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How H.P. Lovecraft’s Horror Crafted A Subgenre Of Video Games

by AJ Moser on Aug 16, 2016 at 11:38 AM

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While Howard Phillips Lovecraft was alive, his work was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until after his death that readers came to admire the rich, self-contained universe of cosmic horror he had created. Inspired by his home town of Providence, Rhode Island, his short stories were typically set near the sea, and introduced readers to eldritch abominations like Cthulhu.

The recurring narrative of Lovecraft’s work was twisted, with each story building on the world he previously established. His writing often felt like a journalistic account of characters investigating the unknown, faced with unspeakable terror. The creations of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind fundamentally changed an entire genre of fiction, and his influence remains a strong presence in the world of horror games.

Though it was often bleak, Lovecraft’s view on the world informed the aspects that made his horror so distinct. The attitude in some of his writing is xenophobic and condescending to other races and nationalities – a point for which he’s been rightfully criticized over the years – and he was possessed by a degree of nihilism, expressed in contempt for many of his contemporaries and colleagues. This fueled the distinctive cosmic indifference fear of others and outside forces that can be used to summarize many of his stories. In the shadow of alien gods, why should the human race really matter?

Lovecraft’s style is not simply denoted by the presence of an otherworldly being that renders humanity worthless. Games inspired by the author tend to feature cults, abandoned mansions, and the loss of sanity. Eternal Darkness and Alone in the Dark both tell stories falling in line with his established style. The realm of Apocrypha in Skyrim’s Dragonborn DLC borrows heavily from Lovecraft lore, as do the Warcraft franchise’s old gods C'Thun and Yogg-Saron. His creations are so constantly referenced by developers that the phrase “Lovecraftian Games” earned its own tag on Steam.

Though Lovecraft has been referenced heavily in the past, there are more games on the way that will imagine his work in new ways. We spoke to a number of developers who have worked on games inspired by Lovecraft about the unique challenges and stories that come within the Lovecrafitan genre.

Weird Tales
Rather than freely take from certain characteristics of his established universe, some developers have chosen to outright adapt a number of published works. Infograme’s early adventures on DOS and Linux platforms, Prisoner of Ice and Shadow of the Comet, were so similar to certain Lovecraft novellas that “Call of Cthulhu” was later added to their titles. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth fully reimagined one of Lovecraft’s most beloved short stories as a first-person shooter. Two ill-fated sequels would have further explored the Cthulhu mythos, but were cancelled when Headfirst Productions went bankrupt.

With so many games citing the author as an inspiration, the challenge to tell new stories based on Lovecraft’s mythos is a daunting task. Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games, remains particularly wary of how exploited certain elements and creatures have become, but feels the author’s work as a source of influence is far from exhausted.

A screenshot from Thomas Grip's Fiend.

Discovering books by Lovecraft at a local library inspired Grip to stylize his own stories as told through strange diary entries and letters. In his very first project, a top-down survival horror game called Fiend, entities from the Cthulhu mythos appear by name. Frictional continues to make horror games, like Amnesia and SOMA, in line with the same atmosphere. Lovecraft is such a prominent inspiration for the developer that all of their games are made in the HPL, an engine named after the author.

“When I was making my own horror game back in 1999, I just scrapped the story I had going and did an homage to Lovecraft instead,” Grip says. “Since then, Lovecraft has been very important for [our] upcoming games, especially the way he structures his stories, with notes and diaries making up the bulk of the writing, along with this layered mystery that is to be uncovered.”

The mystery to which he refers is what Grip admires most about Lovecraft’s writing. He believes the way fear builds in the reader’s mind when confronted with the unknown helps make the stories so appealing to a wide audience.

“Lovecraft lets us ponder the insignificance of our existence in a safer space,” he explains. “The monsters are obviously not real, but the feelings they provide certainly are.”

Read on to find out how Edge of Nowhere makes Lovecraftian horror work in virtual reality.

