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To say game developers have an interest in the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft would be a bit of an understatement. From indie darlings like Darkest Dungeon to AAA hits like Bloodborne, it seems you can’t take two steps in darker games without coming across a writhing mass of tentacles or a dark cult summoning horrors from beyond the stars. But there’s a worrying trend I’ve noticed in these games, and it’s gotten too big for me to continue to ignore it.

Lovecraft games just don’t really get Lovecraft.

Usually, we think of Lovecraftian games as titles that get Lovecraft’s aesthetic. Shady villages ran by cultists, giant squid-faced humanoids, and themes of insanity are usually found within these sorts of games. We’ve fought Cthulhu in more games than I can possibly count; everything from the top-down spell-casting shooter Magicka to the tactical RPG aptly titled Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Lands lets you line up to take a piece out of Cthulhu and company, but herein lies the first problem.

The main thing you’ll find in a Lovecraft story, besides terror, is hopelessness. Humanity is insignificant in the grand scheme of things and have no way to truly defeat the creatures preying on them. We can fight—and just ask the pulpy remains of Cthulhu’s head post-steamboat ramming—but we can’t actually beat them for good. They’re too big, too smart, too powerful, and we cannot possibly stop them.

So when the final act of the actual Call of Cthulhu game involves the main character and the US Navy laying siege to the underwater city of Y’ha-nthiel with a tommy gun, or the game praised as being closest to Lovecraft’s text features legions of horrors being cut down by a hunter with a canesword, you might be a little bit off point.

The fact that Quake is tagged 'Lovecraftian' on steam should give you a good idea of what's wrong here.

The fact that Quake is tagged “Lovecraftian” on Steam should give you a good idea of what’s wrong here.

It’s not really the fault of the developers, or a knock against the games themselves—many of which listed here are superb. Rather, Lovecraft’s mythos is, by nature, unadaptable into a visual medium. The Old Ones do not obey the laws of our universe, they aren’t bound by how Earth works. They’re often described—or rather not described—as incomprehensible beings, something too advanced for the human mind to possibly understand. Cthulhu isn’t Dracula or Jason Voorhees; he’s not the sort of physical presence we associate with villains.

So this poses a bit of an awkward problem. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, while not a Lovecraftian game, had the right idea of making players look away from the monsters unless they wish to succumb to insanity. Still, even with the mechanic in play, you’re just dealing with varying types of maimed humanoids. Sure, you could try to up the design, maybe make the creatures in question more nightmarish and inhuman, but the problem still stands. There is nothing incomprehensible about a 3D model with some blood textures.

So making a proper Lovecraft game can be hard, especially when the villains of the story cannot be fought, stopped, or even seen without mucking with what makes the source material tick. Games such as the 1993 point n’ click Shadow of the Comet have come close, making nearly any encounter with anything otherworldly end in death, but it has a second problem that makes everything so much harder to pull off.

It has a happy ending.

Also inexplicably tagged 'Lovecraftian'

Also inexplicably tagged “Lovecraftian.”

Games usually have some sort of positive conclusion, or at least a bittersweet one. What you did in the game, good or bad, has changed the world. The player’s a somebody, the player’s actions mean something. In the world of Lovecraft, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The protagonists usually end up dead, mentally unhinged, or worse, and ninety-nine percent of the time the end of existence is on its way—and nothing can stop it. Nothing could’ve. In fact, the closest thing you’ll get to a “happy” conclusion in any of Lovecraft’s stories is the Old One being temporarily stalled or the protagonist choosing to live in ignorance of the impending armageddon. While Bloodborne‘s endings are on the right track here, the game can still feel a tad too empowering to really nail the hopelessness.

But along with the despair comes a fundamental lack of control that Lovecraft’s works love to hammer home. In a world where some of the most popular games on the market are sprawling sandboxes with multiple endings and morality systems, a subgenre focused on how pointless choice really is wouldn’t really be at home. Even gaming at large focuses on controlling an avatar in the digital worlds, and it’s hard to make a player feel truly out of control without removing their agency—the very thing that makes a game, well, a game.

