Thoughts on Lovecraftian gaming

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

In the opening paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu H.P. Lovecraft makes a fairly bombastic statement about the dangers of science and careless learning that, to be honest, probably speaks more to his own recluse’s fear of every other object outside of his writing chair. As with much of Lovecraft’s influence on horror, fantasy and science fiction, inference and extrapolation drives its import more than the actual writing itself.

The notion that we shouldn’t try to learn too much or we might go mad is simplistic, maybe even funny, yet somehow this idea, the beating heart of ‘Cthulhu and other stories from his later catalog such as the gorgeously bleak The Colour out of Space, has resonated so strongly with readers and writers alike that we can barely glance at a comic book store before we find ourselves drowning in Cthulhu ski masks and Shoggoth plushies, film and game critics desperate to flex the word “Lovecraftian” at the earliest opportunity (usually after immaturely apologizing profusely for referencing a racist).

I reckon a lot of it is the pure pulp appeal of slimy squid-blobs from beyond time and space coupled with Lovecraft’s own unwillingness to actually describe the physical manifestations of his horrors. Turns out if you tell people just enough to perturb but nowhere near enough to paint a picture, the mind will do the rest of the job astonishingly well.

A major driver of Lovecraft fandom was Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper role playing system, a brilliant game design where players go in not expecting a glorious victory but rather hope for the most outrageous death. In this game, players take on the roles of anything from housewives to miners or college professors, and in the form of a fantasy procedural uncover clues to a plot that will invariably drive them to death or insanity.

As brilliant as it is, this is also a game that comes with a Lovecraftian “monster manual”, turning shapeless forms from beyond our reckoning into statistics and a portrait. When Lovecraft writes of The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, you can look up what one of those young look like and gauge how to defeat it. It turns the Lovecraftian into a known quantity, and it’s informed gaming ever since.

I take Cthulhu fandom with a massive pinch of salt. Reducing Lovecraft’s creation to a menagerie of monsters is a gross disservice at best, and while “Lovecraftian” classification sees a lot of use the reasoning behind its usage can seem loose and unearned when the point of reference is a dude with a squid for a head, or detritus of August Derleth’s insistence that Lovecraft had created a “mythos” with a consistent, internal logic. I’ll wear my elitist hipster badge with pride here: Lovecraft isn’t really cool if you don’t really get it.

There was once a road over the hills and through the valleys, that ran straight where the blasted heath is now; but people ceased to use it and a new road was laid curving far toward the south. Traces of the old one can still be found amidst the weeds of a returning wilderness, and some of them will doubtless linger even when half the hollows are flooded for the new reservoir. Then the dark woods will be cut down and the blasted heath will slumber far below blue waters whose surface will mirror the sky and ripple in the sun. And the secrets of the strange days will be one with the deep’s secrets; one with the hidden lore of old ocean, and all the mystery of primal earth.

Lovecraft was deeply fascinated with things that had been. From genealogy to architecture, science and history, HPL loved the old and forgotten and feared the future. In seminal Lovecraftian fiction, distances are invariably measured in time, with man’s mortality the ultimate gatekeeper bracketing our capacity for change or understanding, and finally our meaning.

Lovecraft painted lush images of decay and portrayed in excruciating detail the overpowering dominance of cosmos over man’s pitiful attempts at permanence. Lovecraft loved that things have nothingness as their natural conclusion: It let him create and destroy universes of dead possibility around man’s little campfire of a civilisation. In The Shadow out of Time, we are outlined not only what came before us, but what will follow. The terror isn’t in the creatures or in immediate physical peril, it’s in the certain knowledge of our eventual insignificance.

Remembered as an atheist, Lovecraft instead worshipped at the altar of cosmic indifference.

Eternal Darkness seems to me the only game to date to directly address the passage of time not only as a critical component to its existential horror, but also as a gameplay mechanic and central game structure.