Descent Into Madness
Many of Lovecraft’s stories played with psychological nuance, and made the reader empathize with a protagonist slowly losing their mind. In a video game, cutscenes and hidden documents offer the opportunity to present this kind of non-linear story. This was the idea that resonated with Brian Allgeier, the creative director for Edge of Nowhere at Insomniac Games, when he set out to make a VR game studying a hero as he wrestled with his own thoughts.

“The funny thing is that I wasn’t a big Lovecraft fan when we started,” Allgeier admits. “I had not really read much of his work, and I was telling the team that I wanted to make a horror game. I wanted to call it The Unknown, and people on the team were like, ‘This sounds very Lovecraftian to me.’”

So Allgeier quickly got up to speed on a number of short stories and novellas. One particular story, At The Mountains of Madness, stuck out as a great match for his creative vision. The Arctic setting aligned with the technical capabilities of rendering a world in virtual reality, and the dramatic through line of the protagonist going mad shaped the story that became Edge of Nowhere.

“We had to pretty much get up and running on a project very quickly,” he said. “And I wanted to be able to pitch an idea that the team could grasp and try to find our way with this new IP. So it was very helpful as a starting point to look at [Mountains of Madness] and say, ‘This is the time period, this is the world, characters, the type of creatures you run into.’”

Artwork depicts the mystifying environments of Edge Of Nowhere.

Common themes of Lovecraft’s work informed the twists and turns in Edge of Nowhere’s story, including the ending. Though there was a big push to have a happy ending with a stronger resolution, Allgeier made the decision to honor Lovecraft’s storytelling approach and commit to a dreamlike narrative ending on a dour note.

“There’s a certain aspect of truth to that,” he says of the story’s ending. “There’s life and what we believe is the real world, and then just beyond that veil there is something greater, more disturbing. We would go insane if we really knew what this world was about.”

Born From Pen and Paper
Though they feature twisted, grotesque creatures and enormous ancient gods, the greatest enemy in a Lovecraft story is typically the human mind. Even if the events of the story are open to interpretation, the perceived horror is based on the juxtaposition of a mundane setting and characters with bizarre, otherworldly situations.

Chaosium’s pen-and-paper role-playing game, Call of Cthulhu, first released in 1981, was one of the first to put readers directly in control of these fascinating scenarios. Players would investigate a seemingly normal setting, and like many Lovecraft stories, the plot slowly builds to reveal the horrible truth lurking just beyond reality. Jean-Marc Gueney, lead designer at Cyanide Studio, had his first experience with the author’s prolific work while playing this tabletop game. His fascination with Lovecraft grew from there and continues to fuel his vision while he works on a video game of the same name.

A screenshot from the upcoming Call of Cthulhu game.

“In 1987, when I played for the first time, [Call of Cthulhu] was very unique,” Gueney says. “It was entirely based on investigation, and would offer quite an unusual experience if compared to other role-playing games. Of course, video games are quite different... but we really want to reproduce the same atmosphere as in a pen-and-paper gaming night.”

Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu video game is due in 2017, and is closely linked to Lovecraft’s universe. The first screenshots and trailer hint at an intimate narrative full of mystery. Darkwater Island, the game’s setting, features an unwelcoming village and an abandoned manor that is the subject of investigation. Well-read fans of Lovecraft will find pieces of art and books directly taken from certain stories as they unravel the mystery of a missing family.

Like the pen-and-paper RPG it shares a name with, as well as nearly every Lovecraftian game that came before it, Call of Cthulhu will put players face to face with unspeakable horrors. Staying faithful to the source material, the game will push players slowly towards the brink of madness. The struggle to find sanity defines many of Lovecraft’s characters, and sets his horror apart, Gueney believes.

“I think that ‘regular’ horror and Lovecraftian horror are often mistakenly mixed up: in regular horror, monsters are easy to identify and there are no doubts about their existence, they are real. In Lovecraftian horror, characters doubt their own senses and even their own sanity; they reject the existence of monsters until they are faced to the inevitable truth. And accepting that truth often leads to madness.”

For more on upcoming Lovecraft games, continue to Page 3.

