Games about Cthulhu have a muddled reputation. For every Dark Corners of the Earth and Call of Cthulhu TTRPG, there are plenty of Lovecraft-inspired games that fall short of the mark. The last few years alone have seen two major releases – Call of Cthulhu in 2018 and The Sinking City in 2019. Neither game is considered a failure, but they also didn’t garner much praise from their audience. Overall, the reception of modern Lovecraft games appears to be ‘alright, but nothing special’.
In contrast, the written Mythos crafted by H. P. Lovecraft in the early 20th Century is only growing more popular. From an all-but unknown author in his time, Lovecraft is now considered one of the bastions of psychological horror. His works have inspired countless others, perhaps most notably the Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water. It’s clear that there is still a widespread desire to explore the themes and world contained within Lovecraft’s work, and yet game adaptations continue to flounder.
So, why is it that so many Lovecraftian games fade into mediocrity? And if they do, why do game developers keep adapting these stories?
The Prevalence of Eldritch Horror
There are a lot of reasons why a developer might want to make a Lovecraft game. This is evident purely by the sheer number of them on the market. For many it’s simply a love of the stories; despite having been written a century ago by a deeply objectionable author, the works of H.P. Lovecraft remain a juggernaut of modern-day horror literature. For others, often smaller scale, indie developers, the use of a Lovecraft IP does a certain amount of the heavy-lifting when it comes to world and story design. With an existing Mythos to cover the broad narrative, developers can spend their time strengthening their game’s mechanics rather than telling its story.
And, of course, there is also the financial incentive to think about. While the last few years have seen a handful of middling-quality Lovecraft games, the Call of Cthulhu TTRPG first published in 1981 is still considered to be one of the most popular tabletop RPGs of all time. With a pre-existing fanbase, it’s easy to see why developers want to corner their own space in the Lovecraft market.
Making adaptations even more appealing is their copyright status. While some stories – including Call of Cthulhu – are debated over, much of Lovecraft’s original works are now public domain. This means that developers are free to adapt them however they wish, without the need for licensing fees. From a financial standpoint, it’s almost a no-brainer.
With a dedicated audience and a rich Mythos for anyone to explore, it would be easy to assume that these games should be easy victories. Unfortunately, that hasn’t proven to be the case. A series of mediocre adaptations have shown that it’s harder than you might think to get Lovecraft right. Understanding why this is, however, requires a closer look at the way these games are designed.
The Construction of a Mystery
One of the more enduring tropes of Lovecraftian games is a detective protagonist. The idea makes a lot of sense; traditional noir detective stories share a lot of the genre’s dark and gloomy atmosphere, and most of Lovecraft’s original tales are framed as the main character uncovering the mystery at the heart of the story. It’s fitting, then, to build the story around a private investigator or journalist sent to a suitably fishy location to root out the cause of various strange occurrences.
The framing gives developers a convenient shorthand for a protagonist haunted by their traumatic past, and makes it entirely natural for the player to ask as many questions as possible. If the protagonist and the player are learning new aspects of the story at the same time, it’s not going to feel so out of place when an NPC delivers a long expositional speech. The approach also maintains the spirit of the original works. It’s understandable why so many developers would rely on this framing.
In practice, however, any attempt at crafting an involving or engaging mystery will instantly fall apart for one simple reason: the player already knows how the story is going to end.
Even players unfamiliar with Lovecraft are likely to have a passing awareness of the general concept. In a game called Call of Cthulhu, it’s a pretty natural assumption that the titular Eldritch god is going to play a fairly major role. Given the prevalence of Lovecraft-inspired fiction, it’s also reasonable to assume most players are going to be expecting a cult. The result of this is that instead of the protagonist and the player learning the story at the same time, players are instead left to wait as the protagonist slowly uncovers secrets that the player identified hours ago. Not only does this massively undercut any number of possible surprises the developers were hoping for, it also runs the risk of making the entire game feel like an agonising wait until the last ten minutes when all the secrets finally come out.
The popularity of Lovecraft fiction that developers are hoping to capitalise on is the very reason why these games can’t function as effective mystery stories. Although this is arguably fine – Lovecraft stories are typically regarded as horror, rather than mystery – the constant framing of an investigation forces these games to rely on a firmly uncompelling structure.
Worse, the mystery aspect isn’t the only thing that game adaptations have lost. To understand that, we need to appreciate why people still enjoy these stories so many years after they were first put to paper.
Why Do Lovecraft’s Original Stories Work?
Most people who know of Lovecraftian fiction but haven’t read the books are likely to know the highlights: madness-inducing monsters beyond mortal ken and the cults that worship them. It’s the defining feature of all of the best-known stories. What this understanding misses, however, is the psychological torment visited upon the characters throughout the narrative. In most of Lovecraft’s writings, the Eldritch horrors barely appear in the actual story; instead, he explored the effect they had on the people who witnessed them. Each tale functions as a twisted look into human psychology, written by a man who struggled with mental health issues throughout his life.