In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a superb novella-length story of a young man’s obsession with his never-spoken-of ancestor Joseph Curwen, and how it leads him to inadvertently resurrect one of the most pronouncedly evil characters in the history of horror fiction, Lovecraft’s abject horror at the idea of immortality does not involve the transgression of God’s design, but the perversion of the finality of man: Joseph Curwen commits a critical sin against the rules of man’s place in the cosmos. It was not meant that we should voyage far yet here through an ugly union with the occult attained through murder and torture, Curwen and his men break the shackles of time and just learn and learn and learn.

Frictional Games’ “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” — A strong adaption of The Haunter of the Dark and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

Curwen has no real need for family or even history — concepts deeply important to Lovecraft — treating both like immediately available and consumable resources in his perverse quest for more power. Curwen is potentially everlasting, and it takes him out of the human loop to such an extent he cannot be considered human at all. Among the first things he does after being resurrected is to hunt down the remains of the man responsible for his being put down so he can resurrect him just to torture him to death again. Curwen perverts the finality of everything he touches. How dare he?

Blake’s study, a large southwest chamber, overlooked the front garden on one side, while its west windows — before one of which he had his desk — faced off from the brow of the hill and commanded a splendid view of the lower town’s outspread roofs and of the mystical sunsets that flamed behind them. On the far horizon were the open countryside’s purple slopes. Against these, some two miles away, rose the spectral hump of Federal Hill, bristling with huddled roofs and steeples whose remote outlines wavered mysteriously, taking fantastic forms as the smoke of the city swirled up and enmeshed them. Blake had a curious sense that he was looking upon some unknown, ethereal world which might or might not vanish in dream if ever he tried to seek it out and enter it in person.

I think artists are fascinated with Lovecraft not just because his work is thematically piquant, but also because his concepts are difficult to put into concrete shape. A critical mistake in artist interpretations of The Call of Cthulhu is baked right into the story itself: The stars are approaching alignment, and as great Cthulhu wakes from slumber he dreams uneasily, driving psychic pillars through dreamers and artists the world over. Bombarded with impulses their minds warp and crack trying to interpret, the only thing artists can do in their desperation is approximate.

“Cthulhu” itself is not a word meant to be pronounced by human vocal cords. The best we can do as the story goes is a strange, guttural cough of a sound, yet somehow today “everybody” knows how Cthulhu is both spelled and pronounced. “His” shape is described by the dreaming artists throughout the ages as a kind of hulking dragon-man-squid chimera, though this is revealed clearly at the end to be yet another projection: Cthulhu turns out to be all but impossible to comprehend visually. A malignant fog, “a mountain walked, or stumbled”.

Even the sunken city of R’lyeh on which Cthulhu is finally encountered is composed of basic geometry so foreign to us a sailor falls through an angle he couldn’t understand. It is madness because none of it makes sense. The men stumbling panicked across R’lyeh practically have their minds scrambled simply trying to process the situation they are in.

Cthulhu is conceptually the ultimate terror, not because it’s a big squid man and the lighting is dramatic, but because he is the counterpoint of everything we think we know.

Cthulhu is what you contemplate when NASA presents studies of a world that might exist 1200 light years away and it dawns on you that the data they are presenting was 1200 years old at the time they recorded it.

Cthulhu is contemplating the stars and realising ours will cook the Earth into atoms within the next 5 billion years.

Cthulhu is geological time and heat death of the universe.

Buy the plushie.

Before he realised it, he was looking at the stone again, and letting its curious influence call up a nebulous pageantry in his mind. He saw processions of robed, hooded figures whose outlines were not human, and looked on endless leagues of desert lined with carved, sky-reaching monoliths. He saw towers and walls in nighted depths under the sea, and vortices of space where wisps of black mist floated before thin shimmerings of cold purple haze. And beyond all else he glimpsed an infinite gulf of darkness, where solid and semi-solid forms were known only by their windy stirrings, and cloudy patterns of force seemed to superimpose order on chaos and hold forth a key to all the paradoxes and arcana of the worlds we know.

