Open World Analysis – The Sinking City

The Sinking City’s central location, the derelict Massachusetts town of Oakmont, is like a place lost to time; geographically isolated and absent from any maps, it has developed into a microcosm of sorts, largely unaffected and uninfluenced by the wider world, this isolation also resulting in the formation of a wholly unique society; Oakmont’s citizens revel in this uniqueness, overjoyed at the isolation because it prevents external intrusion or manipulation; modernity’s damning effects are often, though not always, rejected. Conversely, modernity’s more progressive attributes are perhaps inadvertently rejected – here is an ethically backwards society; racism abounds. Despite this isolation, however, technologically the game is decidedly modern to the period, being set in the 1920’s; bright neon signage being abounds, scattered about the city streets, while ornate architecture of various movements is dispersed throughout. Automobiles abound too, though they are all in a rundown state, left abandoned to rust on the selfsame city streets, now more hulking eye sores rather than illustrations of technological greatness. Thinking abstractly, perhaps these vehicles represent everything wrong with the world, in that they were likely crafted on some assembly line, untouched or only rarely touched by human hands, who create blueprints and factories before retreating from the projects, allowing machinery to fully take over. In this society of mass production and mass consumption, is it really any wonder that the Oakmontians should so fiercely desire to distance themselves from this society? Not at all, though admittedly the reactions to this corruption are perhaps drastic. But Oakmont has been isolated and for so long that a reintegration to society is now laughable to the citizens – laughable and intensely undesired. Now is a fierce distrust and disdain for anyone not belonging to Oakmont, those derided by the citizens as “newcomers,” that designation carrying considerable weight; only pure citizens have value, are worthy of unconditional trust, outsiders recipients of skepticism and suspicion.  No matter the precise nature of their contributions, their magnitude, an outsider will always remain an outsider, Oakmontians heavily resistance to change, to the swaying of opinion even when such swaying is absolutely justified. Prejudice abounds, sometimes manifest in full scale violence, the presence of this violence resulting in a pervasive sense of fear and tension. Even Oakmont’s permanent, longstanding citizens are not immune to these acts of violence – consider the Ku Klux Klan organization, which has a tragic if prominent position within the city, the organization harassing innocents, sometimes torturing and murdering them. Prohibition, then thriving throughout the nation, is briefly mentioned throughout the narrative, and, as with the existence of the Klan, this shows that the outside world has not been shut out entirely, much as the denizens might like to shut it out. In a manner, then, Oakmont is shaped by its seclusion and isolation.       

A certain societal and economic stratification is in place in Oakmont, some individuals (a considerable majority) existing in abject, crippling poverty, other individuals clinging to relative affluence, prestige. Generally, economic status is tied to logistics – the southernmost regions, those situated along the coastline, fare the worst, the homes ramshackle, unsanitary and unstable constructions, barely fit for habitation; tragically, such buildings exist in abundance. The owners of these homes, traditionally fishermen or men with connections to the seas, exist in stark contrast to the city’s upper echelon, largely situated in the north, dwelling in sprawling, magnificent constructions, a tangible illustration of their wealth and elevated social status; when regarding square footage, one such manor easily constitutes ten of the meagre fishermen’s shacks. Mostly, this wealth is hereditary, manor-dwellers owing claim to their manors through inheritance; so called “great families” hold considerable sway within Oakmont, or did before the devastation came. Amongst the most affluent great families are the ape-like Throgmortons, with seeming centuries of societal sway, overflowing wealth, these two attributes resulting in a certain haughtiness, off putting and repelling. Their aesthetics must be further noted, in that they are more beasts than men, painting an odd sort of picture: the remaining members of the branch remain eloquent in speech and in apparel, even as they are externally barbarous. Seeing the family’s patriarch for the first time is unintentionally comedic, though he grows in relative intrigue, transcending the baser aspects of his appearance though still seeming somewhat cliched. Other prominent families exist, too, like one family suffering from the so called “innsmouther” syndrome, which results in fish-like aesthetics, the effect being one of fright rather than the comedy accompanying the Throgmortons, as the former, afflicted individuals boast spiky, jagged teeth and a distressing pallor, while even their speech is altered. The syndrome has long been regarded with disgust, and by the narrative’s opening this precise great family has largely disappeared, though its existence is oft mentioned, a further reminder of Oakmont’s commanding diversity – and its prejudices, in that this family is driven underground largely because of their frightful aspect, something which cannot be concealed and something which indelibly marks one as the other; they are sympathetic individuals, something which cannot be said of the Throgmortons, specifically their leader, Robert, who serves only to illustrate more clearly the plight of the masses. Here is a creature of pompousness and hubris, dwelling in his manor devouring steaming, expensive foods and living in overall luxury and stability, while his fellow citizens suffer from cold, intense hunger, and frequent exposure – yes, this stratification is immense, and somehow the designers made endearing these struggling, suffering masses, even as they are given no names, even as they utter very little dialogue; it is easy to identify with them, easy to despise Robert Throgmorton and everything that he represents; a great, believable imbalance exists.  

