The Let's Play Archive

Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones

by TheGreatEvilKing

Part 19: Postmortem: Dunning-Kruger

Postmortem: Dunning-Kruger

One of the features of my past LPs is having some kind of pointlessly overanalytical essay, either about what it would take to fix the game, and I haven't really written anything for this game because it's so hard to come up with something insightful to say. The game is so transparently and obviously terrible that pointing out its sins is both easy and pointless. It's pretty clear that nothing works and the game demonstrates this by cursory inspection. The question "what is this game supposed to be about", on the other hand, has no clear answer. The main plot thread is dropped halfway through when the game decides that we don't need to complete the poem to win.

So what's left to talk about? Well, thanks to Coolguye posting that the devs wanted to leave room for a sequel in this place, and my own research into how this game got made, I think it's worth a bit of an examination into how we got here.

A Failed Kickstarter

The kickstarter for Stygian can be found here. It's kind of a fascinating read to see just what the hell was going on. First, the game was always supposed to be a mashup of Lovecraft references and the 1920s - the example given is using the viol of Erich Zann, which appears in a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Said story doesn't really tie into the Mythos in any way except thematically, but it's spooky enough that as a one-off reference it's fine. The other is that the developers intended to create an "anti-Utopia" of mashing Lovecraft together with the 1920s which reveals...a lot. First, the term would be "dystopia" which does not give me faith in the developers' command of the English language, and second, that the 1920s were going to be shoehorned in because "Call of Cthulhu RPG does it". They even throw in the Voice of Madness in a screenshot confirming that all along it was supposed to be "hilarious" wacky dialogue.

The other thing is that in the developer interview I linked earlier, the developers stated that they didn't have enough money to finish the game. This is interesting because if you look at the kickstarter, they're actually way above their goal. Now, looking at the money they raised it seems they didn't really have enough money to deliver on all their promises. Their goal was 55000 euro - that's not enough money to pay an experienced software developer for a year, yet they promised stretch goals like a whole new area, prologues for every character, and so forth. The impression one gets from reading any kind of interview with these people is that they've never made any kind of game before.

The developers describe their influences posted:

Stygian is being crafted by designers who grew up reading Lovecraft and playing Planescape: Torment, the early Fallout titles, Heroes of Might and Magic and the like. We want to create the best possible experience with your feedback. Your interest and support will be invaluable.

Now, I don't know what "and the like" means, because that's a huge mismash. Torment is an infinity engine RPG (we don't talk about the spiritual successor) about finding yourself, and Heroes of Might and Magic is a strategy game. This is supposed to be a game inspired by literature, and yet they don't bother reading anything like the rest of the Mythos authors or Lovecraft's referenced inspirations. The end result is a confusing mishmash of incoherence in which the developers throw in the Chicago mob (because 1920s), Lovecraft references (because they don't understand his themes or how his stories work), and juvenile humor that would be right at home in Beavis and Butthead. Now I've been going through some reviews of this thing trying to discern what this game is supposed to be about. Despite what RPS is telling you, it's not about coping, as literally every person and the player character is some kind of escapist addict. There is, unfortunately, one theme that recurs throughout the game and it's a mess.

That theme is that the 1920s were really racist and nativist, that bled into Lovecraft's works, and we should condemn it.

The problem is that the game literally impales itself trying to stab racism instead.

The terrible secret is that this is an ironic punishment handled badly. Also, come on, you all knew I was going to reference this fucking character

The game handles it poorly, but they seem to want to condemn this guy with the use of "vulgar" and having the hobo helpfully explain that he thinks making fun of black people is wrong. Now, this game has all of two, maybe three black characters - the jazz trumpeter we can't talk to, and some generic Arkham townsfolk who are very sad that Cthulhu killed their racist mayor and have the exact same dialogue as the white sobbing townsfolk. Now, who does the game use as its mouthpiece to explain that the racism is bad?

The hobo is the only guy who speaks up against it and points out that everyone abandoned Willie because they thought he was creepy, but he still hangs around! It's weird! I've seen a few reviews where people talk about how this game tries to grapple with Lovecraft's history of racism, and it certainly...touches on it. The problem is that every time the game tries to present antiracism, it comes off as creepy, weird and racist.