Given Lovecraft’s near-constant psychedelia, it seems strange that his most common contribution to games seem to be frog men, things with lots of eyes on them and mentions of the Necronomicon. Surreal, shapeless dreams frequent the mind, and video games and computer graphics are superb arenas to explore perception.

Few games compare as directly with my own dreams of disorientation as XRA’s Memory of a Broken Dimension. Of struggling to define shape and reason in a space that fights back every step of the way.

The distortion of perception has become a key component to games that wear their Lovecraft influence proudly. If there was a genre tied the closest to Lovecraft these days it would probably be the first person adventure game, and the flawed epic Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth took the distortion of perception very seriously indeed. The opening third of the game is one of the finest reproductions of Lovecraft’s fiction in game form that embodies panic, uncertainty and fragility in ways that hinder the player directly without ransacking us of agency and control. When Big Boss is crawling through the hospital during the opening hour of Metal Gear Solid V, the player might as well be a cameraman pushing along a very expensive dolly. When DCotE’s Jack Walters looks down from the roof of a building and catches his breath, vision swimming with vertigo, it is not experienced like a cutscene, but as a representation of his innate human fragility. Falling from a sufficient height to fracture a leg produces exactly that result, and the pained bone-on-bone stumble to safety feels somehow perversely earned.

The player avatar as an unreliable sensor is to me one of the most interesting things Lovecraftian gaming has come to represent. Eternal Darkness was notorious for its “sanity effects” where the game would throw feints from tiny visual mutations all the way up to bombastic false endings depending on the value of your sanity meter. This was a neat gimmick at the time and fit well with the way sanity was presented in the game’s narrative; A wafer thin line between complete mental breakdown and tenuous grasp of reality, where characters were routinely yanked out of normalcy by pitiless forces put upon them through family and affiliation. Curious and arrogant characters in Eternal Darkness’ early chapters are entangling themselves deep in the spider’s web, while near the end their innocent descendants’ desperation for extrication is the primary narrative drive. It’s a beautiful and original construction that lends itself well to stories of breakdown.

Dark Corners’ camera effects have gone on to be commonplace in first person Lovecraftian gaming. Frictional’s Amnesia uses them to great effect offering immortal stalking horrors that you can’t even look at without completely losing your vision altogether. This technique of horror through sensory deprivation is taken to an extreme in their more recent SOMA where one kind of enemy employs an “if you can see me, I can see YOU” sort of AI, forcing the player to use ignorance as a survival technique. Truth be told it’s frustrating in-game, but the mechanic remains fascinating to contemplate. “Don’t look at it” has become commonplace in first person horror games such as Slender and its endless stream of clones, and while they are not typically directly influenced by Lovecraft the lineage can still be followed back to the earlier games exploring what it means to know too much.

As for the world space itself, we’ve yet to experience a game that has attempted to earnestly approximate the disorienting terror felt by the sailors on R’lyeh, but I can think of no medium better equipped to explore it. 2D projections of n-dimensional geometry is no new thing to computer graphics: Perhaps what we are missing is games research into n-dimensional physics simulation? Looking at the emergence of games as spatially complex yet popular as Portal and Antichamber it seems to me it’s just a matter of time before the laws of reality can be unmade for the sake of disorienting horror in games that otherwise simulate a realistic setting.

When I drew nigh the nameless city I knew it was accursed. I was travelling in a parched and terrible valley under the moon, and afar I saw it protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave. Fear spoke from the age-worn stones of this hoary survivor of the deluge, this great-grandmother of the eldest pyramid; and a viewless aura repelled me and bade me retreat from antique and sinister secrets that no man should see, and no man else had ever dared to see.

My first introduction to “Lovecraftian horror” as a narrative aesthetic was Alien, a film I probably watched way too early. While its first two sequels are entertaining and striking films in their own right, Alien is a spectacularly Lovecraftian work, and it took me until recently to really understand why that is.

