Slimy Things with Legs… Video games and the Nautical Gothic

This was part of a paper presented at a free Romancing the Gothic weekend presentation on the 19th of November 2022. Thanks to Sam as always for their brilliant work.

The Gothic has long been preoccupied with what lurks below the surface of the water. The intense isolation of the ship at sea and the perceived threat of what lies beneath are potent manifestations of ecophobia, making nautical or marine Gothic inextricably intertwined with the ecoGothic. A fear of subaquatic ecosystems goes beyond the creatures tethered to reality and extends to ancient and unknowable creatures lying dormant for eons. Our anxieties about the sea extend to the hubris of our own interactions with it, often it is humanity that creates danger, trespasses into delicate ecosystems and awakens ancient beasts. As a medium that often invites exploration and investigation, video games have often turned to the mysterious nature of the sea as the inspiration for their narrative and playable space. Ships and settlements in the vast openness of the sea or ocean provide human spaces to mediate player exploration. 

These ‘scary playgrounds’ as Perron (Perron 2018) terms playable spaces that induce fear draw on a multitude of anxieties about aquatic ecology and our status as interlopers within it. These narratives are a transmedia extension of literary stories about the sea; from the 19th Century tales of ill-fated voyages to weird fiction tales of mind control and invasion to post world war two ghost ship myths. Today I want to explore three video games through the ecoGothic anxieties they express as well as the debt that they owe to their narrative antecedents. The goal is to present these texts as part of an ongoing discussion about ecologies mediated by transmedia ecoGothic and ecohorror storytelling.

So here is a very rudimentary timeline of the games I discussed with Romancing the Gothic. I will be omitting Man of Medan from this article as it will form part of a different discussion. These are organized according to the date that the fictional doomed voyage took place in the game world. As you can see, the games under discussion place their respective nautical gothic horror in very different historical contexts. The Return of the Obra Dinn is set in a time of hubristic exploration and endeavour, empire and oppression. A time when European expansionism and colonialism saw the continuing imposition of the British into not only the lands of Indigenous people but also onto the ecological unknown.

The disaster that precedes The Sinking City is borne out of a fear of the unknown in a society that thought they had nothing left to uncover and despaired at the thought of the enormity of the ocean and the unfathomability of the depths beneath.

Lucas Pope’s critically acclaimed puzzle game, Return of the Obra Dinn, carries with it the legacy of early to mid-19th-century ecophobia and an emerging sense of guilt about humanity’s violence towards nature found in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Day Prometheus and Melville’s Moby Dick. Pope illustrates the culpability of the human in their own tragic downfall using nautical ecoGothic to depict the correlation between the ecological crimes of humans and their eventual fate. The narrative of this ill-fated voyage draws on ecoGothic conventions of monstrosity, corruption, contagion and vengeance. Linked through memories of their deaths, the interweaving stories of the characters in the Return of the Obra Dinn demonstrate the potential for narrative-driven video games to meaningfully invoke the ecoGothic.

Frogwares’ Sinking City was released to mixed reviews but contains some of the most interesting and inventive allusions to the source material in nautical-themed video games. A troubled private investigator is lured to the town of Oakmont, Massachusetts under the pretence of solving a murder. He becomes tied up in a web of Lovecraftian mystery with references to The Shadow over Innsmouth and Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family. Through subversions of Lovecraft’s invasion and racial contamination narratives, the game addresses its source material’s very problematic history with race, the exploitation of the natural world by the human rising sea waters, and a loss of human specificity.

Video games are often neglected and looked down upon in both academia and in the estimation of distant relatives at family events. I started my tertiary education focusing on Gothic literature and Science Fiction. And people who have known me for a while are often surprised that my research swung so violently away from my beloved Frankenstein to the world of Dark Souls and Subnautica. But I would argue that I never really left Mary Shelley behind, I just learned to look at her legacy in a different way. 

It would be difficult to talk about doomed voyages without giving a nod to the great significance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge’s poem lays out the responsibilities of the human with regard to nature, coming up against ideas of pastoral obligation and the role of the human as a biblical caretaker for God’s creation. This is a time in which the divine is linked to romanticised notions of nature, by contrast, Coleridge shows the consequences of flying in the face of that connection, invoking ecological critique and arguably the ecogothic.

Lanone (Lanone 2015) writes that “Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ of 1798 (where the unmotivated death of the albatross is read as a crime against the One Life, and where the crew fail to respond to the deed in terms of right and wrong, only paying attention to the wind and their own interest) as a proto-ecocritical text.” 

The Franklin Expedition

The tale I am about to recount of the Franklin expedition will be familiar to anyone who has read Walton’s framing narrative in Frankenstein. A ship on a futile journey, searching for the Northern passage. Walton’s tale of hubris is designed to underscore the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein and the creature, but on its own has the makings of an ecoGothic tale of isolation and obsession. The human is an interloper in the Arctic and nature has ways of punishing such trespassers. 

Tidwell notes that the ‘revenge of nature’ narrative, such as those found in ecohorror texts, is characterized by the disconnection of the human from the non-human, that is the human commits violence to nature, and nature retaliates (Tidwell 2014, p. 538). Sometimes that violence is overt and singular, such as the shooting of the albatross in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and sometimes it is the same kind of difficult to define slow violence as in ‘The Birds’.

