Old Gods Rising (2020)

Over the last few years, there has been a genre defined by the main type of mechanic in the game, which is movement, or exploring… more commonly referred to as walking. This type of game arose in popularity due to games like Gone Home, or Dear Esther. These games are based almost solely in getting the narrative across by just exploring the environment with minimal to no interactivity with the environment. I’ve enjoyed games like this in the past, things like Virgina, or Tacoma have become perfect bite-sized games that are not perfect, but just so enjoyable with a very low barrier of entry that recommending them is easy to do, especially since they require very little time and are usually a couple bucks if not free a year or so after release.

I stumbled onto Old Gods Rising because of a Reddit post by the developer trying to promote the game. I looked it up on steam and read a few reviews. Steam Reviews are usually pointless as they are mostly a couple words that read like a 4 year old wrote them “Game good 11/10” Or “This game sucks!” with no explanation on why it sucks and they also have dropped several hundred hours into the game. I don’t put a lot of merit into steam reviews, but I did notice a couple saying it was a “walking simulator, but had great level design”. As I saw it only took a couple hours to complete, and I was trying to kill a few hours, I decided to grab it while it was on sale for $10.

Old Gods Rising is a game made by an “Ex-Bioware employee” and like most “walking simulator” games, they usually take around two hours to complete. Sometimes a little bit more or less by how much you walk off the beaten path and explore. I adore these types of games, as they usually are more personal experiences from single person developers, or a very small group of friends. You can tell this game was made with someone’s personal interest at the heart of the game.

You play as Tom Winston who is a professor that is fairly well known, has a tv show, but has become harassed by the media because of his gullible nature to pursue fantasy theories. He reminds me of Giorgio Tsoukalos, the ancient aliens guy who was on the history channel, that became a meme with his crazy hair and arms in the air saying “Aliens”. Tom is contacted by a semi-famous B movie director Maz Kayfer who wants to have Tom come consult on the movie being filmed at the University. He convinces Tom to at least visit the university, but upon arrival, Tom notices the entire University is set up with movie trailers and props, but not a single living soul. Of course there is no cell phone signal available either, so it starts feeling pretty eerie right off that bat.

Tom contacts Maz, through a walkie talkie, who is off site at a secondary shooting location. Tom agrees that he will walk around the campus and try to find the crew and wait for Maz. Maz also asks Tom to explore a bit and find some stone monuments and help Maz understand them and consult on them to see if they can fit it in the movie somehow.

The whole game takes place on the University campus and you don’t interact with anyone. It truly is a narrative exploration game,  with a couple different items to pick up and use, but mostly just walk around and explore. The game has several statues placed all around that provide a bit of 4th wall breaking pop culture in jokes and memes, which don’t feel that out of place. Usually they feel forced, but here as they are more pieces of art placed on a college campus, they seem to work within the confines of the game’s universe.

There are also red phone booths that can you use to call your girlfriend Lex, and keep her up to date on the weird things happening. She gives you a bit of guidance and becomes a sounding board for the strange things taking place. Along with Lex, you can call different numbers you find on bulletin boards that have some extra added little dialog with  people that make the game  feel a bit more lived in. I really appreciated these added bits, since the game can feel a bit too empty and static while walking around.

As the game goes on, the story becomes a bit harder to piece together what is real and what is not. Even at the end of the game, reality is more ambiguous than what I feel it should be. I’ve never liked the open-ended type of endings. The “make your own ending to the story up”. I always like games with an ending, whether good or bad, at least it has a definitive ending. Because too many games try to go back years later, with an open ending that people had made up in their minds, and when a sequel does come out, it retcons someone’s ending, because it was never solidified.

I enjoyed the game immensely, for what it was. Which is the caveat for a lot of these smaller types of games. The normal $20 price tag is pretty steep for a game that feels more janky than it should be. The controls and animations for the few things you do interact will feel very much like a unity game jam with incomplete animations. It's a small nitpick, but could make the game feel much more complete with a bit of polish and would allow the game to “earn” a bit more of that $20 normal price tag. To be honest, I don’t see the game remaining with that price for a long time as I did see some complaints on the Steam Reviews about it being a bit too high.

Games like this do hold a very special place in my heart, and even with the less polished aspects, they do get a pass in some of those aspects because of what they are. Which are more personal, smaller stories done by a small team. These games are why indie games are great, and held to a different standard. If Old Gods Rising was a $60 game developed by Bioware proper, it’d be laughed out of the industry because it’s so janky and unpolished. There is an expectation there for quality. But I don’t hold that same standard to a small indie dev team, because there is no way they could deliver a game experience like that. Old Gods Rising was a enjoyable experience with some minor flaws that could be fixed and make it a little bit better. But I’d much rather the developer just learn from those mistakes and flaws and incorporate the knowledge they learned from this, into their next game instead. Set your expectations properly for what this game is, and you’ll find it a decent and satisfying couple of hours with a tale that might not be what it seems, or is it? Is it?