‘The Sinking City’ Uses Lovecraft’s Racism as Raw Material for a Messy Game

‘The Sinking City’ Uses Lovecraft’s Racism as Raw Material for a Messy Game

Oakmont, Massachusetts is a city on the brink of destruction. Storms have ravaged the city on the coast for months. The rain rarely stops and the ocean has risen to consume entire districts. Dead sea creatures fester in the streets and crossing town requires a boat. Adding to tensions is a recent wave of refugees fleeing persecution in a neighboring town. Oakmont’s elders don’t like the newcomers and want them gone, but the storms and rising tides mean no one can escape.

Enter into this mess a private detective who’s come to town looking for answers to the strange visions that keep him from getting a good night’s sleep. This is The Sinking City.

The Sinking City is an open-world detective game from developer Frogwares. Charles Reed is the game’s protagonist, a WWI veteran and Navy diver who survived the Great War only to come home plagued by strange visions. It asks you to solve mysteries in a world based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft, then forces you to make judgement calls based on your investigation. There’s no justice system at work, the police aren’t coming to help you, and the truth often doesn’t matter. There’s no good or evil in The Sinking City, only competing interests and agendas. The Old Ones and Elder Gods, those incomprehensible space deities of Lovecraft’s mythos, are absent or indifferent.

Lovecraft was racist and xenophobic. His profound ignorance of any group that wasn’t straight, white, and male caused him to be terrified to the point of hate. And he wasn’t shy about sharing that opinion. Most video games , and Lovecraft Country build on this fundamental understanding of Lovecraft’s fictions while shredding and directly commenting on the racism.

The outsider’s perspective is crucial to Lovecraft’s work, but so too is his view on the vast and unknowable cosmos—the other reason his work thrives today. Here too, books like The Ballad of Black Tom help us understand a better way to tell a modern-day Lovecraft story.

The sinking City Supernatural

We live in a complex and often incomprehensible times. The planet is warming, reactionary politics are on the rise, and several countries wield weapons capable of ending all life on earth at the press of a button. That’s just a taste of the complicated and existentially terrifying problems facing us. Lovecraft’s formless and alien pantheon of gods serve as a ready stand in for these existentially terrifying problems.

Cthulhu and Azatoth, as ficitions, are as incomprehensible and anxiety-inducing as many of the worst social, political, and environmental problems that threaten us today. The Sinking City’s Oakmont is more than just a town plagued by a supernatural crisis—it’s a community dealing with the results of catastrophic climate change and a refugee crisis. Video games typically just do straight retellings of Lovecraft. They borrow the aesthetics and drape them over simple stories about good versus evil where Elder Gods are stand-ins for malevolent forces.

But Lovecraft didn’t think those monsters were evil, they were metaphors for an indifferent and uncaring universe. The problem is that today’s existential problems—a budding refugee crisis, nuclear weapons, and various climate crisis—seem incomprehensible but all have roots in human evil. They are huge and indifferent to us as individuals, yes, but as Victor Lavalle writes in his rehabilitation of The Horror of Red Hook The Ballad of Black Tom—for those on the margins, the world is not indifferent, it is cruel. And cruelty is scarier.

The Sinking City humanizes Lovecraft’s principal villains, turns them into people, and tells a better story because of it.

The Sinking City’s protagonist, Charles Reed, is a man trying to make good choices in a City best by horrors he’s incapable of comprehending or changing. It’s primary focus is not on whether or not Reed can save the city, but how he treats the individual people—even and especially the supernatural people—he meets during his journey. You’re making choices, but I always felt like I was making judgement calls based on my own morality and that the larger narrative would proceed with or without me. No other video game based on Lovecraft’s work has made me feel as small and powerless as The Sinking City.

Lovecraft’s monsters were neither good nor evil, but startling indifferent. Shub Niggurath, Cthulhu, and Azathoth view humans the way many humans view bacteria. The entities aren’t evil, but the people who worship those entities certainly are. And the people who worship those entities in a Lovecraft story are always coded as groups that white anglo-saxons living in the northeastern United States would find frightening. Lovecraft’s The Horror of Red Hook reads like a catalogue of racial stereotypes and suburban fears of the inner city.

The Sinking City doesn’t quite rise to the level of Lovecraft Country or The Ballad of Black Tom, but it does treat its Innsmouth minority with care and respect. These aren’t people who traded their humanity for gold, but a complicated and marginalized group. The Sinking City humanizes Lovecraft’s principal villains, turns them into people, and tells a better story because of it. The Innsmouthers aren’t a monolith, but a varied group of people trying to survive in a city that doesn’t want them. A city where the KKK keeps them out of certain districts, a city that often brutalizes them in the streets. It’s not always well done, but it’s better and more interesting than literally every other Lovecraft game I’ve ever played.

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Source : Matthew Gault Link

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