The diverse, yet hauntingly familiar fates of Lost expeditions and doomed voyages can be read as the personified ecology rejecting the intrusions and defending itself against the looming violence of the human interloper. These are stories that warn us not to stray far from home and let vast expanses of the ocean be.

But this is humanity we are talking about. We’ve never been very good at heeding warnings.

The 19th century is littered with doomed voyages and expeditions. The quest for knowledge, power and fame meant that many a hubristic plan was hatched to find some way to improve trade routes, make new discoveries and acquire new resources. However, the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition would become notorious for its mysterious fate and grim reality. The expedition to navigate and document magnetic data for an unexplored area of the Northwest passage consisted of two boats, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. These boats and all 129 people aboard became icebound for a year in the waters of Victoria Strait. More than twenty people, including Franklin, died before the ships were finally abandoned in 1848. The crew left the wreck and disappeared into the Canadian Arctic.

Since 1848 there have been concerted efforts to ascertain the fate of the expedition. Early searches discovered the bodies of two men, and other artefacts began to trickle back to England painting a very bleak picture of the last days of the crew of the Erebus and Terror. In addition to the expected hypothermia, disease and starvation, lead poisoning from their food storage techniques contributed significantly to the deaths of the crew. There was also evidence of cannibalism in the cut marks on human bones that were recovered. In 2014 and 2016 the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror were finally found. Reigniting public interest in the expedition. In 2017 Game developer Lucas Pope released the Return of the Obra Dinn.

The award-winning video game, Return of the Obra Dinn is the best game I’ve played in which the main character is an insurance auditor. Working for the East India Company, the player character is tasked with ascertaining the manner of death of the souls aboard the Obra Dinn which has washed up ashore with no one on board. We are there to reconstruct and bear witness rather than to avenge.

Narratives that illustrate the intersection of colonialism and environmental exploitation often convey themes of vengeance, justice, and righteousness. Despite the retaliatory nature of the violence aimed at humanity, video games will often charge the player with killing or defeating non-human forces. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 2018) by contrast, requires the player character to investigate and bear witness to the bitter conflict between humanity and the ecology of the sea. The player doesn’t kill or defeat anything, instead, they piece together a tale reminiscent of the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and narratives of doomed voyages from the Romantic Gothic period. Return of the Obra Dinn is effectively a non-linear puzzle and mass murder mystery in which the player is charged with reconstructing the terrible events that occurred on board. This revenge of nature tale sees the crew being plagued by disease and misfortune before being hunted by ferocious mermaids, modelled after the terrifying mythical creatures rather than the Disney ideal, giant spider crabs that appear to have humanoid masses protruding from their backs, and the Kraken. Pope deploys the mysterious qualities of the sea and the creatures that live within it to provide an ecoGothic environment that reflects human fears about the unpredictability and power of nature.

Occasionally we get a grim reminder of exactly how isolated these people were and just how powerless they were in the face of the wrath of a vengeful sea.

When video game designer Frogwares decided to incorporate Lovecraft’s works into their game they had a choice to make. Some of the less savoury elements of their source material. For example, The Shadow over Innsmouth (Lovecraft 2019) features and legitimises racism, likening hybrid species people to people of mixed race and invites their persecution. Frogwares’ 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 has 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 been 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.

So where do our doomed voyages fit in all this? In 1918, the USS Cyclops was one of many ships not to make their destination in World War One. But the Cyclops has become an enduring naval mystery due to the location and manner of its disappearance. When anything goes missing in the Bermuda triangle people pay attention. The Cyclops silently disappeared somewhere past the British West Indies on the 4th of March. No distress signal was sent and Germany denied any knowledge of sinking the ship. The lack of definitive information about its fate makes the Cyclops a useful narrative tool. The video game under discussion The Sinking City uses the Cyclops as a means of establishing the uncanny perception and constant suffering of the player-character. As the sole survivor of the boat’s disappearance Charles Reed could be considered lucky to be alive. But he is plagued with visions and nightmares and has no idea what attacked his boat. He is however imbued which supernatural powers of perception which is a neat solution to the genius detective problem.

Sinking City

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’.

Uncovered by a series of doomed voyages and diving expeditions 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 that lurk in the deep.

References

2K Games 2007, Bioshock, 2K Games.

Alder, E 2017, ‘Through Oceans Darkly: Sea Literature and the Nautical Gothic’, Gothic Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 1–15.

Frogwares 2019, The Sinking City, Frogwares.

Krzywinska, T 2015, ‘The Gamification of Gothic Coordinates’, Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 58–78.

Lanone, C 2015, ‘Monsters on the Ice and Global Warming: From Mary Shelley and Sir John Franklin to Margaret Atwood and Dan Simmons’, in Ecogothic, Manchester University Press.

Lucas Pope 2018, Return of the Obra Dinn, 3909 LLC.

Perron, B 2018, The world of scary video games: a study in videoludic horror, Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Tidwell, C 2014, ‘Monstrous Natures Within: Posthuman and New Materialist Ecohorror in Mira Grant’s” Parasite”’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 538–549.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s