Making fish-heads or monkey-tails of The Sinking City and its reputation amongst the gaming community is a mystery befitting an H.P Lovecraft story. Reviews vary wildly, from a 3/10 (Gamespot) all the way up to a perfect score (ComicBook). The Metacritic is a study in confusion. How does this happen?
Opinions vary, but traditionally when scores are like this, with a vocal group of players championing the game in the face of negativity, there’s probably something worth exploring there.
Well, let’s start with this: In my dozen or so hours with the game, I…do not particularly like The Sinking City. But, I still think it’s a pretty good game.
See, here’s the thing: The Sinking City is a grimy little gem of a title, and you have to be up for this thing to truly enjoy it. It doesn’t hold your hand. It’s gross, dirty, brown, dour, and creepy. There are little bugs who seem to be made entirely of human arms scurrying about, folks that look like fish, others that look like primates, and intentional warping of the game screen. Oh yeah, almost forgot to mention that everything is drenched in water and damp, and a dusting of sadly era-appropriate racism.
For the uninformed, The Sinking City is an open-world investigation game, tasking player-character Charles Reed with uncovering the mystery of the haunting, visceral visions that have drawn him and others to the port town of Oakmont Massachusetts – home to an off-putting bunch of citizens, and quite a few strange happenings. Gameplay wise, you’ll travel across multiple districts, read files, reconstruct crime scenes, pixel hunt, and rotate all manner of evidence in your quest for answers. All of this is in service of making conclusions and deductions on a given case, many of which are gray in nature and give the player a sort of “Did I do that wrong?” anxiety, which is typically a positive sign of a good story well told.
Admittedly, this feels a little drawn out as you move across various districts, houses, and offices for clues. You are also searching for evidence and there are key characters you need to speak to. Backtracking, getting lost, scouring a room for that one, final, tiny piece of evidence on the back of a picture, the gang is all here. There’s some variety in the various parts of the town, but I suspect there will be no bright yellow giraffes to greet me at the end of this journey.
(There’s also some glitches of NPCs appearing out of nowhere, or standing where they shouldn’t, along with occasional, confusing overlapping audio.)
Yet outside of those glitches and bugs, all of this feels like a choice. Unlike other games that want you to play in their ‘living, breathing’ worlds for hours, The Sinking City’s Oakmont is brave in its goals of agitating the player with its oppressively depressing nature. You don’t want to be there, they don’t want you there, but you have to be there, and in your humble author’s opinion, the gameplay (and its frustrations) serves that notion.
That is not most players’ version of a good time. In the same way most movie fans will use the term ‘sad’ or ‘depressing’ as a negative when describing a powerful film that didn’t feed them a constant stream of smiling dopamine sugar cubes, The Sinking City isn’t ‘fun’ in the traditional sense of the word. Fascinating. Strange. Unique. Depressing. Oppressing. These are the adjectives that describe The Sinking City and they do not make for a crowd-pleaser.
Then again, Bright Eyes, Elliot Smith, and Marilyn Manson aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea either. And that’s fine, too. If you’re a reviewer for a major, mainstream outlet, the score you’re required to give a game is the thing folks look at most and often times first. For a game about mysteries, quantifying the quality of this game, for that audience, is quite the conundrum.
It’s a matter of taste ultimately. My favorite games are sometimes janky, predatory, and weird. From Madden Ultimate Team to Yakuza to My Time at Portia, games can be so very different from one another and still compel you to play them. In fact, My Time at Portia has a similar, drawn-out gameplay loop. But, it’s bright and colorful. There are cute animals, mining, and you grow stuff. Those specific elements made the drawn-out open world nature of the gameplay a lot of fun and very rewarding, whereas a similar loop in The Sinking City is something very different.
Similarly, Murdered: Soul Suspect, a game not completely unlike this one, also received middling to poor reviews upon release but found itself enjoyed by a lot of gamers who discovered it on their own. Reviews be damned…or burnt at the stake I guess.
So, no, The Sinking City isn’t an appealing game for most and absolutely doesn’t want to be, either. It’s not the kind of horror that’s basically an action game with jump scares. It’s also not a low-resistance potboiler. It’s an abrasive, unwelcoming, and challenging title when you get down to it. In this regard, the low(ish) review scores are understandable. While abrasive doesn’t mean bad, it can be taken that way – no one is blasting Dimmu Borgir at Walmart for example. And if a game designed almost entirely around making the player feel caught in the world’s worst fever dream doesn’t sound exactly like your idea of a good time, then, well, it won’t be.
But here’s the rub. I think if you’re keen to pick up what this game is putting down in terms of atmosphere, character, and storytelling, you’re liable to have a good time – flaws and all. You can’t have a polarizing reception without a lot of folks really liking a thing. And in the same way folks can enjoy pitch-black bleakness in their movies, music, and television, surely there’s an audience for that in gaming.
I didn’t enjoy The Sinking City. But I think that’s more of a me problem (along with lots of other people). This game works on you the player. Agitating you. Frustrating you. Creeping up your back with dread. That’s the point of it. The team has executed on their vision splendidly.
Emotional masochists need games too, after-all.
Did you like The Sinking City? Let us know in the comments below!
Paul Meekin writes, edits, and consumes all things interactive, interesting, weird, and unique. Reach out via [email protected] or via Twitter @MeekinOnMovies