These basic pillars of Lovecraftian horror are incompatible with games as we know them. After all, it’s hard to make a traditional game about an impossible challenge that we cannot fully understand and failing miserably in the process and still manage to keep it entertaining. Because when you try to combine conventional gaming and Lovecraft, you’ll get a title like Quake, where every eldritch beast can simply be blasted apart with a rocket launcher, or a Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth that includes a bombastic turret sequence where you shoot at Father Dagon while he claws at your ship.Lovecraft Shadow of the Comet

So is there a way to truly adapt Lovecraft? I think so. While I had issues with the aforementioned Shadow of the Comet and Bloodborne, they’re certainly a step in the right direction. The closer you get to a truly hopeless battle against an alien force, the closer you get to what makes the original stories so effective. And while so many of what we consider to be givens in video games—such as win states, killable enemies, and clear goals—may be directly at odds with the genre, that doesn’t mean they’re absolutely necessary.

Ironically, it seems that the further you stray from what’s commonly seen from a video game, the closer you get to a truly Lovecraftian experience. The text adventure Anchorhead doesn’t even feature any graphics besides text, completely sidestepping the issue of making fundamentally incomprehensible monsters visible in the first place, and therefore making the unimaginable monsters all the more intimidating. Additionally, adventure games in general don’t usually have any sort of combat system, making it even easier to convey to the player that you really don’t want to be messing around with these sorts of creatures.

So while it’s highly unlikely we’ll get a faithful Lovecraftian shooter or platformer anytime soon, not all hope is lost. For just beyond the reaches of normalcy lurks uncharted and emerging new genres, from the forgotten text adventures to all sorts of new experimental venues. For like the Old Ones themselves, it seems that the deeper you dive into the depths of gaming, the closer you get to true horror.

And who knows what awaits.

Perry Ruhland

Staff Writer

Filmmaker. Entertainment critic. Genre film aficionado. Has bad taste and hot takes.

  • Garbagio Dumpsterino

    Cool article. Shame you didn’t mention Sunless Sea though!

  • Dom The Elegy

    Personally I can’t fucking stand how Cthulhu and Lovecraft is treated not only in gaming but media as a whole. Real good horror, something that lingers, breathes down your neck when you have a quiet moment, is something that is rare and should be admired for it. But over the years Cthulhu has become a mascot; it’s a thing that is cutesy with all its tentacles and green skin and isn’t it just so adorable that he wants to end all existence?

    Fuck that. With a pitchfork on fire.
    You can think about Lovecraft what you want, and honestly he seemed like a huge asshole, but he understood horror like almost no one else. But modern media can’t stand being powerless, that reminds the people of their own mortality, of their helpless- and overall pointlessness in the grand scheme of things which makes them less gullible to marketing. That’s why they have to take the horrors of old and defang them. Make them adorable and marketable. In my eyes it’s the grossest form of commercialism that not only purposefully misunderstands its sourcematerial but actively tries to damage it because the message isn’t profitable enough.

    Someone who wants to make a game based on Lovecraft has to understand that. I’m sure it’s not impossible to do, but the people behind it have to realise that it will not sell well, since it’s not an empowering feeling you get out of it. In fact it might very well be the most depowering experience the player will ever have in a virtual environment.
    Because the end of every story regarding Lovecraft material is you lose. That’s the point. If you don’t like that, go read/ watch/ play a different story. But don’t try to ruin it for the people who understand and like it. Don’t try to smoothen the edges so it’s easier to digest. Make horror terrifying again and stop turning Cthulhu into a fucking plush doll.

  • Doc Hammer

    Agreed on all points. I can’t hear about Cthulu in video games and not cringe because I know he’s just going to be another generic big boss fight or meme-laden reference.

  • Arbitrary

    “many of which listed here are superb.”

    Citation needed.

  • Zachel

    No mention of Consuming shadow? At a glance it ticks most if not all the boxes the author put up.

  • John George of Saxony

    Well let’s be honest, we won’t get a really Lovecraftian game without some serious fucking racism involved.

  • SomeCollegeStudent

    I want to elaborate a bit more with Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Remember the “shadow” that’s hunting Daniel? At first I thught it was the minions/monsters you avoid but its really more of an overarching power. The only time it manifest itself is as those wierd fleshy stuff that coats the castle. You’re also never really told much about this shadow except that it’s very powerful and probably unstoppable. Plus you never really get to properly fight it. Even in the better endings you don’t actually kill it or anything like that. In fact, it actually kills Daniel in two of the endings and in the last one Daniel simply believes that it’ll stop hunting him. I think the shadow ends up being a decent stand in for what you say Lovecraft really is about.

