Almost every week seems to bring at least one new game that cites the works of H. P. Lovecraft as a key inspiration or influence. These projects are as generically and thematically diverse as the investigative RPG The Call of Cthulhu, the top-down vehicular combat game Howard Phillips Lovecar, and the maze-based horror-adventure Inner Voices, signifying a wild proliferation of what the term “Lovecraftian” means when applied to video games. In a wider sense, however, Lovecraftian fiction is a subgenre of horror fiction that pertains specifically to the style and structure of texts within Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. As such, many of the games that claim a Lovecraftian ethic are undeserving of the moniker, as they only draw on the popular conceptions of the Mythos rather than evincing a deep engagement with the recurrent underlying themes and structures of Lovecraft’s works.
Central to many game projects that claim a Lovecraftian heritage is the aesthetic of darkness and monster designs based upon creatures from the sea, but neither of these visual aspects accurately recall Lovecraft’s descriptions. Rather than drawing specifically from Lovecraft, the atmospheric elements of darkness and fog-filled environments refer to a more pervasive trend in horror fiction to take place in primarily claustrophobic locations or during the night-time hours. This tendency emerged as early as 1819 in John Polidori’s short story, ‘The Vampyre’. However, horror in the modern sense did not truly take shape until much later when the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) personified the monsters while taking place primarily after the sun had set. Lovecraft, in contrast, was more varied in his settings, with his characters adventuring in such diverse locales as Antarctica (At the Mountains of Madness), the small fishing village of Innsmouth (The Shadow over Innsmouth), and the Pacific Ocean (‘Dagon’), encompassing both the dark and the bright—the claustrophobic and the agoric. Thus, the at-best twilit environments of SOMA, Conarium, and The Call of Cthulhu reflect only half of the aesthetic of Lovecraft’s fiction.
Alongside this, many games, including The Sinking City and Tesla vs. Lovecraft, draw on the pervasive imagery of oceanic monsters, which has become synonymous with the idea of the Old One Cthulhu in particular. The cephalopodous design has a precedent within ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, which describes a sculpture of the Old One as simultaneously evoking pictures of “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature” (Lovecraft, 1928, pp. 2-3). This description became a source for the artists of the pulp magazines in which Lovecraft published his fiction and for subsequent portrayals, yet the author contradicts this, writing that “The Thing [Cthulhu] cannot be described” (Lovecraft, 1928, p. 23). According to Smith (2011), the inability to communicate the appearance of the monstrous is “a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s prose” that tends to “orchestrate a failure in signification” (p. 834), ensuring that the Old Ones remain beyond human ken. To give them even the most terrifying shape imaginable is to reduce them, yet, because games are an inherently visual medium, developers must provide the beasts with a form, thus breaking one of the underlying principles of the Cthulhu Mythos. However, the author does occasionally provide a tangible visual description of beings that represent a less-absolute threat to humanity, though developers must tread carefully when incorporating these creatures into their works.
Used correctly, horror can be a powerful tool for commenting on the contemporary state of society and reflecting on the author’s personal fears and concerns, and Lovecraft used the psychic distance inherent in horror fiction to represent his racist tendencies through a lens of unreality. The Shadow over Innsmouth is, perhaps, the most potent example of this covert xenophobia, which, as Bealer (2011) states, “literalises the racial anxieties activated by modernist social change into a horror plot” (p. 31). The residents of Innsmouth, with their characteristic fish-like appearance, are the product of miscegenous interbreeding between humans and the aquatic Deep Ones who stand in for “racially marked immigrants . . . polluting and degrading Innsmouth’s Anglo Saxon stock” (Bealer, 2011, p. 31). In other stories, such as ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, Lovecraft’s racism is more overt as “the monster is the immigrant population” rather than an imagined alternative (Sorensen, 2010, p. 511). This propensity to use the more mundane populations within the Cthulhu Mythos as a manifestation of xenophobic sentiment is a particular sticking point for developers in the more enlightened age of 2017 when racial intolerance is frowned upon. While fans of Lovecraft’s work will downplay the impact or relevance of the author’s personal inclinations, the processes of Othering remain an integral aspect of the Cthulhu Mythos, recurring throughout his oeuvre. Thus, though Lovecraftian fiction provides scope for more familiar foes than the utterly alien Old Ones, they come with the unshakeable connotation of undesirable foreignness, and echoing this tendency in a game would inevitably result in unwanted criticism. Many so-called Lovecraftian games avoid the issue by either casting alien figures as the common enemies or completely de-characterising foes, as witnessed in Bloodborne, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, and At the Mountains of Madness, but, as with the clear depiction of the Old Ones, this trend is a betrayal of the constituent elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. Thus, the failure of Lovecraftian game developers to make cosmic entities unknowable and terrestrial ones unpalatable represents disengagement from the source material, though some creators attempt other means to claim a connection, such as exploration of the protagonist’s psychology.