But the city is much more than poverty and affluence, their balancing and counterbalancing, in that Oakmont is also characterized by great environmental diversity. The northernmost regions, those above the districts housing Throgmorton manor and similarly posh estates, are mostly suburban in construction, these areas displaying a quaint sort of beauty and charm, the streets made of cobblestone, while carefully planted and thriving trees line the sidewalks, resulting in tranquility and bliss – here is outward beauty; here is a total detachment from the docks, shipyards, and shacks of the south. Manifold structures rivalling and exceeding the scope of the manors are present, too, a sprawling University and University campus occupying a crucial position right in the heart of the city, its façade majestic, mighty, and inviting, clearly a structure build of hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor and exertion, pointing also to Oakmont’s continued reverence for knowledge and education, the campus populated with NPC’s in the expected student apparel. A sprawling cemetery has its place in the west, menacing and haunting though still enigmatically beautiful, a tangible reflection of Oakmont’s storied, ancient history, with some gravestones existing for centuries. An asylum for the mentally ill exists in the east, and its facade is similarly beautiful if mundane, while the interior of the location is rich in detail, something which could be said of all the environments. The very nature of this establishment’s continued running has considerable import – madness must be combatted and treated, and the orderlies realize this: even with the Ku Klux Klan and all its other negativities, here Oakmont shows progressivism. There are churches, an antiquated if beautiful library run by a youthful, enthusiastic librarian, while there exists also a jail-house and a structure which serves as the headquarters for the local newspaper; on and on go the diversities and complexities of Oakmont, directly tied up to these various structures, all of which evoke differing sensations; much beauty is present here, certainly. Realism is embraced throughout, Oakmont seeming completely self-sufficient, self-sufficiency being a prerequisite to continued existence owing to the town’s isolation. With derelict docks, posh manors, slices of suburbia, other towering structures, and general diversity, the open world crafted here, one characterized by immense attention to detail and accuracy, is indeed remarkable.

Exploring Oakmont is generally an enjoyable affair, despite the world’s commanding hollowness. In a masterful, deliberate stroke, drivable land vehicles are completely absent, meaning that the vast majority of locomotion is on foot. This absence, meanwhile, results in an overall reduced traversal speed; the environment cannot be crossed with great hastiness, the end result being an overall sense of largeness, Oakmont literally dwarfing the player in its supposed massiveness. This massiveness is illusory, to be sure – from a quantitative perspective, the world is on the smaller size – but still this sense of largeness dominates. In a time where manifold different land and air vehicles are provided the player; in a time where elaborate parkour and traversal systems dominate – in this time, The Sinking City boldly rejects these mechanics, being wholly unique in its groundedness; the city overall shines in consequence. But there is the mentioned hollowness. The game boasts a considerable diversity of NPC models, while the situating of those models is logical and deliberate – fisherman are naturally abundant in the coastal south, smartly dressed youths congregate about the University. One citizen wears completely normal, mundane clothing, while another citizen may be dressed bizarrely in an almost ritualistic fashion, the clothes essentially rags, while some crooked, winding staff is clutched in hand, these objects reflecting their mental irregularities and perverseness. On and on goes this diversity, with newspaper hawkers, street sweepers, and manifold other models present. This diversity and attention to detail is let down by the scarcity of these NPC’s, no more than three or four rendered at any one moment, meaning the streets are overall barren; the city, rather than seemingly bustling, instead seems nearly abandoned. Part of this was perhaps due to stylistic reasons, for dramatic effect. The other part, though, is likely attributable to technical constraints and budgetary limitations. Some logic characterizes this barrenness, certainly; here is no Boston, no metropolis; here instead is an isolated city, one with a comparatively slight population. But this logical explanation is not like some panacea, cannot fully resolve the damning effects arising from this hollowness, from these mostly empty streets.