  • Souvik Roy Choudhury

    This. And in today’s mess of a PC climate. That seems unlikely.

  • Zepherdog

    “In a world where some of the most popular games on the market are
    sprawling sandboxes with multiple endings and morality systems, a
    subgenre focused on how pointless choice really is wouldn’t really be at

    Wouldn’t that make Mass Effect 3 the ultimate Lovecraft title? :^)

  • TH3J4CK4L

    Im pretty sure the end of dark corners of the earth didnt have the protagonist winning. It merely had the US military try to destroy marshs sanctuary & then at the end of the game the main character chooses to hang himself rather than face the coming horrors. The only one game that nailed it was dark corners.

  • FalseTragedian

    The writer himself was pretty damn racist, but it’s far from an inherent trait of his stories, nor is it an essential one. In fact, most of the racist overtones he did inject were simply an expression of the fear of the “other” – an essential cornerstone of horror – expressed in a way that was familiar to the writer and many of his contemporary readers.

  • JediCass

    After more than 30 years, I think the CoC tabletop role playing game still does it best.

  • Cazamus

    From what I have read about Lovecraft, his staying power isn’t necessarily because his books are great on their own (they are, but that may not have carried his legacy after his death) but rather his open approach to his characters. He wanted people to continue using his work and ideas, and even encouraged it in his correspondences with other writers, which lead to the revival of the horror genre, and the staple with of “Lovecraftian”. The problem I think we have is that writers want to have horror, but when they adopt it to video game, they don’t want to make people feel horror (hard to explain based on the fact that I suck at writing… but I will try) so we have this substitute of gore/scary with horror. To feel revulsion of what is happening in a game, not just because puppies are being killed but because of the hopelessness of the situation, is what I feel is missing. I think its missing because devs feel games must be winnable, or that your protagonists efforts cannot be for nothing, and thus there is no horror, only a sense of spooky.
    Cthulhu cannot be scary in a video game, so long as they show him. Devs are afraid that people will not wait for the payoff (in a world where Finaly Fantasy 13 didn’t get good by fan regards until about 14 hours in, these concerns are silly) so they fill it with jumps. To make the player want to see the protagonist live, they add a backstory and dialogue, and audio tapes. They keep doing the same game, and you are right, it just never is horror. I want to have my eye’s bloodshot from keeping them fully open for days, but the only people willing to even try that are the visual novels, and lets be honest here, there are probably on 3 great visual novel games a year, all of which probably have catgirls.

  • Cazamus

    When he’s not saving the world you mean 😀

  • Oliver Lucas

    The Consuming Shadow, while not actually incorporating anything from the Mythos directly, is one of the best Lovecraftian games, imo. Yes, you can still fight the monsters and, in the best ending, even kill the Great Old One stand-in, but it’s hard. And atmospheric. And the fact that the game is in 2D, with all the creatures only shown as silhouettes (and a good portion of the game being delivered only through text) helps with immersion.

    I recommend it.

  • SomeCollegeStudent

    This is an editorial. I.e. An author’s opinion. You are of course free to disagree but the author is not required to have statistical evidence or the like for their beliefs.

  • Crizzyeyes

    I think a game like Bloodborne or Demon’s Souls comes “close enough” — you play the whole game just to find out that, when the game ends, you really haven’t accomplished anything at all, and existence is doomed to simply repeat itself until you simply grow weary of your duty. It hammers the point home — at least, by the end of the game — without sacrificing much player agency during the game proper. However, Bloodborne/Souls isn’t a horror game, despite the excellent monster and environment design.

    I do think it’s possible, although difficult, to make a game that adheres to this theme in a more substantial way. However, it would be doomed to niche appeal, because such a game would do well to actually frustrate the player by revealing to them that their actions had no real meaning on a more consistent basis. It’s also very tough to invoke actual despair in a player; most people just get frustrated at not being able to do anything, like I said. Despair is a much more severe emotion.

  • SomeCollegeStudent

    Wait… I think a more serious contestant for a “subgenre focused on how pointless choice really is” is Gods Will Be Watching. The game seems to delight in forcing you to make hard decisions and then in the next chapter the plot develops in such a way that it feels like all your hard work didn’t accomplish anything. For example, in one chapter you end up having to resort to human experimentation to save your team from a currently incurable disease. Then after that the main villain comes by, steals the cure, and then traps your team on a remote planet.

