Mar 25, 2016

Urban Planning for Lovecraftian Horror: The First Steps

[This article was written for the Frogwares site and originally appeared there.]

Cultists can worship ancient and essentially unknowable deities in or around any city. A basement in New York, a posh London apartment, a secluded New Orleans swamp, a derelict church in Kiev and, in extraordinary cases of summoning something truly gargantuan, Mexico City’s Plaza de la ConstituciĆ³n can all work brilliantly. Cultists operating in them and strange things happening hidden in their shadows wouldn’t though make New York, London, New Orleans, Kiev or Mexico City Lovecraftian cities in and of themselves. It would only make them cities in which something Lovecraftian is going on.

Happily, when Frogwares approached me to work on the Sinking City’s open world city, they already knew they weren’t just looking to create an intriguing, living 1920s urban environment, and then simply flood and fill it with horrors in order to create a passable background of urbanism. They wanted to create something fundamentally different. A city the foundations of which had been subtly but definitely shaped by the Cthulhu mythos. A truly Lovecraftian urban environment with a strong sense of place –a Genius Loci— and the ability to feel disturbing even on a lovely autumn afternoon.

But, how would such a city differ from, say, a haunted version of Providence or Boston? Well, let me indirectly answer this by giving you an example; the very same example that helped me approach the matter. Think if you will of Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror At Red Hook’ and ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. The first is taking place in a brilliantly presented yet still metaphysically mundane Brooklyn, whereas the latter in the decidedly different from your average city Innsmouth. Innsmouth, you see, is not merely a place inhabited by strange people with alien customs, nor is it just the hiding and mating place of the Deep Ones.

It is instead a very unique town built around the needs and desires of a hybrid and Deep Ones population, which simultaneously allows for some semblance of seemingly normal city life and maintains a facade of humanity. Innsmouth serves the monstrous religious needs of its inhabitants, lets them, among other things, move around unseen, live in relative comfort and have easy access to the sea, but it also has a small network of shops, residences, hotels etc to offer to the unsuspecting mortal. Obviously, it can never feel absolutely right, even though people who’ve lived there for years still can’t exactly describe what is wrong with the place. They know they should be scared, but cannot tell what of exactly.

A spoiler-free glimpse at the 90-pages long ‘Urban Manifestations of Lovecraftian Horror’ I wrote for the Sinking City team.

The main question I and the Sinking City team had to answer was thus what the city of Oakmont would look and feel like, and that was a question that, handily, could only begin to be approached in a perversely traditional geographic way. The works of H. P. Lovecraft simply wouldn’t be enough in providing us with all the answers, though admittedly re-reading HPL’s urban focused stories felt too good to be considered work. And, uninhabitable as it might be, R’lyeh is quite the metropolis…

Anyway. I was certain that the first thing we’d have to do would be decide on what the functions of such a city would be, and acknowledge the fact that they would have to be divided into two broad and necessarily intermingling categories. Not dissimilarly to Innsmouth, on one hand there would have to be normal urban functions such as traffic, commerce, and production, and on the other hand there would have to be the secret functions serving ancient inhuman goals. Both sets of functions would have historically shaped the city, while dialectically tending to the dark soul of Oakmont and allowing for a hefty 1920s urban center to exist and retain its population in pre-Depression New England.

Until the flood* struck, that is, and promptly submerged great chunks of the place under water, while allowing its less advertised set of functions to take over and start inviting every passing Old One to the city. The flood that helped Oakmont’s dark core to emerge and make itself obvious.

Said majestic and terrifying core cannot emerge in an unshaped vacuum though; nor in front of a flimsy, obviously fake urban background. The horrors of the flood and those unearthed by it have to manifest themselves in a city that actually feels and behaves like one. No matter how strange and disturbing Oakmont might at times (and places) be, it will have to feel lived-in and real, and that’s why we have to excavate its present in its history. That is why crafting its detailed history has been so important to me.

It will be –and to a point already is– a history that even when invisible has informed planning choices ranging from the mundane (what street furniture do we need?) to the architectural (how does this temple look like and has it changed during the past 100 years?) to the urbanistic (why is this house here?) to the occult (when were those half-hidden monoliths erected?)  to those important matters of everyday life (what do people do on a Sunday evening when not running away from eldritch horrors?). Planning choices both collective and individual, both spontaneous and institutional.

The Sinking City is not being treated as a collection of buildings. Its streets are not merely an opportunity for Frogwares’ artists to show off their skills in creating facades.  We are not limiting ourselves to horror or architectural elements either, and the whole team has realized that cities are much more than even their functions. They are way more complex than that. They are the people. The public spaces. The climate, the sky, the smells and colors. The impromptu festivals and the strikes. The looming factories and the old harbour.

In the case of Oakmont the city is also the roaring ’20s, New England, speakeasies, Prohibition, and most emphatically the flood, and we’ll be doing our very best to create a complex, living, breathing Lovecraftian urban environment unlike anything else and possible only in the interactive medium of videogames.

*This is not your average garden-variety New England flood. It is a flood stranger and way more persistent than even the 1936 one that devastated much of New England leaving behind over 150 dead.


  1. Well, I was already interested in Sinking City, and then I find out that you're involved!

    I definitely agree that video games are uniquely suited for examining environments in ways that no other medium is.

    I still remember playing Rebellion's original Aliens vs Predator and blundering into the toilets of a monster-infested space station. These loos were nowhere near the actual path you needed to take through the level, but they lent it so much veracity. The sense that this was a real place where I was being hunted by drooling horrors, rather than a level to be progressed through.

    1. Glad you were already interested dear Pacian and even happier we agree! Also, hold on... what is that next to the AvP toilets? Is it SUPERLUMINAL VAGRANT TWIN SUPERLUMINAL VAGRANT TWIN SUPERLUMINAL VAGRANT TWIN?


    2. Definitely an improvement from what was next to those toilets last time, that being a predator lining me up with its laser doodad.

    3. A vast improvement as more than enough xenobiologists would agree. Also, that was another excellent game y'know.