Over the Cliffs of Sanity

The horror genre has a few authors that permanently color the landscape for future writers in the genre. In the 19th century that was Edgar Allan Poe, and in the 20th Century that fell to Rhode Island native Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The son of an old Rhode Island family, Lovecraft was a precocious youth who read and wrote constantly from an early age. However, things weren’t flowers and sunshine for Lovecraft as his parents died while he was young, he was sent to live with his aunts and the family fortune was gradually frittered away. In this period he began to write short stories for the pulp magzines of the day, books like Argosy and Weird Tales. In the meantime, Lovecraft was married and moved to New York City, where his new wife managed a habadashery. Lovecraft continued to write (the diversity of his new home bringing much of his unfortunate racism boiling to the surface), eventually moving back to his hometown of Providence when his marriage fell apart. However, he began to produce some of his most notable work soon thereafter, including what are probably his best known works, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour out of Space, and The Dunwich Horror.

Probably the most pleasant image of Lovecraft you're going to find.

In that time, Lovecraft’s writing attracted the attention of other budding writers including Conan creator Robert E. Howard, poet and artist Clark Ashton Smith, future Psycho author Robert Bloch, and August Derleth, who, upon Lovecraft’s death, would ensure his works stayed in circulation. Lovecraft was an even more prolific writer of letters than he was short stories, and the Lovecraft Circle, as they would come to be known, often shared ideas and creations, creating what Derleth coined “The Cthulhu Mythos”, and generating the cosmic horror subgenre, in which man was an unimportant  and inconsequential species, of no interest to the Great Old Ones like Cthulhu, Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth. While Lovecraft lived and died in increasing poverty, his works would go on to be highly influential for modern horror writers. Authors like Stephen King, Brian Lumley and F. Paul Wilson draw heavily from Lovecraft.

How most people know the name Arkham, to my eternal annoyance.

And indeed, the creations of HP Lovecraft have become ingrained in popular culture at large, with DC Comics appropriating the name of Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham for the Gotham City mental institution, and director Sam Raimi including Lovecraft’s fictional book of all things oeverwhelmingly evil, The Necronomicon, in his Evil Dead trilogy. Other well-known figures influenced by Lovecraft include thrash metal icons Metallica and director Guillermo Del Toro. However, if there’s one place where Lovecraft’s creations have found a more solid and permanent home, it’s the world of gaming. Lovecraftian horror appears in some places you’d expect, like Alone in the Dark and Silent Hill, and in some you wouldn’t, like Mass Effect 2 and Final Fantasy VII. Silicon Knights’ GameCube classic Eternal Darkness was largely based on the Lovecraft mythos.

But I’m going to look at some games that are the real deal. In the early ’80s, at the height of tabletop gaming’s popularity, publisher Chaosium gained the rights to produce an RPG based on Lovecraft’s works. Designed by Sandy Petersen (who would later work on Doom, Doom II and Quake), Call of Cthulhu became the foremost horror role-playing game, which is in its sixth edition and still in print. So far, three video games have borne the Call of Cthulhu logo. The first was 1993’s Shadow of the Comet, which was a graphic adventure not unlike The Dig or Gabriel Knight. 1995’s Prisoner of Ice followed a similar formula (and for some reason was released for the Saturn and PlayStation in Japan, but not in the US or Europe.). However, I’m going to concentrate on the most well-known and yet still very obscure XBox/PC title, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of The Earth.

Some of the friendly and attractive denizens of Innsmouth.

The game is predominately based on Lovecraft’s Shadow Over of Innsmouth (with elements from many other stories), faithfully recreating the decrepit New England town as detective Jack Walters searches for a missing grocery clerk…and subsequently gets embroiled in the town’s dirty secrets. The people of Innsmouth are creepy and unfriendly (and not just in a circa-2005 uncanny valley way; they’re intentionally…off). Jack can’t even get a good night’s sleep in the town, as the villagers raid his hotel room and force him to escape through the windows. Eventually you find the missing person you’re looking for and help him escape, only to get caught up in an FBI investigation with J. Edgar Hoover himself joining you in the raid on an Innsmouth gold refinery. The Feds use Jack as a pawn to aid in their investigation into the Esoteric Order of Dagon, a religion based in Innsmouth that has allied themselves with the Great Old One Dagon and his minions, the Deep Ones (the details of which are quite…squicky). After this, the story shifts to a full-scale assault on Innsmouth as Jack fights into the Order’s halls alongside Marines. However, this show of force doesn’t end well, as Jack ends up on a Coast Guard cutter swarming with Deep Ones and under attack from Dagon himself…

Rain, fog and mystery: welcome to Lovecraft country.

While the game takes place from a first-person perspective and most combat in the game is accomplished with guns, the game is just as much an adventure game (and even more a very immersive survival horror experience) as it is a shooter. For the first quarter of the game you’re not even armed, and once you are, the game handles combat and injuries quite realistically. There’s no heads-up display, so it’s necessary to keep a count of how many rounds you’ve fired (and in some cases how many rounds a magazine holds), and unaimed weapon fire from any gun that’s not a shotgun is typically wasted. Getting hurt means you have to stop and patch yourself up with a medical kit – and if you don’t have, say,  a splint to set a broken bone you’re going to be limping around the level for a while. To stem your aches and let you soldier on without slowing down you can shoot up a little morphine – of course, this plays hell with your sanity.

Your sanity isn't going to withstand a Shoggoth for long.

Sanity is one of the core mechanics of the Call of Cthulhu system, both tabletop and electronic, and when you experience any particularly disturbing sight (such as a grisly murder scene or one of the Old Ones’ spawn) your vision and hearing will warp. You’ll start hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, and if it gets bad enough, Jack might just turn his gun on himself. That said, the sanity loss doesn’t generate the fear in the game, it only enhances it. It does a good job of capturing the dismal, hopeless feel of Lovecraft’s works. This is complemented by the dingy and decrepit look of Innsmouth, and contrasted by the bright and gaudy interior of the Order, the Spartan style of the Coast Guard ship, and the increasing surreality of the later levels. It adds up well, making Dark Corners of the Earth not only one of the most faithful (and scary) adaptations of any author’s work, but one of the best Lovecraft adaptations, period.

The typical happy ending of a Lovecraft protagonist.

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  1. gnome says:

    A truly stunning piece of writing, showcasing a sincere love for Lovecraft’s prose and appreciation for one of the most baffingly ignored games ever. Excellent. Thank you. And I’m sure you would appreciate the truly amazing and deeply lovecraftian Anchorhead:


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