Call of the Sea: On Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a story about the horrors of interracial breeding. It’s about some people in a small town in America who start breeding with fish-people and end up worshipping the Old Ones, as so often happens. The whole thing is clearly a metaphor for Lovecraft’s disgust at interracial relationships – a disgust that can’t even be considered subtext, given how it’s made literal text:

“But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.”

If you’re familiar with Lovecraft, you’ll also be familiar with his specific cluster of racism, colonialism, and the Western scientific endeavor. There’s an arc in Lovecraft that often goes like this. A (male) scientist or researcher moves from his comfortable, safe role at an American university to go on an expedition. The university is a site of knowledge and rationality, a site of power for the Western scientific method. The researcher travels out into some place set in opposition to his civilized point of origin – the jungle, say, or one of the British colonies, or (as in Innsmouth) some little coastal town. He moves out of the place of Western power into an outskirt, where knowledge begins to break down in the face of the wild, the native, the primitive. The historical communities who were on the receiving end of Lovecraft’s racism serve as a point of entry into an encounter with the mythical eldritch beings of Lovecraft’s cosmology – Cthulu or Dagon and so on. Those mythical beings then become totems of power underpinning or representing the danger of foreign, non-Western people, and the researcher’s mind collapses as he realises that the Western hegemon will not last.

This, then, is the creative backdrop for Call of the Sea, a 2020 game from Spanish developers Out of the Blue Games. Call of the Sea takes direct inspiration from the Lovecraft mythos, seeking to retell its stories in a new, wholesome way. In an interview on GameDeveloper, creative director Tatiana Delgado said this about their approach:

“Instead of having a passive subject that is drawn into madness by circumstances that she cannot control, our purpose is to tell a story of a resolute woman on a journey of discovery and acceptance. To sum up, a rise to sanity instead of a descent to madness.”

That’s a noble idea – I guess the question is whether they go far enough to fully expunge the problems of their source material. Let’s step back and cover some of the basics. Call of the Sea is a relatively simple exploration game, with some light puzzle elements, set in the 1930s. The main character Norah Everhart is voiced by veteran voice actor Cissy Jones (Firewatch, Life is Strange), and they probably got a little excited about having her on board – there’s a tendency to have her over-explain or over-commentate on things. Near the end of the game, at the end of the fifth chapter, there’s this really beautiful sequence where you swim through these swirling currents – almost reminiscent of the bathysphere sequence at the start of BioShock. The music swells, and there’s this incredibly well-lit environment, with giant sea creatures and shoals of fish – and then it comes to an end, and Norah says “That was quite a ride, but it’s over now.” It’s almost something you’d expect from a pantomime. There’s also this really awkward problem where – I don’t know if this is just me, but the art direction they chose – it feels like Crash Bandicoot. Is it just me? It’s very hard to take seriously the idea of this game transcending racism when my closest visual reference is Ooga Booga.

That said, if you pay attention, I think there is really apparent evidence of their trying to deal with some of the problems of Lovecraft’s work. In the first portion of the game, especially in the first level, there’s a really consistent series of educational pieces on elements of Polynesian culture. As part of one of the early puzzles you tour around the island, and Norah comments on Polynesian fishing techniques, and points out unu, which are these wooden statues – it’s clear that the developers have learned some cool stuff, and they want to share it. That’s cool. That’s respectful. But knowledge can be tricky. We still have to think about how different forms of knowing and understanding were produced – we have to be conscious of their history. At the very start of the game, when Norah is getting off the boat, you can collect various items from around her room. One of them is a book titled To the South – apparently a book about Polynesia. If you inspect it, Norah says “After spending so much time reading this book, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about Polynesian culture.” That just veers a little close to uncomfortable. It’s a Western book, produced from within Western systems of knowledge, treating Polynesia as an object of knowledge. It’s that same Lovecraftian structure: the researcher’s university town is treated as a center of knowledge and the Polynesian islands are ‘the field’, the place where you go to do research – not centers of knowledge in their own right, but geographically bound resources to be extracted and comprehended within a Western lens. When Norah then parades around the island declaring that Polynesians do this and Polynesians do that, it becomes this act of colonial knowing, where the white observer stakes a claim over the place by controlling and directing our knowledge about it. Her incessant commentary becomes interwoven with the fabric and production of colonial knowledge. At one point she comes across a flock of birds, which she refers to as Kuhl’s lorikeets. That’s the European name for the bird. Indigenous names include Manu ‘Ura and Kura, but she refers to them with the European term, constructing the birds within a Eurocentric frame of knowledge that makes secondary Indigenous ways of knowing – privileging European taxonomy.

I don’t want to overbake this point – there are elements of what this game does that genuinely seem quite interesting. They hired a Polynesian consultant to offer advice on the architecture of Polynesia as well as local plants and wildlife. However the game also features a white European protagonist who enters from her white center of study into the wild, native Polynesia, and then proceeds through the island into the eldritch beyond. It remakes in the most literal sense the pathways of knowledge in Lovecraft’s work. It tries to counteract some of the more pernicious elements by having the eldritch horrors be Good Actually – as in Innsmouth, the story’s conclusion is that the protagonist is secretly a fish person, but the twist is that fish people are fine. But so much of Lovecraft’s racism remains baked into the text. The final product is a game that has a really tormented relationship with history. It wants to be historically accurate. It uses all sorts of anachronistic language to sound like the 1930s, and the interview linked above again talks about researching outfits that corresponded to the period. But like – in the US, women couldn’t vote until 1920, barely ten years before this game’s setting. In 1924, interracial marriage was illegal in 29 states – which is interesting, given that this game is basically about the coded interracial relationship between some guy and his wife who’s secretly a fish. And none of that really ever comes up. Call of the Sea is a game that tries to set itself in the 30s, and in that Lovecraftian style, without really deeply confronting what that heritage means. In the opening screens of The Sinking City, a similar game drawing on Lovecraft’s legacy, we find the opening placard below. Call of the Sea wants to be a game with its own historical setting, but it’s not really interested in interrogating the past. It opens instead with an epilepsy warning.

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