Although I don’t have as much time to play video games as I used to, I still relish the occasional opportunity to dive into a world that cannot exist in our reality. There’s something about taking up a sword in The Legend of Zelda, facing Pyramid Head in the foggy streets of Silent Hill, or battling against extinction in Gears of War that takes a weight from my shoulders and brings me enjoyment. While such moments are becoming rarer and rarer, that only means that I delight in these chances all the more, especially when I enter a beautifully crafted and well-thought-out world. Enter Frogwares’ The Sinking City.
Having discussed it many times over the past several months, I feel like the game doesn’t really need an introduction at this point. That being said, for those who have not yet heard of the game, it’s basically an open-world story set in the fictional Massachusetts town of Oakmont, a place that exudes H.P. Lovecraft around every corner. Players take on the role of a detective who is investigating a strange flood and must figure out why the town, and its citizens, are undergoing horrific changes.
To learn more about this game, we got the chance to interview narrative lead Sergey Ten, who graciously gave us his time to delve into this world, one that aims to immerse players in a gorgeously macabre world of mystery, beauty, and terror.
Dread Central: Tell us the basics of The Sinking City in terms of its story. Who are we, the players, assuming the role of and what is our ultimate goal?
Sergey Ten: First of all, The Sinking City is an open world, action investigation game, set in the 1920s United States. It takes place in the city of Oakmont, a fictional place in the state of Massachusetts, New England – players might recognize this area as the Lovecraft country. Our main character – an investigator with a troubled past– arrives in the city in its darkest hour.
Oakmont is suffering an unprecedented flood which magnitude and consequences clearly hint at some kind of supernatural force. The city life is completely disrupted by the catastrophe, and the local authorities have lost control leaving people surviving as best they can.
As you can imagine, it’s not the nicest place to be. However, the locals are not in a hurry to flee, quite the opposite actually, as they have no intentions to leave Oakmont. Furthermore, new people continue to arrive, and you know what, all of them, including our hero, have some pretty big skeletons in their closet.
The player will need to get to the bottom of what’s happening and why, learning more about the city, its inhabitants, and possibly himself, along the way. Because, oh boy, there’s a lot of peculiar stuff going on in Oakmont and among the locals. Plus, it’s the Roaring Twenties – one of the most edgy and iconic periods in the U.S. history.
DC: Creating a world such as The Sinking City requires a lot of thought, research, and care in order to make it feel truly immersive. What approach did you take to craft a world that offers players lore throughout the game?
ST: Yeah, before we started working on the story, we created a very strong and detailed (in our opinion) lore foundation of the game and the city itself. We thought of things such as when certain districts and buildings were built, why and how they were built, and how the city grew and developed. Our architecture portrays that. For example, older parts of Oakmont have the colonial architectural style, others, more recent ones, have that Federal look. I feel like everything in our game has certain background and we certainly want to share it with players. We want people to feel that this city has a background, has a past.
How are we going to do that? Well, our main way of communication with the player is through quests and investigations. Each quest offers little bits of lore here and there – some characters speak in local dialects, you can see graffiti with specific messages on the walls, hobo signs, collectibles like the Letters of Oakmont (that’s community-made content, by the way). Or say, marks of the influential families that run the city, or even advertisements and brands of the famous local fish vodka –alcohol has its own history too.
And, obviously, you can learn more about lore by talking Oakmont inhabitants – each of them has something interesting to say. We are trying to create an interconnected world, but we want players to have the pleasure of drawing the links themselves. We don’t want to tell the player “hey, this happened now and this happened then, and this is how they are linked”. People will gather these small bits of info and then it’s up to them to build these links between different events and characters.
DC: Storytelling can be done in very fascinating ways in games. It doesn’t always require an NPC telling the player something or a cutscene with exposition. In what ways are you using gameplay, design elements, and other mechanisms to weave an engaging story?
ST: I believe it’s every narrative designer’s wet dream to tell the story through gameplay. We, of course, sometimes have to resort to classic tactics like books or documents, but we are trying to limit their amounts in the game, make them strictly optional. We are making every crime scene in a way to help you understand what happened and why, to see the full picture. For example, we have this feature where you piece clues together to understand how the crime progressed and who to blame. When you do that, you will have to make your own conclusions – remember, there’s no handholding in our game – and decide where to go and what to do.
Obviously, you can reach the wrong conclusion, go to the wrong place and accuse the wrong person. You can even choose knowingly to accuse the wrong person to serve your own egoist goals. It’s up to you, really. Furthermore, it might sound banal but we want to give each character strong motivation to back up their deeds, that’s not a black and white world. Of course, some characters can be seen as good guys, some – as bad guys, but truth be told, each of them probably has something to hide.
When designing our open investigation system, we want players to have these “OOOH, NOW I GET IT, I need to go there and do this” Eureka! moments. One of the ways we achieve that is by build our story and is then simply take away certain key bits of the story and just leave hints like ‘something happened here’. And again, it’s up to the players to recreate the missing links in their heads. Of course, there’s always only one correct theory or “truth”, but we are trying to blur the line and create second readings for the situations we present.
Situations are not always clearly “black and white” and we want players to second guess. We wanted to make a game where you can get it wrong. Yes, you will finish the quest and maybe even get a reward for it. But you’ll get this nagging feeling – something doesn’t add up, I should have dug more – and it will not go away. And to add even more stress to it, your actions might have consequences, for yourself and people around you.… Now, all of this is really a daunting task from a game design perspective, it’s not an easy thing to implement, but that’s what we are trying to do it. It makes the experience that more interesting.
