The Sinking City is an investigative adventure game. You play Charles Reed, World War veteran turned private eye, an outsider to the catastrophe stricken urban sprawl of Oakmont, who-knows-where, New England. The open-world design of The Sinking City offers developer Frogwares the opportunity to stretch the limits of their craft, having previously produced  a series of mostly well-received Sherlock Holmes games. The Sinking City is an ambitious project, continuing the exploration of the Lovecraftian mythos Frogwares first started with Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened

Such is the spectacular promise beneath the surface of The Sinking City. A chance to dwell within a crafted setting that engages with a body of literature that has a rarely appreciated American historical and philosophical identity. In the role of a detective, players might interrogate that fiction and become doomed interlopers. In turn, the fiction of the game might host intersections of cosmic horror and American history, birth mysteries that resonate with realistic connections to the lives and fears of humans in the post-industrial age. Such is the promise, but the reality of The Sinking City often falls short. Its accomplishments, however, are still worth celebrating because of Frogwares admirable desire to tackle the ideological subtext of Lovecraft’s fiction, which other Lovecraftian games have typically avoided.

The City: Its rubble and its people

Players traverse the eponymous sinking, flooded city on their way to sites of investigative import. As you stalk the streets and alleys of Oakmont moving through crime scenes to libraries, police archives, and the town hall, it quickly becomes obvious that the city is comprised of a repetitive collection of prefab structures. Oakmont is almost entirely generated from modular but still high-quality assets.

The moody art direction and presentation of The Sinking City still manages to impress, bringing life and drama to the streets of Oakmont. Swarms of brainless NPCs wander the streets, huddling in crowds as they cycle through their sometimes dysfunctional, incoherent animations, but the peculiar character of the city persists beneath these obviously auto-generated aspects. As the city reveals how its residents live their lives amidst the devastation, it feels like it is also trying to teach you something about its pre-flood history. But it never does so directly: The living conditions of each district contribute to a shared story about class and ecological stratification in a transformed urban environment. Civil institutions are overburdened. Hospitals keep turning the wounded and diseased away, they’re at capacity and don’t even have the supplies to treat those they’re already treating. The police are growing increasingly violent as tides rise and the weather becomes more erratic in the districts built along sea-level which house lower-class Oakmont citizens who have been forced into a decision between a life of itinerant homelessness or death by drowning. Middle-class people in nice dress are strolling through their neighborhoods of single-family homes coming across as many nice cars parked along the curbs of paved streets as they are homeless camps of destitute immigrants and the psychotic. In the streets there are people coming to blows over satchels of food while certain industries collapse and others boom. As the infrastructural features of the city succumb beneath harsh ecological conditions, it is as though the social structures suffer just as much; natural and supernatural forces weather away the social, affecting life across race, species and class lines. 

In these early hours of the apocalypse, Oakmonters are already confronting the life-altering consequences of ecological collapse. It’s a rendering that for me is especially harrowing, an unstable framerate version of the slow-motion apocalypse I have watched unfold in the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. All aspects of the city coalesce into a whole as a site with centuries of history, where the ambiance of civilization is still motivating people to try and live a mostly normal life before an encroaching disaster. Oakmont is a setting that becomes animated, not just through exposition you can encounter in a cutscene or read in a codex item, nor does it seem believable just because the beauty of its presentation, but largely through a kind of literary realism that aligns historical facts about the city with observed truths about the way people live there, as the most meaningful environments, real or virtual tend to.

But moving deeper inside Oakmont, into its houses and offices where signs of life should be most unique and personalized, that realistic impression of social life seems faint. Many of the game’s unique investigations occur in similar looking interiors, which is a bafflingly underdesigned context for the regular process of pouring over murder sites for clues. All of the murders in the city appear to happen in identical apartments, a glaring fault that makes you consider whether it is the shared floor plan and interior design driving Oakmont residents to kill one another. Needless to say, this is not the solution to The Sinking City’s grand mystery, just an absurd possibility that kept me entertained amidst the repetition.

