On The Sinking City, and dealing with Lovecraft’s racism in games

12 mins read

Opinion by Matt S.

I’m only a couple of hours in to the newly-released The Sunken City, which comes to us from Frogwares and is the latest attempt to bring the magnificent horror of H.P. Lovecraft to video games. I’m going to leave the review to another on the team, Lindsay, who is also a recent convert to Lovecraftian horror courtesy of the excellent Call of Cthulhu from last year, but I wanted to do a brief opinion piece on the game, because it’s one of the few that seems willing to grapple with the less pleasant side of Lovecraft – the man was sickeningly racist.

Here’s a good summary of just how racist Lovecraft really was: Making no efforts to conceal his bigoted theories, Lovecraft took to pen and publication with the most grotesque appraisals of those he deemed inferior. His letters overflow with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of an underground Jewry pitting the economic, social, and literary worlds of New York City against “the Aryan race.” He warned of “the Jew [who] must be muzzled” because “[he] insidiously degrades [and] Orientalizes [the] robust Aryan civilization.” His sympathies with rising fascism were equally transparent. “[Hitler’s] vision . . . is romantic and immature,” he stated after Hitler became chancellor of Germany. “I know he’s a clown but god I like the boy!”

And his contempt for blacks ran even deeper. In his 1912 poem entitled “On the Creation of Niggers,” the gods, having just designed Man and Beast, create blacks in semi-human form to populate the space in between. Regarding the domestic terrorism of white minorities in the predominantly black Alabama and Mississippi, he excused them for “resorting to extra-legal measures such as lynching and intimidation [because] the legal machinery does not sufficiently protect them.” He lamented these sullen tensions as unfortunate, but nevertheless says that “anything is better than the mongrelisation which would mean the hopeless deterioration of a great nation.” Miscegenation permeates his letters and stories as his most corporeal fear; he insists that only “pain and disaster [could] come from the mingling of black and white.”

No one disputes any of this (in part because it’s blatant and direct from Lovecraft himself). Some try to excuse it as “product of his times” nonsense, but for most fans of Lovecraft there is that asterisk that they’re fans despite the blatant and unforgivable racism. Sadly, from an artistic credibility point of view, most Lovecraftian games – including Call of Cthulhu itself – gloss right over this, but when you load up The Sunken City, the first thing you encounter is a disclaimer message to the effect of “we acknowledge that Lovecraft was racist, and the era that he was writing in was as well. We find this abhorrent, but have preserved it in The Sunken City in the interest of authenticity.”

I’m of such a mixed mind about this approach. Mixed enough that I still can’t be sure if I agree with the approach that Frogwares has gone with or not, but to summarise my thoughts (with the disclaimer that these are first impressions and I remain open to my mind being changed on this game):

On the one hand, it’s good to acknowledge that Lovecraft was repellent in his horror. I love the man’s vision, and can recite a number of his stories (particularly Shadow Over Innsmouth) from heart as I’ve read it that many times. But Lovecraft was racist, and it wasn’t incidental – his racism formed a cornerstone of his work, his ideology, and his aesthetic. Degeneracy was black. Foreigners were inherently something to be feared. It’s painted in such excruciating detail within most of Lovecraft’s stories that it’s almost the greater horror than Cthulhu itself to the point that other authors go to this length usually to make a point against racism. Sadly, with Lovecraft, the repellent treatment of race was clearly intentional, and the repulsion that you might feel from the lurid racism within the stories an unintentional response on his original intention.

For exactly that reason, to not treat with racism in video games based on Lovecraft is to demonstrate a very shallow understanding of Lovecraft’s work. Again, I loved Call of Cthulhu, but while it got the aesthetics and atmosphere right, it offered a fairly hamfisted take on the xenophobia, and that shifts the game a little from Lovecraft’s vision. My favourite Lovecraftian game of all time – Dark Corners Of The Earth – is exactly the same. The aesthetics are spot on, but the thematics are off.

Both of those games are grounded in Chaosium’s The Call of Cthulhu RPG, which itself pushes the racism deep into the background. As with any pen-and-paper RPG, an individual gaming group might look to deal with the topic, but for the most part Chaosium wanted us to see Lovecraft’s vision as a series of aesthetic and mechanical functions, and like most pen-and-paper RPGs, it actively tries to be as quiet as possible on building formal themes into the game’s foundation.

I’m not sure if Frogwares’ game is explicitly licensed to Chaosium’s pen-and-paper game, or simply inspired by it, but it plays out very much like a RPG session where the group have decided to go the full Lovecraft. I do admire this commitment to authenticity, and The Sunken City, within the first hours, feels immediately on point in a way that other “Lovecraftian” games have always been slightly off on. The very first quest line – no more than a tutorial – is absolutely rife with explicit and unflinching racism.

Again, this is potentially a very good think in depicting Lovecraft properly, for good and for ill. There’s a big “but” to that, though.

For a theme as loaded and potent as racism, you cannot simply depict it without adequately exploring it. There’s no neutral ground on this topic – it’s one of those binaries where you either find racism acceptable, or you don’t, and you can’t simply throw a disclaimer at the start of a game that depicts racism to say you don’t personally find it acceptable. If the rest of the game tacitly accepts the presence of racism in the world, then your personal intent doesn’t mean a great deal for the interpretation of if.

Here is where I either have a problem with The Sunken City, or just need to play it more. The game has decision trees that give you a limited ability to shape the protagonist’s response to the racism he sees around him, but there’s very little consequence to it. It’s just… there, and while you get the sense that the development team really do find racism unpleasant in the way that the racists tend to be exceedingly unpleasant, there’s little condemnation of it in there.

Take that very first quest as an example. The quest is given to you by the wealthiest person in town, who just happens to be one step short of forming a militia to go out and kill all the “foreigners” that have arrived in town. His son has gone missing, however, and it’s fair enough to want to track down the son, since he might not be the raging twat that his father is. Through the investigation you find that the son was killed by one of these foreigners, who had been driven crazy by the eldritch forces in town.

It’s clear that this foreigner was not in control of himself in committing the act, and would be skinned alive regardless of his moral innocence if you reported on him back to the father. And yet what does our hero do? Shrug his shoulders and decide that he should probably report what happened anyway. Yes, there’s the option to lie and not rat him out, but at this point in the narrative it’s made quite clear you need to be on the wealthy tool’s good side, so every game element is driving you to do a solid for the racist.

Again, I may be far too early into the game, and there may be a better analysis and condemnation of the role of racism in Lovecraft’s work further down the track. It certainly permeates every facet of The Sunken City, and that lends it a grim, uncomfortable air indeed. But I am concerned that the developers think a disclaimer is enough to depict racism of the extreme nature of Lovecraft’s verbatim, without any effort to actually do something meaningful with the theme. If that turns out to be the case, I’ll not be able to celebrate Frogwares’ seeming bravery in being unflinchingly Lovecraftian.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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