A Rare Sighting of a Midbudget Game

I have a text document where I write a lot of notes while playing certain games. In it, I try to bring out interesting thoughts about my experience during play sessions, hoping I can gather enough coherent ideas to form a vision for a story that’s interesting and worth writing. This is just one experiment, some approach, because any will do and is better than none, in my attempt to learn how to write about video games, critically or creatively. Wrapped up in this is a lot of insecurity, ambition (overblown and just the right amounts), indulgence and embarrassment. And it’s terrible because it’s all so damn mysterious. I don’t know how any of it is done, and what’s worse is I know even less about how I feel about anything. Everything’s so damn mysterious and my only hope is often that those notes will suggest something to me, some way forward.

So, it was frustrating, on an existential level (seriously), to arrive at the end of The Sinking City (Frogwares, 2019) and, while looking at my notes, feel as though I had nothing much to say about my whole experience with it. When I played last year’s Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game (Cyanide, 2018), I was filled with such indignation for what I felt to be a cynical and shallow deception, a terrible game dressed in just the right amount of skills and skill-checks to affect the prestigious complexity belonging to role-playing games it most certainly had no relation to. Acrid words vomited out of me after playing that game and brought to me a sinister delight that even as I ambled about apologies and regrets for being too harsh I half-secretly enjoyed a heightened pleasure in knowing I meant almost nothing but absolute spite and disdain for the publisher who mishandled it and those, especially those, who bought it at shocking full price and enjoyed what they’d been served…

But The Sinking City is, strangely, a much better game that leaves me with much less to say. What an anti-climax I am at here, or what an unexpected and lamentable one: The Sinking City is neither terrible or great in any obvious way, evading my critical grasp but exposing a blindspot I have for the buried victories and mistakable blemishes that compose every game — especially these mid-budget games — when you really get down to it. In games and their parts bereft of ‘good taste’, that market-motivated criteria of what’s quality, or just what’s on the menu you know, and They know, you love to eat from, is where we might hear the destitute screams of noteworthy but understated game experiences. These are muffled screams buried in mid-budget rubble, always toppled by bugs and bad systems, and which do not fall within frequency-range of the ear worn by some critics who will judge triple-A games to be tasteful and sensational sight-unseen. What’s good about messy games isn’t obvious. You need patience to sift for it. Mid-budget games like The Sinking City and even Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game deserve the delicate attention of critics willing to offer their earnest adoration. Patience is needed so what’s remarkable might be tempted to slither out the rubble and rub its chin against your hand; a critic’s hand willing to be marked with slimy and unsightly impressions repulsive and certainly distasteful, but, oh, it does have a curious scent and color… daring, maybe just a lick.

Last year’s event, the Calling — and criticizing — of Cthulhu, was billed as an exorcising of the indignation I felt about that game. But in retrospect, perhaps I can reframe it as the start of an exploration about my feelings regarding the mediocre and uncharming games I waste my time playing. Can we (and I really mean, can I) afford to expend kindness and love on even the lamest subjects? Can I somehow not hate Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game for being the fan-service commodity that it is? It’s clear when I read back what I wrote a year ago that I determined, no, they cannot have my kindness and certainly none of my love.

And I still think spite and disdain have their place in critical voices. But attention is itself a type of adoration no matter how fiery you lay it on.

Call it the intimate heat of attention, labor, thought — my attention, my labor and my thought, which, I hope, is complicated by the grace of an obscure kindness and love as well. Oh, how serious video games can sometimes be! I have to face this before I can review The Sinking City: the attention I paid a year ago to that shit game, all the edits I made to that piece of writing about that terrible thing, the time I spent thinking about it, the effort I made to downplay the indignity of it while I talked with a friend who seemed perfectly pleased by the product he got, all this willing and sustained attention implicates a perverse, critical intimacy for something I supposedly hate.

Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game earns my fiery adoration because it’s easy to talk about why things are bad. And I am tired of the squelching; I want to see the good in something better, if even something only slightly better. That something only slightly better deserves 10-times more the adoration as the other.

So, it just seems ridiculous to spend 15 hours playing The Sinking City and walk away believing that I feel only indifferent toward it. Sodden though it may be, surely, I could apply some heat-attention to examining why I bothered to finish it. I am a busy person and there are other games I could have played. So perhaps what I am feeling isn’t indifference but reluctance to pass another intimate moment with The Sinking City. Ah! Why bother. Because, this attitude worries me. Indifference, the typical quality of the cosmos according to Lovecraftian mythos, I know, is sometimes just disguised cruelty. There are small victories here to celebrate, and I’ve pushed this into becoming an ethical problem.

In this way I am poised to commit The Sinking City an act of critical, indifferent cruelty. But I won’t let it come to that. I do not want to be cruel to this game, so I cannot afford to pretend I do not care. What I want to resist is how easy it would be to speak about The Sinking City through what it is not, in explanations of what I think it should have been instead of what it is. If I could afford to love Call of Cthulhu: The Official Game with so much spiteful attention, certainly I could do as good if not better for The Sinking City, which is by all accounts a better game by the same criteria. As an exercise, I will hold the object in my hand and hand to you my perception of its tactile form. Here’s the data: It is mediocre, it is not exactly like Call of Cthulhu: The Official Game, but it also is not that game’s perfect other, what I hoped it would be and what I think could still be so much more compelling.