These generic crime scenes draw attention to how much of The Sinking City is derived from a template. What’s worse is how pervasive this template is, extending beyond superficial, graphical details to the structure and mechanics of investigation. The investigative process in The Sinking City is rote, formulaic, and involves no deductive work whatsoever.

An Oakmont Definition of Investigation

After players collect all the primary clues within a crime scene, an other-wordly portal opens in its center. Stepping inside lets Charles Reed utilize his supernatural “retrocognition” ability to witness the moment-to-moment events of a crime. The omniscient detective contrivance is exactly as overpowered and video-gamey as Batman-vision, which unfortunately deflates a lot of the game’s drama. By observing still-life moments of a stabbing or fleeing suspect, players sequence the beginnings and endings of a crime, assigning each vignette a number usually out of three. These are never any challenge because the action is rarely dispersed around a crime scene, they typically move in linear directions (away from the victim). Further, there is no way to complicate the process with false interpretations. You are never allowed to order these differently from the correct sequence.

There is also the mind palace, where players can pair clues to build chains of deductive reasoning. Reed’s mind palace is a poorly implemented system. In another game it is a tool that assists with visualizing the deductive process, but in The Sinking City it just does this work on your behalf. Don’t worry, however, because your deductions can always be reinterpreted or just never made, the mind palace is irrelevant. This means there is no possibility to misunderstand a crime, which is the ultimate failure of Frogwares design in The Sinking City.

Reed is in Oakmont to investigate the origins of his chronic night terrors, which involve the usual concoction of tentacles, sunken cities, trauma-influenced hallucinations and apocalyptic incantations. Reed’s personal mystery quickly connects with a local mystery, when he learns that an Oakmont aristocrat’s son, Albert Throgmorton, was seen landing a rowboat at the shores of the fishing district after a deep-sea excavation, rambling about insane visions, before wandering off and disappearing. Albert’s father, Robert Throgmorton, a proud Oakmont native with distinct ape-like features he claims as indications of racial superiority, hires Reed to investigate his son’s disappearance, involving him with local efforts to understand the origins of the flooding and an epidemic of mass-hysteria very similar to Reed’s own psychosis. Thus, Frogwares conflates a quest for Reed’s personal salvation with the salvation of the city, aligning his interests with the aristocrats of Oakmont and introducing him to the local class and racial disparity.

This initial investigation concludes with the discovery of Albert’s corpse and the fingering of an immigrant from Innsmouth — that town of inbreeds with fish-like features from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” — as the number one suspect of Albert’s murder. The Throgmortons, proud of their local legacy and racial supremacy, would interpret any violence directed at them by an Innsmouther as an example of racially motivated violence. One might assume by framing the narrative around this crime in a certain way that you could preempt a xenophobic and possibly violent response to it, and players can withhold this detail in telling Robert of his son’s death if they want.

The point of these investigations, then, is not the creativity or potential for error in the deductive process, but the act of weighing the social effects of what you will inevitably discover. Frogwares is more interested in having players consider the morality and ethics of the conflicts that The Sinking City’s mysteries have players confront. Investigation itself is a mechanical process with no potential for misunderstandings or methodological variation. 

Instead, investigations usually only diverge in the interpretation of what all the clues, suspects and motives ultimately speak to: if this was or was not a race crime. Inexplicable acts of occult violence can be made entirely comprehensible with the proper narrative around them. The final interpretation of any crime is the convenient elimination of all ambiguity. The people who employ Charles Reed, and perhaps all private investigators, are people in need of someone who can shore together meaningless actions into discrete motivations, a storyteller that can tell the rest of us when something is more than just violence but a criminal act. His employers are concerned only with useful truth like this, and players of The Sinking City will have to oblige them in order to progress. So it seems that it was necessary for Frogwares to deprive Charles Reed of the gift of misapprehension because Oakmont has no need for someone who would leave truth obscured by fact. The player and Charles Reed have to be storytellers, because a poet like Charles Reznikoff has no use:

