The Sinking City
(Ukraine: Frogwares, 2019)
Morgan K. Pinder
Something sinister is stirring in the depths below Oakmont Massachusetts. It’s the 1920s and private investigator Charles W. Reed is troubled by sinister visions that have drawn him to this mysterious seaside city. What awaits him is a series of disturbing mysteries and a myriad of Eldritch horrors waiting to be uncovered. Dense with references to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, The Sinking City is a grim detective video game that allows the player to explore a decaying city plagued by monsters and in the grips of unexplained hysteria.
The sea is rising, the people are mutating and an entity from the deep is driving the residents of the city to acts of appalling violence and religious extremism. It is a distinctly gothic take on noir detective fiction; Reed spends much of his time running in and out of decrepit, monster-ridden buildings looking for clues and experiencing disorientating hallucinations and illuminating visions. The Sinking City forces the player to make choices that are extremely morally challenging with potentially devastating consequences. The game often gives the player no indication as to whether they have made the right choice, and they are left with an unsettling feeling of culpability in sending Reed down an inevitable path to irredeemable corruption. Reed fits the trope of the genius detective, a troubled entity with exceptional powers of deductive reasoning and a shadowy past. This is a thematic continuation of Frogwares’ often gritty and gothic Sherlock Holmes games and features many of the same game mechanics including the piecing together of evidence in the protagonist’s ‘mind palace’.
This video game is borne from the same initial collaboration as Focus Home Entertainment’s The Call of Cthulhu (Cyanide 2018) after Frogwares left that project, and shares its preoccupation with the Lovecraft Mythos and detective noir. The standard features of an adventure game are there, such as being sent by NPCs (Non-Player Characters) on tangential missions in order to make progress on unlocking the main narrative. These NPCs are often used to incorporate characters and stories from Lovecraft fiction. The video game combat is clunky and imprecise but that is not where The Sinking City shines; under the repetitive tasks and the less than intuitive mechanics is a game deeply imbedded in the gothic tradition that plays on twenty-first century anxieties about race, religion and environmental apocalypse.
The primary source material for the setting of The Sinking City is Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth (Lovecraft 2019) which features and legitimises racism, likening hybrid species people to people of mixed race and invites the persecution of them. The Sinking City tries to interrogate the racism of Lovecraft’s prose and depicts Lovecraft’s sinister fish people of Innsmouth as displaced refugees who have travelled to Oakmont out of desperation after their hometown is destroyed. In making the Innsmouthers fish people Lovecraft links them to the malevolent, god-like Great Ones that lurk deep below the surface of the water, conversely when The Sinking City treats them with compassion it calls into question the malevolence of the Great Ones themselves.
At the heart of the concept of the gothic body is the notion of ‘thingness’, a body so horrifying or incomprehensible that language cannot describe it, as a result, it is ill-defined and ambiguous (Hurley 2009). The ‘thing’ at the centre of the chaos at Oakmont is referred to by alternate names including Kay, The Daughter, The Kraken and Cthylla. She has no concrete description and an ambiguous octopoid physical form with unknown boundaries. She is the daughter of the dreaded Cthulhu and is poised to purge the Earth of humanity if given the chance. Cthylla, Cthulhu and The Great Ones are the cosmic horrors that allow us to envisage the reclamation of the Earth by nature and a righteous vengeance wrought on humankind. These Lovecraftian cosmic horrors are extra-terrestrial beings who have been on Earth since before the evolution of humans and have being lying, somewhat dormant beneath the sea. Humans may be evolved from the Earth, but these creatures have been a part of the environment and ecology for eons. They have witnessed the human incursion on the environment, the exploitation of resources and the destruction of their world and in The Sinking City, The Great Ones are now pushing back.
These woes that are plaguing Oakmont appear to be part of a natural, or supernatural lifecycle. Reproduction, seeds and lifecycles are key motifs in the game, particularly in the later stages of the narrative and it appears the deluge that has isolated the city has happened many times before. The flood unleashes murderous ‘wylebeasts’ that lurk in sites of violence and murder, which is unfortunate because as a detective for hire in a grisly gothic world those are exactly the kinds of places Reed needs to go. Some of the streets are traversable by foot, but others have been completely flooded and are in the process of being overrun by uncanny marine life. The labyrinthine map, which can be completely bewildering and frustrating at times, heightens feelings of disorientation and hopelessness. Almost every structure shows signs of decay and many of them have coral structures and barnacles growing out of their dilapidated forms. It is evident that the man-made artifice of the city is succumbing to nature through the otherworldly powers of creatures beyond human comprehension.
The Sinking City, despite the flaws in some of the game mechanics, offers a glimpse into how video games might successfully explore gothic literary narratives in the freedom of an open world environment. Unlike its more linear, highly regarded counterpart The Call of Cthulhu, The Sinking City attempts to hold the Lovecraft cannon to account for its xenophobia albeit with mixed success. This gothic tale does something else remarkable in problematising human exceptionalism, blurring the lines between nature and humanity, and calling into question humankind’s assumed right to govern the Earth.