  • Crizzyeyes

    Actually on second thought, I have a decent idea for this “genre.” If you’ve played Fable 2, you’ll remember the part where you become ruler of the kingdom and must make tough choices to prepare for an unspeakable evil while also keeping your people happy. A game that is about THIS CONCEPT — preparing for something that you can truly never prepare for — would probably capture it best.

  • Johnathon Tieman

    All of this and no mention of the best Lovecraftian game: the original Alone in the Dark. The win condition is basically survive and flee from the horribly haunted house. The game borrows heavily from Lovecraft mythos, and has a big feeling of hopelessness (several of the monsters are invincible and can kill you with one hit, and you have to watch your ammo usage and health very closely for the ones you can kill). Despite the mess the series eventually became, the first entry in the series is well worth it. I think you can find it on Good Old Games pretty cheaply.

  • Crizzyeyes

    The ridiculously primitive 3D graphics actually added to the game by making the monsters more surreal.

  • Brodequin

    Well said…

  • Pansergrateng

    Yea, any kind of game could work, from RPG to FPS, if you just pretend to follow a conventional plot like saving a kingdom or uncovering a conspiracy, but then gradually unravel everything as you unveil the true horror that lurk behind the curtains from which there can be no salvation.
    The only problem of course is that it would likely be a niche thing as you say, and a lot of people that are fooled by the first half will probably get annoyed at the rapid descent into despair and hopelessness.

    If anyone here has played Kingdom Death, that’s pretty close in tabletop form. Everything is pretty hopeless and shitty, and even in the best win conditions, your ragged group of survivors face down unending hordes of monsters or die in madness after consuming a Dragon god and so on, leaving you a small bonus for the next playthrough as another group of survivors come upon the rubble of the settlement.

  • Pansergrateng

    Speaking of a depowering experience, I actually found Journey to be a surprising case of this if you stop to think about it.

    Sure it’s usually bright and somewhat cheerful looking, but the game implies that you’re a trapped spirit of someone from a great civilization that destroyed itself in some cataclysmic war, doomed to traverse through the ruins to reach a shimmering peak…Only to ascend into the light to fall down into the desert again, forced to start everything all over.

    With that in mind, some kind of cyclic rogue-like game might be a good fit for a Lovecraft setting. Take something like At The Mountains of Madness, where you explore the ruins, taking notes and maybe collecting relics while avoiding Shoggoths and the awakened Elder Things. Of course, you always die before long, if not killed by the monsters then perhaps by the environment or another expedition member going crazy, leaving your notes and things where you fell for the next expedition to find, always knowing that you’ll die eventually.

  • imbarkus

    I know lots of people have suggested their favorites in response, but the Lovecraftian game that comes closest to addressing most of your complaints is Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for Gamecube. You essentially had to play as a cast of a dozen characters because of how helplessly doomed so many of them were, and if you play through the entire game with all three alignments you essentially discover that all of your actions were manipulated by an Ancient to bring about the destruction of its rivals.

    I made a nice video back in 2013 about Lovecraftian horrorgames, during the effort to crowdfund the Etrnal Darkness follow-up:

    Click without fear of benefitting some spammy stranger: I used too many seconds of In The Mouth of Madness so now New Line Cinema gets all the revenue from this video. #WTFU?

  • Perry Ruhland

    Well meme’d, friend :^)

  • Perry Ruhland

    C’mon fam, are you really telling me Quake, Bloodborne, X-Com: Terror from the Deep, and Amnesia are bad?

  • Perry Ruhland

    Huh, been getting that a lot. I’ll check it out!

  • disqus_Nj9jXLoavw

    I find it odd that you call out Bloodborne’s endings as not being close enough to Lovecraft. The “good” ending of Bloodborne is a pretty obvious parallel of the ending of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

  • Aiat

    Yes, Bloodborne of all games finally could put a good representation on the mythos. More games should be like that. With all the negative stuff said, Dark Corners of the Earth was still pretty good!

