like Chernobyl.” Another difference is that the environment is alive. “I do not mean that in the sense that most people have meant it.” Bob expanded. “I mean that the environment is literally alive, as in, the environment literally communicates with the player – imply from that what you will.”
The Old City, which is running on Unreal Engine 3, has no release window, with Bob giving the always enigmatic “when it’s done” estimate. We’ll keep our eye on The Old City, and bring you updates when we get new info. Thanks to Bob and the team at Postmod Softworks for taking the time to talk to us about The Old City.