What We Want from The Sinking City
In honor of Call of Cthulhu‘s release, I want to talk about the elusive Sinking City trailer that made the rounds not too long ago. We’ve heard very little of the next dive into the ancient depths, but from what little we’ve seen, there’s incredible potential. For anyone who hasn’t seen the cinematic trailer yet, we’ve included it below.
H.P Lovecraft is becoming ever more present in the world of gaming both in video games and tabletop. Just last week we got the tabletop inspired Call of Cthulhu and we’ll see more in the upcoming Mansions of Madness digital adaptation. Prior to that we’ve seen (at least) Lovecraftian elements in Bloodborne, Narcosis, Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, and even a nod in South Park: Fractured But Whole. Board games are also seeing a lot of Cthulian themed games these days including the recently funded Machina Arcana second edition and expansion, a new printing of Deep Madness, and an upcoming expansion to Mansions of Madness. Lovecraft and his Deep Ones are on the rise and I couldn’t be more excited to see them take the main stage.
So far, the Lovecraft mythos games we’ve played are all fairly linear stories that don’t feel like living breathing worlds. From what we’ve seen of The Sinking City in Frogwares’ alpha gameplay video at Gamescom, it’s an open–world filled with well developed NPCs and side quests for us to explore; a strong fit for themes of discovery and consequences.
“No Fail” Quests
Keeping in mind that all we’ve seen so far is alpha footage, I’m impressed with The Sinking City‘s potential. Questlines are centered around open investigation and Frogwares has gone on record stating that, “…there will be no handholding…” The city of Oakmont, Massachusetts is an open world where investigators will have to uncover their own leads without the game’s guidance. It will be exclusively up to the player to piece together the clues they obtain to direct them to the next location.
So what happens if you miss a clue or piece them together incorrectly? Frogwares hasn’t spoken on this yet, but we hope it plays out similarly to L.A. Noire, where the game doesn’t stop you from progressing because you reached a conclusion other than the one the writers had in mind and the game goes on. The game goes on and the wrong person gets convicted. If The Sinking City functions the same way, we’d like to see consequences to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps players lose an ally and gain an enemy. Or perhaps your acquired knowledge would weigh more heavily on the investigator, dragging him deeper into madness.
Lovecraftian horror is about the things that creep and feed beyond the realm of human understanding. It’s about humanities incessant need for comprehension and the indoctrination and madness we suffer as consequence for what little we grasp. A dark rendition of Icarus, if you will; a man who dove too deep into the ocean and woke the sleeping Old One.
As much as I enjoy a good story, the longer they are, the more likely it is they become convoluted. It’s an even easier trap to fall into with H.P. Lovecraft whose work is largely about characters who fall into madness; unable to decipher reality from waking nightmares. The combination of the two are a deadly combination of plot hole pitfalls.
The Sinking City could benefit greatly from side quests that tell tales of other beings and their influence as it spreads across the city. Some of the more interesting themes in Lovecraft’s writing and works inspired by him posit that the deranged acts committed by people might not be the result of indoctrination but are part of human nature. This particular brand of horror is filled to the brim with doctors who mutilate patients as experiments, Catholic priests who lead cults in catacombs beneath cathedrals, and all knowing characters driven so insane by their knowledge that they spew incomprehensible nonsense.
Each of these archetypes are ripe with potential for quick side missions and self-contained stories that explore a more complex side Oakmont. Keeping them short allows for less developed stories and characters to get their time in the spotlight while fleshing out this crumbling world.
A Living City
Regardless of what stage of Oakmont’s downfall we witness as the investigator, Oakmont needs to feel alive, or at least recently deceased. As we’ve seen in some recent titles like Spider-Man and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, it makes all the difference when in-game worlds feel like living and breathing places.
We’d really like to see an Oakmont that is full of residents, even if they are foaming at the mouth and mumbling to themselves, twisted by their own insanity. From the images and gameplay videos we’ve seen so far, the only other characters present are NPCs with quests to pursue. To be fair, everything we’ve seen is either concept art or from an alpha version of the game, so there’s quite a bit more for us to learn. But even if the city has already fallen to ruin before we arrive, there should still be some crazed stragglers left behind as an example to players of how dangerous the presence of the Old Ones can be.
Less Cthulhu, More Beasts
Thanks to pop culture almost everyone is familiar with the over-glorified absinthe-inspired Davy Jones, Cthulhu. It’s not much longer before the audience gets tired of Cthulhu, not unlike the decreasing consumer response to the zombie genre. But there are so many other Lovecraftian horrors that players haven’t encountered in a game yet.
Shub-Niggurath, Dagon, and Yog-Sothoth are some of the other more frequently referenced Lovecraftian characters. Yog-Sothoth is an all-seeing and all-knowing deity that is the grandfather of the great Cthulhu. Knowing too much about Yog-Sothoth invites catastrophe. Yet the temptation exists to earn his favor, granting access to much of his knowledge, but to do means being eternally bound to his command.
Dagon, a fish-like deity worshipped by the Deep Ones, is arguably the second most famous name of the Cthulhu mythos. In Shadow over Innsmouth H.P Lovecraft describes the starving port town of Innsmouth who was struggling to survive as fish began to disappear from the ocean. But a man named Obed Marsh discovered a fish-like race known as the Deep Ones and created the Masonic cult, the Esoteric Order of Dagon as a Masonic who worshipped the Deep One’s god, Dagon.
Shub-Niggurath is a mysterious being who is never described in full but is also known as “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young”. Beyond that, little is known of Shub-Niggurath, giving writers free-reign to incorporate all the horrific things they can imagine. What we do know is that Shub-Niggurath gave birth to twins Nug and Yeb, the first of which spawned Cthulhu himself. There’s more than enough beasties and lore ambiguity to honor the original works and come up with something unique of Cthulhu that is fresh and unique.
One of the biggest downfalls of the Lovecraftian horror genre is the balance of action. So far video games lack it and board games misunderstand it; the latter frequently making it possible to kill Old Ones and their spawn. But much of the horror of Lovecraft ties back to how small we are in comparison and how futile our efforts are to fight back. The Old Ones are so large and so ancient, that we are nothing but a resource to them. Yet, I want more action sequences. That’s one of the core ways the gaming industry keeps the pressure on. But if guns are so useless in the Cthulhu mythos, how do you merge the two?
I want to see action sequences that don’t kill enemies, but only slow them down. We’ve already seen some gameplay showing us some combat mechanics, so we know that they’ll be more present than Call of Cthulhu. From the combat we’ve seen so far, you can kill the enemies that resemble Shoggoth, a race of workers created to build great cities of twisting architecture for the Old Ones. It would make sense that we would be able to kill worker drones, but I’d strongly prefer that players are only able to briefly suppress larger beasts like the tentacled monster featured in the cinematic trailer. But Frogwares has said that “shooting someone or something in the face might sometimes prove necessary… more often than not, our investigator is weaker than the enemy.” What is more terrifying than facing an ancient monster that can’t be killed by humanity’s highest caliber weaponry?
Are you excited to see H.P Lovecraft get a second chance at video game success? What would you like to see from The Sinking City? Sound off below!