He picked up a stick of wood and said,
“By Jesus Christ, I will knock your brains out,”
and told her to leave the house.
She answered she would go when she was good and ready.
He said, “You will go before you are ready,”
and shoved her towards the door.
She caught hold of the door casing;
and their little girl began to cry. 1

In this sense, investigation in The Sinking City is a pretext for allowing the player to summarize the significance of each crime to serve a social context. It’s about authoring truths and tailoring effects to perpetuate or alter social reality.

But your authority ultimately feels ineffectual. Reed never faces consequences for putting boot-sized holes through the walls of Oakmont’s civic institutions. As truths are authored, by bullet or by Reed’s word, the city remains the same regardless of his decisions. Reed’s growing prominence within Oakmont lends creed to the assumption The Sinking City wants players to participate in this story as an interloper, one whose brain becomes pickled by a briney eldritch solvent, too deeply involved, like so many characters in the mythos that Frogwares is drawing from. With as much attention to the civic relationships of Oakmont’s present and historical citizens paid by Frogwares, a character like Charles Reed seems primed to disrupt. Although he is in the position to decide who lives or dies, whether anyone lives or dies in The Sinking City is irrelevant to how the game is played or how the story proceeds.

The Trouble with Charles Reed

Charles Reed is a conflicted presence in The Sinking City. To play as Reed is to experience his inefficacy as an agent in the game world, while observing him as he functions within the story is to see him positioned as an essential motivator of the drama. His investigations never complicate the situation in Oakmont for its citizens or himself, but he is written as the figure which will ultimately decide the fate of the world in the game’s epic conclusion.

Allow me to communicate the extent of Charle’s Reeds significance. Befriending the Throgmortons, other families and random thugs grants him the political immunity to skirt and go above the law on several occasions. He is uniquely supernatural, omniscient, can observe conversations from the past in vivid detail, and is an unparalleled detective for it. The world’s fate is his to decide (or is predetermined for him, but either way). And most significantly, he is the player-character in a world of NPCs, granting him access to the perks of a talent-tree, crafting menu and fast-travel. The world of The Sinking City is Charles Reed’s stinking rotten oyster.

The stylistic tropes of the literary genres appropriated in The Sinking City constantly clash with its open-world game design. There is a dissonance at the core of the game that originates with Charles Reed, the protagonist, and Charles Reed, the player. At the level of dramatics, he can never reach the lowest, most inhospitable and difficult to navigate spaces because he must inevitably reemerge to make the ultimate story decision: which of three endings to pick. There is never a point in The Sinking City where the player is endangered or powerless. Reed cannot lose possession of his equipment, because that would undermine the Knowledge Points or the crafting materials players have spent to make their combat experience better. And Charles Reed cannot miss important investigative details, because that would obscure his path to become the special one, whose destined right it is to decide the fate of the world. A talent tree and crafting system signals from the start that playing The Sinking City is, in un-abstracted terms, a process of cultivating power.

Rhetorically, this is game design that rebukes the tension of the circumstances in which the protagonists of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and noir mysteries alike tend to find themselves. The narrative and mechanics cannot accommodate progression through failure, where a player’s decisions might result in a permanent slamming of a door that catches their pistol hand in the jamb. There is nothing in The Sinking City that suggests Frogwares designed these systems as a conscious rejection of how powerlessness is meaningful in the context of these literary traditions. Considering this disharmony alongside the generation of Oakmont via middle-ware (which is not a problem in itself), it does at least feel like The Sinking City is largely shaped by concessions, like its ambitious promise has been paired down in service of a homogenized concept of mainstream playability. Players will encounter plenty of scary enemies with bad AI that will whittle their ammo and sanity meter away, but these losses and “risks” are just how the game affects cheap danger. The only loss to experience is a conventional player death that the latest save will always soothe. Nothing poses a threat to Charles Reed because the structure is by design meant to empower him and players.