Many of these NPC’s, meanwhile, are completely speechless, rarely emoting, only reacting to the player’s presence whenever they come into direct contact, upon which the NPC voices some pointless statement, typically delivered poorly, while even this dialogue has the tendency to repeat; the most-heard expression is something like, “watch where you’re going, newcomer.” The poor animation quality does not help matters either, the NPC’s shuffling through the streets in a very stilted manner. Some bizarre attributes and oversights are present, too, particularly when regarding the newspaper sellers. Certain of them react appropriately, accurately reporting on the latest news of the day, gesticulating in dramatic fashion; it can be rather impressive. Other times, though, the newspaper sellers simply stand on their platform, their lips moving, indicating they are clearly speaking, yet no sound issues forth. Mistakes like these contribute to immersion’s destruction, literally taking the player out of the world, very frustrating when considering how immersive the world typically is; here again are the effects of lesser budgets. In efforts to inject some life, while exploring some acts of violence are observable, melee brawls among them, though acts of gun violence and murder also exist, though these are less frequent when compared to the former acts. Doing a bit of experimentation, principally by pulling a gun on the combatants, similar oversights are observable – some brawls are ended instantly, the combatants raising their hands submissively. In other occasions, the combatants do not react at all, indifferent to their newly exposed state. Similarly, a policeman may fire upon a supposed criminal, ultimately killing him, upon which he collapses to the ground in a heap. None of the NPC’s react to this murder, while the policeman simply holsters his gun and goes about his normal business. It is all very bizarre and frustrating, this great A.I. inconsistency, while the overall static, never-changing nature of the world is also disappointing.  The city’s design generally is excellent, with its great diversity and overall grimy, mature aesthetic and atmosphere, its overflow of grittiness. But the city’s primary inhabitants are all lazily programmed, certainly possessive of diversity, yet being spawned sparsely. The lack of believable behavior is also a considerable failing; the NPC’s merely exist, painfully simple.        

From a technical perspective, the title is similarly inconsistent – real feats of beauty are made here, desolation and squalor captured expertly and believably, though those feats exist alongside considerable failings. Owing to the cataclysmic Flood, an event central to the narrative and which has caused massive amounts of devastating, intense flooding, much navigation is inevitably done by boat; the developers could not fully distance themselves from vehicles, though here the boats are very well implemented. The same flooded avenues are crossed and recrossed, and, as is so often the case in Oakmont, an imbalance is in place – certain districts of the city have been literally consumed by the once-rushing, though now stagnant, waters; other districts, meanwhile, have almost totally avoided this watery fate. The water effects accompanying this movement are notably impressive, the waters churning realistically as the protagonist revs the engine onward, ever onward, sometime at fair speed, the small, fragile boat proving itself. Weather effects are similarly successful, rain being commonplace, sometimes coming down as a mere drizzle, other times coming down in torrents, fierce and unrelenting. The city streets suitably puddle with water, while the droplets cling to the protagonist’s coat, resulting in a neat sheen. In the clearer, brighter days, comparatively infrequent yet still present, the sun has a prominent presence, shining her sweet rays, bathing the entire city in an arresting orangeness, her presence also increasing the overall draw distance, which is greatly reduced in the moments of heavy rain and darkness. Darkness and lightness each have their turn, in that a gorgeous day / night cycle is in place, painting the world as being organic even as the NPC’s, their scarcity, point towards great hollowness. This shift between the beautiful – represented in the sunlight – and the eerie – represented in the rain – casts Oakmont has having two distinct, warring identities, one of gracefulness and gaiety, one of complete darkness and bleakness. Ultimately, darkness and bleakness prevail – Oakmont is oppressive.

But despite excellent lighting, water effects, and a fiercely dynamic day / night cycle, there are the technical issues. The greatest, most notable failing is attached to the pop-in, which is oftentimes embarrassingly bad, objects spawning in a jarring, sudden fashion. Texture rendering is similarly poor – those objects, when they do eventually spawn, typically require five or more seconds to render properly; before they reach that status, they are mere muddy messes. The intensity of these failings naturally varies depending upon the action engaged in. While navigating the city on foot, the pop-in is bad, though not dramatically so. When travelling by boat, however, when travelling at rather advanced speeds, the pop-in is only exacerbated. While exploring the suburban north, certain areas are adorned with patches of grass, and the game labors intensely to load these objects, and while this process is being undertaken the framerate drops considerably, further contributing to the destruction of immersion. In the worst of instances, the player will be booted to a black screen for a number of seconds, so that the textures can render properly; the suddenness of this removal, its unpredictability, is jarring. Strangely, the presence of this black screen seems to increase as the narrative progresses, as more time is spent in the gameworld; no aspect of its design is altered in any considerable way, yet technical performance gradually starts to disintegrate. The draw distance, too, is abysmal, and while this is partially explainable at night, the developers relied upon the atmospheric fog effects likely to justify this reduction. Their presence is compensatory, then, included out of technical necessity, though the abundance of this fog is ultimately a masterful stroke, resulting in eeriness and contributing to the atmospheric aspirations – here is good and bad. Furthermore, a litany of enterable buildings exist, and again, whenever crossing the threshold, the player is booted to that damning black screen, oftentimes for no more than a second or two, though still being a reminder of those pervasive budgetary limitations. Still, this can partially be justified by the immense attention to detail contained within these structures. But Oakmont in its totality transcends these technical constraints, oftentimes being singular in its strange beauty; world-building is excellent, and Oakmont morphs into a character in its own right, alternately charming and frightful, though frightfulness is largely dominant. With its day / night cycle, which advances at a perfect rate, some aspirations for organicness are present, and while true organicness is never realized, the city does at least seem in some sort of motion.     

