The Sinking City Interview – Delving Into Lovecraftian Lore, The Game’s Mechanics & More

Christian Vaz

Last week at EGX Rezzed, I had the chance to play through Frogwares’ latest title: The Sinking City. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Frogwares, they are known for their Sherlock Holmes games. Playing as a guy like Sherlock Holmes is quite fun, but what if you played as a different detective in a world inspired by the works of Lovecraft? Check out our interview with the developers as we delve into the game’s mechanics, the Lovecraftian community and more. Stay tuned for our preview of the game coming later this week.

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Could we get you to introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about your game, please?

We are Frogwares, a game dev company of around 80 artists and programmers, based in Kiev, Ukraine. Our studio was founded in the year 2000 and has released more than a dozen video games, including 8 Sherlock Holmes games, like Crimes and Punishments and Devil’s Daughter. While we do love to create the adventures of our beloved detective, after so many years we wanted to do something different, and that’s how The Sinking City was born.

The Sinking City is a third person open world action adventure game, set in the 1920s United States. It is heavily inspired by Lovecraft, so the world you know - jazz, prohibition, gangster wars and racial tensions - is intertwined with the philosophical concepts the American writer wrote about. The fear of the unknown, our place in the universe, fatalism and the insignificance of human lives - these are the underlying themes of our game.

Thу Sinking City takes place in the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts. The main character is a private detective who arrives in the city amid a terrible disaster. The city is suffering an unprecedented flood of clearly supernatural origins, which has claimed thousands of lives. Our goal is to get to the bottom of what’s happening, though not because we care so much about the people, but because we have personal reasons to get involved.

The Frogwares blog says The Sinking City is the biggest game you’ve ever made. What has been the most challenging part of the game’s development so far?

Definitely the city itself. The Sinking City is our first open world game, we’ve never done anything of that size and density before. I mean, in Sherlock Holmes The Devil’s Daughter we had semi-open world locations, they were relatively big but still separated by loading screens. And you know, it’s much easier to create a few different disjointed areas, than build one gigantic interconnected ecosystem.

We were quite staggered that building a city is not as easy as drawing streets and placing buildings. A city must have a soul, made of different districts, intricate urban planning, various architectural styles - it all must make sense and feel alive. Thankfully, our architect was up to the task, after months of research and a field trip to Boston. Our goal is to create a believable city that could exist in the 1920s New England. Of course, it’s a fictional city, but it still needs to feel real (here’s a dev diary on how we actually build that, if you are interested).

Also, making a big city takes a lot of time and resources, and to reduce the workload, our programmers and environmental artists developed a tool which we call City Generator. It allows us to procedurally generate parts of our city in accordance with certain logic and commands that we assign to them. In short, we know we want to have a rich area here, so we ask the tool to only use certain types of buildings and streets that we feel will fit the narrative. After it’s generated, we go over it to see if everything is in order, and of course add details manually to make sure everything feels unique and memorable. This allows us to spend time where it matters the most: adding the details and landmarks that will bring life and soul to Oakmont (city generator video).

During my time playing the demo, I noticed my ending was different to the person sitting next to me. Will there be multiple endings in the final release of the game, or was this purely for the event demo?

Yeah, The Sinking City uses what we call an open Investigation system, and the outcome of your quests will often be defined by how observant you are. So finding something, like a clue, a piece of evidence, which at first seems completely irrelevant, might actually turn things around. I cannot say how many quests in our game will have different outcomes, but we are aiming to make that an important part of the game.

Speaking of the event demo, do you find it challenging to show The Sinking City to the public? As an open-world game where you play as a detective, I imagine there’s a lot of places where things can go wrong for newcomers.

Well, it’s not the easiest game to show, that’s for sure. Detective games are reliant on different mechanics and features to make the gameplay engaging, and these mechanics need to be explained properly. If you take a shooter as an example, it’s really easy to hop in and have fun killing someone or something.

With The Sinking City - especially, with The Sinking City - it’s not that easy. In our game we want to implement the concept of ‘no handholding’, meaning that we are not telling the player where to go or what to do. So there’s no clear objective in your diary, like talk to that guy or investigate that building. So it’s kind of natural that in such an energetic environment like gaming conferences, it might not be as easy to focus as it would be in your comfy chair.

But, we were actually amazed how many people managed to complete the demo on their own. Sure, most of the players missed the ‘good ending’, but that’s the fun part of the game - branching storytelling and things you can rediscover.

From what I’ve seen online, there are a lot of demanding Lovecraftians out there. Have you felt any pressure from your fans and the Lovecraft community when developing The Sinking City?

We have a great and passionate community that’s for sure, but I cannot say we’ve ever felt pressured by them. We are honest with our fans, and we want them to know The Sinking City is an interpretation and an expansion of the Lovecraft universe by the people who know and appreciate his novels.

And you know, instead of demanding things, our community actually helps us develop the game. They not only give their feedback on different aspects of the game, like the lighting or camera, but also create content for the game. They came up with a name for one of our monsters, they wrote awesome letters that will be used as collectibles in the game, and we will continue to work with them to create a project that looks and feels Lovecraftian.

It’s difficult to imagine the main character will be unphased by all of the things he uncovers in the world. Will the detective’s mental state play a part in the game at all?

I mean, insanity is a big theme that Lovecraft explored in his novels, and cosmic fear and our place in the universe are also a major part of The Sinking City. So whenever the main character encounters something supernatural and disturbing, it will impact his mental health. We showed that mechanic at GDC in San Francisco. At a certain moment, the protagonist started seeing outlines of other-world architecture through tears in space. It was like the two worlds were blending together - although it was probably just his imagination playing tricks on him.

But it’s not the final version of how the insanity mechanic will look and play like. We are experimenting with it, and we want this mechanic to be both immersive and challenging for the players. Stay tuned, we feel obligated to talk more about the whole concept of insanity in our game in the future.

What type of weapons will the main character have to defend himself against all of the monsters hiding in The Sinking City?

That’s a good question, because combat is also a big part of the game, and we don’t want you to simply run or hide from monsters. We want you to able to stand your ground and defend yourself, but that should be a tactical choice of yours. We want you to make a decision whether or not you want to engage in a fight based on your ammunition and the strength of your enemy. Sometimes you can try and shoot your way out or in, sometimes it’s better to sneak around any hostility, and sometimes ‘run for your life’ is the best approach.

So we have different weapons, tools and complementary skills for you to use. Colts, revolvers, rifles, shotguns - can’t say what exactly we will give the player, because we are still considering, but we want to give you iconic weapons that were popular in that period of time. We will talk more about it later.

Will there be any graphical enhancements (HDR or 4K for example) to the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X versions of the game?

Not sure yet, we will see what we can do.

When can we expect The Sinking City to launch?

We want to make the game as good as possible, and we will announce the release date when we are ready.

Thank you for your time.

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