How Frogwares Explores the Gray Between Good and Evil – The Sinking City Interview
Frogwares is a studio with a storied history making Sherlock Holmes games. They’ve been allowing people to investigate those intellectual mysteries since their first title in 2002, going on to make a total of eight games about the intrepid detective, including Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments and The Devil’s Daughter, both available on PS4. Frogwares has had occasion between Holmes’ adventures to make games based on other properties, always exploring the ambiguity between good and evil and allowing player discovery. In 2019 they will be exploring the eldritch horrors of Lovecraftian influence with The Sinking City.
We had a chance to talk to Frogwares about their studio, the investigation genre, and how they are putting their own spin on the Lovecraft mythos.
PSLS: Frogwares is known most recently for the Sherlock Holmes titles and the upcoming The Sinking City. Mystery is clearly a central focus for the studio, but are there any other pillars that the studio stands behind when developing games?
Frogwares: Some say investigation is our forte, and it probably is what we are known for. However, to us investigation is a means to deliver journeys or experiences that we hope will stay with the player after they put the gamepad down. We want try to thrive on creating situations that people can either relate to or imagine themselves being in, and say “Hey, I’ve been there too,” or “I don’t know what I would do if that happened to me!”
Here’s a simple example from Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishment. While investigating, say, a brutal murder of a man, you find that his wife was having an affair because she was truly unhappy. You don’t know if her lover is linked to the case, but it’s an angle worth pursuing. So suddenly, your target is not a thief or a serial killer, but an average guy who probably made a mistake while trying to protect his loved one.
Say, you understand his motivation, but with a heavy heart you sentence him to prison. Then you realize that you were wrong about the murderer, and it was someone else. Now it’s time to ask yourself a question: “Do I have the right to decide the fate of people around me?”
We want to confront the player with these questions that aren’t easily answered. We aim to create moral dilemmas that will enable gamers to think about how complex our lives can be. And we want the player to realize that sometimes we all make wrong decisions and live with the consequences. That’s our approach to The Sinking City as well.
PSLS: Conversely, what is the one thing the team never wants to do in one of your games, be it a feature, gameplay element, or plot point?
Frogwares: Anything where we create a world with a generic divide between good and evil. We don’t want to go for cheap shock value to squeeze emotions out of you, like when cartoonishly bad guys kill kittens for no reason. It can work sometimes, depending on what you plan to achieve, but we prefer to wallow around in that murky grey area where people are left wondering who is “the lesser evil” in each this situation, me or them?
PSLS: How do you keep a game’s sense of mystery and discovery while also being accessible to a large variety of players?
Frogwares: We found that a good way to keep the spirit of mystery alive is to allow for genuine discoverability. If players feel like they uncovered something on their own through exploration, deduction and problem solving, then they should become more attached to the idea of solving the mystery. That’s why we’re pushing this idea of “Open Investigation” which basically means the game won’t hold your hand. There are no quest markers on the minimap, no checklist of clues you need to find revealed at the start of a quest etc. For example, the game gives you info such as an address but you need to use an actual map to locate it instead of some location marker on your HUD telling you where to go. Same idea with clues and investigations. You’ll be given plenty of info and tools to the solve them, just don’t expect it all given to you on plate. You need to actively discover and solve the clues to progress.
When it comes to keeping something like this it accessible, creating investigation mechanics and systems that are logical and easy to use are key. So through reasoning or even trial and error, the player is able to grasp what are the ways the game lets them collect, organize and solve clues. If it makes sense and the systems are fun to use, it will keep the player engaged.
PSLS: What’s something you really wanted to do with The Sinking City, but just had to cut it because it wasn’t working or didn’t fit?
Frogwares: At one point we had this interesting and intricate card game which you could challenge NPCs to in order to coax out information from them. The prototype worked well and was fun, but there was a bit of a domino effect on the rest of the systems. We’d end up with the card game becoming a blockade to the investigation chain. The information they had was essential so you had to extract it. But if you failed there needed valid and believable alternatives of getting that info too so then that hit us on the quest design scope. We also didn’t want this system to be an obvious way of getting key info all the time so players wouldn’t fall into a pattern of solving investigations, so we started loading some the NPCs with red herring clues. This in the end turned into more of a frustrating experience than a fun one, so we made the call to just ditch the system entirely.
PSLS: The Sinking City’s site says the following: “The game takes place in the fictional city of Oakmont, Massachusetts, set in the famous American Roaring Twenties. It’s a very distinct and often romanticized period of time in the U.S. history: economic growth, rise of consumerism, jazz, prohibition, gangsters and ethnic conflicts.” Is this awareness of the 20s being romanticized vs the uglier reality a factor in the game’s storytelling, and does that also extend to Lovecraft, who is also overtly romanticized—especially in video games—despite lots of themes like racism in and outside of the source material?
Frogwares: The “uglier reality” is indeed a big factor and one of the major points in the storytelling. All we can say is that we don’t want to shy away from societal problems that existed in the past and could be considered taboo nowadays. At the same time, we don’t aim to show these problems from the modern perspective. That is a really delicate topic. We prefer that you play the game and tell us what you think about it afterwards.
PSLS: Does The Sinking City pull from a specific Lovecraft work, or is it a more general overall “Lovecraft theme?”
Frogwares: We debated this at the start of the project but very quickly we decided we’d rather pull heavily from the Lovecraft themes and multiple stories, instead of focus on any one particular piece of his work.
