Content warning for discussion of racism and xenophobia. The Sinking City is a fascinating proposition: It’s an ambitious detective game from Frogwares (creators of several Sherlock Holmes games), set in a directly HP Lovecraft-inspired universe complete with cosmic horror, a literally sinking New England town, and plenty of characters who exhibit bald-faced racial prejudice. It will be a radically difficult needle to thread, but what I’ve played of the game inspires intense curiosity.
Last week I sat down with the game—on an appropriately dismal drizzly day—and played the first two missions. It certainly plays like a mid-budget, 3rd person detective game, but with Lovecraftian ambitions. You play as an ex-navy diver turned PI struggling with nightmarish visions, who travels to the half-flooded town of Oakmont, MA to investigate the hysteria. You aren’t the only one having weird nightmares, of course, and you find a town of mysteries ripe to solve, often involving murder most foul or strong hints of cosmic madness, and often both.
To solve those mysteries, you explore your typical swath of 3D environments—apartments, grimy street corners, salty sailing ships. There are plenty of mechanics and modes that go into your detective work, an aspect I really appreciated. There are investigation scenes where you look for evidence, then trigger a sort of supernatural vision to see events and order them accordingly. There are “archive” sections where you research events in newspapers and advertisements, finding addresses and clues and connections via (very pre-Google) investigative research. And of course, there are conversations with all the fascinating characters of this world, lending clues and conversation trees that made me feel a little like I was playing a supernatural version of LA Noire (at least, the parts that worked in that game).
There’s a light sprinkling of combat and a lot of environmental exploration and traversal, and the first two missions felt well-paced, combining all of these mechanics with a city map that feels appropriately formidable. Most of the city is walkable, but many segments are fully flooded and require short boat trips. And there’s fast travel between certain telephone boxes, lending a light whiff of an open world. It’s an illusion—you can’t just go anywhere at any time—but it works and creates a sense of a dynamic town around you. It’s a town going to complete shit, of course, but it’s full of life regardless.
Some of that life is a pretty direct commentary on Lovecraft’s worlds and prejudices, leading to perhaps the game’s most potentially-radioactive feature.
The game starts with a content warning about Lovecraft and his racist views, which was both unexpected and fairly welcome. It primed me for a game that seems to want to look at these views deliberately.
It isn’t long before this is made obvious in-game. In my first real case, I met a guy named Robert Throgmorten. The guy is… well, he’s one of two hybrid races I met in my two hours with the game, a white suited, mansion-living ape-guy who is sort of like local royalty. His son went missing in an expedition he funded to the bottom of the ocean (to look into weird phenomena surrounding the flood and the visions), and this guy really, really doesn’t like a group of people called the Innsmouthers, using all manner of anti-immigrant rhetoric when he speaks about them.
Innsmouthers are the other hybrid race I encountered, and they are fish people. They are also a direct reference to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a racist HP Lovecraft tale about the horrors of "miscegenation". So, we’re playing directly with the themes here, with no beating around the proverbial “non political” bush. You have to solve the case of the missing Throgmorten son (his name is Albert), and doing so means talking to Throgmortens, innsmouthers, and humans on the island, all of whom wear their prejudices on their sleeves.
And it’s not only allegorical racism at play. In a trip to the town’s newspaper office for an archive dive, you can go into an editorial office and see a pretty clear picture of people in KKK robes and hoods. It’s not the only picture, and it’s presented in a sort of “web of evidence” clearly meant to indict someone, so the context is not to glorify the KKK here. But Frogwares is working with charged imagery and language.
Throgmorten calls innsmouthers “filthy immigrants,” and uses the typical dog whistle that “crime rates have skyrocketed” with their presence. Hate and racial prejudice are clear factors in this world. It's also interesting to note that what Frogwares approach here does is make explicit the thinly-veiled white supremacist, race-science metaphors that Lovecraft employed. Innsmouth's fish-people were an expression of how Lovecraft viewed the influx of non-WASP immigrants in the early 20th century, and the denigrating effect he presumed they would have on the communities they joined. So here, we have characters explicitly deploying anti-immigrant rhetoric against innsmouthers.
I asked my PR rep about this, and he had the team comment on the inclusion of such strong imagery and rhetoric. They said:
“We as a studio absolutely do not accept any type of prejudice or bigotry.
“However, racial prejudices were a part of the 1920s, which in turn means we do have a degree of xenophobia in the game. At the same time, we are not aiming to show it from the modern perspective, and it’s not the main theme of the game. It’s one of the many other parts of the world that our hero is exposed to.
“I guess, a feud like this just goes to show that some people prefer to focus on minor and irrelevant differences between us, rather than stay united in the face of a looming danger.”
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, especially in the context of a preview where I’ve only played two cases of the game. From what I’ve seen, The Sinking City seems to have things to say about Lovecraft’s prejudices. It seems to be a bit more than just a "part of the world" that the hero sees, and while The Sinking City is a period piece, some of the ways it highlights the racist themes of its source material are more than a little resonant of how we encounter racism and xenophobia today. I need to acknowledge just how hard of a job that can be, to do this sort of commentary WELL, and to do so while, well, enjoying being a pulpy detective story set in a Lovecraftian universe.
The Sinking City is out on June 27th. I’m excited to play more, and wildly curious how the deeper commentary turns out.