A policeman surveys The Sinking City
Interview

Building a Lovecraftian Video Game with Frogwares’ The Sinking City

In this Spotlight interview, we speak to a veteran developer about what it means to take inspiration from the page and turn it into an on-screen reality. 

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (better known as H.P. Lovecraft) spent most of his life in the North-Eastern United States, but the eldritch tendrils of his work stretch deeply to all dark corners of the Earth. While Lovecraft’s writing failed to support him financially during his lifetime, it has gone on to influence myriad artists, writers, and designers, and is now synonymous with Gothic ambiance and spine-tingling psychological horror.

With its atmospheric mix of dark horror and early science-fiction, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos weaves twisted tales of ancient artifacts, all-powerful entities, ghastly creatures, and the pursuit of forbidden knowledge – as a variety of protagonists across multiple stories seek to understand the indescribable and solve the mysteries of the Old Gods.

Lovecraftian influences in video games are widespread, ranging from the biggest AAA flagships to Early Access indies, all following in the footsteps of pen-and-paper adventures like Call of Cthulhu (1981), as well as a multitude of board and collectible card games, as they reimagine weird fiction in new and exciting ways. The manifestation of these influences are as diverse and interesting as the source material, even within the same game, borrowing not only place names and scenarios with a knowing wink, but narrative themes as well. Recently, Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 4 ran the gamut. Dunwich Borers, an optional (but highly-recommended) “dungeon” in the northern part of the game’s map, is an overt reference to a cornerstone of Lovecraftian fiction, The Dunwich Horror, where a fictional Massachusetts town is plagued by the results of a misfit family’s devilish rituals. Meanwhile, in The Secret of Cabot House, the Lone Survivor meets an unhinged but powerful family dealing with the troubling discoveries of a desert archaeological expedition – reminiscent of Lovecraft’s The Nameless City.

Lovecraftian themes are bubbling under the water-line in mainstream gaming, but few big-budget games put the mythos front-and-center. Ukraine-based studio Frogwares, known for the Sherlock Holmes series, are trying to do right by Lovecraft and in their recently-announced game, The Sinking City, they are electing to use the Cthulhu mythos not just as a backdrop, but as an anchor, grounding both the game’s world and mechanics in Lovecraftian lore.

“I think we’ve been through maybe three or four different steps in the life of the studio – starting with a handful of people, now we’re close to 80”, says Wael Amr, Frogwares’ CEO. “We’ve moved from having very specific teams that don’t communicate with each other, to now, where people aren’t working according to speciality anymore, but according to the needs of the game.

“In terms of business, we’ve turned from selling CDs and DVDs at retail to the digital era – everything’s changed, with a lot of crises in the games industry, but we’ve always stayed away from that, being independent and making our own games. We didn’t have to work by the rules others lived, or died, by.”

Founded in 2000, Frogwares are a well-established studio with a dozen releases to their name. Working independently, they’ve seen the games industry change and grow but have always tried to stay true to their strengths and make interesting games.

“The development community [in Ukraine] was mostly outsourcing until 2008,” Amr explains. “Mostly for Russian publishers, there were a lot of studios. But with the 2008 financial crisis, this part of the industry vanished in a few months, replaced by people making casual and mobile games. And that’s still the case today. There’re a few big studios like Wargaming, CryTek, Ubisoft, and us. All those other mobile companies are making games but from our side of the industry, they’re not really games: mobile games, gambling apps, stuff like that.”

Horrors rise from the deep in The Sinking City.

Horrors rise from the deep in The Sinking City.

A deep appreciation for Lovecraft’s work underpins Frogware’s drive to build a focused experience based on the Cthulhu mythos, and a desire to properly portray its sense of an interconnected, shared world inspired The Sinking City’s setting. In one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Call of Cthulhu, the narrator alludes to the fate of the protagonist in an earlier story, Dagon, as he studies, “cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity” around the globe.

“To sum up, it’s a Lovecraftian, open-world investigation,” says Amr. “We’re well known for creating investigation games with the Sherlock series, and [the Cthuhlu mythos] is a great setting for investigation. But we wanted to do a free adventure, where it’s possible to create your own investigation the way you want to make it. That’s where the open world comes from.

“We’ve worked with Lovecraft on many occasions – we dedicated two games to it, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened in 2006, and Magrunner: Dark Pulse in 2013. I’ve always wanted to create something in the universe, and I believe it’s a great, underrated, underused setting. And I think investigation is the right way to look at it, as opposed to an action or horror game which could be pretty good but probably wouldn’t cover all of the things we wanted to say about the city.

“The Lovecraft Universe is a fantastic setting for games if treated with the adequate nuances and subtlety. Starting from idea of free investigation in an open-world, we thought about what would make a Lovecraftian open-world, and thought, ‘Well, an urban area, a flooded city.’ It comes naturally if you think about it.”