In a written medium, this can be thrilling to explore. Unfortunately, the complexities and nuances of the human mind are incredibly hard to adapt to a visual medium like video games. Wavering images and discordant whispers are creepy, but they’re no match for the vivid descriptions possible with the written word. In gaming, portraying a protagonist’s gradual descent into madness is usually relegated to a sanity meter. Developers might also throw in some visual distortions too, though typically without influencing gameplay. The disconnect between the player and the protagonist with this kind of relationship substantially hinders the psychological aspect of the narrative. You may be able to sympathise with them, but your understanding of their true madness is always going to be flawed.
Without that intensely personal insight, you’re left with the just physical aspect of Lovecraft’s Mythos. Sadly, this is another area where adaptations are going to run into problems.
The Evolution of the Audience
While studies have proven that video games don’t cause violence, it may be fair to say that they can desensitise players to gore. Blood splatter is a near-universal feature in games these days and dismemberment, mutilation, and mutation are common staples of the horror genre. The audience of 2022 is not likely to have the same visceral reaction to, well, viscera, as the average reader from the early 1900s.
This is something of a problem for Lovecraftian horror. At the time these stories were being written, the general horror canon was still largely concerned with the cold, sterile world of gothic horror, characterised by eloquent men of society and dark, windswept castles. In contrast, Lovecraft’s work focuses heavily on themes of rot and decay. All of his stories share a level of ‘ickiness’ that was a great departure from other works of his time. Its uniqueness is one of the reasons that the Mythos has survived until present day.
This, at least, is easy enough to translate to video games. Adaptations tend to share that grungy, damp art style that modern graphics are all too capable of rendering. Visually, there is nothing wrong with most, if not all, Lovecraft adaptations. The issue instead is more with the audience themselves; decaying piles of fish guts and an overreliance on tentacles aren’t as shocking or unique as they used to be. The art design is memorable, certainly, but no better than many other, better horror games you could be playing.
Without that shock factor, and with the mystery rendered toothless, it’s perhaps unsurprising that these games fail to stand out. Other than the Lovecraft name, there is little about them that isn’t done better elsewhere. The result is a series of average reviews and a relatively quick erasure from cultural awareness. Even if the games didn’t do anything in particular wrong, they’re going to have the same problems.
The Future of Lovecraft Games
With the popularity of horror games only increasing over time, there is little doubt that we’ll see another Lovecraft adaptation sooner or later. Certainly we’ll continue to see Lovecraft-inspired works. Where straight adaptations have floundered, Mythos-adjacent titles like Sunless Sea or even Bloodborne have seen tremendous success.
Given the current state of adaptations, the next developer to try their hand will need to do something drastic. Falling back on the traditional ‘detective in a gloomy fishing town’ technique won’t keep gamers’ interest for much longer. Whether or not that will stop another developer from trying, however, remains to be seen.
At the very least, I’m sure it’ll be a while before anyone bothers to distinguish between The Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
I would also add one more point that seems to be paramount to the issue at hand and this is the question of agency. Video games are build on the very concept of agency, because they give a player an opportunity to act withing the game world. Surely, said actions are always more or less limited by the constrains of the game itself, but the agency is what sets games apart from passive media, such as movies or books.
And here is the problem. The ideas that made Lovecraft’s work groundbreaking do not translate well to the games. In his stories and novels, protagonists generally can’t accomplish much. They delve into mysteries but ultimately resign, die or go insane without really accomplishing anything. In the books it works well, because a tragic struggle against odds that are not even insurmountable but hardly conceivable makes and good read. But if one can’t achieve anything in a game that is made for a player to achieve a goal themselves, it might contribute to substandard experience. It could have been, of course, alleviated by a good narrative, but as you wrote, there are little surprises in the genre as players already know how the story will end or at least what will it involve. And a feeling that player wasted their time playing a game is possibly the worst outcome for a game designer.
I do not say that one can’t make a good Lovecraftian game. In my opinion, many designers try to make such a game by keeping as close to the original stories as possible, what, for the reasons mentioned by you and the agency issue presented above, often results in a mediocre if not outright poor game (if the game follows a ‘detective in a murky town’ and the player knows the ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’ then it won’t end well, as the whole concept of thriller and horror is based on showing things reader, watcher or player DOES NOT expect). But moving away from the Lovecraft’s work might work. ‘Alone in the Dark’ (the first one) did it quite well, because it followed most of the Lovecraftian tropes without invoking them too overtly and never making them central to the story. If you never had a contact with such literature, it was just an uncanny story about the family curse. If you had, it was a story of a family curse with some shout-outs to Lovecraft. And it worked. I still think it is one of the best Cthulhu-esque game around, despite its age (and if we decide to not talk about the werewolf chicken thing in one of the first scenes). Ditto for ‘Prisoner of Ice’ or ‘Shadow of the Comet’ (and yes, I recall the games that are almost 30 years old, because save for the quite recent ‘Stygian’ I don’t remember memorable ‘Cthulhu games’ made in the last 10 years of so).
I would also like to point out that one of the reasons why the Lovecraft’s works might not be the best source of inspiration is that although they were groundbreaking when written almost a century ago, the cosmic horror theme has been later used by many other authors, making many of its tropes pretty worn and mundane. Thwarting the threat to the very human existence (and by extension accepting that such a threat exist and are closer than we thought) was something new in 1920s, but today it is a plot of yet another superhero movie. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be made.