H.P. Lovecraft’s ongoing influence in popular culture is something of a mystery. Even leaving the issue of his politics aside, the type of cosmic horror he is best known for had been well represented before he joined the ranks with his later work (Robert Chambers published The King In Yellow in 1895 when Howard Phillips was just a toddler), and his belabored, description-heavy prose is sure to strain the patience of anyone but the most devout fan. Yet there are still lyrics being written, films produced, and novels conceived that perpetuate the themes we have come to regard as his own—of formless horrors lurking at the edge of sanity and the plight of a humanity plunging into an abyss of meaninglessness and despair.
Perhaps no other field of cultural production is as deeply or diversely affected by Lovecraft’s legacy as video games. A quick search through Steam’s dusty vaults reveals no less than 67 titles that have been tagged as “Lovecraftian,” 12 of which were published in the last eight months alone. This figure does not even take into account the various console and mobile games, obscure indies, and non-Steam PC games that swell the numbers even further. Indeed, so pervasive has his influence become that the label risks losing its meaning, being applied to collectible card games like Cthulhu Realms and quirky JRPGs like Cthulhu Saves The World, whose main claim to being part of the Cthulhu Mythos is the decision to cast its most recognizable character against type. With the term being increasingly diluted, the question is worth considering: What are the essential themes of a truly Lovecraftian game?
I was too fond of ending my stories with sights or sounds which paralysed my heroes’ faculties and left them without courage, words, or associations to tell what they had experienced. —“The Unnamable”
Lovecraft’s creatures, especially the famous mollusk-like deities of his Mythos, were fundamentally different to most other monsters in horror fiction: They were utterly alien in every respect. While Universal was unleashing a horde of terrifying, but ultimately familiar, villains upon film-goers in the most productive period of its monster obsession, here was a writer populating the pages of his stories with the non-euclidean figures of antediluvian, incomprehensible beings—gargantuan, churning chasms of tentacles, eyes, and teeth.
Superficially, the deviation was only an aesthetic one, and the visual aspect has been successfully reproduced even in games that have little to do with Lovecraft’s tone, like Hearthstone’s recent expansion, Whispers Of The Old Gods. The imagery, however—just as much as the barely pronounceable phoneme-chains Lovecraft dreamed up to name his creations—is simply a surface-level manifestation of the deeper sense of ineffable otherness he sought to convey. Whereas traditional anthropomorphic monsters are routinely driven by easily identifiable concerns—hunger, lust, revenge—the motivation behind the actions of Lovecraftian horrors transcends human attempts at understanding it, as does their disposition toward our kind. To the godlike beings of the Cthulhu Mythos, we are neither prey, nor threat. We are bugs: at best inconsequential, at worst a mildly bothersome formality.
No other game captures the sublime horror of encountering such an ancient, alien intelligence, one whose menace does not come with malice but is no less dangerous for it, than Sunless Sea. Failbetter’s opaque masterpiece starts you off innocently enough as long as you don’t stray farther than the coastline around Fallen London and its couple of neighboring islands. But as you move away from the shallows and start to voyage inward, penetrating the unexplored periphery of the Unterzee, its aquatic fauna becomes increasingly strange. There are living icebergs lethargically floating through the frozen northern waterways until some unknown urge compels them to charge your hapless ship; there are metal-clad sharks, their bodies bound and distorted from whatever unexplained experiment they’ve been forced to endure; there is a living vessel referred to as the Tree Of Ages, a mishmash of hewn planks and grown branches, navigated by a crew of spiders.
What makes these creatures Lovecraftian is not that they simply look different to conventional video game enemies, but the sense of individual ancient histories and indecipherable agendas shrewdly woven into their imagery and dialogue snippets. Naturally, what follows an encounter with such beings is nothing less than severe psychological trauma.
Loss of sanity
…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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. —“The Call Of Cthulhu”
Insanity, whether as a starting condition or some final punishment for hubris, has been a feature of story-driven games for quite some time and, when used merely as a plot device, is not necessarily a Lovecraftian trait. For example, take a look at The Terrible Old Man, a freebie point-and-click adventure that adapts the Lovecraft short story of the same name. We find the three villainous main characters drinking at a local New England dive. After overhearing rumors of a retired sea captain and the numerous treasures he has amassed in his isolated mansion, they decide to pay the old gentleman a nocturnal visit. The end of their brief adventure finds each member of the despicable trio either dead or insane, and it’s not entirely clear which conclusion is more merciful.