To further emulate their favorite works of Lovecraftian ficition, Frogwares are enlisting the help of original pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu scenario designers – talented writers with decades of Lovecraftian experience to keep the lore in check. Originally released in 1981, and in its 7th edition as of 2014, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing-game is closely associated with veteran game designer Sandy Petersen (Doom, Age of Empires), the game’s main author during his time at legendary tabletop RPG publisher Chaosium (RuneQuest). Inspired by their experiences with the game, Frogwares are hoping to bring of some Call of Cthulhu’s themes to The Sinking City.

“We’re working with authors of Call of Cthulhu scenarios from the ’80s,” Amr says. “It’s like when you’re young, you admire some rock star, you play guitar, and then one day you play with them. We played scenarios written by these people, and now we work together. The idea is to get the campaign to a place where, in an investigation, you’re finding elements of the next or the previous one.

The Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG

The classic RPG has seen multiple iterations.

“These guys know their canon – they have the mythos at their fingertips – so they actually help us a great deal to integrate that canon into our game mechanics, as well as with other aspects of the Cthulhu mythos, whether it’s ghouls or any kind of related monsters, or creatures, or people, or insanity levels within the canon. All of these writers are well-educated, and I love the way they integrate and mix real and fictional elements so that when you read their work, your mouth is watering from a creative point-of-view, because you know that you can take it and create something that resonates very deeply.”

Frogwares are also drafting in help from the wider design community in an effort to make The Sinking City feel more like a lived-in, working environment, rather than a shallow sandbox with an urban lick of paint. Urbanism represents the fusion of urban planning and urban sociology, and urbanists study every aspect of how settlements work to find and maintain a delicate logistical balance. To create something which feels authentic, these are the people to have on-board.

“My favourite Lovecraft story is At The Mountain of Madness,” Amr explains. “But it has a very specific setting, and probably would make a full game by itself. But someone else can do that. It’s not what we’ve chosenin order to make a game that allows very deep investigation and a lot of crossed investigations. They require people, facts and events, and Antarctica isn’t the best place for that – unless you focus on penguins.

“In most of Lovecraft’s stories, you don’t feel the crowd, but it’s there. The story is embedded in larger areas, big cities, and that makes them possible, the fact that you have a different perception of things that’s different from everyone around you, and that fact that what you’re looking for is going to harm you – but it has to remain secret. You can’t go around the city with your guns or your papers claiming that you’ve found something extraordinary.

“We’ve created levels of various sizes in our previous games, but when it’s time to think about a city, it’s time to get out of the studio and discuss things with urbanists and architects – it’s not a skill you naturally have, how to build a city.

“It’s been extremely insightful and extremely informative, and I really love this part of the work.

“We made a post on our website with one of the guys we work with, Konstantinos. He conducted a study for us about Lovecraftian urbanism and how to show a Lovecraftian influence on an urban area. Besides that, we’ve conducted different studies asking questions like, ‘What is a city,’ ‘How do they work,’ ‘What makes Paris, London, or Kiev different from one another,’ and then on top of that, ‘What does it mean when that city’s flooded?’ For example, there was a big flood in Paris in 1910 and at the turn of the century, there was a big flood in London. When you look at the pictures, when you read the testimonies, you begin to understand how much it affects people’s lives and how it changes the city.”

The Sinking City of Oakmont, Massachusetts, serves as the setting for the game and builds upon aspects of the Cthulhu mythos. Sharing similarities with Lovecraft’s own fictional Massachusetts settlement of Arkham, Oakmont consistently links back into the canon – its institutions for higher education, for instance, have links with Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

“If you want to build a unique place with a lot of stories, you have to make it a city,” says Amr. “You’re a private investigator looking for your father, who holds a role in ancient history and archaeology at the Oakmont University, which is affiliated with the Miskatonic University of Arkham. At the start of the game, you’re simply looking for him. He’s disappeared and you have to use the city to discover the rest.

A character explores the flooded metro in The Sinking City.

A character explores the flooded city.

“Investigations are what we’re good at and what we like, and moving from a megalomaniac character like Sherlock Holmes to something Lovecraftian isn’t that different. But instead of creating a very linear, detailed story like in Sherlock, we’re going for something that’s less overtly explained, where how you understand what you see is open to interpretation one way or the other. So, we’re using certain mechanics that’re similar to the Sherlock games, but ones that’re relevant to the open-world situation and the narrative situation of the Lovecraftian investigation.”

From its cracked cast of deranged characters and grisly monsters to its foreboding, Gothic tone, Lovecraft is horror through-and-through. Frogwares aren’t ignoring this constituent part of the Lovecraftian experience and are trying to weave aspects of psychological horror into The Sinking City.

“In Lovecraft, the terror is self-inflicted,” Amr says. “It is an extremely powerful feeling. But if you show a lot of monsters, you quite naturally have to fight them and beat them, which is quite disrespectful to the canon. Could other people do that? Maybe. But I’ve not seen it. I mostly see games that’re trying to stay respectful to the idea in Lovecraft that you cannot win, and there are things above you that you cannot understand. What matters is if it’s well presented. Does it come across well to the players? That’s another story – a question of form, rather than game type.

“It’s among the numerous pillars of the game, but I wouldn’t qualify [The Sinking City] as a horror game.”

