The Sinking City, developed by Ukrainian outfit Frogwares, casts the player as troubled private eye Charles Reed. After a poorly-remembered encounter with (maybe) Cthulhu during his Naval service in World War I, Reed has had certain abilities which aid him in his investigative work, but also suffers from nightmarish visions which have sapped his sanity – to the point where be spent a chunk of time after the War confined to an asylum.
Now it’s the mid-1930s, and Reed has not only discovered the existence of other people suffering from the same visions as him, but he’s also found a strange link between them – they’ve all gone missing in the general vicinity of Oakmont, a Massachusetts city which has curiously managed to avoid being put on many maps. Oakmont is an insular, xenophobic town where lower is held in the hands of a few great families who conduct themselves as little more than gangsters. It’s also faced various upheavals in recent years. First, there was the influx of refugees from Innsmouth, fleeing the Federal raid on that town; then there was the utter disaster of the Flood, which even years later has left significant areas of the poorer section of the city waterlogged. The richer districts are not immune from the Flood’s effects either, especially when those consequences include roving monsters which seem drawn to sites of atrocity or extreme negative emotion.
Soon after Reed arrives he becomes embroiled in the affair of the Throgmorton expedition – a jaunt to the bottom of the sea near Oakmont which, in its search for the causes of the Flood, has stumbled across something appalling. Is there some connection between the Flood, the expedition’s shocking discoveries, and Reed’s visions? And if there is, is there anything Reed can do to resist this terrible confluence of forces?
The Sinking City proudly bills itself as an open world investigation game, and to its credit it actually does a solid job of providing exactly that. The city of Oakmont is very nicely realised, as are its various residents, and Frogwares prove to be artful in how they use the conventional features of the open world city sandbox game to create an air of isolation and menace.
For instance, it’s normal to see various NPCs strolling around the streets in this sort of game – that’s been a feature of them since Grand Theft Auto III inaugurated the format – and it’s also normal for most of them not to be especially interactive and to resent bumping into the player. That natural insularity, arising from their programming, is dialled up to 11 here on purpose. NPCs will tend to try and avoid the player, to the point where they even seem to be shunning eye contact. Bump into them and they’ll grumble at you; leave them to their own devices and they’ll get into all sorts of scrapes. Little behaviours are programmed into them which kick in randomly, deftly creating the impression of a deeper story going on with them you’re only seeing the surface of. Why are those two tramps squabbling over the contents of a smashed crate? Why are those other two in a fist fight? What’s happened to that woman that’s left her unable to do anything but stand on the street corner and sob? At one point I saw an Army trooper shoot a citizen dead in the street. Nobody reacted. In any other game, that’d come across as a glitch; here, it’s part of the horrors.
Whereas many open-world sandboxes these days offer robust routefinding tools to guide you by the nose to the next bit of plot, The Sinking City specifically avoids this – because figuring out where you need to go next and then finding the location of interest once you arrive in the general vicinity is part of gameplay. Investigation in this game ultimately breaks down into a rather standard formula: you go to a location, you gather clues there (and potentially fight or evade monsters), you draw inferences from the clues (some of which are plotted on a mental map of major conclusions), you figure out where to go next, you look up the next location on the map, you go there and repeat. Sometimes you visit an archive – like the local newspaper, or the city hall or police records, or the like – in order to derive further information and get the locational details you need – but otherwise it’s standard private eye legwork all the way through.
It’s a simple formula, but it works. Not only does it feel consistent with the actual process of investigation, but it also recognises an important fact about city-based open world sandbox games – namely, that they’re largely empty. Oh, sure, the streets may be busy, but the vast majority of the buildings you see in this sort of game are empty unless the game designers have specifically put something there. The genius of The Sinking City‘s basic investigation framework is that it’s a device for guiding you to the content, so as long as you follow the clues appropriately you’ll not be stuck casting about for something to interact with.
Largely, what stops the investigation formula from becoming repetitive is the writing and scenario design, which is generally of a high standard. A particularly nice feature is the way that on the aforementioned mind-map of conclusions, some of them are immutable whereas others you can flip between multiple, equally valid interpretations of the same information. Generally, by flipping these you are able to feel out different ultimate conclusions as to how to resolve a case; for instance, if you’ve decided that a particular character is fundamentally untrustworthy you’ll nudge yourself towards a different approach than if you decided they’re OK. Neatly, the game doesn’t lock you in to any one particular outcome from the mind map until you actually make your choice through dialogue or action, but the mind map is a nice tool for flagging where multiple outcomes are possible. Sadly, it’s only utilised in main plot missions – side investigations tend to be simpler and, as a consequence, less branching – but it’s still a good feature.
In this day and age it’s outright irresponsible to do Lovecraft-based stuff without at least giving some conscious thought on how you are going to deal with the racist themes that crop up in his fiction – especially if you’re going to draw on The Shadow Over Innsmouth for inspiration. This goes double for games set in eras when racism of the sort Lovecraft espoused was far louder and prouder than we are used to it being. Rather than turning a blind eye to the whole thing, Frogwares decide to depict the prejudices of the era without endorsing them.