While sanity and the loss thereof as a simple narrative trope is fairly commonplace, instituting it as a quantifiable attribute that slowly erodes as the player encounters fragments of a hidden, darker reality indicates a focus on the mental impact of such revelations that is distinctly Lovecraftian, mirroring the fate of several of his protagonists. It is no mere coincidence that the most meticulous game adaptation of the writer’s work, Chaosium’s Call Of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game, adopts sanity as its central mechanic, deeming it at least as important (if not more so) to a character’s well being as their physical health.
There’s been a spate of recent titles adopting similar rules under various guises, including Darkest Dungeon’s Stress system, Sunless Sea’s Terror, and The Curious Expedition’s Sanity. Perhaps the most focused implementation of such a feature is a much earlier one. Accolade’s 1989 RPG Don’t Go Alone earns its Lovecraftian credentials on more than setting and backstory. In this unconventional dungeon crawler, mental health does not just complement a physical attribute; it is the sole factor deciding the functionality of your characters.
As the four investigators (whose classes include traditional Chaosium templates like Psychics and Chemists) set out to explore an abandoned Victorian mansion, the attacks from the various spirits and demons that inhabit it start to fill up a Fear bar. Once that is full, they become incapacitated. Once all of them are full, the whole party is teleported to a random location, regaining some sanity and being left in a previously unexplored area to find their way back. It is a relatively light punishment for loss of sanity—nowhere near the game-changer that, say, Sunless Sea’s brutal bouts of cannibalism are—but it elevates the status of psychological effects by refusing to treat them as an auxiliary to physical injury.
Secret societies and cults
The structure’s once white paint was now grey and peeling, and the black and gold sign on the pediment was so faded that I could only with difficulty make out the words “Esoteric Order of Dagon.” This, then, was the former Masonic Hall now given over to a degraded cult. —“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”
Where there are dark secrets guarded by otherworldly creatures, you can bet there are going to be inquisitive individuals forming groups with the purpose of uncovering them, no matter the cost on their sanity (quantifiable or otherwise). Lovecraft’s world is brimming with cults and secret societies, as are the games it inspired. The two types of organization seem sharply divided by, first and foremost, class, but also location, race, and intention.
Secret societies are the province of mostly wealthy white urban-dwellers, conducting their investigations in hushed library wings and sharing their findings in well-catered parlors as they indulge in tea, biscuits, and the occasional seance. The Hound Of Shadow, a flawed but intriguing attempt by Electronic Arts to graft the Chaosium rule-set onto a text adventure, begins with our investigator arriving at a London mansion to visit one of the capital’s famed spiritualists. The other guests include a millionaire heiress, a fat banker, and a haughty artist. Lovecraftian cults, on the other hand, are probably best exemplified by Resident Evil 4’s Los Illuminados, drawing their membership mostly from the ranks of the rural poor and conducting their unholy rituals in remote, inaccessible locations, from the frozen wastes of Greenland to the swampland outside New Orleans.
It’s a stark contrast until one starts peering closer and realizes that there’s some heavy one-way traffic from one end to the other. The secret society and the cult are merely two sides of the same coin, social formations indicative of varying intensities in their shared quest to discover some hidden truth—the detached curiosity of the dilettante versus the religious zeal of the devotee. Their difference is essentially a matter of degree. How much of yourself are you prepared to shed for revelation? Given Lovecraft’s dark, pessimistic worldview, it comes as no surprise that his well-bred heroes often start from one end of the spectrum and end up on the other as idle curiosity turns into life-consuming obsession.
The Game Kitchen’s episodic lo-fi adventure The Last Door builds a superbly atmospheric and terrifying story out of this seemingly inescapable trajectory. Jonathan Devitt, after receiving a letter from a long-lost friend, starts to uncover fragments of a past that’s been repressed by some sort of selective amnesia. He remembers secret student societies that researched the supernatural and chemical formulas consumed to gain entrance to another dimension. After Jonathan disappears, John Wakefield, his former psychiatrist, starts investigating, at first out of personal concern and professional curiosity, but soon enough with a single-minded fervor that takes him to increasingly exotic locations hiding disturbing truths on the mysterious origins of an organization called The Playwright.
By the end of The Last Door’s second season, the two men will be divvying up the fates that are so often the lot of Lovecraftian protagonists, drawn inside these secret circles, encountering the unfathomable, and either dying or being driven mad from the experience. For characters caught up in one of these kinds of stories, there’s only really one path: from the parlor to the glade and onward to some final peace offered by walls raised against the outside world, whether of a tomb, an asylum, or simply a mind irrevocably scarred from a glimpse of Lovecraft’s universe.
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