"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
— H.P. Lovecraft , 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'
There are horror stories, and then there are H.P. Lovecraft's horror stories, whose fevered imagination conjured up a combination of revulsion and existential dread that makes zombies, vampires, ghosts and run-of-the-mill slashers seem about as intimidating as Scooby Doo.
Lovecraft's signature style highlights man's insignificance in the face of an indifferent cosmos, embodied by ancient monstrosities lurking in forgotten corners. Secret cults worshipping alien gods, madness and mutation, blurring the line between dream and reality—Lovecraft's weird tales are the intersection of horror, gothic literature, sci-fi and fantasy. Fortunately, most of his works are now public domain, and the uninitiated can risk their sanity by reading them here.
Just like some nameless amorphous shoggoth spawning slithering horrors from its pustulent, fecund corpulence, Lovecraft's original short story collection, known by fans as the 'Cthulhu Mythos' (named after its most famous monster, a tentacled alien god dwelling under the sea), became a fertile breeding ground for works by later authors, namechecked by modern bestseller machines like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Horror nerd icon Guillermo del Toro is still trying to get his own adapation of the novella At The Mountains of Madness off the ground.
A God for Geeks
Of course, there's significant overlap between fans of horror fantasy/sci-fi and gamers. Cthulhu and co. have been a part of gaming culture since the early days, with the Big C and other Lovecraftian monsters appearing in the first edition Dungeons and Dragons, before spawning a popular tabletop RPG, 'Call of Cthulhu'.
Cthulhu has become a meme for nerd culture. Instant awesome, just add Cthulhu. He's a presidential candidate, heavy metal song, a workout routine, and cute cartoon. The tentacles of the Cthluhu Mythos have clashed with giant mecha and even penetrated the distinctly non-eldritch medium of musical theater. Naturally, this tentacled god of geek culture and his abominable ilk have manifested in many video games. Unfortunately, very few of these have any done Lovecraftian comic horror any justice.
The Problem With Cosmic Horror In Video Games Or, Did You Just Blow Up Cthulhu?
When Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos appears in video games, it tends to be alluded to in the form of token references, but not be featured as the game's main focus. The pioneering survival horror series Alone In The Dark does this, featuring a couple of Lovecraft's more obscure monsters (such as the Cthonians, bizarre giant squid-worms that burrow beneath the earth) and referencing the famous Necronomicon, Lovecraft's book of forbidden lore.
Quake's single-player campaign ends with a final boss called Shub-Niggurath 'The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.' World of Warcraft's Old Gods are direct tributes to Lovecraft's creations, with names like C'Thun and Yogg-Sauron.
The trouble with Cthulhu-as-boss-monster is that, while these eldritch abominations may make really cool monsters, the fact that they can be fought and defeated normally in a game ruins the very appeal of Lovecraftian horror in the first place.
"Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again."
— H.P. Lovecraft, 'The Dunwich Horror'
Cthulhu isn't just a monster, it's an idea. Cthulhu represents our terror and helplessness in the face of a vast, uncaring and unknowable material universe. It's not just a tough enemy that you can beat with your BFG or +5 Frost Axe. To players, big bad bosses, no matter how ugly and dangerous, are standard fare.
The Old Ones were mighty before the rise of mankind, and they will be again. When their time comes, they will wipe out humanity while barely acknowledging it at all. All our hopes, fears, civilization and philosophy will be rendered meaningless. The human desire to explore and understand, to rationalize the universe and shine a light into dark places, is blown away. It is this nihilistic existential dread that lies at the heart of Lovecraftian horror, the revelation that drives his doomed protagonists to insanity. But how to get this across in a video game?
Can I Play With Madness?
One way for games to convey the sanity-destroying cosmic horror is to take a tip from the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG and turn it into a game mechanic. Eternal Darkness for the Gamecube used this as its central conceit. Bloodbourne effectively made the transition from gothic horror to cosmic horror in its storyline. The protagonist could gain insight into the world which enabled him to see Lovecraftian horrors hidden in plain sight, but this insight was dangerous knowledge, and also made them vulnerable to enemies with a mechanic known as frenzy.
Darkest Dungeon was also a heavily Lovecraftian take on the dungeon crawl (the dev studios name is a Lovecraft reference, to The Horror at Red Hook). In Darkest Dungeon, you'll find yourself having to rest or retire adventurers as their sanity starts slipping, and they start hallucinating or going berserk from the horrors they've unearthed. Lacking a 'main protagonist', the disposability of the adventurers makes it a bit more palatable to the player.