Atmospherically, Oakmont is nearly unparalleled, boasting commanding moodiness and an immersion which is compromised only occasionally by technical blunders, illustrations of budgetary constraints. The map, objectively small, has the illusion of massiveness, a massiveness which makes the player feel almost insignificant, literally swallowed whole just as the avenues are swallowed by the fierce Flood, the rushing waters, waters which bring with them great devastation and accordingly sorrow – it is easy to grow attached to the city’s displaced citizens, largely because their suffering is palpable; Oakmont is populated by people both good and bad, though in reflecting ambitions for maturity and bleakness, it is the bad individuals who are most emphasized in the narrative. Reflecting expectations of modern game design, meanwhile, a fast travel system is in place, though this was never used – navigating the environment, by foot or by boat, brings about its own joys and sorrows, and relying upon fast travel would completely destroy those attainments, so crucial to the overall experience. In further ambition and desires for uniqueness, periodically throughout the narrative Oakmont is left behind, the player instead descending beneath the waves and to the seabed, itself atmospheric, almost stifling; its stark contrast from the city proper is immense, and the first instance of this removal is accordingly very impactful. Visibility is dramatically shortened, while hostile aquatic creatures move to and fro, sometimes lunging at the player – even the seas house threats, just as Oakmont does. And with Lovecraftian emphases, the supernatural has a presence, the seabed often home to antiquated ruins, while dispersed throughout the city are similarly supernatural displays; beyond the environments, even the citizens, their aesthetics and characterization, reflect Lovecraftian overtones – consider those afflicted with innsmouther syndrome. Mostly, the overall experience is bettered when these influences are stifled, when the game embraces the grounded and the gritty rather than the fantastical, though this a very subjective examination – either way, Lovecraft is clearly represented in Oakmont’s composition, influencing the world building drastically.

Environmental diversity, of course, represents The Sinking City’s greatest success in open-world game design, the city an amalgamation of different peoples with different emotions and perceptions, dwelling in different regions and in abodes with differing attributes, some mere hovels, others posh estates. Similarly notable is the life injected into the gameworld, the well-developed nature of many of the NPC’s. The common NPC of the street is underdeveloped, certainly, merely existing to create some illusion of Oakmont’s liveliness. But all individuals attached to the narrative, no matter how trivial is their role, are given names and unique models, the end result being a very human dimension, which the vast majority of titles fail to attain, NPC’s in those games traditionally being non-entities, the only characters which matter being those which are absolutely central to the narrative. Not so in The Sinking City, with its exhaustive cast of characters, a cast of characters acting believably, guided by motivations both good and bad. Their frequent depth and diversity incentivizes the completion of secondary content, this side content expanding upon the world, its lore, considerably, accordingly serving a vital function. Here, too, is depth, groundedness, and humanity: here is no frivolous taxi driving, collectible hunting, or outpost takeovers. Instead, very human stories are told, and the world of Oakmont, its varied inhabitants, is central to the overall experience; world-building is prioritized to the last, that prioritization being commendable, resulting in repeated environmental successes.  Groundedness and realism are fiercely sought, the overall experience being a focused one, one of innovation and novelty, as griminess and despair seek to devour all, just as the Flood devours all, poor and wealthy alike. But shallowness and hollowness do have their place – while a considerable number of NPC’s are well-developed, particularly when placed alongside more conventional open worlds, many other minor characters are programmed and designed in an oftentimes rudimentary fashion, having also a very minimal presence on the city streets. Generally, though, The Sinking City’s world building is profoundly complex, showing an aesthetic and tonal balance; gritty realism dominates, though such grittiness exists alongside more muted hopefulness, represented in the symbolic Sun, with her sweet orangeness. But then there are the floods and the suffering citizens, clearly existing in a pained state, while the overall world is charged by Lovecraft. A unique identity has been claimed here, then, and originality and uniqueness being prerequisites to genius, it follows that Oakmont is a stroke of genius.

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