Fear of the Unknown
Like in the original RPG, players won’t find directly confronting the creatures they encounter in Call of Cthulhu to be very practical. Lovecraft’s twisted behemoths are intentionally hard to imagine, as on the page each reader sees something different. In a video game though, every player sees the same thing, posing a challenge to the designer.

Many of Frictional’s games get around this by offering players only a glimpse of the terrors that haunt them. The horror gameplay relies on sound effects and shadows to build anticipation so each player creates their own idea of what lies ahead.

“You cannot just have the monster pop into full sight,” Grip says. “The player will easily see all of the imperfections, and their imagined beast is replaced by a much more boring one. So you have to thread somewhere in-between. The player must face the creature, but not enough for it to spoil their imagination.”

Edge of Nowhere utilized stealth to put players directly in control of tense situations. Visual cues clued players in on when to move forward or anticipate an attack. Rather than use an on-screen prompt, the game developers used their own language to signify action.  

“We wanted the moments of horror to be born out of our natural enemy behaviors,” Brian Allgeier explains. “I’m used to making action games where there is an enemy around every corner and the player feels empowered. In a horror game, it's all about making the player feel powerless, building anticipation and tension as they move along to these spaces waiting to see what’s around every corner.”

Frogwares Studios is taking a different approach to channeling Lovecraft’s knack for atmospheric horror. Their next title, The Sinking City, is an open-world investigation game due sometime next year. Yuri Shevaga, the game’s producer, designed the city of Oakmont to be full of secrets and have its own distinct character while honoring the heritage of the material it was based on.

“This place is not friendly to the newcomers, people hide things from you and people lie to you,” Shevaga said. “You’ll constantly have a feeling that it’s always submerging something from you…both figuratively and literally.”

A Distinctly Human Horror
A great deal of thought went into considering the architectural inspiration for The Sinking City, as the environments will need to effectively transport players inside the world of an H.P. Lovecraft story. The team aims to capture feelings that expose the unpleasant and disgusting sides of human nature.

Shevaga needs every dilapidated fishing dock, university, and library to feel like it jumped right off the page. As he helped design the more overtly ominous areas like abandoned asylums and cult campsites, he came to understand Lovecraft’s fascination with the decay of human society.

“Lovecraft’s works refer to the things we all cast about in our minds at those moments when we feel troubled,” he says. “It comes with a specific approach to narration that is oriented on triggering this unavoidable curiosity and desire to find out the truth at all costs. The secret is, we never give out precise answers, we only raise more questions.”

He believes the universe created by Lovecraft appeals to a part of human nature that drives us to ask questions and feel troubled, an intimate connection that can be understood without having to speak a word. Shevaga thinks this is the core idea that keeps people coming to back to Lovecraft’s work, time after time.

Devs Share Their Favorite Lovecraft Stories

"It goes back to my university years, when I was generally interested in all kinds of alternative literature. And the first novel I read was The Shadow over Innsmouth and is still one of my favorites. The top three of mine, except one I already mentioned, is also The Mountains of Madness and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward - Yuri Shevaga, Frogwares

"My personal favorites are The Whisperer in Darkness (I particularly like Akeley’s character) as well as The Shadow Over Innsmouth and of course The Call of Cthulhu! I’d also like to mention "In the Mouth of Madness" by J. Carpenter, which is in my opinion one of the best Lovecraft-inspired movies of all time." - Jean-Marc Gueney, Cyanide Studio

Chronicling the history of homages to the author across countless horror games would prove nearly impossible, as would providing a clear definition of what makes a game “Lovecraftian.” Some may point to Bloodborne’s gothic setting and grotesque creatures, while others would reference Oxenfree’s tale of supernatural investigation in a small town by the sea.

Like the monsters that haunt their pages, the stories written by H.P. Lovecraft are difficult to describe. The horrors he dreamt up and the distinctly human fears present in his writing capture millions of readers’ imaginations, and his work continues to inspire the creativity of a new generation of storytellers.