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I have no real sense of what it was like to develop The Sinking City, but I suspect that a more cohesive and competent game would have resulted if Frogwares had reduced the scale of their vision and designed something smaller. In a smaller game, many of the systemic-narrative collisions would be obviously inappropriate and would hopefully never be included. I can’t rightfully say if The Sinking City is this repetitive and dissatisfying because Frogwares conceded to popular taste by adopting conventional open-world design, but I can say what is good about the game is buried under miles of mediocrity.

Littered throughout the game are examples of a visionary mangling of Lovecraftian tropes. As Matthew Gault wrote at length for Waypoint, the weirdest and most detested figures of Lovecraft’s mythos find refuge and a semblance of humanity in the city Frogwares created. Engaging with the seemingly mediocre long enough to witness buried, transformative moments is, to some extent, a critic’s responsibility. For the good of all criticism, the vanishing of the ‘B tier’ videogame should be quietly mourned, and triple-A titles should come with a warning for any would-be critic about imbibing lethal doses. Because sometimes that work does pay off, like when I learned the Esoteric Order of Dagon, an evil fraternity from the same Lovecraft short story mentioned above,  has diversified their goals after establishing themselves in Frogwares’ Oakmont. No longer merely a cult for the worship of a fish god, they now freely provide food and community services to the sick and destitute of Oakmont - similar to the socialist Survival Programs of the Black Panthers during the American 1960s. Given the game’s confident handling of Lovecraft’s racist theories and depictions, a creative decision like this resonates with compelling associations to  real-world history and a particular literary tradition. Not only does it add color to the fictional world of Oakmont, it’s an accomplishment of something much rarer to videogames taken as a whole: the articulation of an actual critique.

And this is the measure by which actually meaningful appropriations of Lovecraft tend to sink or swim. Any analysis or synthesis of his work or the mythos crafted by other authors after his death must inevitably and confidently contend with the source material’s ideas, their intrinsic biases and implications, or, in failing to do so, resign itself to the shallow mediocrity that undermines any reified pop-culture appropriation of Lovecraft’s aesthetic and philosophy. Kitsch like Cthulhu Dice and Cyanide and Saber Interactive’s Call of Cthulhu: The Video Game contribute to the stagnating and genretizing of Lovecraft’s strain of horror, animating the cosmic-indifferent to serve a fandom its favorite comfort dish with all the tasty ingredients included. And these are more common than novels like Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Jencen Burrows and Alan Moore’s comic Providence, which thrum with the vitality of criticism and the volatility of their source material’s particular strain of twentieth-century horror. The bar is low but it wouldn’t take much to raise it just a bit higher, this could all be accomplished by practicing a little discernment. 

Come on, fans of horror, I know we can do it! 

So in some ways this is an inspired hijacking of the original material, with all its xenophobic and essentialist anxieties, but between moments of intrigue and fun within The Sinking City, generic boredom pervades. They have tried to do this before and they are going to try to do it again, so I believe one day Frogwares could create a good, Lovecraftian investigative adventure game, but The Sinking City is not that. Their talent and passion for handling the source material is clear to me when the normalcy of regular, urban, 20th century American living survives and isn’t completely dissolved by the weirdness of an Eldritch reality. In that quality, I found an empathetic bridge to the terror and struggle of living in Oakmont, a connection to the real world, that most ostensibly Lovecraftian works forget to build. But finding anything specific in this sinking, auto-generated ruin is a rare occurrence. Without the anxiety to build a game that in every aspect strives and fails to be as big as contemporary open-world games usually are, The Sinking City might have been a better game that I could easily recommend. But it isn’t that game.

«< Originally published on an older personal blog here in 2020. You can follow me online under the name vodselbt. »>

  1. This is from Testimony, The United States (1885-1915): Recitative