The game tries to portray that the white oppressors were really mean to the Abenaki, but then they turn around and portray the Abenaki as being led by an animalistic hunter of men. Where have we heard that kind of language before?

The Declaration of Independence posted:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Right. The only sympathetic Abenaki who talks to us is Chad, who is characterized as wanting to go back to living among white people and preferring his European name of Chad to the Abenaki name Wjatal gave him. It's not a great look! In reality white people were running off to join the Native Americans and I presume the Abenaki culture was not defined by living in the woods waiting to attack whitey, but you'd never know it from this game!

Later the same quest reveals itself to be based on the Terrible Old Man, which is just such a weird choice for a horror game. The Terrible Old Man isn't a horror story, it's Lovecraft fantasizing about a bunch of evil thug immigrants getting murdered by a cool wizard guy who later shows up in another story as a friendly helpful wizard. The game writers are smart enough to realize that maybe just tossing the story in wholesale isn't a great idea, so we get this scene with Keelan:

You see, the immigrants didn't rob the old man because they liked robbing, but because they needed it to survive! Julian was even going to take care of some poor woman named Maria! They're not thu -

The Game, earlier posted:

: With the victims. What were there names? (He clumsily pulls out an old notebook and finds a torn page inside) Salvador and Abel, no one important. Clueless, fresh recruits for the Mob, that's all.

Now, the four of them are staying in the same hotel room. Salvador and Abel join the Mob, and it's not really clear if Julian and Keelan assisted them in Mafia activities but weren't members because they weren't Italian, but it's hard to believe they were innocent. The Mob in this game is characterized as a bunch of brutal killers.

The above is our first introduction to the Mafia - the man in white kills the guy on the street because he can, and as we play through the game we get more reference to Wax Face's atrocities like mutilating Wilkins and murdering Violet. Every interaction with the Mob comes with the threat of violence. Thus the game completely undermines the idea that the immigrants were just desperate men trying to survive by...lumping them with Wax Face's murderous thugs.

Now, our last interaction with this games desire to tell us that racism is bad is with the theater flashback. Remember this? Amelia is forced to dump Chad because otherwise the mayor will send Chad to a eugenics facility and have him sterilized. It's pretty freaky!

Now, unlike the other examples, the game is actually able to convey that this is wrong without fucking it up for a whole thirty minutes, until...

Yup! We heroically kill the Nameless Soldier instead of helping him with his PTSD and in death he's sane again! The game doesn't even give us the moral lecture we got from the Outsider about how betraying our friends is bad, the Soldier explicitly kills himself to stop his mental condition! That's literally what the eugenics movement did! It's truly amazing to me that every time the game tries to talk about racism is bad, it immediately puts its foot in its mouth.

One may ask, why does this game feel that it needs to tackle 1920s racism? The answer is that it's so closely chained to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Instead of just running off with Cthulhu and making a game about him, the developers felt that to really make a Lovecraft game, they needed to rip off each and every one of Lovecraft's stories and mash them into an incoherent whole. This runs into the problem that Lovecraft's works are saturated with racism, to cats named racist names to black Cthulhu cultists to the unfortunate African American man Herbert West reanimates that Lovecraft writes some pretty despicable shit about. Hell, the Terrible Old Man is literally about how awesome killing immigrant criminals is, and at least one story is about the scary reveal of an unexpected black person. Because this game is so tightly fettered to Lovecraft's corpse, it's easy for the developers to conclude that they need to address it and this leads them down this rabbit hole. The other half of this is that these developers are incompetent and don't know it. Their budget is unrealistic, they clearly have no grasp of basic programming, they are unable to catch obvious bugs and typos despite having an entire team of QA people and a proofreader credited, and their plan to release this to the world was to cut out half the game because they apparently honestly thought this was good enough to convince people to buy a sequel.

Anyway, that's enough. I'm done. I uninstalled Stygian forever and I plan to never buy anything from Cultic Games again. The game was offensive and incompetent. Thanks to all the goons who joined me on this journey, and especially Arcanuse for throwing in enough Stygian trivia hour so we could realize just how deep the rabbit hole of bad went. I'm free! Thank God!