This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Sinking City.
Well, forcibly marry me off to a fish if it isn't a second Lovecraft-themed detective game by an ambitious mid-range developer in as many years! One where the main character is a generic detective even more generic and detective-y than the one from Dark Corners of the Earth, and the intention is not to adapt any specific Lovecraft work, but mash them all together into a big bowl of tentacles and faint undercurrents of conservative social anxiety. But will The Sinking City be an improvement on Call of Cthulhu? Well, it's by Frogwares, who, since 2002, have been utterly cornering the market on slightly janky Sherlock Holmes adventure games. Remember "Creepy Watson"? Yeah, that was these lads. So imagine what they can achieve now they're deliberately trying to be creepy.
It's nice to see Frogwares finally managing to step outside their comfort zone of developing detective games based on late 19th century literature and instead develop a detective game based on early 20th century literature, and it only took them 17 fucking years to make the jump. Outstanding; at this rate, they'll be adapting modern literature roughly around the time of the heat death of the universe. This week's haunted detective protagonist is Charles Reed, who is drawn to the titular sinking city so that he might understand his strange visions of vast apocalyptic horrors beneath the sea, unsatisfied by the explanation of "too much convenience store sushi on an empty stomach", and quickly finds himself tasked to investigate various crimes and disappearances surrounding the apparent fulfillment of a doomsday prophecy.
Now, the thing about Lovecraft's particular brand of horror is that it doesn't really translate to modern attitudes, even without the racism stuff. Cosmic horror was all about challenging humanity's self-importance. The horror of Cthulhu lay not in Cthulhu wanting to nibble off our knackers, but in the fact that Cthulhu doesn't really give a shit; he was around before humanity, will be around long after, and spares us no more thought than he would the dust mites in his bathroom carpet. But that horror doesn't work so well in the modern age, when we only need open a web browser to be reminded that humanity is pointless and deserve to die out and leave naught but cheap plastic Spider-Man Halloween costumes for the archaeologists of future races to puzzle over.
So Lovecraftian horror requires a different approach to be effective these days, and whatever the ideal approach is, it isn't whatever the fuck Sinking City is doing. You know how, in The Shadow over Innsmouth, the fact that the townspeople worship Dagon, are turning into fish-men, and routinely knob Deep Ones was the big, horrifying revelation that drove the narrator mad? Well, Innsmouthers show up in this game, and someone points them out and says, "They look weird, don't they? It's because they worship Dagon and are turning into fish. Besides that, they're alright lads, but I wish they'd stop flooding the local economy with all that gold they get from those Deep Ones they're always knobbing." It just throws me how everyone including the protagonist takes all this in their stride.
The game has a rather insipid combat element as partial justification for the open world, so every now and again, we get attacked by reject Silent Hill: Homecoming monsters in a basement, and no one seems to give a shit. "Yeah, pesky buggers, aren't they? We kind of got used to them after we barricaded off the seven or eight streets they hang out on." I'm sorry, how many streets?! What are the fucking cops doing?! Shooting at me, apparently, because I got confused and briefly pointed my gun at a deranged, heavily-tattooed Deep One cultist as he walked nonchalantly down the street to the chemist.
There's something very surreal about Sinking City. "That's the point, Yahtz." I mean surreal more in a janky design than the horrific way. Let's get that out of the way now; it's not scary. It has more the vibe of a noir thriller about organized crime, where all the factions are based around Lovecraftian monster cults, which rather undermines the inevitable Lovecraft game sanity meter; we lose sanity as we fight off a basement full of spindly monsters, but not when we go report back to the mutant fish-man who gave us the quest, as he gurgles, "DAmmIT, i kEEp tELliNG thOSe cULtiSTs nEXt dOOr tO StoP LeaVIng THeiR IntERdiMEnsIOnaL HarMOniZErs On!" Not that the sanity mechanic makes perfect sense otherwise; if it gets too low, we get attacked by delusional monsters, fine, but it comes back by itself so fast, it hardly matters. I'd just make Charles Reed stare at the nearest wall for the ten seconds it takes for him to come to terms with humanity's place in the universe.
As I say, it's a very janky game, made jankier by the attempted open world gameplay. Random NPCs appear in the streets, as in, "literally materialize before your eyes, occasionally hovering a foot off the ground, and taking a mysterious interest in blank walls"; perhaps I'm not the only one with a sanity meter. And the open world sandbox has the usual "bad sandbox" issue in that it's mostly there to pad out the game with extra travel time where nothing much happens, and the environments aren't varied enough to make it interesting; there's a lot of copy-pasting going on, especially with the interiors. Think we won't notice if you just move the furniture around, do you, Sinking City? Well, making more than three sofas might've helped!
Having said that, I do like that the location markers or places of interest aren't added automatically, and that you have to add them yourself from vague street directions. In fact, I generally like the detective mechanics overall; you can tell this is the comfort zone of Frog-"Sherlock Holmes vs. Megatron"-wares. The stories are nicely worked out. I like the way we physically combine facts to draw conclusions in the Memory Palace, grand a title as that might be for a poxy menu screen; I could make a fucking text window in Microsoft Access and call it "Ali Baba's Cave of Wonders", but I'd only be fooling myself. And I like how we have to research cases at the library or the newspaper office to fill in important details, 'cos that's, you know, what an actual detective does; I just wonder why the newspaper office is still running when half the city is underwater and the other half is re-enacting The Mist.
The game I'm most reminded of is Silent Hill: Downpour, for it, too, made the fatal mistake of trying to do psychological horror in an open world with side-quests when, in doing so, they relinquish control of the pacing, and pacing is what a horror story lives or dies on. Sinking City just doesn't grasp "pacing" at all. There's a bit where you put on a diving suit and descend into the depths beneath the city, arriving in a surreal world of twisted alien ruins where krakens as big as conservatively-sized office buildings drift by in the background; this, Sinking City, is the sort of thing you do at the end of the game, as we discover the full extent of what lurks beneath, but this is in the first fucking chapter!
And afterwards, we just pop straight back up to the city, going, "Blimey, bit weird down there, isn't it?" And we go back, like, five more times over the course of the plot just to completely demystify it, 'cos the first time, I was like, "Oh shit, it's a kraken! There'll be no salvaging these underpants!", and by the end, I'm like, "Hello, Mr. Kraken! Don't mind me! Just cutting through your yard again! Oh, here's your tupperware back; thanks again for the cupcakes. How do you get them so moist? Actually, don't answer that!"
- A most elusive fish: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Always the Shadow over bloody Innsmouth, why doesn't anyone ever adapt that one Lovecraft story about the violin from space
- Nominate your favourite video game sanity meter