Alien was among the first films to introduce the space trucker into science fiction cinema. It presented a realistic universe in which space was vast and empty and the work was boring and repetitive, manual labor down to a willingness to sell years of your life to sleeping in stasis between routine stops. Philip K Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch has a vision of Martian colonisation so bleak that colonists depend on strong psychoactives to cope with the repetitive emptiness of their fate, and Alien seems like it could take place in that same universe. The image of Kane tiredly smoking in his officer’s chair as the crew of the Nostromo discover just how far off the beaten path they have gone really stands out to me. As the LV-426 ground expedition approaches the Alien vessel, Kane can be heard repeating “We must go on. We have to go on.” This is a man desperate for a change to routine at the ultimate cost of his life and crew. While comparisons are often drawn directly to the hapless explorers At The Mountains of Madness, the real Lovecraftian horror of Alien is in Kane committing the crucial sin of curiosity in the face of the unknown. In following curiosity along the path to ruin he becomes the quintessential Lovecraftian protagonist.

Watching the crew deal with their deteriorating situation early on is more interesting to me than the slasher movie antics of the latter third. Theorising on the nature of the alien, of the planet they found it on, arguing on what to do with the infected Kane, making the worst possible decision at any given moment, each one motivated by curiosity or arrogance. Landing. Exploring the ship. Walking among the eggs. Skipping quarantine. Not putting Kane to sleep. Alien tells a story about the arrogant application of man’s laws to the inscrutable outside.

Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation is a very good mimic of Alien in the audiovisual department, but it never quite approaches this inscrutability, settling instead for emulating the cat-and-mouse latter third. This stalking peril and the gameplay systems empowering the player to avoid it really takes the alien out of Alien, making the game feel closer to a movie like Outland — If Outland had a colossal space-lion stalking the hallways.

I enjoyed Alien Isolation as a stealth-horror experience with impeccable art direction, but I kept wishing the game would take into account the psychological stress of the player character in ways that better impacted the actual gameplay without directly compromising its character. When Amanda Ripley routinely shoots other survivors in the face or manipulates machinery to guide the Alien to murder them, it becomes harder to see her as a regular person in an abnormal situation. She’s just too ok with death to fear it so.

In the film, the dwindling crew of the Nostromo huddle together and set aside their differences to try and survive. In Alien Isolation, murdering everybody else is near the top of the to-do list, not because Amanda is losing it, but because the game and the way it views the human survival instinct requires it. Ellen Ripley survives the Nostromo mostly through providence, not by being a go-getter. She is the first to suggest she go into the air ducts before being shut down by Dallas, the first to confront Ash one-on-one. Her evasion of the Alien running for the Narcissus is random at best. If it weren’t for luck, she’d be dead several times over. Amanda is the “hero” of Sevastopol station because she is an aggressive doer of things.

For these reasons Alien Isolation is not a Lovecraftian game, even though it adapts one of the most iconic Lovecraftian films created.

It is hard to explain just how a single sight of a tangible object with measureable dimensions could so shake and change a man; and we may only say that there is about certain outlines and entities a power of symbolism and suggestion which acts frightfully on a sensitive thinker’s perspective and whispers terrible hints of obscure cosmic relationships and unnamable realities behind the protective illusions of common vision. In that second look Willett saw such an outline or entity, for during the next few instants he was undoubtedly as stark mad as any inmate of Dr. Waite’s private hospital. He screamed and screamed and screamed in a voice whose falsetto panic no acquaintance of his would ever have recognised

I’ll admit to some pedantry here, looking into minutia of individual writings for some sort of ill-defined “official” guideline on how games should apply The Lovecraftian. The most direct way to describe Lovecraftian horror is, I think, as follows: You cannot kill it, you can only partially understand it, and — at its peak — the true victim is your world view. In games this most easily translates to powerlessness, opaqueness and diffraction/re-framing of previously established reality.

I feel choosing to represent the Lovecraftian as a collection of monsters and insanity-tropes does his work tremendous disservice, and comes off as an easy way out for modern appropriators to hook into a pop-cultural ley line.

If you work in horror, I’d urge you to look to Lovecraft. But please don’t make another Cthulhu plushie.