He continues: “In Sherlock Holmes we explain things down to the slightest details, but it’s never enough. We’ll always have players saying, ‘What about this,’ or ‘What about that?’ In Lovecraft, you shouldn’t explain everything because that’s part of the terror first and foremost. However, while the narrative [in The Sinking City] is going to be less linear, it’s not going to be less deep. The protagonist and NPCs are major talking points here at the studio, and we’re working hard to create something that is very surprising.

“The Lovecraft stories can sometimes have these characters that’re very powerful, but a little bit of an idiot at the same time, or half-crazy, which makes them less powerful than they could be. That’s very good ground for a super-interesting narrative.”

With any complex source material, it can be difficult to adequately portray its subtext to a player, and some of the cheesier attempts at evoking a Lovecraftian setting could be seen as cynical in their ham-fisted application of the mythos – throwing fish-men and cultists at an aquatic setting and calling it Lovecraft. However, Frogwares have faith in the game development community at large and, while everything might not always go to plan, believe that designers generally have the best intentions.

“I personally don’t know a game that focuses on killing the full bestiary of the Cthuhlu mythos, so I don’t think that people are denaturing the ideas,” Amr says.

“Many games have elements that’re totally right, and from many different genres, which shows just how interesting the mythos is – from adventures, to shooters, to RPGs and action games, they can all have things that resonate. It’s not always about having some documents to read, or something very canonical. It’s also about emotion.

“You have to question whether they meant it, whether it’s an Easter Egg or another little addition to the game, because that makes the difference. What we aim at doing with The Sinking City is immersing you inside a Lovecraftian experience from an investigative perspective.”

Monolithic creatures attack in The Sinking City.

Nightmarish creatures have taken hold of Oakmont.

“A Lovecraftian game is probably more of a developer’s idea than a publisher’s idea,” he goes on to say. “The vast majority of developers love what they do. Maybe they don’t do well as well as they could, like all of us, but the vast, vast majority of developers are people that want to do good. You know, the quick exploitation of a topic, I don’t see that too much – in our part of the industry. If you get into cheap mobile games, that’s different. I’ll give credit to anyone who’s trying to create something that’s a bit more intellectual or a little bit different.

“Something that’s disempowering also – because that’s something that’s very interesting with the Lovecraft theme – you move away from the canon of the super-muscular man who’s going to settle everything with bullets. Looking at a game this way, from the perspective a doomed character – I wouldn’t even say hero, just character – is by itself in opposition to the dominant commercial canon, which, in my view, is already by itself a good start.”

Above all, Frogwares are making best use of their considered, narrative-focused approach to game design as they try to create a free and thoughtful adventure which draws on source material that they genuinely admire.

“Our goal is to show that open worlds can be about something other than action,” says Amr. “Open-world games today are all about very dynamic mechanics: all driving, all fighting, or both. Our purpose is to create a game where investigation is the primary component of the open-world.

“Dozens of games have Lovecraftian elements, whether they say it or not. The strength of the Lovecraft universe is that it has universal value, whether you’re incorporating it into the narrative, or characters, or monuments, or side-quests, it can be everything that you want it to be.

“Lovecraft is very subtle, and we as a developer are working on the form of things. We are working on the presentation of things – we are a visual art. Why things work or don’t work sometimes? If there was a formula, I probably wouldn’t do games – I wouldn’t be allowed to,” he jokes.

“It’s a fictional world that you’re playing in, with its own logic,” Amr concludes. “In this world, there’s a part that you see and a part that you imagine. This is why we wanted to have a Lovecraft setting, because by not explaining everything, you leave part of answering the narrative’s questions up to the player. What we loved with Crimes and Punishments and The Devil’s Daughter, our current Sherlock Holmes game, was at the end of the case. you had to choose a suspect. We broke the usual link between the man and the machine because in the game, we don’t say if you’re right or not. Therefore, it’s the player against themselves, against their own theory, against their own judgement, their own emotions. I love that because we’re using the game to make the player reflect upon themselves.

“Many writers have said that they thought it would be easy to judge people, but it’s not, and after three cases I felt guilty for them. I think it’s a great achievement as a game maker have people say that about your work, because they feel for the people they sent to gallows without absolute certainty that they were guilty.

“In The Sinking City, part of the world isn’t going to be told to you, so you’re going to imagine it, and Lovecraft is great for that. We all know paranoid people who think they’re surrounded by robots and they’re the only human. That’s interesting because the way they see the world is different from yours. The way that people are going to interpret the rest of the world in Oakmont, how it works, why the flood is here, what is happening to their character and how they’re going to leave it, it’s a free investigation, a free adventure. In a sense that you’re choosing how you want to do it, you’re not going to be told how to do it in the game. I hope it’s going to be fascinating. For us, this is what we aim at doing. The computer or the console is just support for the player’s imagination and if we succeed, I’ll be very happy.”

Frogwares’ latest release, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, releases on 27th May 2016 for PS4, Xbox One and PC. Find more from them on their official websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

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