As well as putting up a disclaimer at the start, there’s features like Oakmont’s very own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – a bunch of shitty dudes that the game rewards you amply for fighting and who are depicted as a pack of gangsters who run what amounts to protection rackets, making their complaints about foreigners and minorities eroding America’s moral fibre look like the utter hypocrisy and nonsense that it is. NPCs exist in a range of racial backgrounds, but there’s a certain pattern to who tends to take the lower-status roles and who gets to live like an aristocrat. (I did see a black police officer – but it feels like there isn’t that many of them around.) Perhaps most significantly, the designers find space in the city map to plop down a little memorial to the Underground Railroad – putting even this nightmare city a rung above towns in real life who are clinging to their statues of Confederate leaders, and existing as a rebuke to Lovecraft’s occasional advocacy of the Confederate cause in his younger life.
In addition, rather than just lazily regurgitating The Shadow Over Innsmouth‘s plot, NPCs with the Innsmouth look (who come in a range of skin colours, refreshingly) are basically a persecuted, exploited minority in this game. What’s particularly notable is that the Esoteric Order of Dagon – the big bad group from Shadow – is depicted as having a leadership who predominantly don’t have the Innsmouth look. Frogwares go out of their way here to get across the idea that the Deep One-human hybrids are, far from being intrinsically evil, just people like any other – it’s just that these particular people are being exploited by Deep Ones and humans who place themselves above the hybrids in a paternalistic pecking order (and the prejudice they’re faced with from the rest of the townsfolk only serves to drive the mixed-species population into the Order of Dagon’s hands).
What I find really interesting is the way the backstory of the Throgmorton family is essentially that of the family in Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, one of Lovecraft’s lesser-known stories. For those that don’t know it, a summary: Arthur Jermyn’s family has long had curious, atavistic features (like they all look like Brock Lesnar or something) and hereditary violent tendencies, eventually Arthur Jermyn discovers that this is because an ancestor of his banged an albino gorilla and took her as his wife, Arthur Jermyn can’t cope with the revelation and commits suicide.
Given Lovecraft’s avowed scientific, atheistic, and materialistic worldview, the original story feels like it was intended as a spoof on people who refuse to accept the idea of evolution – after all, we’ve all got ape ancestors, it’s just that Arthur Jermyn’s a bit closer to our cousins than the rest of us. It’s marred by the racist implications, and in particular that the idea that this infusion of “foreign” or “savage” or “primitive” traits results in a deterioration in the moral character of the Jermyn family.
Here, Frogwares turn the idea on its head. Throgmorton is clearly an ape-man – he’s full Planet of the Apes in appearance – and it’s evident as the game progresses that he knows damn well that his daddy fucked a gorilla. (There’s a side quest about what Papa Throgmorton did to his human wife, and the child they’d had together, to pave the way for his beloved gorilla son to inherit all.) Throgmorton is also one of the most virulent bigots you meet during the game, with a passionate hatred of the fish-like Deep One-human hybrids from Innsmouth – and the feeling is decidedly mutual.
What we end up here is a plot where, whilst the oppression of real people isn’t ignored or glossed over, the most plot-relevant line of ethnic conflict is between monkey-folk and fish people. If there’s a common factor there driving the mutual xenophobia, racism, and suspicion, it’s not the monkey or the fishy – it’s the human being, and only through working on ourselves as humans to rise above our worst instincts and cultural biases can we break the cycle. At the same time, precisely because the real-world oppression is not ignored, the monkey-fish tensions read less like they are stand-ins for them and more like they are their own thing – which helps avoid any unfortunate implications developing to the same extent as they would otherwise.
The writing for the game doesn’t just have to provide a nuanced look at the racial issues of the era and in Lovecraft’s fiction, however; it also has to bring the scares. Whilst there’s some jump scares here and there – largely when monsters decide to manifest in the abandoned house you’re exploring – the game doesn’t rely solely on this to generate fear (wisely, since at a certain point you’ll likely end up no longer finding the monsters all that threatening) but instead scatters the town with evidence of little stories of dreadful things happening here and there, as well as with the terrible implications of the discoveries you make pursuing the main threat. Perhaps the creepiest twist I came across in the game was after I wiped out a gang hideout of the Yellow Kings (no prizes for guessing what their deal is), only to find a back room where the entire plot of the game was carefully documented and planned out on a big map. When a certain informant turned up and I noticed that all of his clothing was some different shade of yellow or yellowish-brown, that prompted a lot of puzzle pieces to slot into place – but the game doesn’t rub it in to an obnoxious extent.
