The Many Faces of Cosmic Horror: How Cthulhu Influenced Gaming
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The Many Faces of Cosmic Horror: How Cthulhu Influenced Gaming

Cosmic horror is a broad term used in popular culture to refer to a narrative influenced by the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft.  The author explored cosmic horror especially with the Cthulhu mythos, first introduced in the 1919 novel “Dagon”. The Providence author made the “fear of the unknowable” tangible in his novels, with characters haunted by the desolate quality of the natural world and of the cosmos. It took to extremes the feeling of being alone in the universe, creating a race of monsters who are slumbering while waiting to come back to reign over the world. In Lovecraft’s narrative, the fear of the “Other” is beyond simply being afraid of what is different from us: these beings are malignant divinities whose existence is beyond human comprehension. Sanity is another essential element, in that often the protagonists in the novels end up going mad or killing themselves; just to escape the thought that they share the same world, or even DNA, with said abominable creatures. 

©Bitgolem

Along with being a huge influence on horror literature and cinema, Lovecraft has been a guiding light for game developers as well, ever since Infocom’s 1987 textual adventure The Lurking Horror. The appropriately named Eldritch Studio, created in the late 80s, was an interesting case of a developer specialized in recreating the atmosphere and topics of Lovecraft. First releasing The Hound of Shadow, in 1989, the studio followed with a second game inspired by the mythos. The story in 1992’s Daughter of Serpents, later re-released as The Scroll, features a crossover between the Egyptian gods of old and the slumbering fish gods. While it was panned as being “the worst graphical adventure ever”, it was an early experiment in visual novels, years before they would actually become a genre. Daughter of Serpents also failed spectacularly to introduce baroque gameplay mechanics, like a fully-fledged RPG system, that seems to make no difference to the story. Still, with beautiful hand-drawn art by veteran artist Pete Lyon and a narrative that boldly takes Lovecraft into another realm altogether, it is an experience I would recommend.

But what is about the author from Providence that attracts game developers? It is surprising, especially considering how difficult it might be to efficiently replicate the topos of cosmic horror in an interactive medium. Let us look at a notorious example: survival horror forerunner Alone in the Dark. Developed by Infogrames in 1993, it was originally announced as “Doom of Derceto” with the Call of Cthulhu RPG license attached. Ultimately it was revoked because the owners, Chaosium, deemed the story to be “unfaithful”, with a last-minute title change. In the game, the influence only seems to go as far as a haunted house atmosphere and some of the story elements. Limited to these few minimal flavors, it was effective: walking the eerie corridors of the Derceto mansion, in fear of something that could be lurking in the shadows, was among the scarier gaming experiences of the early 90s. But overall, the Lovecraft influence was barely there and would later disappear for the remainder of the series.

©Infogrames

Still, some of the story elements would return into two point’n’click adventures, also developed by Infogrames, inspired by the works of the Providence author. First, Shadow of the Comet (1993), this time officially licensed by Chaosium, vaguely inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Although featuring several nods to the novel, the developers also seemed to want to infuse a more classic horror atmosphere, going as far as featuring the likenesses of classic genre actors, like Vincent Price, in the cast. While the player would indeed come face-to-face with Cthulhu, it is not a scary or effective sequence, with the Fish God ridiculously struggling to come out of a small portal and into our world.  Two years later came Prisoner of Ice, a direct sequel to Shadow, loosely based on the short story “At the Mountains of Madness”. This yielded diminishing returns, favoring narrative elements of adventure and action, a là Indiana Jones, rather than horror. Infogrames would, subsequently, abandon the Lovecraftian inspiration in favor of more traditional horror tropes.

One peculiar example of cosmic horror gaming is 1995 Necronomicon, with the story actually taking place in the fictional town of Arkham, a place referenced several times in Lovecraft’s novels. Marrying anime with cosmic horror and H.R Giger-influenced art, Necronomicon showcases a unique aesthetic that, as far as I am aware, has yet to be replicated. Granted, its narrative seems – having received no official English translation – to veer towards dramatic anime tropes, rather than madness or mysterious fish-men. Still, without featuring ridiculous huge monsters to battle, it is an interesting offering, destined to, unfortunately, remain in the realm of obscure Japanese games. Also, it is not to be confused with the 2001 adventure Necronomicon: The Gateway to Beyond. Developed by Canadian studio Wanadoo Edition, it was light on the horror, heavy on the logical puzzles.

In more recent years, Dark Corners of the Earth (2005) is often mentioned as the first example of Lovecraft brought to modern gaming. The first-person action/adventure allowed players to finally explore the town of Innsmouth in 3D, chatting with the not-so-friendly locals, while solving its mysteries. It also featured, for the first time, a sanity system: the main character would slowly go crazy when exposed to shocking or unexplainable scenes. Fondly remembered, especially, in the early sequence where the townsfolk are assaulting the main character’s hotel room. It is a tricky action sequence, an egregious example of horror narrative marrying interactive gameplay. While, as a whole, Dark Corners of the Earth features too many gameplay trappings of the mid-00s to still be recommendable, for the most part, it seems to use the Lovecraft tropes efficiently; even though its final sequence would descend into over the top fish-monsters killing action. 

©Headfirst Productions

Looking at more recent examples, issues in translating cosmic horror into gaming still persist. In 2016, a Call of Cthulhu game was announced by Ubisoft, again licensed by tabletop RPG owner Chaosium. The publisher would later entrust the game to Cyanide Studio after Frogwares (of the Sherlock Holmes series) seemed to fail to deliver a product in time. The troubled development shows in the final product, released in 2018: while featuring atmospheric locations and an appropriately gruff alcoholic protagonist, it struggled to make everything fit into a coherent gameplay design. It also seems to miss much of the feeling of dread that Dark Corners of the Earth brilliantly displayed. Frogwares would also later release their own spin on the same idea: The Sinking City, taking place in a particular version of the Lovecraftian universe. Building on the studio’s own experience in adventures, the protagonist is a detective who can use supernatural powers to witness the last moments before a crime is committed. As a whole, its atmosphere is well done but lacks much of the tension and “madness” that one would expect from such Lovecraftian topos.

An even more telling example for seems to be the main problem with cosmic horror in video games is Bit Golem’s Dagon (2021). A faithful adaptation of the original novel, it recreates several of its scenes with interactive fiction mechanics. Considering how our sensibilities as players have evolved over time, most of us are attuned to the over-the-top horror-action gameplay trademarked by series like Dark Souls. Our reactions in seeing a hulking fish-beast on screen are not one of horror anymore, but rather one of looking for a way to dispose of it. Lovecraft carefully traced the mythos in a dream realm between actual madness and a serious (and racist) fear of the alien: his creatures are not simply scary or menacing, they are so far beyond human comprehension to be impossible to even imagine or one might go mad. All of these inhuman feelings are ill conveyed by the way of huge polygonal beasts. It is also good to keep in mind that the Providence author has written several stories outside of the Cthulhu mythos that could serve as inspiration. One brilliant example is the novel “Herbert West-Renimator”, the more “pulp” and violence among the works of Lovecraft; it might work wonderfully as the basis for a gory narrative-focused FPS.

Cosmic horror can be a great influence to conjure up that recessed fear of the unknown and the unseen, as exemplified in games like Return of the Obra Dinn. But it seems to be slightly less effective when used only as the basis for otherwise ordinary horror stereotypes or generic monsters that go bump in the night. Overall, the Lovecraft tropes seem to work better as a slight psychological horror influence, an “unspeakable” remote abyss of horror from which to evoke disquieting and eerie narratives.

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