While Lovecraft’s works are rife with examples of insanity and mental trauma, no protracted examinations of the protagonists’ mental states ever occur within them. Although Kneale (2006) states that Lovecraft was “clearly obsessed . . . with the dangers of . . . insanity” (p. 115), Punter (in Smith, 2011) argues that his works are “devoid of psychological interest” (p. 831). Rather than toying with the idea of an unreliable narrator and the possibility of illusion or irrationality, the Cthulhu Mythos revolves around the reality of supernatural beings, the mere conception or sight of which is capable of shattering the mind. Thus, the implementation of sanity meters and other mechanics designed to reflect the protagonist’s mental state, such as those used in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and planned for Deal with the Devil, is yet another misstep. For Lovecraft, sanity operates on a switch rather than a spectrum, and the fulcrum is interaction with the cosmic forces that litter his stories. Lowell (2004), therefore, argues that Mythos stories are dependent upon the perversion of the Hero’s Journey story archetype. In such stories, the protagonist traditionally enters the realm of the unconscious and, there, attains a positive outcome, but Lovecraft’s texts twist this model, transforming the unknown into a subject of unmitigated terror. The breaking point for Lovecraft’s protagonists is the inevitable realisation of humanity’s irrelevance and insignificance within the limitless bounds of his cosmo-centric universe, which refutes preconceived notions of an anthropocentric world (Lowell, 2004; Smith, 2011). Therein also lays the crux of why “Lovecraftian” is an inept descriptor for any video game. By their very nature, games empower players and provide an opportunity to fight back against whatever monsters or foes lurk in the darkness. Lovecraftian fiction, in contrast, focuses on disempowerment, presenting obstacles that cannot be challenged, let alone beaten. The Cthulhu Mythos is uninterested in psychological musings and indifferent to the struggles of humans as either individuals or a collective, ensuring that games, with their weapons, power fantasies, and character studies, can only ever engage with Lovecraftian fiction on the most superficial level.
Though the term “Lovecraftian” is frequently—and seemingly increasingly—used as a marketing ploy for video games, the mere concept is fundamentally flawed. The aesthetic of Lovecraft’s fiction, in both setting and design, is impossible to pin down due to the wide variety of locales used and the author’s refusal to represent his monsters in human terms. On the rare occasions that his stories take place on a human level, the author uses adversarial characters to reflect on his virulent racism and xenophobia, which would make for very difficult subject matter in the contemporary era of political correctness. Finally, the very nature of video games is at odds with a cosmo-centric universe where humans are utterly insignificant. Put simply, the idea of a Lovecraftian video game is a lie.
Bealer, T. (2011). “The Innsmouth look:” H. P. Lovecraft’s ambivalent modernism. Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, 6(4), 30-37.
Kneale, J. (2006). From beyond: H. P. Lovecraft and the place of horror. Cultural Geographies, 13, 106-126. doi: 10.1191/1474474005eu353oa
Lovecraft, H. P. (1928). ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ [PDF]. Retrieved from http://magnus.gustavsson.se/pdf/cthulhu.pdf
Lowell, M. (2004). Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The Explicator, 63(1), 47-50.
Smith, P. (2011). Re-visioning Romantic-era Gothicism: An introduction to key works and themes in the study of H.P. Lovecraft. Literature Compass, 8(11), 830-839. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00838.x
Sorensen, L. (2010). A weird modernist archive: Pulp fiction, pseudobiblia, H. P. Lovecraft. Modernism/modernity, 17(3), 501-522. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2010.0007