Combining detective mystery, supernatural Lovecraftian horror and good old fashioned action adventure into one wet and slimy noir-ish tale, The Sinking City released on other platforms back in June and was announced at E3 to be coming to Switch "later this year".
Developer Frogwares is self-publishing this creepy and ambitious open world game on Nintendo's platform and we recently spoke to Frogwares community manager Sergey Oganesyan about the game, its influences and the team's experience porting a large open world to the Switch...
Firstly, could you tell us a little about the game and its setting? The Sinking City itself looks like a foreboding place…
It is! The Sinking City is a mix of the 1920’s east coast United States - and the gloomy Lovecraftian elements such as desolation and hopelessness. We think it’s a unique combination that twists the familiar lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties, by bringing the devastation and terror brought to you by the Great Old ones - iconic Lovecraftian ancient gods and their supernatural influence on the minds of the people.
That’s the world we find ourselves in, the ravaged city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, on the verge of madness. Most of its streets are buried under an apparently supernatural flooding, which, to make things even worse, seemingly awakened frightening monsters. Add in the fact that the main protagonist, Charles Reed, is already a troubled mind, having survived the mysterious disappearance of the USS Cyclops - a ship he served on during the Great War. That incident took a huge toll on his mental health, and even Boston asylum failed to “cure” it.
Imagine being a private eye like Charles in this strange world that doesn’t tolerate any meddling in its affairs. Oakmont is a secretive society, that keeps its mouth shut… while facing you, and openly despises you behind your back for being a newcomer. To add insult to injury, the city is seeing an influx of refugees - Lovecraft’s Innsmouthers sought shelter here after their own city was burned down by the police.
So, fear, despair, deprivation and prejudice run the city now. And our goal is to investigate the source of our madness - apparently it is linked to the Oakmont calamity itself. We will be pursuing leads, searching crime scenes, tracking down suspects, and of course, making moral choices, tons of them. We think where the game really shines is in its detective mechanics and the idea of no handholding. This means it’s always up to you to figure out each next step in your investigation: from deciding where to go to who to accuse, and what to do with them.
The game is set in the 1920s and Reed is a veteran of the First World War. Tell us about the research involved in bringing this world and these characters to life.
Our sources of inspiration are both real and fictional. For example, the above-mentioned USS Cyclops was a real collier that disappeared in the Bermuda triangle during the war. We tied this fascinating incident into the lore, making it a background story for Charles Reed.
I’ve actually spoken to our city architect, Katerina Frolova, who worked on designing Oakmont about the references she and the team collected. Overall, she has around 9 gigs of old photos and videos of references of the 1920’s United States, old city maps, especially of Boston from 1880’s, tons of articles and information from books on such topics as: architectural styles, city patterns, landmarks, public spaces and even modern road design . Lot’s of books, and the team even went for a trip to Boston to get a feel for the place. And of course, Lovecraft country, towns with the sense of place, like Arkham or Dunnwich. Or Innsmouth.
H.P. Lovecraft is obviously a huge influence on the game – were there any other touchstones that inspired you during development?
Most of our characters are directly inspired by Lovecraft novels, because we wanted to follow his distinct storytelling style.
The team has worked really, really hard to optimize the Switch version of the game. It runs at a stable 30 frames per second
When it comes to the characters and story, we obviously looked at Lovecraft novels, mainly The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the latter had a big influence on the world of The Sinking City. Our narrative guys also studied the authors Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert W. Chambers and his The King in Yellow, as well as some of Lovecraft’s followers, like August Derleth and many others.
Here’s a funny thing. A decent chunk of contemporary media are loosely based on Lovecraft’s ideas of cosmic fear and fatalism, sometimes unintentionally, because these themes are so deeply entrenched in modern film and game-making. Lovecraft is called the father of modern horror for a reason.
The Sinking City gives players a large open world to explore – tell us about some of the challenges of squeezing the city of Oakmont onto Switch. Has anything been cut from the versions on other platforms?
