Seeing the Lovecraft-inspired Call of Cthulhu and The Sinking City back-to-back at E3 put into stark relief the two broad ways that genre and aesthetic are popularized. With The Sinking City, Frogwares appear to have made something closer to a theme park, EldritchWorld, an open-world detective game where creeping cosmic horror is such a part of the scenery that nobody even bats an eye at fish-men working service jobs or young professionals ritually mutilating themselves. It’s Lovecraft as a place you wish you could visit, and now you can.
Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu, meanwhile, attempts the increasingly difficult task of making faithful homage feel genuinely fresh and menacing. It’s the story of a private investigator who is unprepared for the descent into horror and cult menace that his life is about to take, even if we in the audience know that’s the default position of just about any Lovecraft protagonist. You live in a world of reason and progress, and then the ground opens beneath your feet and it feels like you’ve been tossed into the void. It’s Lovecraft as a bad thing that happens to you, a crisis to resolve.
My suspicion, after watching demos of both games at E3, is that the more relaxed Sinking City will offer the more enjoyable take on its source material than the menacing Call of Cthulhu. After all, Lovecraft has become an aesthetic more than anything else: A shorthand term like people use “ Blade Runner” to gesture at a collection of themes and styles without necessarily implying anything about meaning.
Which might be to its benefit, really, since so much of Lovecraft’s work is inflected and infected by a point of view that was racist and parochial even in the context of its own time. Lovecraft lives on less because of a single author’s literary influence and more because the idea of Jazz Age gangsters and North Shore townies confronting the primordial mysteries and horrors of the universe is irresistible.
And that’s the fantasy that The Sinking City seems to be selling. None of this is new within its fiction, or at least, it’s not so new that people haven’t adapted to it on some level and gotten on with their lives. Cosmic horror is almost as familiar to the people I saw in The Sinking City’s version of Innsmouth as it it is to people who play video games. There might be a violent cult trying to conduct ritual sacrifices in a slum somewhere, but in the meantime everyone has a job to go to and a bar they drink at. It’s a world of creeping dread where you half-expect a fishman to start talking about the Red Sox.
The entire world of The Sinking City is kind of in on the joke with you, even as your character starts to get frayed and shattered by the things he encounters on his cases. Because there are looming horrors in this world that you’ll encounter as your journey by boat through the flooded city streets, or interrogate Innsmouth’s increasingly strange denizens in branching conversations. But the mere idea of the encroaching sea or human-fish hybrids emerging from it? Everyone here has come to grips with that. This is Lovecraft, they seem to say, so what did you expect?
Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, felt much more traditional—both as an example of Lovecraft homage and as an adventure game. And that’s a challenge, because as we saw the demo take its private detective through an early mystery, it was taking some very familiar beats and trying to get them to land in a way that felt fresh and unexpected. For me, at least, it never quite succeeded.
Part of it is because the mysteries don’t look all that mysterious. As the detective examines the clues scattered around various crime scenes within a creepy old mansion, he’s finding hints that something more sinister is going on. Except that everyone playing or watching already knows that. When there’s a warped and twisted portrait of a missing family patriarch depicting him as something almost monstrous, we already know what that implies. I spent the entire demo waiting for the detective to catch up to my expectations, which I’m not sure Call of Cthulhu has much interest in subverting or exceeding. When a mysterious cultist showed up out of nowhere, attacked the main character, and then ran off into hiding, it all felt a bit more Scooby-Doo than Hitchcock.
Mind you, I think both of these games could end up being delightful in different ways. Ever since the Gabriel Knight days, I’ve always been ready to serve as a paranormal investigator. And for all the conventions that Call of Cthulhu adheres to, there’s still a lot to be said for good execution on a familiar theme. Reconstructing eerie, menacing crime scenes, making inspired deductive leaps that stretch credulity, lovingly poring over one grim tableau after another… that can be a treat even if it’s never quite suspenseful or surprising.
But Frogwares’ approach definitely resonated more with me than did Cyanide’s. Because Frogwares seemed slightly more self-aware about all the ways their game is bedecked in genre trappings, and even gleeful about all the boxes it is checking as you explore its world. It felt like the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games at their best: Too sincere and too competent to be camp, but never so competent or polished that they feel complacent. Their games have felt, and this new one seems like it will be feel, like very good fan art. When it succeeds, it finds an original way to get at something essential about its inspiration. But most of the time, it feels like their games exist in a perpetual state of enthusiastic pursuit of something well-loved and never forgotten.