Because true cosmic horror is a hard sell to many gamers. The most popular games are power fantasies, with protagonists usually being tough as nails, fearless and capable of anything. The challenge of the next Call of Cthulhu game is to somehow sell a fantasy of powerlessness and insignificance,, but also have the player's choices be meaningful. The last AAA attempt at this was in 2005.
Shadows Over Innsmouth
Probably the best video game representation of the Cthulhu mythos so far is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, published by Bethesda. Based upon Lovecraft's 1936 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth, but incorporating creatures and plot points from other stories Dark Corners of the Earth was a cornucopia of horrific thrills and geekery for a mythos fan like myself. It was good, but still falls prey to some of the common pitfalls of adapting Lovecraft to video games.
Dark Corners of the Earth made important steps to emphasize the player's human vulnerability. There was no heads up display for the protagonist, no health bar or other such information. You had to figure out your status by paying attention to your heart rate, breathing, movement and vision. True to the Lovecraftian spirit, encounters with mythos creatures would start to break your mind, triggering hallucinations, sound distortion, changes in control sensitivity and even perhaps ending in suicide.
These elements give Dark Corners of the Earth solid mythos cred, but despite its efforts, it still plays more as survival horror than cosmic horror. Once you get used to the minimalist display, the ancient unknowable horrors of the Lovecraftian world can still be beaten with bullets and bombs.
Dark Corners of the Earth remains a good game, a worthy one for mythos fans in particular and survival horror gamers in general. But we're about to get our first significant game from Lovecraft's dark world in over 10 years.
The Eternal Call
2017's upcoming Call of Cthulhu is a video game published by Focus Home Interactive and developed by Cyanide SA. Finally, we're getting an official adaptation of Chaosium's legendary tabletop RPG of the same name. Call of Cthulhu works well on tabletop. The player characters are vulnerable archetypes like antiquarians, archaeologist, scholars and detectives, investigating the unknown while the game master lays out a scenario of mystery and horror. Encounters with mythos creatures are rare and deadly. Losing characters to insanity or death is common, but you can always roll up another and continue the story.
Cyanide's challenge is to translate the best elements of the tabletop game to a medium which favors action and player empowerment. They've got to make a cosmic horror game that can keep strong Lovecraftian elements while still making the player feel like they can win.
So far, it seems like they're on the right track. Cyanide's Jean-Marc Gueney, in an interview with PC Gamer, has confirmed that the game with have a sanity mechanic where the player will lose sanity when they encounter mythos creatures, which will result in the game world warping to the point where the character cannot tell the difference between reality and hallucination. For a player, it might look like the game is glitching out on them. But, as in tabletop game, this forbidden knowledge can also sometimes bring benefits. Gueney has stated that the player 'will have to resist their urges to gaze at Lovecraft’s horrors' to make it through the game.
Take a glimpse into madness with the Call of the Cthuhu E3 trailer:
This could be an effective way to convey cosmic horror. As gamers, as Lovecraft fans, we WANT to see those monsters rendered in 3D. We WANT to see all of the game world, get all of the items, not to miss any secrets. If there's going to be a terrible price for our all-too-human curiosity, then we're talking Lovecraft.
Other aspects of the game might not fit too well into the Lovecraftian style. Cyanide is aware that this shouldn't be a game that you can blast your way through. Direct confrontation with ancient horrors from the deep should be a quick way to lose your life, or your mind. But there will be combat in the game, and that means there has to be a way to win. Let's hope it's something a bit more subtle than blowing up deep ones with dynamite.
It remains to be seen whether Call of the Cthulhu, once its true form is revealed, will break us into a gibbering, shivering wreck, but I certainly hope that it will. It might be that perfectly adapting the Lovecraftian tale into an effective video game proves to be impossible, but, just like the pseudopods of the amoeboid shoggoth, the mythos can be twisted into many forms, each more horrifying than the last.
The Lovecraftian story starts subtle, and gradual. You see a slightly fishy cast to the aspect of the strange townsfolk, do a double take and rub your eyes. It was probably nothing. In the apartment above yours, your hear this eerie, disturbing music through the floorboards, but you just HAVE to find out what it is. You read a forbidden book by candlelight until you fall into a churning reverie of forgotten lore.
Though warnings and obstacles abound, you keep pushing into a mystery just as fascinating as it is repellent. And then, as the ...thing finally stands before your eyes, it's all too late.
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents."
— H.P. Lovecraft
What's your favorite Lovecraftian video game?