It’s better this way as it gives us more room to create our own stories that match up nicely with the gameplay and story arcs we came up with. Had we stuck to established locations, characters and stories we’d be forced to recreate them well enough to appease avid Lovecraft fans while also trying to incorporate our own ideas. And while it may have been easier to sell the game as “Based on the story of…” we’d probably just end up with a lot of forced ideas clashing and a lot of unhappy Lovecraft fans.
In the end it was decided we’d rather give everyone a new story anchored heavily around the feel of Lovecraft’s world. Trying to recreate something that many people already have their own strong mental picture of just for the sake of being able to market the the game better would be foolish.
PSLS: Will The Sinking City take influence from The Shadow Over Innsmouth in particular? If so, will it lean more towards the unknown Deep Sea, or the cosmos? Or will it mesh the black sea with the stars above, as Lovecraft tends to do?
Frogwares: The sea and its impact on the game is a major plot point since the flood came from the sea, leaving Oakmont paralyzed and devastated. The city is now full of the fishpeople from Innsmouth, so if you know your Lovecraft, then the book’s influence is apparent.
Plus we believe that the sea fits the idea of cosmic horror perfectly. Both the sea and cosmos are enormous bodies of space, each concealing vast mysteries from human eye. If you look at the stars, your mind can can begin to wonder just how much we don’t know and how insignificant we are. Stare into the murky waters of the ocean, the idea is very much the same.
PSLS: How will the game attempt to measure madness? Will it be similar to other Lovecraftian titles like Bloodborne, or will it do so in a new way?
Frogwares: Bloodborne’s insight is a really fascinating mechanic, but we are going for a different approach here. We need something dynamic that shall constantly remind you just how fragile our hero’s mind is. That’s why we have a separate sanity meter, which goes down every time you see something disturbing. When it drops, our hero begins to see visions, phantom enemies and flashbacks from his past, environment changes too. It creates additional challenge, puts more pressure on the player because it can happen at the most inappropriate moment, when you least expect it.
PSLS: Outsiders are rarely welcomed in Lovecraft’s oeuvre. Is the PI a Miskatonic type, sent to uncover a hidden truth that everyone in the town except for him knows? Which side are the locals on?
Frogwares: The mystery overtaking our fictional city of Oakmont is one that very few characters in the game understand. The city has been enveloped by a mysterious and almost living flood, yet despite the sheer decay and degradation it’s causing, people choose to stay. They are somehow drawn to this place and begin to adapt to living with the flood. Very few people know why they are doing this, only that they must. Hostility to outsiders is still a common theme but its not from someone snooping around, trying to uncover their dirty secret, but rather it’s born from the insanity of living in a place like this and believing nothing is wrong with doing so. The main character Charles Reed is also drawn to this place but is still able to rationalize his being there as trying to uncover the mystery of the flood.
PSLS: Lovecraft was influenced by the detective stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Is Lovecraft the only influence the game has, or is he one of many?
Frogwares: Lovecraft is of course the biggest one, for sure, but the team also studied the works of his followers, August Derleth, Brian Lumley etc. We also looked at the authors Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from, like Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Robert W. Chambers and others.
And since we are creating a video game, we also dissected the original 2005 Call of Cthulhu Dark: Corners of the Earth game, the Silent Hill games, LA Noire, The Last of Us, maybe a bit of The Witcher as well as movies like In the Mouth of Madness etc.
PSLS: What did you learn while developing the Sherlock Holmes games that you are pulling into your experience developing The Sinking City?
Frogwares: Can we say everything? 😀 Everytime you ship a game you get a little more wiser if not a little more insane since it feels like making games is as much a science as it is black magic. 😛
Features wise, we are building upon a few we created in Sherlock, like the reconstruction of events, the mind palace and the idea that investigation games don’t need to hold your hand or the player will give up after five minutes and leave.
PSLS: The properties you work on tend to have a number of versions. Sherlock Holmes in particular has a lot of iterations, whether it’s a more modern take, one with a comedic tone, or something much darker. How do you put your own personal spin on the properties and themes you are working with while retaining the nature of the original?
Frogwares: It’s a mix of what stories we want to tell and what is generally expected from a Sherlock Holmes game, to a degree. But the truth is that we create something we want to create, and so it happens that some people like it too. We don’t want make the same game several times, even though it’s probably safer business-wise.
The Devil’s Daughter was our attempt to create a more personal story, something that Sherlock was deeply involved in. We also added some action bits to convey the feeling of vulnerability, the feeling that you could fail at what you do. These bits could have been done differently, but it is what it is. Overall, The Devil’s Daughter was different from Crimes & Punishments in that sense.
For us, experimentation is a good thing. If we believe that changing the setting is absolutely necessary to tell an interesting story, we will consider it. Doesn’t mean it will work out obviously, , but we are not afraid to try new things and you often don’t know if it’s a good idea or not til you at least try a prototype.
PSLS: Is there a dream property or theme that you would love to work with?
Frgowares: Ah gee. I’m sure if I were to ask this question to the team, I would get several dozen different responses. Everyone has their own dream property. And since we’re currently scouting and also in a few talks with various interesting IP holders, it’s probably best we don’t drop any hints here. 😀
PSLS: What’s next for Frogwares? Do you have any big ambitions past The Sinking City’s release?
Frogwares: We’ve got a few ideas for the future of the studio and what games we want to make, but sadly most of it is under wraps for now since nothing is set in stone just yet. “Don’t jinx it” and all that jazz. 😀
We’d like to thank Frogwares for taking the time to answer our questions. The Sinking City releases on March 21, 2019.