DC: The Sinking City is very open about its being influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. While everyone knows about his Elder Gods and thinks of anything with tentacles as “Lovecraft-esque”, what other aspects of the author’s work are being used as inspirations for the stories within the game?
ST: Yes, we want our game to blend in the Lovecraft universe. Every canonical event in the books is canon for us as well, like what happened in Innsmouth – we bring it up and hint at it during our main quest. But there is more than The Elder Gods and the sprawling creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos. We believe that Lovecraft used the Elder Gods as a metaphor, an allusion to say how small and insignificant people are in this universe or even on this planet. When you stand on the seashore and you can’t see the other bank, you feel tiny compared to this enormous mass of elements. Or when you look into the murky waters and you can’t really see what’s there, your imagination begins to create monsters, the elder gods that existed long before mankind. Those recurrent themes and feelings are universal and are what makes Lovecraft so important.
Lovecraft said that mankind lives on a placid island of ignorance, and that’s the underlying theme in our game. We want to show that people are small, that they have their own fate – helpless in the grand scheme of things. Humans can try to run away from it, but sooner or later fate will catch up. And when it comes to the universe, any decisions we make don’t matter at all. It’s difficult to accept that in a gaming medium, because in games we like for our decisions to matter, and they do in The Sinking City, but on a local level, within the city.
But our ultimate goal is to convey that cosmic fear, hopelessness, and the realization that even the best outcome will only postpone the inevitable for tens or hundreds of years. And that sooner or later mankind will be wiped off and forgotten.
DC: The more interesting the characters a game has to offer, the more invested I find myself becoming in the overall experience. What steps are you taking to make each character have value and bring something important to the gameplay?
ST: People love stories about other people, and you know, you can’t really build your game on cosmic fear alone. We push our characters against that cosmic fear and see how it changes them. Most feel how you’d expect them to feel – some are scared, some are trying to exploit the situation to their advantage, some go breaking bad, resort to senseless violence. When order breaks down, the worst in human nature comes to surface.
It’s a great way for the player to understand the game and its underlying themes. Because, if we just put them against ‘something unknown’, the player would probably just shrug it off as something baffling and stop playing. We are trying to explain the whole Lovecraftian ideas – fate, fear and so on – through people and their behavior. That’s why some of our characters and their stories are linked to this ‘unknown’, how they faced it, how it changed them. Also, through the characters we show the story of Oakmont in general. And that’s only one example how we explain our characters.
Each character has their own motivation, based on many factors – their past, insanity or just human nature. It’s tightly connected to our open investigation mechanics and gameplay in general – to understand who committed a crime, you’ll need to think of their motivation, understand them. I, personally, really like that theme – why people do what they do, and how their actions can be very complex and ambiguous. We often put the main character in the shoes of a judge – he gets to decide who lives and who dies, based on his own conclusions. It’s also a good tool for plot twists, especially when it comes to a new, unexpected characters our hero hasn’t met yet.
DC: What are the challenges in creating a history for an immersive city like Oakmont?
ST: I feel like the biggest challenge here is distance. We are from Ukraine and we live a century after the event we are telling. So you can imagine how much research we did, how many references I’ve browsed through. I went through the old archives, I’ve read tons of articles on New England. All that to even stand a chance at doing a game in the 1920s Massachusetts. Our company actually sent people to Boston so that they would bring photos of the streets, for example.
We often feel that we can still learn more about that culture. It’s endless. To negate that, we also added a lot of additional lore to Oakmont, gossips, city legends – we have more than 50 city legends about Oakmont, its different districts and so on. So yeah, we are far away from the place we talk about – but we also made it our own.
It’s not a problem for us to create a city setting that makes sense – we are experience designers, role players, we love that. And we work closely with our colleagues, like our architect Katya Frolova, or our concept artists – Andrey Roscha always finds interesting facts about the 1920s. Of course, it’s not a super authentic New England city, but it was never our goal. Our goal is to create a believable Lovecraftian city in Massachusetts that supports our story.
DC: What was the most exciting part of researching and crafting the overall narrative and lore for The Sinking City?
ST: For me personally, the most exciting part was creating organizations in our city, fractions, groups, create districts and landmarks, create their stories, and I mentioned city legends – I love those too. All those gossips about reptiloids, the illuminati, conspiracy theories. They are a great basis for games and role playing. You know, people often overcomplicate things when they try to find an explanation of unknown occurrences. And it’s truly interesting to explore their trains of thoughts and implement it in the game.
Things like gossips and legends – they add context to the game, they enrich its setting, they stimulate people’s imagination, like the classic story about crocodiles in New York’s sewage. It’s painfully obvious there aren’t any crocodiles there, but each time you look down a manhole, you can’t help but expect to see a huge crocodile to come out and eat you.
These superstitions are almost primal, but nonetheless, a lot of people believe in them. You want to believe that these aren’t just boring grey streets, that there is something mystic, peculiar in them that only you know about, and maybe a small group of other people. People love all that secrecy, and I’ll tell you that our city doesn’t really like to share its secrets, it’s almost impossible to extract these secrets from characters. Probably that’s why the city has its own motto – Oakmont keeps its mouth shut.