  • B Diddy

    There are more aspects to Lovecraft than the idea of cosmic unkillable horrors that drive you mad just from looking at them, though, like the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath for example. Not just “terror and hopelessness” but there is also beauty and optimism, the curiosity of knowing what is beyond. There’s also just as many mortal horrors, benevolent horrors, or simply ones that are so beyond us that they don’t even know we exist. I always felt that the Ragnar Tornquist game universe was a good example of the other side of Lovecraft.

  • Zachel

    You should, if you’re into rogue likes it’s the shit, well worth the price of admission.

    Though the graphics are a bit 2007 NewGrounds to say the least.

  • Inquiring

    “…or a Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth that includes a bombastic turret sequence where you shoot at Father Dagon while he claws at your ship.”

    Father Dagon? I’m onto you cultist. Your disinformation campaign about these cosmic horrors being invincible has been exposed by your own inability to be disrespectful to your deity.

  • Zepherdog

    That sounds like either trolling or poor design choices. Either way it fits the bill.

  • TheCybercoco

    You kind of lost me with the Amnesia example. First, you admit that it’s not a ‘Lovecraftian game’. Then later make a complaint that the protagonist is dealing with comprehensible, humanoid monsters instead of ‘incomprehensible, nightmarish, inhuman’ monsters (even though the ‘darkness’ might fight that bill). You’re essentially complaining that Amnesia is not being what you admit it was not meant to be, and with no justification of why it should obey Lovecraftian conventions. I can’t see how that strengthens your argument. The more I read, the more it does not seem like that paragraph fits in your article.

  • SomeCollegeStudent

    In the end, the choices really only mattered to me. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice or let any of my team members die even though it wouldn’t really matter in terms of the game’s plot or anything like that. A lot of other people hated this aspect of the game though.

  • Scootinfroodie

    Quake is tagged because it’s meant to be aesthetically lovecraftian, and about defeating shub niggurath (though if Romero is to be believed, each chapter was originally going to be, weirdly enough, unsealing old ones from other dimension). To be extra pedantic about it, you can kill shub niggurath’s children with weapons, but cannot defeat the source without the use of one of its own devices (a teleporter)
    That is, unless you play unpatched Quake and are able to do 40k damage to it

    I think the issue is that there’s nothing separating “this has elements from Lovecraft’s work but isn’t strictly Lovecraftian” from the stricter actual-Lovecraftian stuff. I don’t think I’d software believed that their Lovecraft inspired RPG turned shooter was going to be a proper tribute to/continuation of the author’s ideas and created universe

  • John George of Saxony

    Some of his stories it’s not inherent, but it’s the direct basis for some of his most well known. Shadow Over Innsmouth is almost a direct tract about miscegenation, and Horror at Red Hook carries a distinctly anti-immigration tone to it. This in addition to the wealth of Suspicious Negroes and Mulattos that form his antagonists’ lower-orders. And that poem he wrote called “On the creation of Niggers”, which really needs no explanation.

  • Zepherdog

    That’s certainly understandable, specially if the game is marketed as ‘YOUR CHOICES MATTER GUISE’ when they don’t like Telltale or Bioware games.

    Besides, if nothing you do matters why even make or play the game at all? you might as well read a book or watch a film.

  • Claus Appel

    The author claims that in Lovecraft’s stories, “ninety-nine percent of the time the end of existence is on its way”. That is a common misreading of Lovecraft, and it is false. The only story of Lovecraft’s that features what might be an imminent “end of existence” is the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep”.

    In “The Call of Cthulhu”, we are told by a mad cultist that Cthulhu will return one day. We have no reason to assume that this will be any time soon, nor much reason to believe that this backwoods lunatic even knows what he is talking about.

    In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, we are told that the Deep Ones could wipe out humanity, but only from highly unreliable sources, and we see no data to support this. Indeed, the story shows two examples of humans successfully confronting the Deep Ones.

    In “The Shadow Out of Time”, we are told that humanity will one day die out, but only thousands of years from now.

    I could go on. Lovecraft’s stories are NOT about an imminent end of the world. That is post-Lovecraftian “fanon” (i.e., fan speculation mistaken for canon).

  • Sebastian Mikulec

    The best Lovecraftian game I’ve ever played was Penumbra Black Death, by the same devs as Amnesia: The Dark Descent. While I thought Amnesia did a decent job of conveying a descent into madness, I thought Black Death did a better job of ****ing with your mind.