Perhaps the most interesting bit in terms of the writing and overall portrayal is the character of Reed. At first glance he’s your classic unshaven brown-haired male videogame protagonist, but he’s very much not any sort of wish fulfillment figure or power fantasy. There’s a vulnerability to him which you don’t often see in videogame protagonists – he’s got these sad eyes and this somewhat glum facial expression much of the time, and his build is average-tending-towards-scrawny rather than suggesting any sort of powerful muscularity. You have some leeway in how you choose to portray him, but that doesn’t extend to putting a jolly smile on his face; Reed carries a bit too much baggage for that.
As for the gameplay itself, that’s somewhat patchier. You’ve got the whole survival horror limited-ammo scavenge-for-what-you-need thing going on, coupled with the old school survival horror motif of the combat system being very slightly clunky because being good at fighting would be less scary. That said, as you gather more and more firepower, fights which were previously hideously difficult and situations you’d have otherwise fled from end up becoming substantially easier to fight through, especially once you’ve worked out the combat system’s quirks and the best way to deal with each of the monster types (there’s basically four major types, with some variations of the subtypes but not that many).
In addition, there’s a skill system, wherein as you gain experience points over the course of the game by defeating monsters and solving cases you gain more and more skill points to spend on stuff. Unfortunately, some of the entries in the skill tree are rather badly thought out. For instance, there’s the classic blunder of including skills you can buy whose sole function is to give a substantial bonus to all experience you earn thereafter. Including such a skill in a system more or less guarantees that anyone sensible will buy those skills first, because the sooner they do, the more benefit they get out of it and the faster they get more skill points. (Likewise with the skills that boost quest rewards.)
There’s also skills relating to the crafting system, which can give you up to a 25% chance of not actually expending any of the crafting resources when you make yourself a new item. (Ammunition, medicine, and the like are all craftable from trash you collect.) Whilst this doesn’t sound that disruptive on the face of it, the overall effect is to dramatically undermine the scarcity-of-resources angle. That’s particularly a shame because the shortage of resources is largely the only thing encouraging you to engage with the only real gameplay on offer which isn’t a side quest or part of the main plot: namely, venturing into monster-haunted, abandoned sections of the city in order to scavenge loot. By comparison, other skills seem near-useless – I only bought the ones which give a 10% chance of doing extra damage with attacks towards the end of the game, when I had few other things to spend my skill points on other than stuff which seemed even more useless.
As with many such games, there’s a “sanity”-type system here which pays scant attention to real-life mental illness, though given the source of Reed’s visions and the unfortunate mental side-effects they have, you wouldn’t expect it to follow the same patterns as conventional mental health issues anyway. The sanity effects are pretty wild; even a small amount of sanity loss causes distortions and strange visual effects to appear on the screen, moderate sanity loss causes imaginary foes who can do you real damage to appear and, occasionally, imaginary crates containing useful stuff, and when you’ve lost almost all your sanity the entire environment around you changes, so you might go from being in a mildewy apartment building into some sort of medieval dungeon (at least until you take your psychiatric medication and get more of a grip on your surroundings).
Perhaps the worst aspect of the gameplay is the terribly underbaked diving sections. There’s several of these dotted through the main plotline, they’re all frustrating chores to slog through at the best of times, and they’re all the bloody same when you get down to it. Aside from the very last one, there’s rarely anything particularly exciting to see during them, and they all follow the exact same “follow the lights, evade the killer eels or slow them down by shooting them with a harpoon, get to the end of the route” pattern. On the whole, I feel like absolutely nothing would have been lost had they been cut, especially since there’s never any really significant plot developments that emerge during them.
Other aspects of the game suggest a hurried final crunch time. Many, many buildings in the game share the same basic floorplan and interiors, often without even a colour shift or switched-out texture to cover for this repetition, in what is fairly obviously a time-saving gambit on the part of the designers. Rather than design several wharfside shack, factories, mansions or whatever, they’ve designed one of each and then cloned them as needed. It’s not fatal to the gameplay or anything and in some respects it makes sense (if the entire neighbourhood was made by the same architects in the same style, obviously they’d repeat themselves), but it’s a little obvious, particularly when these cookie-cutter locations are combined with a formulaic investigation sequence.
Ultimately, the game is a cycle of doing the same thing in broadly the same sort of places over and over again, with only the specifics of the plot providing variation; this could almost be spun as a thematic choice, but it seems much more likely that it arises from Frogwares only having time and funding to get their basic gameplay cycle nailed before they had to ship the game. Fortunately for us, that basic game routine is pretty fun, especially once you’re drawn into the story. The Sinking City won’t offer quite the same heap of dozens and dozens of gameplay hours that, say, a Grand Theft Auto game might, but it’s still a decent stab at Frogwares’ declared goal of an open world sandbox investigation game. Compared to the latest actual, official Call of Cthulhu videogame, I’d say it holds up well, even if it does have the occasional long loading time and visual glitch to suggest that it hasn’t been entirely well-optimised for PS4 systems. (I played on a baseline PS4 – I refuse to upgrade to the PS4 Pro because what is the point of a 4K system which can’t play 4K Blu-Rays? – so that might be less of an issue on there.)