I want to emphasize that the team has worked really, really hard to optimize the Switch version of the game. It runs at a stable 30 frames per second, and we did our best to incorporate the feedback we have received after the game was released on other platforms.
That includes numerous bug fixes, improvements to the crowd AI and performance. We even made certain changes to combat - the guns now sound more satisfying, and we added new VFX and camera shake effects when you shoot.
We tried to create a morally ambiguous world, where characters have their own motivations and, yes, prejudice.
When it comes to the sacrifices, yes, there are some. To name a few, we went over the city and removed a few pieces of irrelevant, yet especially taxing content, completely reworked cloth physics and water, and also reduced the number of polygons on certain characters as well as certain visual effects.
Additionally, we switched to FXAA (Fast Approximate Anti-aliasing) instead of TAA (Temporal Anti-aliasing). The transition was challenging, but it helped us save around 20 percent of the overall resources. Our first and foremost priority was to keep the artistic integrity of the project, while removing resource-draining but mostly unimportant content, that the player won’t be seeing often on the screen. Overall, we are really happy with how the game looks and plays on the Switch.
With the game already available on other platforms, will the Switch version be taking advantage of any of the system’s unique features?
Yeah, several. The game will feature the option of using gyroscope when aiming with weapons, and control the camera when using the boat. Additionally, you can use the touch screen functionality in the menu, mind palace and to pick the dialogue options in conversations.
How does Switch compare to previous Nintendo platforms in terms of ease of development and the tools provided?
Well, we released a couple Sherlock Holmes games on the Nintendo DS and Wii, but that was a long, long time ago. I don’t think we even have people in the office who worked on these games. Back then, we were working with our own engine, and now it’s easier with Unreal Engine 4, as it’s extremely popular and therefore, there are more ways to learn how to work with it on the Switch, and we can always reach out to Epic Games if we need advice. I think Unreal Engine is the reason we managed to create a Switch version in just several months, considering that we are not a big studio with hundreds of people.
The influence of H.P. Lovecraft on modern horror is huge, but there are also some deeply problematic aspects to the author’s work and worldview in a modern context. How do you handle those issues in a game inspired so heavily by his work?
Working with Nintendo is a joy... They’ve been really helpful to us. They provide great advice
We are aware of Lovecraft’s views, and we, of course, do not support them whatsoever. However, we decided to keep racial tensions and prejudice in the game, not only for the sake of authenticity (to portray the 1920’s as they were), but also to show that some people, even on the verge of total annihilation, prefer to focus on ridiculous squabbles.
We tried to create a morally ambiguous world, where characters have their own motivations and, yes, prejudice. The Innsmouthers (hybrids of humans and the Deep ones, creatures that live in the ocean) are refugees, discriminated by the city. Robert Throgmorton is also a hybrid (albeit a different one), yet he is a man of power, and of prejudice.
You can try and confront some people about their views, or maybe ignore them. This is not the central theme of the game overall, rather one of the many attributes of this world.
The Sinking City on Switch will be Frogwares’ first self-published game – how has that process been as first-time publishers?
It definitely is a learning experience for us. Things like marketing, setting up store fronts, dealing with Nintendo directly, these are all new things for us. However, working with Nintendo is a joy, and I’m not just saying that. They’ve been really helpful to us. They provide great advice, they gave us an opportunity to be featured in their E3 Direct video, and they are always just an email away with help. With The Sinking City still some time away from release, we have a lot of things to do and learn. But you know what, it’s an exciting time. It really is! And seeing the game release and be playable on the Switch will be a blast!
From a game dev perspective, which single technical aspect of the Switch would you most like to see improved in a potential ‘Pro’ revision of the console in the future? How would that make life easier for you during development?
Wouldn’t say no to a stronger CPU. More cores would definitely make for an easier transition from other platforms.
Finally, tell us about some of the games the team has been enjoying on Switch recently.
Our thanks to Sergey and the Frogwares team - it's encouraging to hear about the care being taken to give Switch gamers the best possible experience. We're off to dry out but how do you like the look of The Sinking City? Feel free to share your thoughts on the upcoming game below.