Lovecraftian detective thriller The Sinking City bobs up – but does it actually sink, or defy its title and swim?
The works of HP Lovecraft are notoriously difficult to adapt. The early 20th century author’s tales were bizarre and esoteric, his writing style verbose and frantic. When Lovecraft submitted them to the pulp fiction publications of his day, he established a cynical, fatalistic view of humanity’s place in the cosmos – one of insignificance, foreboding, and deep unknowable horror.
Translating Lovecraft’s masses of short stories and novellas into movies or games rarely results in things that could be considered ‘100% successful’ – the most notable and faithful videogame adaptation being Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth for the Xbox in 2005. Lovecraft’s preference for dense yet short pieces of writing seem to contribute to the fact that realistically, pulling themes and iconography from his work is a better call than attempting an out-and-out recreation.
So perhaps going open world – and allowing for smaller, self-contained narratives within the context of a larger story of cosmic terror – is the best way to experience the bite-sized horrors of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In The Sinking City, developer Frogwares tells a good old fashioned detective story in order to delve into some of the lesser-trod concepts of Lovecraft.
Cast as nightmare-haunted private investigator Charles Reed, players wade into the atmospheric and partially destroyed city of Oakmont, the site of a massive ecological disaster known only as ‘the Flood’. Reed’s main drive throughout the story is to discover the connection between his visions and the darkness that has descended upon Oakmont. Things get deep and fishy, and it’s not clear whether Reed will get out of it with his head on straight, or on at all.
Oakmont itself is a place that ought to have been deserted long ago. Its streets are now rivers, and the bombed-out remains that still allow foot traffic are post-apocalyptic in their disrepair. Cars burn wildly in the streets, houses have collapsed in on themselves. Citizens wander almost aimlessly through the streets, some carry briefcases – almost as an outward denial of their circumstances. Men kneel at the water’s edge and scream nonsense prayers at the horizon, women cry inconsolably on street corners. Hysteria and madness abound. It rains – constantly.
“The shattering of Oakmont reveals a city that was broken far earlier than the rising of the tides.”
The shattering of Oakmont reveals a city that was broken far earlier than the rising of the tides. Bigoted and racist elements have ancient roots here, mostly in the form of a social hierarchy topped by various ‘grand families’, a racist, indifferent police force and newspaper, and the literal KKK. Frogwares, as their disclaimer at the opening of the game suggests, seem to appreciate the kind of period they’re playing with when adapting Lovecraft. Past games have failed to wrestle with the writer’s xenophobia, racism and white supremacy.
Frogwares structures its world to draw full attention to the wrongs exacted on those who, in the past, would have been cast as villains in Lovecraft’s stories. Innsmouthers (yes, from The Shadow Over Innsmouth) are refugees here, being displaced after their town was destroyed in a police raid years prior.
The opening case of the game puts you in the middle of the tensions borne from the Innsmouther’s arrival in Oakmont. Robert Throgmorton, a local patriarch and head of one of the city’s grand families, is searching for his son Alfred, the last survivor of a doomed expedition to discover the Flood’s source. Throgmorton is a proud bigot, using much of the same dog-whistle language against the Innsmouthers that might be used today against immigrants and refugees.
Frogwares plays around with the themes present here somewhat. Throgmorton happens to be something of an ape-man, the result of the coupling of man and beast earlier in the family line, a history Throgmorton proudly shares. To imbue an example of one of Lovecraft’s many fears (miscegenation, which Lovecraft often represented with fish-men and the like) with a value system that would reject him had he been born of an interracial couple in Lovecraft’s day is an interesting statement to say the least.
However, by and large, The Sinking City avoids these conversations all together. When the Klan rears its head, it’s as a faction of the ongoing ‘secret society’ strife that begins to plague the city. You’ll find references to the Klan in photographs pinned to maps of the city in offices, somebody’s personal conspiracy research. When you do finally kick in the door of the rat’s nest itself, you’ll find the Grand Wizard on the top floor. He spouts some anti-immigrant nonsense – stuff that would be considered a bit limp coming from the head of a white supremacist organisation. There’s no way to end your conversation with him in anything other than a shoot-out, but not before you ask him to do a magic trick.
Interactions with Innsmouthers themselves are strangely absent too, considering the amount of thought behind establishing them as a community within Oakmont. It leaves the taste of a missed opportunity, and the Innsmouthers themselves are cast as either helpless victims or duplicitous cultists.
The Sinking City’s expression of Reed’s skills as a private investigator is its best mechanic by far. Akin to titles like LA Noire and Frogwares’ own Sherlock Holmes games, you’ll find yourself picking through environments for clues, analysing items, and jotting notes into a casebook. You’ll also make use of Reed’s ‘Mind’s Eye’ – a kind of detective vision which allows you to recreate events as you search through the remains. This process develops a little more by having a map in which every street is named. Often, you’ve only an intersection of two streets to use as guidance, so searching through the cities layout to figure out your next move is common. Letting players orient themselves, place their own mission waypoints and get to grips with Oakmont is one of The Sinking City’s most satisfying design elements.
“This idea is just so… cool!”
An added layer to this process is having to search topic specific archives, housed in different buildings across the city – whether it be the police station, city hall, or the library – to make another break in a case once you’ve hit a dead end. This idea is just so… cool! Pay attention to the evidence you have and do some cross referencing, eventually you’ll figure out addresses, aliases, histories and more. It all adds to making the central detective loop extremely satisfying.
Combat is totally serviceable. The few weapons you get access to fulfil the usual archetypes – two pistols, a shotgun, a rifle etc. – and you won’t be fighting with the controls to put down the nasties you’ll come up against. It mainly acts as punctuation to an ongoing investigation, and it’s a relief that Frogwares knows when to let the detective work take hold again.
Reed’s time in the city has him picking up odd jobs all over the place. Side cases will bring you in contact with all kinds of nasties, and tragedies. They’re a good use of some of the lesser known elements of Lovecraft’s back catalogue and are full of fan service references. Navigating to some backwater part of Oakmont’s port district and stepping into the dankest, darkest cellars you’ve ever seen are some of The Sinking City’s most atmospheric moments.
It’s a shame then, that the ambition present in The Sinking City is let down a tad by graphical issues and an unpolished overworld. Screen-tearing on our PS4 Pro was constant, especially in populated city streets. NPCs wandering the streets could be seen floating in the air, only to plop down once you got close enough – if you were lucky, you might even catch them T-posing. They’ll ping pong across city streets, snapping at 90-degree angles to follow their randomly generated pathing. There is a clear randomness to their interactions – one bizarre instance found a woman sobbing into her hands while stood across from a cultist adorned in robes and blood red symbols, casually smoking a cigarette.
Frogwares worked with the budget they had, and larger developers seem to avoid working with material like Lovecraft, so issues like these are mostly forgivable. In the Lovecraft fandom, you sorta take what you can get.
To be frank, games like The Sinking City just don’t come around that often – detective games that let you actually be a detective, rather than a gunslinger with a notebook, and with an appreciation for the breadth of terror present in the Cthulhu Mythos. Going all-in on Lovecraft’s work isn’t going to happen for the high budget games out there, so to have something as ambitious as The Sinking City rise up from the depths is heartening.
The Sinking City is available on PS4 and Xbox One from July 4.